Got back from an incredible weekend up in the mountains here in Southern California. We took our students on our annual Winter Retreat. Thought I would share a few of the highlights -

  • We stayed 2 nights up at Mile High Pines Camp – no snow, but nice and cold this time of year.
  • Ron Merrell was our speaker. We had him 2 summers ago at camp and loved him, had to bring him back.
  • Student-led workshops (30 minutes each, students could pick 2) were also really strong. Students prepped really well for them and did a great job.
  • Simple music – just a guy and a guitar. SUCH a great change of pace.
  • It was incredibly fun to honestly sit back and watch our volunteers really pastor our students. At this simple 48-hour camp volunteers drove pretty much everything.
  • We’re developing a pretty strong sense of story. Whenever we gathered together the leaders the first question we would ask was looking for stories, and we were never disappointed.
  • Fun to have some longevity! Been doing camps for quite a while now – fun to have old friends there every year as leaders, and break in some incredible new rookies as well.
  • The event broke even! Woohooo! We didn’t lose money!

Great weekend for sure. Are you doing Winter Camp/Retreat this year?


A second fun Winter Camp promo video. Again, super simple, clean and easy. Went over surprisingly well!


For those of you who have never heard of the Tim Tam Slam- I’m sorry. I’m sorry you haven’t experienced this cultural, communal phenomenon. I’m sorry you haven’t tasted this creamy, chocolate bonanza. I’m sorry. The reason you don’t know about it is because no one has told you- and that’s against the rules. Wait, rules? How can a no-holds-barred-chocolate-bonanza have rules!? Calm down. There are only two:

  • Rule 1) You must tell people about Tim Tam Slam
  • Rule 2) Never slam alone

It’s not an exaggeration to call the Slam a communal experience. It’s an experience that’s meant to be shared, both in participation and awareness.

By most accounts Tim Tam Slam has Australian origins, but also has a strong tradition in the UK. To begin the Slam, bite a small corner off the chocolate cream cookie (said Tim Tam), turn to the other end and bite the other corner. You now essentially have a cookie straw to drink your hot chocolate (or tea in the UK). Dunk the Tim Tam into the hot chocolate and begin to suck. When the hot chocolate gets to your tongue you pop (or slam) the entire cookie in your mouth and let it dissolve without much chewing, if any at all. What ensues is a rush of chocolate intensity you’ve yet to experience. Clearly, this degree of chocolate consumption is not an exercise for the weak of heart!

I introduced the Slam to my high school students at our winter retreat a few weeks back. It was a strategic decision that went beyond just having some giggles with the students. There were 4 main reasons I wanted to do the Slam at camp:

1. Tradition- The students in my high school ministry love being a part of something bigger than themselves. Of course, this is not unique only to our group, but their level of commitment to tradition is one I haven’t seen before. I’ve commonly heard, “but we’ve always done ________” from adults, but here students love saying they’ve been a part of/dressed up for/planned/attended something for years. I knew by unveiling the Slam at camp we would be creating a new tradition for them to enjoy.

2. Buzz- Our winter camp was at a program camp that usually packs out with 400-500. Our weekend was particularly low in attendance and I worried some of the buzz or energy students get when they’re around hundreds of peers might be lost. My hope was that the mystery surrounding the Slam (“Tim Tam Slam? What is this madness? Tell me!”) could help create some anticipation that we could use as fuel for other camp activities.

3. Momentum- After what would have surely been a successful maiden of voyage of the Slam, our students would have bought into the tradition aspect and we’d have higher buy-in and more buzz for the next occurrence of the Slam (or more specifically the camp or event where it took place) therefore perpetuating reasons 1, 2, 3, and

4. Teachable moment- Remember those rules? Well, those rules in the hands of a wily youth pastor could turn the Slam into an illustration describing following Jesus, evangelism, things we’re passionate about, etc and how we’re supposed to share those things that change our lives and make us do goofy things.

Just to clarify, I’m not claiming ownership of the Slam, nor do I think its some sort of ministry miracle. It is, however, something that when used thoughtfully, can be used for the good of ministry. And anything that reminds us to be intentional, strategic, or thoughtful in ministry is a great thing.

I haven’t cashed in on that teachable moment yet, but the Sunday morning message moment is coming. It won’t be an earth shattering illustration, but hopefully one that students can immediately relate to, personalize, laugh about, and share…. or at least give us another excuse to do the Tim Tam Slam!

Matt Johnston is the High School Pastor at Journey of Faith in Manhattan Beach, CA. He’s been alive for 26 years, in youth ministry for 8, and married for 3. The married part has improved the first two parts greatly- coincidence? He also enjoys slamming Tim Tams on occasion. You can follow Matt on Twitter, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Like many of you, when I signed up to be a youth pastor, I signed up to help students do life with God. I also believed then, and still do today, that there is no shortcut. It simply takes time. I also know that there is no greater way to spend big chunks of quantity time with students than the retreat setting.

So far, so good.

But what I didn’t know was that in order to do those retreats, I’d have to sign contracts that would cause me countless nights of stress leading up to them. I had no idea that 12 months out I’d be asking my church to leverage thousands of dollar on the belief that students will eventually express interest and sign up. And for me, times have been a changin’…

  • Gone are the days where if a student went last year, had a great time, and even connected with God on the trip that they’d automatically sign up and bring a friend next year.
  • Gone are the days where families could afford to send students to special retreats and functions with relative ease.
  • Gone are the days where I am willing to roll the dice and sign random contracts based on faith and my “guesstimations”.

So what am I to do?

I still believe the same basic premises that started this post. I still believe in retreats and life change. But I no longer believe that camp contracts (or even doing contract-free retreats) is the only way, and certainly not the best way to get this done. I’d like to propose that youth ministries can learn a lesson from places like coupon based websites. If you’re unfamiliar, coupon websites that offers services that become active once a minimum number of people buy in. For example, someone offers a deal on tourist attraction or something for 50% off. If you’re interested, you sign up and give your credit card and then once 15 people buy it, the “coupon” is on and they charge your card.

So, in youth ministry, this might look like:

  • Summer camp brochure is made months earlier than normal. We promote the trip and encourage students in the same ways we always have.
  • But now, students are told 2 things. #1. The cost for the first “x” number people is “$$$”. Maybe we could offer some kinda early buy in discount. All prices could be refundable and the trip is tentative until we have ______ people going. Once we have ______ people going and maybe by a certain date, then the trip is on and a deposit of “$$” is non-refundable, but is transferable.
  • Here, if you need a minimum of 10 to do the trip, the onus is on the participant to invite friends and push the retreat. They want to go, so they’ll encourage friends that if they don’t go, he or she can’t go either.
  • As a youth pastor, I don’t have to pay now, and pray like crazy later. Or at least I can do way less of that.
  • I can spend more time encouraging students and less time being a travel agent.

Brian is a youth ministry veteran of 16 years, currently the student ministries pastor at Journey Community Church near San Diego, CA. And he blogs!