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[Elephants in the Youth Room] The Great Game Debate

 —  January 23, 2014 — 34 Comments

When youth workers get together there seems to be a handful of topics we discuss time and again. They are sticking points in the grand scheme of youth ministry that we can’t agree on. Better yet, it’s like they are standing tall in the middle of our youth rooms and we just decide to ignore them. They are the “Elephants in The Youth Room.” My friend Shawn Harrison and I  had one of those discussions just the other day. At the end of it we decided to pull the youth min nation in and see if you are talking about these ideas as well, and see what you think. Look for a couple of posts from Shawn and I as we try to at least expose the beasts that we continue to ignore.

Today I am contemplating this idea of games….

Three of my children were recently discussing a local youth group they had been invited to attend and tried once.

One mentioned,  “I don’t feel like we really go deep learning about Christ, I don’t know if I want to go again.”

Another responded,  “I have friends there, I want to go and hang out.”

The youngest chimed in, “The games are really fun. I like the fun.”

In my own living room sat the conundrum of many a youth worker- three students, perspectives, needs and wants out of their youth group. We wonder where to begin and how to approach this.

However, when I tool around on the internet, following the requests of youth workers on social media it feels like most of youth ministry is in search of a new game. The top read posts on this blog are for free games. Is that genuinely what one third of our students are looking for?  If it is what about the other two thirds?

YET, when we get together and talk about ministry I do not know ONE youth pastor who thinks that it’s the games that change the life of a student. Often we use them as a catalyst to teach a point. Are we doing a search for games so our time can be spent on the “deeper things?”  I wonder though if there are times we rely on them because they make us feel good?   When we successfully pull off a great game we feel awesome about it.  “The kids really had fun,” we are able to say.  However, true discipleship takes a lot of time, energy and it is sticky.

Recently I spent some time chatting with a youth guy who went through a period of time when he didn’t play any games with his group. It wasn’t on purpose, it just sort of  “happened.”   He was bi-vocational, and some key volunteers moved away.  He didn’t have time to prepare for “everything,” so he scrapped games. It shocked him when a month later of focusing on going deeper, answering hard questions and building relationships, no one came to him and said,  “Why don’t we play games anymore?” He had been told that “games were a central piece to youth group.”

Now I admit I am not a “games for the sake of games” person. In our group, we use activities to make a point we will double back to in our lessons. I honestly think that is more my personality.  However, I do have a friend who will admit they use games as a time filler.  He has said,  “My students don’t want to step up and really learn about Jesus, but they enjoy games, so I figure at least it gets them there.”

As I meet more and more youth people I feel like they don’t really know what to do about this “game” thing.  What do you think?

Should games only be used in outreach events or as a catalyst to get students through the door?

Are games awesome,  serve a purpose and you will never ever get rid of them?

Is it all right to nix games all together and put that time in elsewhere?

Let’s talk about. I feel like we keep circling around this one and debating. Honestly, I feel for many of us we would get rid of “game time” but feel guilty about it.  What would our students say?

Let me know your thoughts!

Leneita

@leneitafix

Leneita Fix

Leneita Fix

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Leneita Fix is the Director of Ministry Development for Aslan Youth Ministries, a family focused urban ministry serving Monmouth County New Jersey and Haiti. She has been working in some form of youth and family ministry for almost 22 years. In addition she has launched the coaching and resource organization, Front Line Urban Resources with Jeffrey Wallace serving those who work with families living in survival mode. The early years were spent in camp ministry, suburban and rural youth groups. With the Lord’s moving the last 17 of those years have been spent ministering in three different urban areas to primarily unchurched families (New Jersey, Virginia, Florida back to New Jersey). Her responsibilities have included Bible based program direction for children ages 5-18, curriculum writing, staff training and recruiting, discipleship, resource creation and speaking to national audiences. Her passion is to raise up workers in practical, relationship-driven methods while remaining in the trenches with the youth and families she loves. Her goal is to help others understand every student living in a survival mindset can and will be transformed in Christ. One of her greatest joys is serving in ministry as a family with her husband three wonderful children, and her niece. Simply she resides among her friends in the city just living life as a family that loves being there. You can contact her at leneitafix@aslanyouth.org.

34 responses to [Elephants in the Youth Room] The Great Game Debate

  1. When I had mainly hs students the games didn’t seem to be a high priority. Now that we have a majority of middle school students it seems they are more important. I try to use them in the middle and then come back around to tie it all together

    • Leneita Fix

      I think you are right Danny that age does play a huge role in the idea. 6th graders who may just be coming out of a children’s program tend to want games a little more. Some churches actually tend to have 5/6 grade groups for this very reason. I like that you put them in the middle that is a great idea.

