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As you’ve heard me say before, biblical stories are extremely valuable in retreat work. In the great stories of the bible, we see both the human struggle and God’s response — and the beauty in these stories is that we get to see both.  We get to see someone like us, struggling with fear and brokenness, and we get to see God’s presence in the midst of this struggle. Even better — we not only get to see that God is present, but also how God is present, how God is for us (breaching boundaries, lifting the lowly, searching for us, healing us, clothing us, etc).

With so much great stuff packed into a biblical story, we sometimes feel like all we need to do is read the story, or perform it in a skit. While those are effective ways of presenting the story, the story itself wants to be more. As God’s Word, the story wants to be broken open and entered into. The story wants a human partner who will also open up his/her life and tell his/her story, so that both stories can be seen as one story woven together.

A great retreat seeks to do the work of weaving stories together, and this approach relies on our ability to open a biblical story. Effectively opening a story requires a retreat team to unpack from the story its images, plot points, themes, drama, symbols, relevance to youth, and salvific moments. The goal of opening a story is to collect these elements from the story and use them as access points into the story and as links between the story and the lives of young people. The benefit of opening a story is that it lays the groundwork for retreat teams to facilitate powerful retreat moments so that the lives of young people are affected beyond the retreat.

By unpacking the elements of a biblical story, a retreat team can begin to imagine ways to insert young people into the life of the story, and ways to take the themes of the story and link them to their daily life experiences. Just imagine — basing an entire retreat on one biblical story; imagine creating a multi-staged experience or obstacle course based on a story; imagine performing a story and adding new characters and roles that represent the lives of youth; imagine adding an ending to a story to see what happens to certain characters; imagine taking a powerful symbol from a story (like God making clothes) and recreating that moment, and then having that symbol reappear for an entire year; and imagine if your young people voice a pain in their lives that is also in the story—what do you do with that? What did God/Jesus do with it in the story? How can we accompany our youth like God/Jesus does in the story? The imaginings are endless.

Here are a few examples that highlight the powerful use of biblical stories in youth work.

In San Diego, based on the Genesis story of creation and the fall, we created a six-stage experience that placed our youth in the garden experience, ending with God making clothes (Gen.3:21). The blanket (symbolizing clothes) received by each youth reappeared at important times throughout the year, each time with new symbols imprinted on the blanket.


In Boyle Heights (East Los Angeles), we created a prayer experience based on the theme naming who you are, which has unique importance for youth living in gang-affected areas. We mixed together scriptural passages on God creating and naming, with passages from Fr.Greg Boyle’s, S.J. book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, and with Tupac’s song, “Dear Mama.” Everyone in that neighborhood knows “G” (Fr. Greg) and in hearing his words they knew he was talking about their lives. I’ve never seen a group of youth so present and engaged! They all sang, “Dear Mama.”


In the Central Valley, Ca, we created an eight-stage obstacle course inserting youth into the story of Jacob journeying home to encounter his brother Esau (A great story of brotherly reconciliation!). At stage 6, we created a wrestling scene and reenacted Jacob wrestling with the angel, WWE style!


At Santa Teresita Youth Conference Center in Three Rivers, Ca, we reenacted the story of The Woman Accused. As we opened the story and started reflecting upon the story’s relevance to the lives of youth, we quickly identified bullying as a major theme. After discussing it and watching a YouTube clip on bullying, we re-performed the story with the emphasis on bullying. We changed the setting to a Starbucks Café and we dressed up the accusers as Facebook pages.


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