We took students on retreat to explore the Christian faith
Dan Bishop, chaplain at Bishop Ramsey School, reflects on a long weekend retreat with secondary school students where they used aspects of the Alpha course to explore the Christian faith more deeply.
Last year, a group of pupils from Bishop Ramsey School won a grant from The Spark Fund to organise a trip for older pupils – a chaplaincy youth retreat. The school chaplaincy team runs an annual trip for younger pupils, but we have never run one for older pupils primarily due to the cost of such things. When we won the grant, the students and staff set to work planning our adventure. We found a site, some caterers and a course that we would want to do over the long weekend (a stripped back version of the Alpha Course). We set the date for the start of our academic year, in September and started advertising.
Places for the trip sold out in just two days. That made it clear this was the kind of trip which many of our pupils needed and wanted!
We set off early from school and drove just over 3 hours to the Quinta Christian Centre in Oswestry; a beautiful manor house found on the border of England and Wales. We unloaded, settled in and went straight into our first session: “Who is Jesus and why did he die?”
I must say I was a little nervous leading that session. How would the young people respond? Would it be a wall of silence in the questions? Will they feel they can be open in the group discussions? But I was able to relax into it – to their credit, the young people were warm and responsive. It wasn’t long before we were able to delve much deeper into the topics.
As we broke for lunch, we gave the young people an opportunity to explore the site and get to know others they didn’t know so well before meeting again for our second session: “How can we have faith?” As I led again, I think the young people began to realise that the sessions were going to get harder – not necessarily in terms of intellectual content, but emotionally. There was a sense of intrigue for some about what the rest of the weekend would hold, but for others, this was when they began to put up some walls.
After dinner, we had our last session: “Why and how should we read the bible?” It felt like a bit of a break for many I think, as it encouraged them to ask questions that were less personal, which helped them detach from their feelings a bit. This set us up well to enter the evening’s activities with a sense of positivity. We explored the site until sunset, then enjoyed hot chocolate, chilling in the various lounges and playing ping pong, pool or table football in the games room.
It was an early rise for breakfast, which was easier for some than others (there was a group that ran a 5K first thing!), but eventually we were ready to tackle “Why and how do I pray?” run by our physics teacher, Mrs Davies. It was much more creative than our first three sessions, with the students being encouraged to think about current affairs and the world around us. After the session, a young person asked me to pray for her and her friend, as one of the issues discussed had really hit a nerve with her. Afterwards she said, “she had never really prayed out loud before.”
Day two was our fun and games day with frisbee golf, wide games and board games. It was a real opportunity to build bonds between the pupils and staff, which thankfully led to a sharp increase in the number of questions asked by pupils in later sessions.
Our next session, “How does God guide us?” was led by Mrs Bishop, who shared lots of stories from her life about how God has guided her and the people around her. It led to lots of questions about the validity of her stories, followed by the inevitably more difficult question, “Why has nothing like that happened in my life?” With the challenging questions came opportunities to talk and pray with lots of different groups over the weekend. It also provided a good hook to lead with into the last session of the day: “What is the Holy Spirit and how can I be filled with it?” We were able to relate all the course material to questions that were asked in response to Mrs Bishop’s earlier session.
Day three was branded by the young people planning it as “Church Day”, when we would travel to the city of Chester and have a choice between two very different styles of church. We gave our young people a choice of whether to go to Chester Cathedral, or V53 (a Vineyard church). In many ways they are opposites; with one being a very high church in the Catholic tradition and the other rooted in charismatic evangelicalism.
When we initially polled the group, it was split around half, but after the sessions the evening before, about 80% opted to go to the Vineyard church to satisfy their questions about the Holy Spirit from a charismatic perspective (at Bishop Ramsey we lean towards a higher church model). The young people were fairly confused by the worship at the church, with one young person stating, “that was really weird”, but it led to some wonderful conversations throughout the day about how different people view and act in response to the Holy Spirit.