  2. As a volunteer adult leader and parent, this has been a hard issue for us as a family. I have 3 kids in ms and hs ministry and none of them “like” or “appreciate” games. They do like activities that can drive home a point, but games for the sake of games feels like a time waster for them. We attend worship as a family and all of them serve their church in a teaching/leadership capacity, they want some solid food when they have time with their peers. Creating different options in ministry for kids is key. Some kids are just being introduced to faith, others are wading in and still others want to get deeper. We need to create opportunities that fit the needs of kids where they are in their journey and also integrate them together…ditto for adults!

    • Leneita Fix

      Kristy, you just described the dynamic of my children as well. I think while I have the one who likes games, the other two only like the activities that drive home a point. I have found it is about learning styles as well so the more we can create an environment where students can come and learn. But, I keep hearing deep down- games for games is not what most students are looking for.

  3. I think this is where it can be beneficial to partner with other churches and other youth groups. I try to make sure that I am offering something different compared to the other youth groups. Right now, they tend to focus more on games, fun events, and getting people in the door to establish relationships, so I emphasize more teaching and discipleship. Then when a student comes to my group and finds it “too boring” I can point them towards another youth group, and when a student goes to the other group and finds it “not deep enough” they can be pointed towards me. That way, we hope to reach as many students as possible in our community.

    • Leneita Fix

      Matthew, I would say as well, I never have a problem when students attend more than one group. Sometimes different groups meet different needs and in the same vein students want the different interactions. I love that you have such a partnering spirit and are not afraid for students to go where they will grow in the best way. Keep up the good work of reaching so many!

  4. How applicable is this to my church this week!! I believe games can come in many forms: Bible trivia, baking cookies and treats in order to send to the members of the church who are sick and shuts ins and cannot attend church, attending to a project that needs attention in the church (like a small flower garden). But having JUST games is not Christian formation. I feel there should be a balance of Bible study and enrichment coupled with games (or for me in the form out outreach). If they want games, they can play Xbox at home. For so many youth, the time that they spend in the Word on youth night may be the ONLY time they spend in the Word. How can I say I am a youth minister if I’m not ministering? Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! for posting this article. It hits home for me more than you know!!

  5. I think of having games at youth group can be important. While I’m not a fan of games for the sake of just having games, I think that you need to do something to level the playing field of emotions. Lots of people are coming to youth group in different places. Having a game can really get everyone closer to the same emotional spot.

    Plus, it gives volunteers an easy way to talk to students without feeling totally awkward. (Something I’m more and more aware of in my 30s!)

    For me, that’s why I play a game or use a discussion thing like a YouTube video. I want everyone in the same frame of mind before we get ready to worship or study the bible or whatever is after that.

    • Leneita Fix

      Adam, I am a big fan of interactive and activities. I think when I think of a “game” I think of playing something silly, just for the sake of it. What a great point that we need to help everyone meet in the same emotional spot and activities help so much with that. True as well to help volunteers find an easy access into conversation. Wait until you reach 40- and the other teens are your kids age- and you try to start a conversation. If they don’t sometimes you just feel like a creeper…:)

  6. There is a lot of value in games, both to serve as articulating a particular point, but also to break the ice. When we get together for youth evenings, there is never a strictly set set of things that we do. Living in a small community, with the church being in the middle of a field, there are times when we will spend the evening tobogganing or playing board games or going skating at the local rink, as the church is not always a convenient meeting spot. These are not games, per se, but they are great times of fellowship and having the evening to sit in a snow bank with a group of youth is very valuable as we talk about life. I always make sure though, that Christ is the focus. If at all possible (which isn’t all the time) we will close with a devotion, which is a great change of pace and a time to really remember the reason that we do get together. During those events where we get together with other youth groups or community people, I do think it is very important to play a game or 2. Sure it may be a “time-filler” but I think more importantly, it breaks some of the tensions that are built up over school and homework and family stresses. It is a chance to unwind and change gears. To summarize, games are good for people of all ages, but when something becomes so routine, some of the impact wears off. There is a lesson in shaking things up every once in a while for sure.

    • Leneita Fix

      Brad, knowing your group is so vital. Sometimes you do need to do something “fun” or even have an ice breaker. However, I see those both as purposed to build relationships and get to know each other. Thanks for your perspective!

