They’re the age-old questions that every person who has ever worked with students has asked themselves incessantly:

How do I balance fun with ministry?
What’s that fine line between teaching something important and goofing around?
How far do I let my kids get off topic before reeling them in?
Although I hate clowns with a passion, I do have to defer to them as the masters of this art of juggling. So, I begrudgingly admit that those of us who work in youth ministry need to consider juggling clowns as our role models on this issue of balancing merriment and education in our jobs.
I do not endorse painting your face and wearing those hideously clashing outfits and horrible plastic shoes, however. Don’t put words in my mouth.
Very simply, I think this process starts by thinking honestly about the ways that you’ve learned the most meaningful lessons in your life. Were you stuck in a classroom, taking notes during a lecture–or did you experience a life lesson in the midst of actually living your life? Did you learn some life-changing insight while attempting to memorize a chapter in a textbook–or did someone open your eyes to a deep truth while you did something you enjoyed?
I think we as youth leaders can often fall into one of two extremes: either we insist too seriously on education and forsake all fun so we can cram spiritual instruction into every possible second, or we throw any attempt at learning out the window and instead let the kids have all the fun they want.
In my opinion, striking a balance between these two extremes is the best way to go. Speaking from a purely scientific opinion, our pre-teen and teen kids aren’t fully mentally developed anyway–so attempting to set them down in a small group or classroom and expecting them to sit still and faithfully absorb every fact we teach them just isn’t going to happen. However, letting them run wild and throw ping-pong balls at each other’s faces instead of talking about God isn’t going to help them in the long run, either.
I think the issue we often wrestle with is the tension between wanting to teach them meaningful life lessons without boring them or scaring them away from church–which is why we constantly ask ourselves those questions about how far we can let them get off topic, how much goofing off we can tolerate, and how much fun we can mix into our ministry.
As a leader, it’s important to know yourself. You know which extreme you tend to lean to, and only you can take steps to counteract that tendency. Speaking candidly, my natural inclination is to stick to the agenda and not allow the kids to get off topic too much. I consistently not only remind myself to “ease up” but surround myself with leaders who naturally lean towards having fun and getting off-topic, so that our ministry is fairly balanced.
We should constantly be striving to have an open, inviting atmosphere where students feel comfortable asking whatever is on their minds–so when your kids are peppering you with random questions, that’s a good sign. Truth be told, sometimes those questions straight out of left field end up being some of the most important teaching moments we can ask for. After all, being open to random conversation topics keeps you connected with what’s really on your students’ minds–which will help you understand and serve them better, in the long run.
Be open to creative ways to seize teaching moments. Not all lessons are learned in the classroom, as they say. Some of the boys’ groups here at our church will throw a football around and let the conversations roll, or play tag or laser tag and then have a discussion afterwards. Some of my best teaching moments have occurred while my girls’ group was painting their nails or sitting around my apartment, drinking hot chocolate and throwing marshmallows at each other.
However, be aware of when your students have crossed the line. They can have fun and burn off their energy without being out of control and off-topic the entire time. I mean, let’s be honest–have any of us really learned anything valuable from whacking each other in the head with pool noodles? I think not. Remember, you are the adult in charge. You have the right to put your foot down, have expectations for your students, and enforce them. You are charged with the important job of helping to mold these young students into responsible adults who love Jesus, after all–allowing them to perpetuate their irresponsible antics doesn’t do them any favors.
All in all, being a good youth leader doesn’t require you to cram the Good Book down their throats at every moment–it simply requires that you let them be the students they are, and you take advantage of the teaching opportunities that naturally arise as they live their lives.
As 1 Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Notice that the verse doesn’t tell you to “always be prepared with an ear-marked Bible, an answer key, and catechism.” No, it puts it in proper order for us–Christ is our primary focus, and our answers to our students flow freely out of the grateful thanks we have in our hearts because of what our Savior did for us with His incredible sacrifice on the cross.
So, take heart, my friends. This is the tension that we’re all battling in our ministries. Just keep an eye on those clowns–they can be sneaky, even if they are good jugglers.