Youth Ministry Games: Do We Need Them?

Keep the games. Youth in Hong Kong need to play.

This was the first advice I received from Dale, one of my parents-volunteers, as we were chatting over a plate of sushi about my arrival as the new Youth Director. It was a few weeks ago in Lai Kwan Fung, one the busiest neighborhoods in Hong Kong. “Gotcha,” I replied.Do we need games?

But inwardly, I was not convinced. As I went back home that day, I recalled all my experiences being a youth leader in churches and scout troops. “I have always played with youth,” I realized. Games are not only needed for the youth in Hong Kong. All youth need to play. We all need to play. But why?

We all know that games are great tools to be used when working with youth. Games are the best icebreakers, they create a good atmosphere within a group, they help to tire out our super-energized teens, and—let’s be honest—games are also an easy way to fill empty time.

All these arguments are legit. But they are also superficial. Could we try to go a little bit deeper into our theological understanding of games?

In order to offer a theological frame to the action of playing, we must look for our underlying motivations beyond just the utilitarian use of games.

To Be in the Present Time

A recurring theme that I have observed in many parts of the world is our human nature to worry about the future. In Western Europe, where the economic situation is depressing, I have seen young people starting to think of their retirement as soon as they got their first job. In Asia, I have seen parents worrying way too much about the future of their kids.

Games do not answer questions… Games are a proclamation that our actions should not always be utilitarian, useful, and relevant.

Games do not answer questions… Games are a proclamation that our actions should not always be utilitarian, useful, and relevant.

Therefore the first theological theme that I see about games is time. When playing games, we don’t usually worry about the future. Games represent a “time-out,” when no one needs to answer the dreaded question: “What’s next?

When they play games, kids are allowed to forget for a few minutes what they want to do in the future or who they want to be. Games are about enjoying the present moment. And I believe that the enjoyment of the present time is a value we need to rediscover.

Jesus talked about it long before me, and more beautifully, in the famous parable of Matthew 6:25-34, when he asks us to consider “the birds of the air.” The conclusion of the parable turned out to be not advice, but a command: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”

We play because games help us to be in the present time, and not to worry about the future.

To Feel Joy

Close your eyes for a few seconds and try to recall the best games you ever experienced. What do these games have in common? For me, the best criterion to differentiate a good game from an “okay” game is the level of joy that is felt during the game. The more laughs there are, the better.

Maybe we ought to play games with youth simply because it makes us laugh a lot and have fun. Games are important for everybody because they inherently provide joy. If we believe that joy is at the heart of the Gospel, then games become a way to share Christ’s love and joy authentically with others.

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Joy is a spiritual practice. The more we play, the more we are transformed into the joyful people we are, in part because we train ourselves to see real life as a wonderful game.  Slowly, repetitively, the joy that is developed in the games starts to spread to other parts of our life. Maybe that is what Mother Teresa had in mind when she told us: “Life is a game, play it.”

To Affirm Irrelevance

I am a newbie in Hong Kong, but it did not take me long to realize how this society is heavily driven by material success. It is a place where kids have very few opportunities to play because worried parents who aim for their kids to triple-major in an Ivy League University a few years from now see games as unproductive and useless.

I have been told many times that the calendar of a 12-year old kid in Hong Kong is just as jam-packed as a senior executive. Therefore I fully understand Dale’s visceral attachment to games.

But sadly, this situation is not just the case here in Hong Kong. Most of us are doing youth ministry in content-oriented cultures and performance-driven environments. In all these places, irrelevance is not welcome.

The theologian Paul Tillich, in his great lecture The Irrelevance And Relevance of The Christian Message, defined irrelevance as not answering “the existential questions of the humanity of today.” Games do not answer questions. They do not provide any measurable content and knowledge to the kids. Unlike competitive sports, music or volunteering activities, games cannot be added on a résumé. Games are irrelevant by nature.

Henri J.M. Nouwen based his book on Christian leadership, In The Name of Jesus, on the encounter between Jesus and Satan in the desert. For Nouwen, the first temptation that Jesus had to face—to change rocks into bread—was the temptation to be relevant.

By turning down Satan’s invitation, Jesus refused to be useful to the world. Of course,  Jesus was ultimately relevant to the world! But he also knows that one cannot always be relevant.

Games are more than time-killers.

Relevance and irrelevance are both needed, but each in its own time. What we need is a healthy blend of relevance (trying to answer the questions of the world) and irrelevance (not answering these questions).

Games are a proclamation that our actions should not always be utilitarian, useful, and relevant. Games help us to overcome a temptation that Jesus himself went through: to always make things relevant. Irrelevance becomes a virtue to develop, and games a great way to develop this virtue.

Keep the Games!

Games are today usually limited to a very narrow segment of our church population: children and youth. After a certain age, we stop playing games, falsely believing that older teenagers and adult would find them childish. But that should not be the case.

Games are more than time-killers. They help us to be anchored in the present moment, they are amazing tools to develop joy, and even more importantly; games can be used to reclaim the spiritual virtue of irrelevance.

So please—fellow youth workers, parents, volunteers, youth—follow Dale’s advice: “Keep the games. And not only in Hong Kong. Everywhere.


About the Author: Antonin Ficatier

Antonin Ficatier - Kindred Youth Ministry

Antonin Ficatier studied in three different continents and holds two Master Degrees in Business and Education. Born in France, Antonin is currently based in Hong Kong, where he works as Youth Director for an international and interdenominational church.

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