How/Why We Do Our Movie-Themed Retreats

Since my last post, a few youth workers asked about how (and why) we did our movie-themed retreats so here’s a snapshot of it.

Obviously using media in student ministry is not new. For years I used clips and would try to use them as illustrations, recreate the context, and attempt to share some type of point or principle. The problem was many times, I could not recreate the context adequately enough. Sometimes the clip became more of a distraction than a tool. I’d hear whispers of “I hated that movie” (Braveheart), “How OLD is this movie?” (Braveheart), “This is such a Dad-movie”, (Braveheart) “is that Charlie Sheen?” (Braveheart; talking about Robert the Bruce played by Angus Macfayden). It got too painful for me to hear such cruelly uttered. In my pain, I would lash out and threaten had such disrespect continued, we would read from the KJV for the rest of the year.

Anyway, as I entered this current ministry 5 years ago and saw their winter retreats were over holiday weekends like (MLK and Presidents’ Day), I worried that I would not have enough interesting content to fill 3.5 days. I know every speaker thinks this is easy, but believe me, I have sat through some of these weekend retreats and can painfully remember the thought, “Now I gotta listen to a month’s worth of sermons from this guy? I thought this was a retreat not an intensive”. Not wanting to recreate a month’s worth of youth group meetings, I had two options, hire a speaker or come up with something that cannot be done over a month’s worth of youth group gatherings. I chose the latter and decided to make it a movie-theme. Among the reasons, movies are among the most sacred of scriptures of pop-culture and further, it is very difficult to do a movie and legit discussion in youth group and it work for everyone.

So where do you start? I know this sounds overly-spiritual but for me the process is a prayer-led brainstorm of what does my group need and which movie will serve that function. Most years, I share the movie search with like-minded and “other-minded” volunteers. Also, there are a few movies that I would love to do but I/we have found other needs to be greater.

Movies we have shown for these retreats have been The Matrix, Saved, Crash, and Religulous. In theory the possibilities are endless, but I have always found it to be a pretty short list. Here’s why – finding a story that captures our Northeasterner students’ attention is a tall task. So many of our new Christian movies like Facing the Giants and To Save a Life will have a hard time in our youth ministry. It’s not because our students are unchurched, in fact, it’s more the opposite. They wouldn’t be challenged by them.

Second, I have always been hesitant in choosing a movie that they really like because in some way, we are reinterpreting it for them and that’s a bit risky. So out went the epic sagas like Lord of the Rings, Potter, and Star Wars. Check your students’ Facebook profiles to avoid others.

Third, it has to be interesting and powerful enough to survive the weekend because it’s difficult to carry the metaphor throughout the entire weekend and still be interesting. So movies like Gladiator have many Christian references but for me, I could not see them lasting more than two sessions.

So here are a few things I look for in a retreat movie. The most recent should be when your oldest students were still in Junior High, so generally, nothing popular in the last five years. The Matrix came out in ’99, when most of my current 12th graders were 6 yrs. old. To avoid duplicating retreat themes and “feels”, use different genres. We used the satire Saved! exactly for this reason. Probably my favorite of all of them was Crash because it’s such a powerful story, multiple-themes (Justice, Racism, , Providence, & Redemption) and very few of our students had ever seen it. We also did it for MLK weekend which was of course, powerful. Some years, we kept the movie a secret to add more mystery to it, other years we promoted to create an appeal (like The Matrix).

On the retreat: We play the movie once we arrive to the retreat center/camp. After a hectic week of school, no one wants to listen to a speaker (unless the speaker is Giglio, Bell, or Bono). And after driving for 3-4 hours, most youth pastor/speakers don’t want to speak (unless they’re are described by the terms “Baptist”, “NASCAR” or “Seminary” ;) We press play, relax, recap the next morning, start slow, have discussion groups and start getting into the deeper aspects by Saturday night. By Sunday night, we largely abandon the metaphor because the themes usually support themselves by this point.

Every now and then, I wished I had a movie-making background but with this new internet thing, you can research to your hearts content. There is plenty of help from Google searches, to books, to ministries and organizations who have already thought of this before you did. Also, you can usually find your movie already edited. (One year, my tech-savvy volunteer got creative for me).

I’m not sure if I will always do movie-themed retreats but they have been very helpful for us and if you are looking for something new to try, I highly recommend it.


  1. Khalaf Haddad says:

    Not to miss one other major benefit of this approach: You help your students to develop real-life skills in applying a Christian worldview to popular culture. I see your approach as a two-way street: The themes and lessons come out of the movie, but the movie gets filtered through a Christian worldview. That alone can go a long way in eliminating the compartmentalized approach to life and pointing the students toward lives of integrity. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Very true Khalaf.
    One of the most interesting things of this past retreat was seeing our student’s reaction to Neo being identified as a Messianic-figure. One student mentioned that we see messianic figures regularly in literature but Neo’s lack of self-awareness, made the comparison painful to the Christian.

    Looking forward to the next time we get to share a meal together so we can debate the merits and the usage of the term “Christian worldview”. (I say that as an admirer of people like Chuck Colson).

    Thanks for reading, hope all is well with you and your family.

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