After church, the young people were given freedom to walk around the city of Chester, to shop and to explore the Roman history of the city. When they returned to the coach, we discovered that almost everyone had eaten at Nando’s. It seems you can take the kids out of London, but you can’t take London out of the kids…
That evening we covered two topics: “Does God heal today?” and “How can I make the most of the rest of my life?” This was the session where, as one young person commented afterwards, “The Holy Spirit hit the fan”!
It began with one of our pupils, Sureya, sharing her testimony (You can find a written interview between her and one of our students below). Whether it was tiredness or the Holy Spirit, Sureya’s testimony moved the young people and the tears began. Next, our Deputy Head, Mr Britton, led the session on physical and emotional healing. After about 20 minutes, everyone, including the teachers, were crying. After this, we worshipped. I consider it one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen, seeing a room full of pupils, often too scared to sing in school services worshipping with all they have, fighting back the tears with praise.
From that point on, the crying continued, and so did the prayer and the questions. We cancelled the last session of the day opting instead to sit, talk and pray with the young people, all of whom were confused. and in some cases, angry in their confusion. These conversations led long into the evening until we sent everyone to bed before midnight. One of our young people commented to Mr Britton before heading to his room “Sir, I think everyone hates you a little bit now, but we love each other and God a little bit more, it’s weird”.
We ran one last session after breakfast, looking at different churches and giving the young people who didn’t feel like they had a church a way of contacting them.
It was an emotional, but truly wonderful and weird four days; an unforgettable experience for all the young people who were involved.
Testimony: Sureya’s experience
For one sixth form student Sureya, this was an unforgettable experience. She agreed to let me interview her and these are her thoughts on the weekend.
“I’m not usually for one for doing this kind of thing,” she shared, “but something told me it was something I had to do.” Sureya explained that she had never been great with new people, or socialising in general. A naturally shy person, she preferred to stick to herself and the people she already knew.
At first, that was exactly what she had done. Upon arriving, she found herself clinging to her best friend Hannah. However, Sureya told me that the friendly environment there was perfect for her, and she adapted quickly. By the first night, Sureya was having fun with the other students. They had a late-night worship session, and Sureya found that it affected her.
“I got really into it, which is so unlike me. On the second night, they gave us all post-it notes. We were given the option of either writing prayer requests, or the name of a teacher who we wanted to talk to.”
Sureya found herself writing “Mr Britton”, the name of another teacher who had accompanied the students. For the first time ever, she told the story of how her own faith had developed, and it was more than just liberating for her. Talking to Mr Britton had helped her work through certain points of denial she was struggling with previously.
Mr Britton asked if she would share with the other students the following night, and she was not exactly thrilled at the idea: “I didn’t think I could do it, but the next morning, something strange happened.” The group visited a local church, and Sureya went to the altar for prayer, where someone shared in prayer that she would be given the confidence she needed to talk to the other students.
“It was really weird, actually. I hadn’t told anyone that Mr Britton wanted me to speak, but the person praying for me just knew.”
That evening Sureya was filled with courage, and she was able to tell everyone about her own faith. The story doesn’t end there, though. Sureya told me that even after the trip was over, she continued talking to Mr Britton.
“I update him on my faith journey every now and then. My faith grew much stronger because of that trip, and he really encourages me to develop it further.”
What’s happened since
Since the weekend away, we have doubled the number of Christian unions we run every week, and by the request of the young people, we have created a weekly act of worship. We have welcomed lots of new members to our Christian union, who would have otherwise never darkened the doors of the chapel. One of our young people is now considering a Christian gap year instead of going to university right away. I have also had the pleasure of seeing four young people confirmed into the church I am the youth worker at. I’ve had countless parents and youth workers contact me and thank the chaplaincy team that they have been able, since the weekend, to have much more open and honest conversations about faith with the young people. Most notably for me, a staff member whose child was on the trip has had a marked change in their view on faith and has started attending their local church’s youth club again.
All that is left to say thank you to The Spark Fund for supporting the students’ idea for this trip and helping us bring the Gospel into the lives of young people at Bishop Ramsey school.
The Spark Fund is an initiative from Capital Youth that helps under 25s in churches and schools across the Diocese of London run projects that share the Christian faith in new ways. Grants of £500 upward are available, with smaller budgets more likely to secure funding. Learn more here.