Ask the typical church member what words come to mind when they hear the words "youth ministry" and most will probably use words like "games" or "fun" as part of their description. Youth ministry is known for its ability to entertain teenagers. But it's also recognized for helping teenagers know and grow in Christ.
So the question naturally arises whether or not we should use entertainment to attract and/or keep teenagers. On one side of the Dodgeball line you have those curmudgeons who bark out "NO!" like grumpy old kill joys who want these teenagers off their newly manicured lawns. These anti-FUNdamentalists think that entertainment is a distraction from deeper discipleship and exacting exegesis.
On the other side of the line there are those who chant "YES!!!" like highly caffeinated cheerleaders. These fun loving fanatics remind us that you can't reach teenagers without getting them in the door and you can't get them in the door if it's not fun.
So who's right? There are good arguments on both sides. That's why I tend to shy away from dodgeball in this argument and choose, instead, a game of balance.
I believe we can use entertainment in youth ministry without it becoming the central focus. As a matter of fact if we use it rightly, it can be a koinonia (deep fellowship) accelerator. There's nothing like a fun group game or two to break down walls and allow teenagers to really open up relationally, emotionally and spiritually.
The problem is when youth leaders start feeling like they need to "juggle flaming poodles" and shift everything toward fun to keep teenagers coming back. That's when many start dumbing down their mission, mindset and messages.
This is wrong thinking and bad strategy.
Teenagers may come to youth group short-term for the fun and games, but they will stay long-term for a compelling mission and an engaging message. If we want to keep them engaged over the long haul, there needs to be a deep and wide focus that takes them deeply into the Word and then propels them widely into the world.
Mr. Bill, one of the best youth leaders I know (who also happens to be a Dare 2 Share Certified Trainer), always gives teenagers one thing to do to grow deeper in their relationship with God and one thing to do to help them go wider with the Gospel. Sure, he plays games but then he gets down to business. And that's why teenagers keep coming back to his youth group and bringing their friends.
I used to have a mantra when I was a middle school youth leader, "There's a time to be spastic and there's a time to refrain from being spastic!" Before I taught my lessons I'd ask the group, "What time is it?" and they would yell back, "It's time to refrain from being spastic?" Afterward I'd ask, "What time is it?" And they would respond, "It's time to be spastic!" And off they'd go for another round of craziness.
I know it's kind of corny, but it worked for me. And this same mindset can work in your youth ministry too.
Let's use entertainment and not let it use us. Fun and games can be portals or potholes depending on whether or not they open up deeper spiritual conversation or are an end in and of themselves.
Youth leader, you are not an entertainment director on a cruise ship. Nor are you a carnival barker. You are a shepherd of a very important part of God's flock. Have a blast with your teenagers. Get them playing, laughing and connection. Then focus all of that adrenalin-charged, hormone-filled, fun-loving energy in your teenagers toward Jesus!
And check out my free webinar called "No more flaming poodles!" to help you do this more effectively.