Nineteen year-old Nathan Slater can often be seen walking around the University of Mary Washington campus wearing a shirt that reads “MODGNIK.” He’s always ready with an answer to the questions he inevitably gets: “It’s ‘KINGDOM’ spelled backward . . . God’s kingdom is an upside down backwards kingdom.”

MODGNIK is more than a purposeful misspelling—it’s a retreat that draws more than 1,000 students and youth leaders from churches all across Virginia, West Virginia, East Tennessee, and North Carolina. Started in 2002 by the vision and efforts of several PCA youth pastors in Virginia, MODGNIK has since grown to include youth groups from 26 evangelical churches, PCA and other.

Intending to set the notch above traditional youth retreat teaching, MODGNIK leaders have developed a seven-year curriculum that illustrates the myriad ways that God’s kingdom is countercultural and invites students to consider their calling in this “backward” kingdom. Over seven years, youth will be challenged to think about “the new heavens and the new earth;” God’s kingdom and how it relates to culture; reconciliation in the kingdom; gender roles in the kingdom; conflict in the kingdom; and the Christian’s calling. Movies, TV, music, romantic relationships, and unbelieving friends were topics of discussion at the two 2011 retreats (spring – senior high; fall – junior high).

“Our desire is not to tell kids what to do, but teach them how to think,” said Tim Frost, youth pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, Va. “[The speaker] hit on the issue of dating in our culture . . . it really challenged a lot of these kids—helped them think through presuppositions of why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

Slater, who attended MODGNIK every year for seven years, admitted it was always the highlight of his year. Aside from the “unbelievable” facilities at Rockbridge Alum Springs, a Young Life camp and retreat center near Goshen, Va.—complete with ropes course, zip line, skate park, tennis courts, “incredible food”—MODGNIK always gave him a different angle to look at the gospel.

“I could hear [the gospel] one hundred times, but each time I heard it from a different person, it took on a different life. It became more real, more tangible, fuller, through MODGNIK.”

Kayla Becker, also 19, attended the retreat only once, but “it was an amazing experience and I wish I could have gone more . . . other retreats I’ve been on have been just with my church, but at MODGNIK, there were 500-600 people that you’re not used to, being together all the time.”

Now a freshman at Bridgewater College, Becker says that MODGNIK gave her an understanding of the real meaning of retreat: “For me, being on those retreats was complete rest from my schedule. That sense of slowing down has stuck with me. Slow down, and let God fill you back up.”