In some youth ministry communities, fun and games is becoming a four-letter word: avoided, forbidden, wrong. As if fun is something that no serious youth worker would encourage.
Fun is not the enemy. I don’t know anyone who thinks it is. But I do know a lot of people who are suspicious of “too much fun.” I see this youth pastor often who is highly suspicious of ministries with “too much fun.” He makes some good points, but I often feel conflicted about whether or not I listen to him too much. There are other times when I think he’s sharing his concerns because I myself am guilty! Afterall, where exactly is that line between healthy-fun (which provides fertile ground for relationships and cultivating trust) and entertainment-driven ministry (where fun overshadows everything else you’re attempting to do). In the midst of my struggles with this youth pastor’s concerns about too much fun, I can’t just ignore him… because I see him every time I look in the mirror!
The Role of Fun in Youth Ministry
Laughter is easily one of the most effective ways to break down walls between students. When we laugh and play, we are forced to let down our guard and open ourselves to the people around us. We cheer for each other and encourage our teammates to win – because when they win, we win. These shared experiences create bonds between students and youth leaders and provide memories to celebrate or commiserate together.
Anyone in youth ministry knows that sometimes students just don’t like each other. Maybe they think they know each other, but they really don’t. Or perhaps they go to schools who regularly compete against each other, so the students see each other in an “us vs. them” mentality. Games and service projects provide the greatest ways to tear down those walls.
The apostle Paul describes his ministry in Ephesians 3:1-7 as a “stewardship of God’s grace for you.” Pastors are not game-leaders. We are not program directors. We are not entertainers. Those roles are all good and fine and have their place, but pastors are care-takers of the soul. When fun and games are avenues to promote trust and to strengthen relationships where the gospel is proclaimed and spiritual care is given, then fun has become a beautiful grace.
Finally, fun is God-ordained. He created laughter. He gave us the physical ability to run and throw and catch. It is a gift of God. Fun is a terrible idol, but there is a time and place for it in life, and there is a time and place for it in ministry. Idols enslave with the pressure to prove your worth, but the gospel brings freedom.
The Danger of Fun in Youth Ministry
The pursuit of fun can overshadow the depth of one’s ministry if it becomes a goal (“the purpose of this event/night/program is to have fun together!”) instead of using fun for something more significant (“we’re here to develop relationships with your friends, so invite them and let’s have a good time getting to know each other”). I’ve definitely been guilty of putting so much effort into making an event fun that I lost sight of welcoming visitors and making them feel cared for.
There’s a popular ministry cliche that says, “What you win them with is what you win them to.” If you win them with fun, you’ve won them to fun. But if you with them with relationships, then you’ve won them to relationships. Better yet, if you with them with gospel-bearing relationships, then your ability to win students to the gospel is greatly extended! In all of this, “fun” is the among the most common and subtle dangers in youth ministry.
Across the board, youth workers are some of the most fun people I’ve ever met. I usually feel like the fuddy-duddy of the group when I’m around other youth workers. If you don’t know how to laugh then you simply won’t survive working with teenagers. Let us be suspicious enough of fun that we keep it from overtaking our mission: to win, build, and equip teenagers as disciples of Jesus Christ.
An Example: Bounty Hunters
This past weekend my youth group hosted an event called “Bounty Hunters” where students registered their teams, received instructions at the church, then headed out to one of the local malls in search of “renegades” who were in disguise. Each team was given instructions about how Bounty Hunters behave in public, received a small booklet with the mugshots of each church member who is in disguise and then paired up with a driver. After a certain amount of time, each team turned in their bounty to the appointed youth leader in the food court and then returned to the church for food, fellowship, and prizes.
I love my church, but we aren’t very good at inviting nonbelievers. That’s true of the adults on Sunday morning, and it’s true of students on Sunday nights. Part of that has to do with New England being a place where people run away as soon as the word “church” is mentioned. But we had a lot of visitors, and more than half of those visitor were unchurched teens (not just students who attend other youth groups). They had a blast, made some new friends with other students, got to know me and some of the other youth leaders, and they want to return for youth group sometime.
We had fun, but we built around relationships. In the weeks leading up to Bounty Hunters, we were intentional about encouraging our student-leaders to invite their friends and make sure the visitors felt welcomed. Parents, church members, and college students participated to make make the event a success. The teenagers felt the love and support of the whole church on Sunday morning when pictures were displayed during the Announcements. It was fun… but it was way more than just fun. Relationships were strengthened, and a few new relationships were built.
A Warning for Parents
Parents, one of the easiest ways for your kid to get a free pass for attending youth group is by telling you it’s no fun. You may believe them, or you can choose to talk with the youth pastor about your concerns (note: talking with other parents isn’t always going to get you an accurate picture of how your kid interacts and participates in youth group). But if your son or daughter does complain “Youth Group isn’t fun, I don’t want to go,” I’d like to remind you that while “fun” isn’t the enemy… it certainly isn’t the goal of youth group either!
When you pick your kids up from youth group, what do you ask them about? If, “Did you have fun?” is the only question you ever ask your kids about youth group, Sunday school, small groups, etc. then consider what you’re teaching your kids. Essentially, you’re communicating to them that “having fun” is the most important part of youth ministry.
For sure, there are more fun things for teenagers to do than attend youth group. There should be! If the Church attempts to out-entertain the world, then not only will we lose, we will also lose our soul and our calling. One thing the Church is absolutely greater at than any other organization is relationships. When the Church is healthy, we can out-relationship any organization!
A Final Word on Relationships
When kids come to youth group for fun, they might be disappointed. What students find at youth group should reflect actual life: there is a time for fun and laughter, and a time for serious conversation, all leading to a richer investment in relationships:
- First and foremost, to fuel (or begin!) their relationship with Jesus Christ.
- Second, to form and strengthen relationships with other peers who are in various stages of their own Christian maturity.
- Third, to benefit from relationships with mature Christian adults who genuinely care for them and for their family.
It can be easy to justify anything you do as a meaningful ministry, but deep down we all know when we’ve lost sight of our mission. Prayerfully consider whether you’ve fallen into either extreme: avoiding fun because you want to do more “serious” work, or if you’ve built around fun so much it’s overshadowed your God-given mission to make disciples.