Earlier this year my former church asked me to come back to speak at their men’s retreat. When they first asked, I was stoked about it. But as the summer went on, stoked turned into scared. I’d never done it before. Sure, I’d attended a number of retreats, even helped organize a few of them. This was different, though.
So, during the weeks leading up to the retreat, I asked for advice from friends who’d spoken at retreats before. Having now completed the exhausting but wonderful weekend, here are nine of the best tips I received and tried to put into practice.
1. Speak to your audience.
I put stress on the word “your” because it may or may not be the same demographics that you’re used to at, say, your local church. Therefore, as much as possible, determine who is the “typical attendee.” The host of the event should be able to help you figure out things like age, marital status, and education. It makes a difference if those who attend are largely young professionals or retired blue-collar workers. Also, ask about the level of Christian maturity. Are they mostly people who are, to use the words in 1 John, “fathers in the faith” or “young children”? There will always be outliers, but knowing the core audience will help you tailor the applications and illustrations.
2. Listen to the church’s sermons.
Listening to sermons gives a sense of the type of teaching they are regularly exposed to. As you listen, note things such as length (short or long), style (formal/declarative or informal/conversational), and focus (topical or expository). It seems to me that for a retreat speaker to be successful, he can be different from the typical diet of preaching, but he can’t be too different. Sudden changes in diet tend to cause discomfort. For my retreat, I listened to around 15 messages, which wasn’t too hard because I sampled them on my morning bike rides in the weeks leading up to the retreat.
3. Go on an expedition in the Bible.
A retreat is a unique time. There is space for things you can’t do in other contexts. The attendees of a local church are often transient. This makes it hard to build from week to week; as soon as you make some progress, you have to start back at the beginning for those who missed last week’s message. But at a retreat, people aren’t going anywhere. They all heard your last message, which by the way, was only a few hours ago. Therefore, use each of your talks like basecamps up some Bible “mountain.” When you finally summit, both you and they will feel like something worthwhile was accomplished.
4. Low tech is better than high tech.
Technology is a great thing, but in the context of a retreat, I find it distracting. I have a philosophical reason for this and a practical one. First, the philosophical reason: People at the retreat are there to connect with others and with God. It’s a time away from the ordinary demands of life; it is, after all, called a retreat. And in a world that is constantly noisy, both audibly and visually, one bonus gift that you can give to your listeners is a technology Sabbath. On the practical side, I’ll add that retreats often take place at “offsite” locations, which means the exact setup is often unknown. Will they have the proper adapter for your laptop? And what if the Wi-Fi goes down and you can’t show that clip that was so important to your second message? It’s better to print handouts if you must have visuals.
5. Join the retreat; don’t just speak at it.
This means that you’ll need to have your messages completed beforehand. Sure, you might want to read over them before each session, but don’t plan to write them. And if it comes down to a choice between a more polished message and tossing the football with the guys, choose fellowship every time. Paul shared not only the gospel but his life (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
6. Model transparency.
The stated reason for why people joined the retreat will vary. Some will come simply because a friend asked them, while others need a vacation. And still others, though less than you might expect, come because they are excited about the topic of the retreat. But behind all the reasons, surely those who are leading the event desire that each person will do business with God. You, as the speaker, must set the tone for this. A shiny, sparkly speaker will make for superficial conversations. The audience will be able to tell if all your applications are just “for them,” not “us.” In short, teach the Word as one who is also under the Word.
7. Make it about one thing.
We all tend to compartmentalize. And if a speaker tries to cover 12 topics, listeners will shut down, like a computer running too many functions. Precision and depth on one theme will produce more change than broader (but shallow) coverage. In this way, it’s best to see each of the retreat messages as a larger version of a sermon. Good sermons can have two points or they can have ten, but regardless, to be an effective sermon, it must be about one thing. Whatever point you’re making at the retreat, make it again and again. If you sing one song—albeit sometimes in different harmonies—they’ll remember the tune.
8. Include stories and movie clips.
People love stories. I think this is why so much of the Bible is narrative. Indeed, most of Jesus’s public ministry consisted of telling them. And even the parts of the Bible that are didactic (say, the Prophets or the Epistles), these fit into a larger historical narrative, the story of redemption. At my retreat, I didn’t show any movie clips because of the technology involved (see #3 above), but also because it’s what I do in my normal context (see #9 below). Still, I tried to tell a few yarns.
9. Above all, be yourself.
Finally, they didn’t hire John Piper or Matt Chandler to speak; they hired you. If you try to be like “so-and-so,” you’ll exhaust yourself and your hearers. Know what you do well and do that.