If you are a youth worker and you take your students on summer trips to conferences or retreats, then you need to consider MERGE. I am somewhat skeptical of many summer trips for youth ministries. I think they can be very manipulative. They also, in my experience, tend to make big promises and fail to deliver. MERGE isn’t like that.
We took a fair number of our high school students to Grand Rapids this past July to attend MERGE. The drive was long, but it was entirely worth it. I could spend hours talking to you about all the wonderful aspects of MERGE. But I’ll stop myself at outlining what a typical day looked like, and then listing a few of the reasons MERGE is, hands down, the best conference for students I have ever attended–as a leader or as a student.
Each of our days began with breakfast. Pretty standard for a conference, right? Except that at MERGE all of the leaders, from various groups, gathered for breakfast together with the event organizers. We talked about how the previous day had gone, how our students had been impacted, what seemed to connect and what didn’t and any concerns we had. Then we spent a few minutes talking about what the current day was going to look like. After breakfast we headed to our story gathering, which consisted of a retelling of a core story from the Bible (Creation, the Fall, Jesus, the Church, etc). After the story gathering we would break into smaller(ish) groups (but youth groups stayed together in the same group) and spend time discussing the stories and what God had revealed to us, about the story, ourselves, the world, etc. I heard some of my students share amazingly profound thoughts during this time. Were some of them trying to share something they thought we’d approve of? Absolutely. But on the whole I believe these times were filled with authentic sharing. As leaders, we were constantly encouraged to enter the stories ourselves and participate in these discussions as participants, not as teachers. This was one of the most refreshing aspects of MERGE because I was freed to grow with my students. The benefit to them and to me simply can’t be overstated.
After this gathering time we’d head to noon prayers, then to lunch and then to an afternoon experience that reinforced or otherwise intersected with the story. One day we walked around outside, recreating the wilderness wandering of the Israelites. Another day we walked through the “Journey to the Cross,” an experience which included various interactive aspects in the broad tradition of the stations of the cross (though reimagined). During still another experience we all participated in a Messianic Seder. This led into some free time and then dinner.
Following dinner we would gather together once again for a time where we responded to God. We (students and leaders alike) were encouraged to use art to respond to what God was doing in us, or to write a poem, journal our thoughts, spend time at a body prayer station, write a letter to God, or participate in other ways. Some of the students from our group wrote a rap, while others produced some very touching pieces of art, sculpture, poetry, or other personal pieces. After this gathering we had time to be together as church groups or relax before heading to bed.
That gives you an idea of what MERGE was like. Now let me share why MERGE is unlike any other conference I’ve ever been to or heard of for students.
1. MERGE asks leaders to participate. At too many conferences the staff essentially want me and the other adults from our group to chaperone our students and talk with them after the evening meeting, but otherwise leave them in the hands of the event staff. At MERGE we were encouraged to participate in all areas of the experience. Yes, we were there to supervise and care for our students, but in a very pastoral manner. I don’t think any of the leaders from our group, or any of the other groups, left without being changed ourselves.
2. MERGE focuses on the Story. I’ve never been to a conference that has such an intense focus on the story of God. That isn’t to say that other conferences don’t have entertaining or engaging speakers. They do. But they often focus on a theme or topic, as opposed to helping students encounter the Bible in a new and fresh way. MERGE is entirely about helping students to take a fresh look at the story of God and, whats more, MERGE encourages students to realize that the Christian faith is about how our lives merge with the story of God, today.
3. MERGE is fun without being all about entertainment. The organizers of MERGE know that students want to have a good time. But, from my observation, they also understand that the story of God is the most exciting story ever written. They aren’t there to entertain students for a week, but to help those students experience God and his story in fresh ways.
4. MERGE isn’t about the emotion. Too often I’ve seen emotion used to manipulate students into making a decision that lasts for a couple days, or a few weeks, at most. MERGE isn’t about manipulating students. It’s not about calling for a decision in an emotionally charged service. There were elements of MERGE that were very emotional. I saw my students shed tears and even shed a few of my own. But the point wasn’t the emotion, and the emotion wasn’t used to call for false decisions.
5. MERGE calls students to participate in the story. Bearing in mind #4 above, MERGE still calls students to change their lives and the world. The final experience on the final day included a time to brainstorm with your group about ways we could join in the mission of God throughout our communities and the world. This caused us to think, a lot. I know it challenged some of the students in our group to think seriously about their goals in life. The thing is, it wasn’t a one night episode. Some of my students are still, two months later, processing through those questions. They haven’t yet completely made a decision, or they have made smaller decisions that lead on a particular trajectory. This is what I want to see after a retreat.
MERGE is amazing, but it isn’t a cure all. Just like any summer trip, it is highly dependent on what you do week to week before and after. But perhaps that aspect of summer trips is best left for another day.
If you’re still interested, take a look at this highlights video from MERGE 2011. Look close and you’ll see me and several of the students from our group.