Join us on November 9 at 1:00 p.m. CST for a webinar about how the gospel helps youth ministers welcome teenagers into warm, Christ-centered community. You’ll hear from seasoned youth ministers David Brashler, Skyler Flowers, and Dorothy Lau about what works and what does not in the quest to create a sense of belonging for students in their churches.
When I first became a youth minister, I experienced more than a little self-consciousness about my lack of athleticism—and sometimes I still do. There’s such a strong stereotype that the youth pastor has to be the Pied Piper who brings all the energy and fun.
As I learned more about gospel-centered youth ministry, I felt a little vindicated that games weren’t the most important thing. I slowly grew in confidence that students needed my encouragement, faithful Bible teaching, and reliance on the Lord far more than they needed me to be the star player on our dodgeball team. (Can I get an amen?!) So yes, it’s probably wise to set aside the more attractional methods of youth ministry, like shaving the youth pastor’s head and Mountain Dew-feuled lock-ins.
Still, lighthearted games have an important place in any youth ministry that focuses on the good news of Jesus. Namely, games help to create a culture of welcome that draws teenagers into gospel community. As we play together, we lay the foundation for all we will model and teach. Following are some recommendations for using games to build a gospel-centered culture in your youth ministry.
Involve others in leadership
As the youth minister, you don’t have to run every part of the night at youth group. We want to allow our students to get to know other leaders, too. When we empower other adults on our teams to lead something as simple as a game, we give teenagers a window to “consider the outcome” of these leaders’ lives (Heb. 13:7). Games offer a perfect opportunity for the other adults on our teams to lead and to build relationships.
In the ministry I served most recently, we had a specific role for what I affectionately called “the game master” at our middle school youth group. For a long time the person who served in this role was a quiet man who arrived early to set up the evening’s game. Most recently another gentleman who had been a lifelong coach took the position. He is especially gifted at drawing out quieter kids and helping them get involved.
At our high school youth group, we invited student leaders to take turns planning and explaining games each week. Many of them really loved this role, and their leadership had a positive effect on the vibe of the whole night. Because they felt invested, games went more smoothly than if I had tried to rally the troops alone.
Don’t be afraid to let someone else be the hero of game time in your youth ministry. Leaning into the strengths of others on your team allows teenagers to see the body of Christ in action.
Make it original
Sometimes it’s the quirkiest, most off-the-wall experience that helps teenagers feel a sense of belonging with one another. This kind of lighthearted play is a currency similar to breaking bread together (Acts 2:42-47) in that it brings down teenagers’ walls and helps them to connect in relationship.
The youth pastor who served before me in my most recent church was a creative type who loved coming up with new games. As a result, our ministry took pride in a number of our own signature games, such as a combination of capture the flag and dodgeball we call “Awesome.” Once a year we invited our friends at a neighboring church to play with us, and our students felt pride in sharing this game that (most) everyone loved.
On a couple of occasions, some games-loving student leaders took it upon themselves to create a new game for youth group. Whether the game was a hit or totally bombed, it nearly always resulted in lots of laughter. These one-of-a-kind game experiences can foster a unique sense of inclusion and community.
Run around the building (yes really!)
Some of my students’ all-time favorite games were the ones that gave them license to roam freely around our church’s campus (with adults stationed casually around to build relationships). Middle schoolers especially love having this kind of free reign, which makes them feel grown up. For our middle schoolers, manhunt and a game called ZORK were our most-requested games. High schoolers enjoyed a live-action variation on the game “mafia.” At times when our groups were smaller we even included a round of good ol’ fashioned sardines.
As one insightful leader on our team pointed out, having the run of the church building is extra important for kids who haven’t grown up in our local churches. The pastor’s kids and others from involved families have likely enjoyed roaming the halls, making memories together. But new kids in our ministries, especially those whose parents are disconnected, will gain a sense of ownership and belonging from these games. The same holds true even in rented space or the home of gracious church members where a small group gathers.
It’s also healthy for our churches to be exposed to the happy commotion teenagers bring to our shared spaces. I loved it when our church’s elders or stewardship committee happened to meet on youth group night and got to see and hear the chaos of teenagers playing together. You may even want to scheme a bit to ensure that church leaders witness teenagers joyfully running around the building. Just as our teenagers need to know that they belong in our churches, our churches need to feel invested in our teenagers.
Don’t forget about team-building games
The apostle Paul exhorted the Corinthian church to have “equal concern” for all members of their local church, which he pictured as a physical body (1 Cor. 12:12-31). Team-building games help our teenagers to put this teaching into action as they express their need for one another.
I serve on the advisory committee of a local ministry called La Vida, and its staff and interns are absolute pros at utilizing games to build a sense of community. The late founder of this particular ministry was my dear friend and co-leader in our church’s youth ministry, and he graciously brought a wealth of games to our group. It became a running joke among students that our buddy Rich O. wouldn’t care for any games that were too competitive—he preferred to see our group having fun working together! His bent toward collaboration had an enduring influence, even several years after he went to to be with the Lord. I’m so thankful for what I learned from watching him and other members of his staff lead these games.
Not everyone youth group team has a Rich, but we can all adopt his philosophy: Use games to build up students and to inspire camaraderie. Search online for team-building games like Minefields or Alaskan Baseball. Reach out to a local outdoor education program or camp and ask if they’ll share some of their proven games with you.
Include “handicaps” to make games fun for all
I’ve already confessed I’m not a big games person—but I do love a game that includes a good twist to neutralize play. One of personal my favorite games is line hockey, in which players have to stay on the red and black lines of a gym floor. It makes an otherwise aggressive game fun for everyone, since players have to hop around each other, and faster students are limited in their speed. We played with a foam ball and a mix of hockey sticks and brooms, and we had a no-tolerance policy for high-sticking for safety.
Similarly, in the game of Newcomb, our friend Rich would often call out random handicaps for the more dominant players (such as only using their left arms to throw, or hopping on one foot rather than running to the ball). In our case, many of those stronger athletes served on our student leader team and had already bought into the vision of including everyone. They also had a great rapport with Rich—so they took these good-natured handicaps in the spirit in which they were intended. With students less familiar to the group, you could set a more objective rule, for example, that a student has to start using her left arm once she tags three people out of the game.
Perhaps more than any other tip on this list, these silly rules communicate the kind of gospel welcome we want every student to experience in our ministries. They give less athletic students a fighting chance to compete, and they often incite laughter and bonding among teammates.
Games are still important in youth ministry, even as we move past an entertainment-based youth ministry model. When we give thought to the kind of community Jesus invites us to create in him, games can aid our proclamation of the gospel to the teenagers in our care.