Jenni Osborn suggests that planning a residential or camp in the year ahead could be the most important thing you do

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Residentials are an essential pillar in the youth ministry calendar. It is a truth universally acknowledged, from all corners of the youth work world, that taking young people away from home is an important step in the life of a cohort of young people.

The Albemarle Report was published in 1960, it was broadly considered to be the first time a government put their minds to working with young people informally, distinct from school or national service, or the uniformed organisations. This report mentions the advantages of a residential, “Some young people do not find themselves until they have had a chance of getting away from home for a time. Whatever may be thought of the total effect of national service on young men, it did this for them; it took them away from home and subjected them to many vigorous and some fascinating pursuits under discipline, in parts of Britain and the world they otherwise might never have visited. Many gained immensely from these radically altered ways of life. With the ending of national service, the Youth Service ought to try to replace some at least of these lost opportunities” *

Taking young people away is about broadening the mind, experiencing different ways of life, and in many cases, allowing young people to experience faith, spirituality and God in ways that simply don’t happen when at home.

Memorable moments

There are many, many stories I can tell about residentials: from weekends away that involved the young people bringing the Mini that belonged to one of them, into the dining hall overnight; to the soundtrack of an entire weekend being the riff from Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water, as it was played (badly!) on a new bass guitar that one of the young people had brought with them. It’s a rich vein of tales which range from the sublime to the ridiculous and I’ll leave it to you to work out which example above is which!

Residentials mean time away from the usual routine, people and may even provide a break from the usual thought patterns. It has become arguably trickier since Covid, initially due to the restrictions but latterly, one might argue, due to the rise of anxiety and an increased lack of face to face contact with other people socially. Of course, these only make it all the more important for young people to participate in residentials.

One children’s worker I know told me about taking a group of children on a weekend residential to a well-known outdoor adventure venue, Carroty Wood. One of the children in particular was highly anxious about going to sleep with others in the room, he had never been on a sleepover even with close family because of this severe anxiety. The child’s Mum was keen for him to try because he was hoping to go on his year 6 residential later on that same year. The team made sure they had plenty of ways to support this lad, including having him in a smaller room with the one other child he knew, along with back up plans that included having a room where he could sleep on his own if needed, and only staying one night, and the parents being prepared to come and collect him late at night if required. Thankfully, the boy was able to sleep on the first night, and despite a wobble on the Saturday decided to stay the next night too. When he left, not only had he overcome his anxiety, but he’d had a great time and made new friends too.

A lifetime of residentials

My own experiences with residentials actually spans most of my life. My Dad was a youth minister while I was young and I went on my first youth residential at the age of three. Over the next ten years we went away with the young people twice a year, once at Easter and once in October half term and it was one of these that involved a Mini in the dining hall. It was an astonishing feat of organisation, not just getting the Mini into the hall, but the whole weekend! These ‘GetAways’ as they were called always involving an army of volunteers to assist with a huge number of young people, I think there were regularly 50 – 80 young people aged 14+ who attended.

I eventually got to go away on a youth work residential which wasn’t led by my parents when I was about 15; my first encounter with the young people in my church while I was at university was on a weekend away, this one was the Deep Purple weekend; I was part of the youth team on our local summer camp for four years; and eventually took a bunch of young people to Soul Survivor in 2014. Since then, my own boys have both been on residentials including summer camps and so I’ve been the parent who is amazed at my boys actually volunteering to wash up and clear up in this very different environment!

I had the most fun as a member of the youth team for our East Sussex Bible Weeks - this often involved planning meetings that were more laughter than anything else. Plus sourcing an old battered sofa to have on stage and one especially memorable trip to Tesco and Wickes for the supplies to make ‘the longest banana split’. My teammate and I had NO idea how many young people were going to turn up, and ended up with what felt like far too much including an 8ft piece of drain pipe with closing ends! Getting it to the camp in the car was hilarious. The glorious thing was we had just the right number of bananas, with just the right amount of ice cream and squirty cream etc. It is one of my fondest memories of that time in my life.

Residentials not only impact the young people, they also impact the leaders. Hopefully in a good way, even as we acknowledge how exhausting they can be too.