  7. I hate games. But I have to admit, when pressured to include them, they have proved helpful. We start the night with a brief (15-20 minutes) game. This allows our students to get their socializing done, burn off some energy, and give late students a buffer to arrive before the lesson. I’ve learned that this short investment makes my students much more attentive to an hour of deep bible discussion.

  8. I am a middle school pastor. Being a larger church, I feel like games are a great way for students to connect with each other through a shared experience. It makes things less awkward when they go to small groups at the end of the night for discussion. Also, it allows for students to release a little energy during the night. Our group runs like this: music/worship (combined with high school – 30 minutes), then a game (just middle school – about 5-10 minutes), teaching (middle school only – 20 minutes), small groups (divided by grade and gender – 30 minutes). We find that mixing things up, changing scenery, and gradually getting smaller and more serious/intimate seems to be a nice way to help middle school students learn. Our high schoolers, however, rarely do games. Great topic, by the way.

  9. I have a hard time imagining a “game for game’s sake.” Unless by that you mean that games break the ice, connect kids with each other and with adults through shared experiences (and shared fun), help students understand that God and fun aren’t mutually exclusive, bring people from diverse backgrounds together to hear the same word. (as many of you have pointed out here)

  10. I am a MS Pastor very much committed to discipling students to be young men and women of God. With this in mind, I take my teaching role and small group curriculum very seriously. A fierce commitment to God’s Word and communicating it with excellence is seen throughout the ministry (hopefully this is true anyway :)). So what? Well, a few years ago, I asked my rec team what would it look like to show excellence when it comes to our games? I told them, “We are a larger church with greater resources entrusted to us, are we being faithful?” I was convinced that coming up with a game the day before or better yet a few hours before youth group often did not reflect excellence and faithfulness in ministering to our students. Consequently, for the past 4 years or so, each semester we plan out the games for the entire semester. Making sure we mix up types of games that require some athletic skill or none at all, so that different students are able to connect (more about that in just a sec). We try and find ways to involve the maximum amount of students from each team etc. Why go through all this trouble? Time and time again, I have seen huge walls broken down by a simple game that takes up 20-30 minutes of a two hour night. Students have been stuck in a desk for 6 hours at school, what a great opportunity to blow off some steam. What a great opportunity for students to see their small group leaders having fun, being goofy. I love the games we play on Tuesday nights and so do our students. Our games the focus? Not even close. Is this about entertaining kids? No sir. Do students just come for games and tolerate the worship and small groups? The highlight for the vast majority is not the game, but their small group by a LONG shot. When ever I meet with middle school guys, my challenge is always the same, try and hit a homerun with games, worship, and teaching. If you can’t do it (and if you are like me you can’t), recruit people that can help you get there. Wow – what a long post – sorry. I love this stuff.

  11. Honestly, for our student ministry, the involvement of games is a matter of time. Games are always the last thing I plan. I plan them nearly every week and many weeks we don’t get to them. Our students are ok with that. Yes, some of the younger ones get disappointed from time to time but they understand that a game is not the most important aspect of our gathering.
    That being said, I still intentionally plan then nearly EVERY week. Why? because our students enjoy them when we do have time to get them in. I want our students to enjoy what we do. I think every student pastor can agree with that.
    Ultimately, I think games are helpful on some nights and unhelpful on others. It all depends on what else you have planned.

    • Leneita Fix

      Joshua, My push back would be- what if you only planned them for one week out of the month? I am very pro- activities. I think students like interaction and experiential learning. However, what if you made once a quarter a “fun” night. Instead of planning games- knowing you won’t get to them. What if you had weeks where the learning was more heavy on an interaction. I would say your students do enjoy being with you. That’s why the come :)

  12. For my first job in student ministry as an intern/ associate youth pastor, games were my job. I was in charge of coming up with crazy ideas. Gross games, entertaining game, and occasionally games that tied into the night’s message. The purpose was purely entertainment.

    Now I’ve been the lead youth pastor at a church for 4 years. I stopped playing games about two years ago. I failed to see the eternal significance in them unless they are used to teach a biblical point, which can’t be done every week.

    I haven’t once had a student complain. Instead we focus on worshiping through song and opening the word together as a community of believers. And my students love it!

    • Leneita Fix

      Kyle- I am not a “game” person. I am an interactive/activity person but I think I always felt like for me I was setting something up that about 3 kids genuinely enjoyed and looked forward to and my other students were at best indifferent. We have fun- we are hands on- we have object lessons. We don’t play games either :)

  13. I love this post and I will be honest I have not had time to read all the comments to see if this issue has been discussed. I do like the idea of games as it builds unity and forms easier ways to have kids bring their friends. Remember most of our Wednesday nights are geards towards outreach and most “lost friends” will not come just of the sake of the Bible study. Should we play games during Sunday School or Sunday night discipleship-NO WAY! If you look at the “Purpose Driven Youth Ministry” book most Wed night time is for the crowd or community student. I also might add this is prime time for your student leaders to step up and either be team captians, plan games or even run them all together. This also helps find them a purpose and allows the younger to form relationships with the older.

