In the film Invictus, there is a brief scene where Nelson Mandela’s bodyguards are playing rugby together in the front lawn of Mandela’s home. They are laughing aloud, their postures relaxed, their attitude friendly and lighthearted, their faces all smiling as they throw the rugby ball around. Mandela looks from his window and grins as this formerly segregated and distrusting group of men play together. He knows that while games seem initially silly, they hold great power in transforming relationships.
Play and games have been a central facet of youth ministry for decades, though they’ve taken quite a bit of criticism in recent years. There seem to be two prominent views for games that form opposite ends of the spectrum: consume or avoid.
Consumeristic games are often used with youth groups as a form of entertain, a sort of production used to keep students attention. The term “consumer” fits this well, as often the students are asked to consume various disgusting or blended food items while the audience looks on. This may not always be used for entertainment; let’s be honest, sometimes games are used as a time-filler for a youth pastor with an unplanned program. Like adding an artificial filler to a meal, the assumption is that students can’t focus on spiritual things until their energy is worn down or they’ve been filled up with entertainment first. This tacitly sends an unhealthy and consumeristic message to students: “I’m here to either be entertained or be the entertainment. Spirituality is worthwhile as long as it’s amusing.”
On the other end, there are many in youth ministry who are avoiding games and play altogether, typically with the desire to foster a serious, more contemplative faith. It’s the idea that youth pastors aren’t entertainers, they’re shepherds of the faith. Students need to take the Gospel seriously, and entertainment distracts from that. The world is a difficult and pain-filled place; we don’t have time for silliness. The youth worker doesn’t want to create a consumeristic youth ministry, nor does he/she want to foster unhealthy forms of competition or do activities that lead to potential injury. Yet in this somber form of faith lies another unhealthy message to students: “I’m here to only be serious, not to find joy or happiness. Spirituality doesn’t really fit with humor or joy.”
Perhaps there is a third way, a way that transcends the dichotomy of consume-or-avoid. I’ll call it leveraging levity. What if games were used to create an environment of laughter that occurred not at the expense of others (laughing at) but as a community of people experiencing joy (laughing with)? What if games were used to break down social barriers that prohibit deep relationships to grow? What if we created shared experiences and memories of simply having fun together, with no other agenda?
Games aren’t the end in themselves; nor are they inherently sinful or dangerous. Games can be tools for fostering a safe environment of fun. Yes, fun. I still think that Jesus is the most fun person in history. After all, He’s the one who created laughter. He is a God of joy, singing, and dancing. When we experience true joy together in community, I wonder if we reflect the Triune nature of our Creator. If every so often we choose to play a creative game in youth group that involves everyone, breaks down social barriers instead of creating them, and causes spontaneous laughter and long-term memories, then that’s a game worth playing.
I think we’ll play together in Jesus’s kingdom. I think we’ll shoot foam finger rockets at each other. I think we’ll cheer as we engage in sports that haven’t even been created yet. I think we’ll laugh and dance and sing and be silly together. If we want to reflect that kingdom here and now, perhaps we should think about youth ministry games more seriously.