Later this afternoon I’ll join 70 high school students and 20 other adults for the Encounter Men’s Retreat.
This is my second year doing the retreat so this year I have a better idea of what to expect.
Intense, respectful content that asks young men to lean into practical realities of walking with Jesus.
A large scale, rustic communal experience. No running water, no bathrooms, no cell service, no tents.
Moving and setting up a completely self-contained 3 day retreat– built with lots of muscle power and big boy toys.
Massive, burning man-style bonfires. (Last year U.S. Border Patrol stopped by– big.)
Guns, lots of them. (Used in a very safe, secure, proper way)
Explosions, lots of them. Fireworks, explosives, and pretty much anything else that will blow up.
Seemingly unlimited paintball, bouldering, and combinations of bouldering & paintball.
Lots and lots of meat, potatoes, etc. No crepes or powdered sugar or quiche.
An extremely memorable weekend for all the guys who go.
No doubt there are parts of that list which absolutely resonate with you and other parts that make your skin crawl. Trust me, I’m totally with you.
If you know me very well at all you know my convictions on gun control. I’m not just a little anti-gun, I actually think it’s morally wrong for Christians to have guns for self-protection. So the idea of taking a bunch of guys to the desert and shooting off a bunch of ammo is really, really hard for me to swallow.
So, why do I go? If I’m not a big fan of putting a 12 gauge in the hands of 14 year old… why not just bow out? Why support and give 3 days of your life to something that might feel wonky?
Because the men’s desert trip works. It’s an example of looking at the culture you are called to reach, reading it properly, and connecting the dots between something that happens in culture and impacting people’s lives.
And while it I’m not comfortable with parts of it I’m fully aware of these three facts.
East County San Diego dudes go to the desert, blow stuff up, shoot guns, and eat meat. It’s something east county people do for fun.
God does significant things in people’s lives in the desert. Do a word study on that… there’s a correlation in the Bible between time in the desert and movements of God.
Reaching young men for Christ is sacred. My opinion, comfort level, and personal preferences are not sacred.
What are things that you’re doing at the intersection of your culture & ministering to adolescents?
I’ve been around a few types of “manly men” in my lifetime.
Dude’s who hang out at country clubs, play sophisticated sports, and have sophisticated tastes.
Dude’s who smoke big cigars, enjoy fine beverages, and gamble big bucks. (Either gambling or on business deals)
Dude’s who shot guns, kill things, and could live for months self-sustained from things in their garage.
I wouldn’t consider myself firmly in any of those camps. And I’d hardly consider myself a manly man. I’m more of a floater man who likes all of those things but never enough to go all in.
This past weekend I spent 3 days with group #3 while serving at the Encounter mens retreat. All told there were 57 young and fully grown men in the desert for 3 days of playing hard, eating good, and playing with fire. (Bonfires, flame-throwers, explosions, shooting range, paintball, and moreexplosions.)
As we were packing up I told Brian… “This is clearly the most red neck thing I’ve ever done.” I’m a city slicker whose idea of country boy is a bike rack on his car. I’m not really a big fan of guns– much less teaching young men how to shoot them. There was lots of irony in that I spent the last three years in an urban high school ministry trying to show young men that loving Jesus meant putting guns down (gangs) and now we were going to do just the opposite.
I had convinced myself to come into the weekend with an open mind. I have huge respect for Brian- a top 5 nominee for the brightest youth ministry veteran I’ve ever rubbed shoulders with. On top of that Encounter is a ministry to high school students in East County of San Diego. (For those not familiar with San Diego, anything east of La Mesa is referred to as “East County.” East County San Diego bears more reflection on ranching than it does big city. If we go 10 miles from our house you quickly get into horse, cactus, and big pick-up truck people.)
This kind of trip made me nervous from a city slicker perspective but was completely culturally relevant to the young men Encounter ministers to.
To the desert
We drove out to Ocotillo and quickly got off paved roads and into the back country. (Map) Just getting back to the canyon was an adventure. We got there about 30 minutes before it got dark and quickly established camp. You can’t even call this area a campsite as it was completely undeveloped. (No electricity, no cell services, no water, no toilets… just a cool canyon in the desert.)
It’s all about the content
In reality, while this trip is über manly man it really is a youth group retreat about calling these young men to follow Christ. Our culture does it’s best to emasculate young men and treat them like boys. This was a wake up call for them that becoming a man is up to them. We are ready to look at them as men… maybe the first time they were told that?
The content for the weekend was wrapped up around this central thought:You are dangerous and you can use that danger for good or evil. Topically, we reenforced that with lessons (and sweet object lessons!) about danger, their mouth, sexual purity, their choices, and perspective. It was a great chance for them to wrestle with the reality of their personal decisions.
It’s all about being hands on
We live in a world where we are in community only when we choose to be in community. Moreover, we can walk away from anything that makes us uncomfortable. While that is safe and lawsuit conscious it is leading to the neurosis of a generation.
God never intended us to be lone wolves, the enemy did. (Look at Genesis 3, it’s always been a divide and conquer strategy) Satan builds strongholds as we delve further and further into isolation. We don’t think our actions have consequences. We want to talk about blowing things up but not the people who are harmed. We want to say nasty things to other people through a video game. We want to look at pornography and pretend that doesn’t hurt anyone. We want to focus on our friends and not our community. On and on, culture pushes us into being alone while God calls us to something more complete.
Isolation is the enemy of communion. Jesus’ call for communion was never a call for individuals to come to Jesus as individuals on their own terms. That’s a perversion of our individualistic culture. Faith that lasts is almost never “just Jesus and me.” Our culture lies about that, our church culture lies about that, and youth ministry (too often) preaches that.
So 57 men of all ages went to the desert for an encounter with Jesus. To be communal, to live in commune, and to commune with their Creator.
My prayer is that as we shot, burned, and blew things up that those were symbols of the battle against the enemy. Three days per year of communion is not enough. I hope that for some of those young men they walk in communion with one another, in rejection of individualism, for the rest of their lives.