On a summer night as I was entering 7th grade, I was wrenched awake by a group of 8th graders from my church’s youth group. The video camera perfectly captured my scared/confused face as I was trying to figure out why Spencer Burns and Brandon Coffee were jumping on my bed. Before I could get a handle on reality, they drug me out of my house and down to the church where I was introduced to a lock-in.
There are only two things that I can still remember from that night: 1) Chugging way more Mountain Dew than my tiny bladder could handle 2) A weird game where I had to reach my hand into a paper bag and eat whatever I pulled out–which for me was a block of spam.
I have been in love with youth ministry ever since!
Truth be told, I am not sure which came first, youth ministry or the invention of games. The two have been intertwined since the dawn of time. Why do we play games in youth ministry?
For me, there are some valid reasons why playing games are healthy in a youth ministry. Here a few:
Games create positive memories.
Our most vivid memories tend to be of emotional events. When someone is having a blast they tend to remember it. The truth is students often remember more of the game we played last Wednesday than they did of our 3 point sermon over our new series “Manger Things”. So play a game. Chances are, if someone is having a good time, they will want to come back later and have a good time again.
Games break down walls.
A motto I live by is: “If you’re the weirdest person in the room, everyone else feels safe to be themselves.” Most of the time, the weirdo is me. However, if you don’t believe me, ask this guy. I love watching how this brave soul gets so many random strangers to let down their guard and have fun. Games have the ability to create safe space for people to take off their masks and be a little goofy. After all, they’re not as weird as “that guy”.
Games create heroes in peculiar places.
I get that not every person enjoys playing every game. However, there are hidden students out there whose sole purpose in life is to gulp down that 7 layer meat cake and win one for the team. Playing that game lets that student’s superpowers shine (and the rest of us get to watch with intrigued disgust).
Games build community.
Youth group unity can be a difficult task to manage. From ages to interests, youth ministry often has the task of catering to a wide demographic. Games have the ability to pull unlike people together. If you are struggling with building community among your youth ministry, maybe what you need is a night where your group spends time laughing together.
Jesus played games.
Yeah, I don’t know about this one, but I thought it would make me sound holy.
Sometimes the games you play work out great, you have everything under control, and no parents call you at the end of the night. Count yourself lucky. Job well done!
And then there is the occasional time when things get out of hand and you end up on an hour-long phone with an enraged parent who thinks you shaving their students head was a poor judgment call. Or when you have to send a student to the emergency room because they were squashed under a pile of bodies while playing the game “wolf pack”. Or you promise that you will work extra hard to get the egg smell out of the carpet…and off of the walls…and off the ceiling.
For those of you have struggled with planning/leading games, I have created a list of tips that have been helpful for me in my ministry:
Find the balance between “just cuz” and “just cause”.
Sometimes we can find the atmosphere of our youth ministry either too lackadaisical towards games because no one ever wins, or so competitive that fun is never in the equation. The best is when we can find a healthy medium. There needs to be an element of competition because this provides the driving force of the game and is what makes it exciting for all involved. However, it is also important to make sure that everyone is having fun and that people who lose aren’t made into losers. When competition is too high division rather than unity occurs. Work hard to find the balance between “just cuz” and “just cause”.
Know your crowd.
When planning a game, one mistake I see happening often is the game doesn’t fit the size of the audience. A game intended for a smaller crowd is played with way too many people and so students lose interest due to lack of inclusion. The same works in reverse.
If they don’t want to do it, don’t make them do it.
Nothing is more awkward than asking for a volunteer and no one is interested. That’s okay. Don’t force a game if no one wants to play it. It is possible to lose credibility as a game master, and nothing does that more than when you force people to play a game that they hate or aren’t into.
Know when to create and when to delegate.
Don’t doubt your ability to be creative with games. But, also know that there are some good resources out there that can help you find a game if you aren’t in the game-planning mood. Here are some that I use frequently:
- Download Youth Ministry: This is a one-stop shop for a quick game. It costs, so that is a negative, but it is one I use often for Wednesday night pre-service games.
- The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon: I feel like this dude’s spirit animal is a youth pastor. If you are looking for some awesome games, youtube a few games he plays with his guests every night. You will probably have to tailor the game for your group, but there are some gold nuggets here.
- Make a network: I am always talking to other youth pastors and stealing their ideas and letting them steal mine. A little collaboration never hurt anybody. In fact, if you have any good games I would love to hear them and then steal them. Also, my area of expertise is camp games. I’ve been a camp director for our district for several years now and have a whole arsenal of games I would love to share with you. Hit me up if you are interested. Here is my email if you want to collaborate more: firstname.lastname@example.org.