It’s All Fun and Games Until the Youth Worker Pokes Your Eye Out: Why Have Fun in Youth Ministry

When I accepted the call to serve as the youth minister at my current congregation, I quickly surveyed the leadership and student body to determine where the greatest ministry needs were. The volunteers unanimously agreed that “all the kids do is have fun” and that they wanted “a more spiritually based” youth ministry program. So with both guns blazing, I did what a lot of new youth ministers would have done in my situation: completely over-react!
BANG – Changed the format of our Wednesday evening program from a game/movie night to straight Bible study.
BANG – Changed our monthly fellowship event into service projects.
BANG – Replaced the yearly ski-trip for a weekend of exegetical studies.
Ok, so that last one isn’t true, but you get the idea. It didn’t take long for the excitement of having a “new youth minister” to wear off and reality to set in that we were losing students because, quite honestly, they were bored. Not to say that the programs I added aren’t essential; if we are not doing Bible study, we’re missing the point. However, what I learned in those first few months is something I already knew, but wasn’t practicing. There has to be a balance.
Our students are more entertainment driven then any generation before them, and like it or not, youth ministers must adapt to their culture and reach them with the gospel using methods that are familiar to them. By incorporating fun into our ministries, we can show them, like the writer of Hebrews says, that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 NIV). If Jesus was truly human, I think we can reason that He had a sense of humor, laughed, and had a desire like all humans to have fun.
Like His Son, I believe that God has created us all with an innate desire to have fun and that we as youth workers, regardless of our personalities, can use that desire to complement our Bible studies, retreats, and events to point our students to Christ. If you are like me and are trying to figure out the right balance of fun in your programming, then I invite you to learn from some of my insights (i.e. mistakes I learned from) along the way. The following are tidbits I picked up from our students and volunteers through several lunches and after school cups of coffee.
1.      Games can “be” the lesson.
 Before the National Youth Gathering (NYG) last summer, most of the leaders of our small groups were struggling in their attempt to build authentic relationships within their student groups. We addressed this problem at our summer retreat by creating a series of games that required the students to complete several challenges together as a small group. A month later, I doubt any of the students could recite the Bible verses we studied, or remember the main point of my talk. However, they all remembered the scavenger hunt, challenge hike, and closing worship that helped them learn to trust each other and develop stronger relationships. As a result, we had an incredible experience one month later at the NYG that I believe the Spirit used to open their hearts to God’s word. Through fun, and some friendly competition, the students learned an important lesson about the body of Christ.
2.     Games are a great way to unwind.
 Not long after changing the format of our Wednesday evening gatherings, I could tell by the students’ body language that they weren’t enjoying themselves. So I started taking them out for lunch and coffee after school and listening to their suggestions. These conversations helped me understand that a student’s life is a lot more stressful than it used to be! Most of them have extracurricular activities on top of a busy school load (most of the students I met with had one to three AP classes per semester). While they all understood my need to engage them in Bible study, they admitted that they just couldn’t concentrate on the lessons.
As a result, we spend the first hour playing silly games, mixers, or simply socializing. The final 30 minutes is spent in time of worship, Bible study, or a spiritual discipline exercise. Since making the switch, not only are the kids more engaged with what we are doing, but they are also more responsive and appreciative. Using games and mixers in our programming will help meet a social need that all students have (and if they’re honest, why the majority of our kids come to youth group in the first place). But it will also open the door to have more meaningful Bible study time as the students will be more emotionally involved.
3.     Students feel more comfortable bringing their friends if they know it’s going to be fun.
 Let’s face it–the Bible is intimidating to a lot of students. It’s even more intimidating to those students’ friends who are un-churched. So why are we discouraged that our kids are not bringing their friends to Bible study? We might as well call it the “Exegetical Exposition of the Revelation of the Triune Deity…Study.”
I’m not suggesting that we can trick non-believers into the Kingdom with flashy programming and cool games. Nor am I advocating that God’s word by itself does not have the power to change the heart of the skeptic. However, as Paul says in Romans, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'”  (Romans 10:14-15 NIV).
Our students can be powerful evangelists, and God can use our ministries to equip our students to do that work by creating a welcoming and fun environment in which to present the gospel.
4.     Playing games will help you and other adults relate better to your students.
It is easy to take on the role of “expert” within our ministries (trust me, I use that term lightly). Whether it is teaching a Bible study or running a retreat, we will take on the role of leader and that title carries with it the responsibility of being in charge. If we are too serious, however, we’ll lose the ability to connect with our students. Yet, the most common complaint I hear from older adults is that they feel they do not relate well with students. Usually this is because of a fear of the current youth culture, or that they are simply “too old.” Most likely, however, it is because they have never taken the time to let their guard down and have fun with their kids.
In his book The Top 12 Resources Youth Workers Want, Youth Worker Jonathan McKee explains, “Staff and students playing together has proven to be a major relationship builder. [Staff] should be participating purposefully in all your events and hanging out with kids any chance they get. They should laugh with them, talk with them, and cry with them–whatever it takes.”
Jonathan’s insight has proven true within our student ministries. One of our kids’ favorite volunteers is in his 60’s. He couldn’t name one song or artist our kids listen to, or what is “hot” right now. But come to any youth event, and you will see him right in the middle of every game we play. And the kids love him for it.
If you are struggling with building relationships with your students, you need to play with them! It not only shows them that you are human (I’m still icing my shoulder two days after a recent dodge-ball tournament) but allows them to interact with you in a way that can’t happen when you are only seen as an authority figure.
5.     Having fun is an easy way to involve other volunteers in ministry.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am a control freak. It is hard for me to delegate ministry for fear that it will not be done exactly as I envisioned. (Which is ironic as things rarely go as I planned, whether I am in charge or not. It’s this word I’m working on called H-U-M-L-I-T-Y, or something like that.) However, games are a perfect opportunity for us to involve other volunteers in the planning and implementation of youth ministry.
For example, Gail is a long time youth ministry volunteer at our church. She also loves playing games. After spending time with her, it was obvious that she had the fun-filled spirit needed to be our “games person.” She is not trained as a teacher, DCE, camp counselor, or motivational speaker, yet she manages to do aspects of all of these roles leading and playing games with our students. The only role I had in this was handing her a stack full of games and mixers I have collected over the years, and directing her to some other resources where she could get her hands on more games. As a result, she helps design and run the games and mixers for our retreats, and occasionally on Wednesday nights throughout the year. In addition, she has involved students and other members of the congregation in these games by asking them to help. Who do you know in your congregation who seems like they are a lot of fun but is not currently helping in youth ministry? This could be your next “game person.”
In the end, it’s important to remember that it is God, not you, who will guide His children into a saving faith in Jesus Christ. We would do well to daily remind ourselves of this fact as youth workers who desire to see our kids mature into life-long disciples. We would also do well to take ourselves a little less seriously sometimes. Who knows, it might be fun!
Published August 2008

Published August 4, 2008

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