    The main thing, I believe, after 15 years of youth ministry and camp mininstry is that it CANNOT be the main focus of the night. How much time are you spending on games? I have been to churches where they play games for 45 min and have a 20 min lesson and go home. No growth took place except on the basketball court. We do annoucements/welcome for 5-7 min then play games for 15 min ONLY. Then we go to worship for 30 min and then our small group lessons for 35 min.

    I find it best to play games first and do the lesson last. This gives time to allows time for them to ask questions afterwards and to not be rushed to end a lesson to go into game time. Especially helpful since we have 6 small groups that our leaders do not have to finish at the same time and they can all build that connecting time with their students with no pressure.

    • Leneita Fix

      Chris- Good point about keeping a time limit to the games. It keeps the focus away from just games and into the flow of the evening. We once actually had optional game time at the end of our MS ministry. We had split our small groups based on gender. We found the boys groups were always done early and didn’t want to sit around “Talking.” So we had a time that if your group was coming be in the main room by X time. It was up to the small group leader if they brought students into the game time. That way if they were having a great discussion- their group didn’t go to games- but if they had a week where everything seemed to be going down hill there was an outlet.

  14. I lead a middle school youth group. We don’t always play games. We use them on special party nights around holidays and more in the spring and summer when we can go outside. Sometimes we play life size jenga just to get the group mixing up. I feel that sometimes it is good to play a game that will get a kid involved that is a quiet more reserved kid. It helps to engage them into the group in a not so intimidating way. Which goes back to the learning style and personality of every kid. We did go a long time without games. I don’t have a lot of volunteers and sometimes the games take as much time or more to organize and prepare for. I would rather use my time to prepare an awesome lesson about Jesus Christ that hopefully will lead a youth member to Christ.

    • Leneita Fix

      Teresa- this was exactly one of the points I was making. If you don’t have time to prepare them and you don’t help with them don’t feel like you HAVE to because they are “supposed” to be a part of youth ministry DNA. They have a place- but your students are also doing great without them as you put your energy into something you are excited about!

  15. I think every aspect of our ministry should have a purpose. Games can have just as much purpose as any other part. We shouldn’t just throw stuff in because it’s “tradition” (ie. we always have a game). In our suburban group, we only have one shot at youth per week – Wed. night. Families don’t have time to take their youth to separate activities. So… we do one “fun night” per month, and the other three are intensely focused on discipleship. What we have found is that the kids who think of games as “time wasters” spend most of the night just socializing, while those who love the games get involved. It’s a win-win. (If someone was really negative about games, they could always skip that night). The kids who need some fun to connect or want to invite their friends for the first time, come that night, but they don’t avoid the other three.

    • Leneita Fix

      Good point Jr on some kids needing the games while others think they waste time. Some kids are just deeper thinkers than others. This looks like a great plan that is working for you guys!

  16. Wow… It looks like this was a pretty popular post. :)

    I think it can be good to have fun and play together every week at youth group. It is good to have fun together. There have been a few “really mature” people in my groups sometimes who don’t like playing games. :) But, most of my kids – including the strong Christians – in my group right now like to play games. The junior highers love it and the high schoolers generally seem to have a lot of fun, too.

    We play games every week. And about once a month, we have a special night focused more on fellowship and outreach (with just games, or a special activity like a progressive dinner or Christmas party, with some just being fellowship and some having an outreach message).

    At most of the weekly youth nights, where we have games each week, we also have plenty of time for worship, message, and small group time to discuss the message and how it applies to life (about 30-45 minutes is games out of 2 hours). I also sometimes do another “game” as an opener for my message.

    But youth night – where games are one component – is not the only time we meet. We also have Sunday morning Sunday school for teens (although I still like to sometimes have interactive activities to begin the lesson), the teens are encouraged to come (and many are involved) in the whole-church worship service, and we have another night for a more serious Bible study and discipleship time most weeks. Besides that, we have a ministry time once a month at a nursing home that some participate with. On top of that, we encourage the teens to do personal Bible study.

