I still begin most of our youth ministry’s gatherings with a game.
Even though some youth ministries have moved away from games, I haven’t. When chosen well, unusual games are not only fun, but they also help move teens out of their comfort zone (in a way that breaks down walls and often enables them to share more vulnerably later on) and creates shared experiences and memories that bond them with others.
Early in my career, I played a lot of “gross” games. Times have changed, though, and I’ve found that teens don’t respond as well as they once did to these. So, I’ve slowly weeded them out. All that remains in my gross game arsenal is baby food hot potato – a variation of hot potato where baby food is the potato and if you get caught with it, you've got to sample it before exiting the game. This game has just the right amount of grossness to it. Teens aren’t (for the most part) repelled by. They still willingly play the game… But they groan while doing so.
I pulled this game out at a recent youth gathering. As expected, teens groaned when they heard what we were doing. Their groans deepened as the baby food flavors got progressively worse (although you should know I never pulled out one with meat).
Teens were having fun and laughing as they played… Until we got to one freshmen boy who, upon getting caught with the jar of baby food, simply refused to eat it.
Moments like this can easily tank a game. If the student gets away with NOT eating the baby food, there’s a sense of injustice among the rest of the teens. Other teens then refuse to eat it and the whole game goes up in flames.
But force someone to follow the rules and eat the baby food and you could be in a whole lot of trouble… You definitely don’t want to be the youth pastor who makes a kid throw up during a game you made them play.
In all my years of playing this game, I’ve never actually had a teen refuse to eat the baby food. So, truth be told, I wasn’t sure how to respond to this teen. As I contemplated my options – none of which seemed very good – an astute adult leader came to my rescue.
This adult leader saw what was happening and came up with a solution. She went and knelt by this student and confidently said, “I’ll eat it for you.” And she did.
In one swift move, this leader dealt with the problem in the perfect way. She provided a grace-filled way out for a teen who obviously wanted no part of this moment while at the same time, insuring that his penalty was still paid. No one got off free and as a result, the game continued. (This is, I might also add, a pretty great example of substitutionary atonement).
Throughout my career in youth ministry, I’ve consistently said that adult leaders are the backbone of a healthy youth ministry. This experience reminded me of this truth.
Adult leaders set the tone for what we do. This leader certainly did.
But they also do something else. On a very practical level, adult leader’s problem solve.
There’s not a doubt in my mind that when this teen left our gathering, he didn’t remember anything from our discussion about violence and genocide… But there’s also not a doubt in my mind that he’ll remember the grace this leader showed him for a long time to come.
And maybe, just maybe, this teen will eventually point to this moment as the one that showed him Jesus.
You see, that’s another reason why I still play games.
Sometimes, it’s through our games – and not just our lessons – that teens meet Jesus.