Making Games Work in Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry
The title of this article may have sent a theological shiver down your spine…games. As a surface-level reaction, that’s completely understandable. The shallow caricature of youth group usually involves about one hour and 15 minutes of dodgeball, 15 to 30 minutes of food (with calories enough for a family of four), and the obligatory five-minute lecture or video having little to do with the Gospel. So I take no offense if the idea of game play as central to youth ministry sounds nearly heretical.
In fact, if you asked me whether or not they are central, I’d tell you they most assuredly are not. In terms of instilling the gospel – God loving sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ – into the hearts of our students, I can’t honestly say how games factor in. But they can be a valuable tool in building a kingdom culture in our youth ministries. Allow me to explain.
The differences between a youth ministry which simply tags on games out of necessity, and a youth ministry which builds a culture of discipleship through games, are threefold.
First, an intentional approach to games understands the culture that is, and the culture that ought to be.
Some students hate dodgeball. If you aren’t familiar with this type of person, please know that not only do they exist, but they are more common than you suppose. Others are tired of their school’s preferential treatment of certain types of athletes, so their desire for a place of rest from their everyday competitive culture can be quickly obliterated if you opt to play football or soccer every week.
I am convinced that if you look hard enough, there is a type of game for each and every student in your ministry. The intentional youth pastor will do everything in their power to find games that highlight each of their students’ skills. Occasionally, the intentional youth pastor may even choose a game his or her students may struggle to achieve in, for the purpose of teaching humility and finding a place within the body.
In a culture where teens are supposed to excel at everything, finding ways to teach both excellence as well as the ability to handle failure is a key component of ministry to young people. Few things expose these (excellence and failure) to scrutiny like a well-timed game. If you’re genuinely convinced that students are part of a body, it means that there are certain tasks at which they will thrive, and others at which they may be humorously abysmal. It is your job to build a culture where encouragement can happen without instilling vanity, and where the students who excel in certain ways can help and support those who need it. Team-building games are usually a go-to in these situations, but don’t overlook even the simplest of games to teach the same lessons well.
Secondly, an intentional approach to games is built on seeking the lost, lonely, and weak, rather than isolating them further.
It is stunning to me how many camps or conferences I’ve attended where the speaker quotes 1 Corinthians 1:27 (about God choosing the foolish things of the world to shame the wise) or Joel 3:10 (out of context), only to then do a schoolyard “pick ‘em” with athletic team captains… followed by said captains whipping dodgeballs at the weaker students. In the name of “even team distribution,” which never happens anyway, the heart of the message is entirely counteracted and contradicted.
Weaker brothers caring for sisters in the church, adoption into a family that looks out for one another; all of these are simply outmoded doctrines if your methodology of games is built exclusively upon either physical dominance, mental dexterity, or acting chops.
In the name of personal care, some youth leaders abandon physical games entirely, leading to a ministry where intellectual students are prized at the expense of athletes, or where dramatically inclined theater students dominate games where improvisation is king.
Rather than abandon games entirely, let me give you a few practical considerations for the future.
- NEVER allow for team captains and last picks (unless you want to be the negative object of your student’s future sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:27).
- Consider a rotation of physical, intellectual, acting, and team building games. It makes scheduling easy on a month-to-month basis, gives you the ability to find a new game within a category based on the given week, and stops you from favoring one type of student over the other.
- If your students prefer one type of game, give them time to find their stride in different settings. The high school idea that you can be good at everything is something that youth ministries are more than able to counter-culturally expose. Youth pastors can plan intentionally and stand firm in a commitment to variety.
Lastly, even the most intentional approach to games will fail unless it has intentional leadership at every level.
As a leader where the buck stops, you may have embraced the prior two principles, applied them vigorously, and long to see their effects fully realized. All of those things are wonderful, but without your co-leaders and volunteers understanding these principles, they’re essentially useless. Here are a few key ways to identify whether or not your ministry leaders are buying in:
- Are leaders winning everything, or mobilizing students?
- Are your leaders trash-talking students and/or each other, or speaking with
- When a student trips, falls, or screws up, do your leaders play on, or stop to
check on the student?
- If the game requires strategy, are the leaders doing all the strategizing, or do
they encourage students to step into this role?
Note: If this happens, feel free to enact the “leaders can’t talk” rule.
It may take occasional reminders and clear boundary-setting in leader training, but building buy-in with your volunteers during these times will make a colossal difference in building a culture that intentionally extends beyond sermons and Bible studies.
All of these methods take effort, consistency, and a firm commitment, even when “unintentional times” are vastly easier and require considerably less thought. Consider the benefits of an intentional, well-executed game time:
- Advocates a culture of dependence, trust, and unity.
- Creates a space where students can build each other up.
- Gives opportunity to promote the humble (or humble the arrogant).
- Builds memories, traditions, and stories that define your group.
- Understands students as physical beings possessed of physical gifts and virtues, rather than reducing them to a brain on a stick.
- Rids the sermon of a need to have some type of zany antic or physical challenge, and separates time in the Word into a different type of intentional space.
- Provides opportunity to see leadership, humility, team-building, guidance, and compassion as usable gifts in the life of the larger church.
Make no mistake, the way in which you structure and conduct your non-teaching times may have as much or more of an impact than your teaching times if they’re consistently underwhelming, or thoughtlessly rigged to either highlight or breakdown certain styles of student. So yes, even though games are far from gospel-central, they are anything but unimportant.
Need some great games? Here are a few from the three categories our youth group regularly enjoys (click on the name of the game to see directions on how to play):
- Gaga Ball (We don’t have a court, we just set up tables as barricades, and it works just fine)
- Extreme Rock Paper Scissors
- Elimination Dodgeball
- Skits in a Bag
- Freeze Frame
- First line, Last Line
- Random Item Funeral: There are no website directions for this one, because we made it up when we needed to get rid of an old couch for our youth room. Simply place whatever item you’re throwing away on the stage with some spotlights and nice music in the background, and split kids into teams each doing a different part of that item’s funeral. (Eulogy, interpretive dance, biography, song).
What games have worked well in your youth ministry? Tell us in the comments section below!