    So, all that said… I think it can be great to have fun together! But, each group can do what they think is best for their teens and who they are trying to reach. :)

    • Leneita Fix

      I know Christian- who knew the subject of games would spark so much discussion :) I think you bring up such a valid point that it also depends on how many times a week you meet. For awhile I ran a 5 day a week teen program. When I had almost 3 hours a day with a core group there seemed to be more “time” for games. I do think though that interactive is always good!

  17. I tend to lean in the direction Chris C pointed out. I have been in student ministry over 20 years and have looked at our Wednesday night spot as the outreach time to draw students in. We spend the first 30 minutes in games (minute to win it games are great with small amount of time involved), announcements, worship and the last 30 minutes in Bible study. I have kept the Bible study deep but at the same time taking into account that there are lost and/or Biblically illiterate students out there. We have grown 10x in size, been through 3 buildings and have had over 20 students involved in, training toward, or going into full time ministry. I only share that last bit to show that you can have fun and grow deeper spiritually at the same time! Bottom line, we need much prayer for our students and should use almost any means to love and grow them toward Christ.

    • Leneita Fix

      Thanks so much Russ for sharing!! That’s awesome that it is working this way for you. You bring up the wonderful point about prayer. Don’t we all know that we need to be praying and direct all of our programming and all we do as He leads!!

  18. I’m a volunteer and a parent here, volunteering with high school ministry for the past 10 years. My own kids are finally old enough to be in high school ministry (which is weird for me to have them there, but I also get a teen’s perspective as well).
    I hate running/picking games (I’m more of the teaching guy), but I’m a big fan of having them. It builds community among the teens, as well as the connects the adult volunteers to the teens. I’ve been able to connect to teens by playing the “goofy” games with them much more naturally than being a “creepy old adult asking probing questions”. Connecting is a prerequisite for discipleship.
    I think there’s an evangelical side of games as well. They’re especially good for drawing and keeping the “teens who don’t want to be there”. Young Life takes this to an extreme, and I’ve known many lives changed by that ministry. When my own teens come home from youth ministry and say, “It was boring”, it disheartens me because Christianity is anything but boring. Games are a part (and only a part) of keeping ministry less “boring”.
    But I think more importantly, there’s a context/association thing going on. If the teens think the games are fun, associating the “fun” with Jesus makes a teen more likely to come back. It’s subtle, but I think there’s depth there, especially drawn over months or years. Games may not win battles, but I think they’re a key part of winning the longer term “war”.

    • I think games have huge evangelistic potential. I’m delighted to see students come check out our youth group for the games, because I know when they come they are automatically connected to a small group and 2 small group leaders who are committed to discipling them. It would be very sad if at the end of several months, these same students only motivation for coming would still be games. The good news that doesn’t really happen. Games isn’t my favorite thing, teaching God’s Word is, but it is an essential component.

  19. One or twice a month we month we do a minute to win it type challenge using 2-4 teens on Wednesday night. Our teens don’t miss all inclusive weekly games and actually are more involved cheering their peers, it is also more special to them when they are chosen. This extra time has allowed us to go deeper into lesson and open up the end to Q&A. The growth we have experienced in the last year, spiritually and as a group, has been amazing. I love games but we save them for our special activities now and no one seems to miss them at all. I can honestly say I have not had one student approach me about more games. I do get daily calls and texts with questions about past and future discussions.

  20. Context is a huge thing, and group personality is a huge thing too. In our context, most of our kids attend our church school so get Religion classes/Bible 4 x a week. One day a week there is a kid focused worship. Then there is church on Sunday. For the students who don’t attend our school, there is a midweek educational program that includes small group, object lessons, and some activities, but never games for the sake of games. Oh, and there is also youth Bible study offered on Sunday morning, though only a handful of students attend. In short, our kids get LOTS of the meat…. not that they are any more spiritual…. just that they “have to take it” due to our context. So- while I am not crazy about games for games sake, its what our kids see as “youth group.” We do other things too- service projects and retreats and camps, but mostly our monthly youth events are just for “fun and fellowship”

  21. We are from a rural area, where students will show up on tractors, 4-wheelers, or whatever way they can. I have tried to plan games, but sometimes it is difficult to bring the group back into study time. However the youth leaders have come up with an idea that envelopes all aspects of ministering to our youth. The youth group has one evening a month where we celebrate birthdays for that month, play games, music, and take time to talk to them one on one. The teens have even asked us to plan what they call “Stress-Free Night.” We watch movies eat pizza, and everybody brings their favorite snacks and we are there until midnight, I am always open for suggestions, and have enjoyed reading the replies to this article. Thank you to all youth leaders that give of their time!!

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