I think it’s time for me to talk a bit about fun in youth ministry. Regular readers will know that I think attractional youth ministry is a bad idea on various levels. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we need to expunge fun from our youth ministries. In fact, I think fun is a vital element to a healthy youth ministry–just like fun is a vital element to a healthy family.
This isn’t to say that fun is the vital element, however. There are appropriate places for fun. Also, I should distinguish between fun and entertainment. It’s pretty common for youth ministries to be in the business of entertaining students. I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Entertainment is often non-interactive, or when it is interactive, it isn’t communal. Entertainment seeks to keep busy. By contrast, fun is interactive and communal. Fun isn’t about being busy, but rather about enjoying the moment.
What we shouldn’t use fun for:
Let’s start with the negative side of things. There are instances where we really ought to avoid using fun in a youth ministry. For instance, we shouldn’t use fun as an evangelistic strategy. That isn’t to say that Jesus should be boring (far from it), but we shouldn’t be working to “draw people in,” with fun. We should be working to draw people in with the love of Jesus and his message. Anything else misses the point. Anything else risks winning converts to something other than Jesus. After all, what you win them with is what you win them to. Our job isn’t to offer students fun and then sneak in a devotional. Fun should not be why teens come to our youth ministries. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have fun at youth group meetings, but rather to say that we play a dangerous game when we use fun as bait to lure students into our youth groups. Students don’t need more fun. They need peers and adults who will love them, support them, welcome them, and walk the road of life with them introducing them to this amazing guy named Jesus. In fact, maybe the biggest problem with “fun” is that we somehow think that if we can just do an event that’s more fun, more students will come to our youth ministry. We use fun as an excuse so that we don’t have to do the hard work of changing our attitudes, being loving and open toward the stranger, and taking our focus off ourselves and putting it squarely on Jesus.
We should also be careful that we don’t use fun as an excuse for laziness. Sometimes it’s easy to say, “Oh, we’re doing this event to build relationships and be together.” That’s an awesome thing, and vitally important to youth ministry. But if what we mean by that is, “We’re going to have fun, because I was too lazy to think through what our youth ministry needs,” it isn’t a good thing. We’ve started using fun as an excuse.
What we should use fun for:
So, if we should avoid using fun as bait to pack teens into our youth rooms, what should we use fun for? The possibilities are nearly limitless. To begin, having fun with one another really is a great way to get to know someone. Part of living life together is having fun. Fun is a phenomenal way to reduce stress and practice Sabbath. Perhaps a practical example will be helpful. Last summer we did several “Days of Rest” with our youth ministry. These events were essentially times when we told students that we wanted them to practice Sabbath. We blocked out six or so hours at the church, and had students join us. We told them ahead of time that we weren’t going to have any “program.” We invited them to bring a book, a game, a frisbee, whatever. We spent the day simply relaxing, playing games, talking with one another, laughing, telling jokes, etc. We had a great deal of fun. But fun wasn’t the point, and we weren’t trying to keep students busy. I’m not so naive as to think all of our students really practiced sabbath that day. Many of them just came because they thought it would be fun. That’s OK, but our narrative wasn’t to come because it would be fun. That can make all the difference.
So, fun can be used for sabbath. I think fun is also a vital part of creating shared memories together. We tend to remember the good times, the fun times, as opposed to the bad times. You might be noticing at this point that fun is first a tool, rather than an end in itself. But you might also notice that fun is directed towards what we’d typically think is the “internal group,” those students who already attend our ministries. That isn’t to say that we should be solely focused on fun. Really, it’s important but should never be our focus. Most of the time, we have plenty of “fun events,” and what we need is more welcoming and support between the students in our ministries, more opportunities for them to wrestle with faith, more opportunities to pray, more adults who love them, more times of silence, more Jesus, not another chance to play kickball.
At the end of the day though, we should never try to avoid fun. Fun is part of the human experience, and certainly ought to be part of the Christian experience; it just shouldn’t be the only part of that experience. Where we need to be careful, however, is in attempting to use fun to draw students into our ministries. Fun doesn’t draw students in. It might get them there for a night (if they don’t have something more entertaining to go to), but it isn’t a long term solution. That way of thinking ends up making youth ministry into a series of programs we do to keep students busy, rather than a life we live out alongside students. What we need to do in our youth ministries is welcome students of all backgrounds, support them, and care for them–even when it’s their first night.