The Great Outdoors

One organisation who understand exactly how life changing it can be to take young people away is the Outward Bound Trust. Their mission is ‘to inspire young people to believe they can achieve more than they ever thought possible.’ The Trust was created in 1941, in response to the dangers faced by young people during World War 2, beginning with seafaring training for young men aged 14-19. In October 1951 a group of young women took on an expedition in Eskdale, causing quite a stir. By the mid-1950s, Outward Bound was seen as a leading exponent of ‘character training’, the work often pioneering, including the inclusion of women in these outdoor pursuits. To date the Trust has seen 1.2 million people through their doors, participating in a great range of activities at various different locations.** 

Recent research by the Outward Bound Trust has led to some key findings which I think are transferable across most contexts:

  • · Unfamiliar surroundings encourage different behaviours, mindsets and challenge perceptions
  • · Shared experiences help to build stronger connections with others, to feel safe, accepted and a sense of belonging
  • · Physical, emotional and social challenges demonstrate to young people how persevering through fears and discomfort can be a positive opportunity from which to learn and reflect, leading to new perspectives, possibilities and opportunities.

The summer camp

The Christian summer camp is one particular subset of residential experiences and one that has happened very recently. The Satellites website has these three ways that the summer camp can help your youth work:

  • · Being part of the bigger church: Your youth group may be small but there are thousands of other groups just like yours. Satellite brings you together and helps young people realise they are part of a big and beautiful story of a global church diverse in culture but sharing the same faith. That experience can be life-changing for young Christians.
  • · Being away and open to God: A few days away from home and everyday challenges can create the space for young people to think more deeply than ever about their life and faith. It’s often a moment of new commitment and transformation.
  • · Deeper relationships in your group: There’s nothing like a shared experience of camping to bring you together! Youth leaders tell us Satellites creates the space to get to know young people in a way that doesn’t always happen week to week at home.***

(from Accessed 29.08.23)

Satellites, New Day, Limitless plus a whole range of Scripture Union run camps have taken place this summer and I asked for reflections from youth workers and young people. (As it happens each of these reflections are from those who went to Satellites, I tried to get responses from others but had no takers.)

Lucy’s reflections: summer camps are exhausting, often even before you’ve even put a tent up! And being the person where the buck stops is also very tiring. Tents got flooded on the first night, there was a high wind forecast for the third day/night. Other team members saw a real blessing in one of the main meetings, in particular the way the group responded to each other that evening.

Josh’s reflection: Pleased to see a diverse group of main stage speakers, young people having beautiful and transformative but gentle encounters with God. Having done so many of these summer festivals now I think the most important youth work happens while cutting onions in the cook tent with young people, late night chats over chips and out of hand games and dance moves in the pouring rain.

John’s reflections: My general impression of Christian festival experiences is that … if you’re camping with your young people and investing time in them, it’ll probably feel successful. In the case of our group, we had a wonderful time together, but I was struck by two key experiences that took place I the main stage meetings:

The first thing I was quite taken with was the general feeling that the festival wasn’t concerned at all about the number of responses. After a series of incredibly successful calls for young people to give their lives to Jesus, I was very impressed to find no follow-up statistics posted on social media. This is a big deal for me and reflects a value placed on the work of the Holy Spirit rather than how effective ‘we’ think we might be.

The second experience which has impacted my group for the past two years at the festival is the focus on teaching young people to pray, allowing groups to get on with it together. There wasn’t a single ‘come to the front’ response in the entire week. Every movement of God was worked out within and around groups of young people and their leaders.

For my group this ended up spurring them to pray for other young people ad groups with relative ease. My experience was that young people saw others responding and went to get on with praying while the official Satellites ministry team supervised, giving gentle guidance.

Each of these reflections are from those who went to Satellites, I tried to get responses from others but had no takers.


Alongside the positive experiences and happy-tiredness of summer camps there will be those for whom it hasn’t gone so well. There will also be people reading this who feel that taking young people away is out of their reach, either due to volunteer numbers or finances or maybe even numbers in your youth group. I hope that this has given you some inspiration to find a way to do it in the coming year. Most organisations have bursaries to help with finance issues, other churches in your area might be able to help with volunteers and there will be other ways to solve other problems.

Why not set yourself the goal of making it happen for next summer. It’ll be memorable, I promise!

It would be great to hear from others who have stories to tell about residentials or indeed other parts of your youth work. Get in touch if so.

 * ( accessed 15.08.23)

 ** ( accessed 29.08.23).

*** (from Accessed 29.08.23)