Fun and Youth Ministry

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.

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More on fun…

Early today I mentioned the importance of fun in youth ministry. I mentioned that we don’t need to focus on programming every moment. We don’t need to entertain students, we just need to be together. This evening I came across this article. It is well worth reading, but one quote in particular stood out:

That led to an obsession with their children’s safety in every aspect of their lives. Instead of letting them go outside to play, parents filled their kid’s spare time with organized activities, did their homework for them, resolved their conflicts at school with both friends and teachers, and handed out trophies for just showing up.

This gets very close to what I was talking about earlier. We have a tendency to think we have to hyper-schedule our youth events. I’ve actually had it suggested to me in the past that if we don’t have every moment of an event scheduled, students will just get into trouble. But that is the opposite of what we need to do (see my comments on our Fall Retreat for middle school students). Instead, as I mentioned earlier, we need to model Sabbath and simplicity to and with our students. There really is a way to live that is different than the surrounding culture and more like Jesus.

Fun…

Every so often I find myself reflecting on the programs and initiatives that make up a youth ministry. Those who regularly read this blog know that I constantly try to think in new ways about youth ministry, and encourage others to do the same. Even so, the temptation to jump into an entertainment centered style of ministry is difficult to avoid.

But trying to avoid an entertainment centered ministry doesn’t mean that we don’t have fun. In fact, for the students in many of our youth ministries the best thing we could probably do is give them space to have simple fun. We don’t need to go play laser tag, or go to a baseball game, or have a dance party, or rent a bouncy-castle to have fun. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with any of those activities, but they aren’t requirements for having fun. In fact, when we jam our calendars full of events like those, we often play right into a consumeristic society that values entertainment above engagement.

We’ve recently begun a new format for our Wednesday night gathering at our ministry. For the first three Wednesdays of the month we undertake the standard stuff: discussion, small groups, prayer, etc. But now on the fourth Wednesday of the month we just come and chill. We hang out and talk, play games, relax. In short, we spend time being together. I don’t feel any necessity to entertain people during this time. Instead, I talk with students, joke, laugh, relax, play games, listen to music, run around, and otherwise have fun. Last night, because of a couple (unrelated) program snafus, we ended up with a much larger amount of time to hang out. I don’t think anyone minded. In fact, it may have been just what the doctor ordered for some of our overstressed students (and adult volunteers!).

Fun is a necessary part of being human, and it therefore ought to be a necessary part of being the Church. But it is only our modern, consumerist culture which has equated fun with entertainment. Our students need time to be together; time to be with God; time to get to know each other and the adults in our ministries. But this doesn’t mean that every second of that time needs to be programmed to keep students entertained. We need to think differently. We need to be careful that we don’t teach students that life is about feeding whatever entertainment craze is currently in vogue. We need to teach them that Sabbath and simplicity are deeply biblical concepts that have huge application to our own lives.

Here’s the hard part: we have to find ways to do this, even when our students are convinced that what they most need is another thing to entertain them. I’ll let you know when I’ve figured that out.

Correcting some misconceptions

As I’ve talked with more and more people about attractional youth ministry and my own reasons for striving to find a different–better–way of doing ministry with students I’ve realized something. When I say I don’t like attractional youth ministry, or I have misgivings about it, or I’m concerned that it puts the focus on the wrong things what people tend to hear is, “I don’t want fun.”

This is actually furthest from the case. Fun–whatever form that takes–is a vital part of a healthy church, and a healthy youth ministry. Sure, if the only thing we ever do is “fun,” and we never do Bible study, or prayer or service then we’re missing the fullness of things (I should be quick to note that all of those things can and should be “fun,”). The problem isn’t with having fun, the problem is with replacing Jesus and his kingdom with fun.

One of the most successful youth ministries I have ever been a part of spent huge amounts of time being together, hanging out, talking, playing games, walking around town, going to a family’s cabin, playing games, going out to eat, going to movies, and playing games. These kinds of “social” times weren’t merely fun for us, but they allowed us to build trust with one another and enter into shared life–what we might call, community–on a very regular basis. The point of this stuff, however, was not to attract new students to the ministry. The point was for the Body of Christ to live life together.

As I told a student recently, regardless of how they might feel, the last thing their friend wants or needs is more fun. What their friend needs and wants (even if they aren’t at a place to articulate this yet) is something that goes beyond a culture that demands we be concerned with getting ahead. Jesus offers that. We need to stop being embarrassed by the counter-cultural nature of Jesus. At the same time, this isn’t to say that one should never spend time simply hanging out and being together. That is as much a part of enacting Jesus’ mission on earth as studying the Bible, praying or building homes; in our over-stressed and over-worked society, time to simply relax and be together is a vital spiritual practice.

Fall Retreat: From the Other Side

A couple weeks ago I posted some thoughts on our upcoming middle school retreat. Our Fall Retreat has come and gone, and I’m happy to say that it was a wonderful time. It wasn’t perfect, and there are things I would change if I could go back, but it truly went well.

After I had processed through some of the thoughts in my previous post I made a decision to further loosen the free time on Saturday afternoon. Essentially, we gave students the entire afternoon “off” from programming. We brought a bunch of board games, one student brought string and beads, and we just spent time together. Some of us spent time playing on swings, or walking around the beautiful paths that wound through the camp. Some of us played chess, while others made bracelets, and others walked a prayer path. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I was a little concerned that students would be bored.

What I find so interesting, however, is that this time is one of the most talked about aspects of the retreat. Leaders loved the freedom to be with students, and all the students I’ve talked with so far enjoyed the opportunity to simply enjoy themselves, relax and experience God in the moment. Lest I misrepresent things, please don’t believe that the entire afternoon was some kind of spiritual experience for every student. It wasn’t, at least not in the sense we normally think of when we think of spiritual experiences. But it was a time to rest, a time of sabbath.

Once again, it wasn’t a perfect retreat. There are several aspects of the retreat I think could have been tweaked to improve it further (and by improve, I mean help students connect with God and one another at deeper levels). But the best decision I could have made was to set aside formal programming and simply allow all of us to be with one another. After I have some more time to process I’m sure I’ll have more substantive thoughts on what could have been improved. But for the moment, I am extremely pleased to have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of the retreat just chilling with some of the most amazing middle school students on the planet.