I’ve never been much of an athlete or a game player. I remember always being chosen near the end for teams on the playground. I love the socialization and the snacks of playing on a team, but never the actual playing of the sports. The most competitive I ever got was on the high school swim team, where I won an award for most improved as my times went from embarrassingly bad to mostly okay.
When I lead youth ministry in the congregation I tend to shy away from a lot of big, outdoor running games in favor of indoor creative or board games. While this appeals to some, to many of the youth share a desire to play more actively. (That’s a polite way of saying they begged to play dodgeball or Eagle’s Nest every week!)
It was clear early on that I needed to create a team of youth leaders, some of whom lived to play basketball and run relay races. It was also clear that youth ministry needed a strategy for how to use times of play and socialization deliberately and strategically.
Healthy youth ministry should strike a balance between developmentally appropriate activities, time to build relationships, and study of God’s Word, prayer, and other spiritual practices.
These balances are not easy and the don’t come without deliberate consideration. As we think through how we design our weekly and monthly opportunities to connect with young people, there are a few things that youth ministries need to balance and prioritize.
Gen Z is very achievement orientated and so they often struggle to find the value in a youth ministry which does not appear to have a purpose or help them develop a skill. This highly-scheduled generation may truly appreciate time to decompress. You might find that even in the games they do play, they are invested and competitive in a way you may not expect. Or they may see youth ministry as “just playing around” without understanding the hoped-for outcomes of that time. When this happens, they may stop prioritizing youth ministry events or even church events overall.
It can be helpful to lay out why we play games. You can read more about the value of play in Heidi Goehmann and Kristin Schmidt’s articles (links below). It is helpful to regularly remind them that their brains need time for rest, creativity, and social interaction. Parents and leaders should also be hearing the purpose of play in our youth ministry. This helps them to advocate for balanced youth ministry that fosters discipleship, rather than be skeptical about the goofing off they see from the outside.
Youth Ministry can struggle with balancing the value of play and social support with time in God’s Word. We have all had the moment when a group of teens, dripping with sweat from a well fought game full of laughter, realizes you are getting out the Bibles. When it’s done well and with intention, this move is seamless. When it’s out of balance, it can leave adults and young people alike in a struggle for focus and priorities.
Healthy youth ministry is more than just games of dodgeball and time to hang out over pizza and Doritos. The time spent in thoughtful, joyful activities can help teach and build valuable relationships. Games, when done well, can help create moments of empathy, draw young people together in shared experience, and create opportunities for God’s Word to be heard.
But it’s important to remember that the fun and games are not the ultimate point of youth ministry. The point of youth ministry is Jesus. God works through youth ministry to form deep, resilient disciples of Jesus Christ for life. Together we study God’s living and active Word. We discuss who God is and what He has done. We pray and God empowers us all to live out our daily vocations. Fun and games are a tool, but they should never become the primary focus. Rather, we keep our eyes fixed on the cross as create youth ministry.
Young people are tied to technology that can help build their vocation but can also distract from the meaningful moments of youth ministry. Many teens have a screen near them at all times and report being anxious when it is away from them. We all know the feeling of trying to connect with those physically around us, only to find all of them staring at their phones. There is a time for technology usage, even in youth ministry, and a time for face to face interaction.
Technology can give us some fantastic ways to connect with young people in the digital spaces they inhabit every day. Games can incorporate social media like Instagram or TikTok. There are platforms for jointly playing games that can create social interaction and connection when you can’t meet in person. But using screens in youth ministry must be carefully balanced so young people aren’t drawn away from what’s happening around them in the present. We also should be careful because not every family can afford expensive devices or home internet.
Healthy youth ministry is often far more difficult than it looks. It requires thoughtfulness and strategy to ensure that young people walk in the truth of God’s Word through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Serving in youth ministry is a vocation which is both challenging and rewarding. As you balance play and study, socialization and technology, the young people entrusted to you and your congregation will deepen their understand of our savior Jesus and they will build Christ-centered relationships.
If you are a outstanding kickball player or the last on the team, God is with you and guiding you as you care for young people in your church.