Youth Ministry Games: Play As Ministry

Some of us youth workers have found ourselves in the habit of compartmentalizing the games we play from the theology we teach. And that’s not all unhealthy. It’s good that youth ministry is shifting away from some of its more frivolous entertainment strategies to something more meaningful.

Youth Ministry Games - Kindred Youth Ministry

But in our search for meaning and spiritual depth in youth ministry, games have become, for some of us, just a pesky means to an end. We’ve got to play the games because kids like them (and we like them!) but, beyond that, they’re fairly superficial. The real ministry is the worship time and theological discussions…especially when they get emotional and people start crying.

But what if I told you that play is not just a pesky means to an end, but a vital element of our ministry and of our theology itself? What if I told you that, from a theological standpoint, play might be central to ministry, not superficial?

The games we play in youth ministry, when they are truly playful, will offer a space that anticipates young people’s liberation from the need to be useful, the need to constantly worry about status, the constant pressure to improve and mature… Our play can be our ministry.

To think theologically about how we play, we’ve got to think about play’s conceptual counterparts: joy and happiness.

Augustine and Joy

Joy and happiness have been important to Christian thought throughout church history (and they aren’t peripheral to Scripture either!). As early as the fifth century, people have been trying to figure out joy. What is joy? How do we get it?

You could say that these questions were important to Augustine, one of the church’s first and greatest theologians. Augustine determined that “happiness is knowing, loving, and enjoying God securely.” But throughout history, human beings have tended to look in all the wrong places for joy.

Luther and Joy

By the time Martin Luther started writing, about a thousand years after Augustine, this tendency found a home in people’s fear and anxiety about their status with God. People were afraid of God’s wrath and were longing to relieve that fear by finding their joy and happiness through whatever means the church offered them. But Luther, a faithful reader of Scripture (and of Augustine), insisted that the gospel proclaimed freedom from this kind of anxiety, from this preoccupation with “the law.”

Luther taught that justification through Christ and freedom from the fear of wrath is our real joy. Happiness comes from the assurance that “divine mercy will overwhelm divine justice on judgement day.”

Calvin and Joy

John Calvin thought this tendency to look elsewhere than God for joy was located in human arrogance. People have a tendency to search for joy by elevating themselves, by putting themselves first, and seeking their own temporal interests. As Calvin saw it, the search for joy could not end in such prideful self-seeking, but only in total humility before God.

For people to authentically find their joy in God, they must know their place before God and perceive the great chasm between God’s goodness and human sinfulness. This means, instead of coercing our circumstances to serve ourselves, we are to search for God’s goodness even in the worst circumstances. Even when bad things are happening to us, we can, according to Calvin, humbly look away from our own powers and rest instead in the assurance of God’s love and sovereignty.

Joy as… Worthlessness?

Later, a genius by the name of Blaise Pascal would come on the scene and double-down on Calvin’s call to humility. For Pascal, real joy came not only through humility before God but through utter self denial and even downright self-hatred. To put God, the true source of joy, at the very center, meant to put yourself completely on the outside. For Pascal, our joy comes through being “worthless” before God.

It’s a little counter-intuitive, isn’t it? The search for joy in Christian history, at least the strand of it we’re talking about here, has lead further and further away from the concern for the self. It’s especially strange to the ears of this generation, perhaps, that has been told over and over again, in myriad and subtle ways, that happiness comes through what we can own and what we can achieve. We, and the young people with whom we do ministry, are told to search for happiness in ourselves. This is, again, the wrong place to look.

But while Luther, Calvin, and Pascal can help us think through these things, perhaps we should reframe how we think about the search for joy. Self-denial is hardly helpful to a generation that’s already plagued by the brokenness of the world. And humility can be easily manipulated into a weapon for people with power to use against people suffering under their oppression.

And what on earth does this have to do with games at youth group? The joy Pascal described is hardly compatible with our current understandings of dodgeball and four-on-a-couch. Who can help us reframe our understanding of joy?

Moltmann and Joy

Perhaps no living theologian has had as much to say about joy and play as Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann shifted the conversation about joy away from “self-denial” and toward playfulness. In the face of the horrors of this world, the horrors to which the young people in our youth groups have almost immediate digital access through one screen or another, Moltmann asked the question, how can we play in the midst of suffering? He suggested that, through play, “we can anticipate our liberation and with laughing rid ourselves of the bonds which alienate us from real life.” Playfulness is the mark of human beings finding the true source of their joy in God. And thus, the recovery of faith itself depends on the recovery of joy.

In a world stricken by the need to achieve and produce, a world so anxious about purposes and improvements, a world where human beings are so often reduced to their function and usefulness to society, Moltmann offers joy as a gracious interruption of our compulsion.

Essentially revisiting Luther’s perspective on joy as freedom from the law, Moltmann argued that “Where everything must be useful and used, faith tends to regard its own freedom as good for nothing. It tries to make itself useful and in so doing often gambles away its freedom.” In joy, a person comes before God not because they’re useful to God, nor out of necessity or obligation, but out of delight. Joy “abolishes the intent of such questions as: …for what purpose am I here? For the answer does not indicate ethical goals and ideal purposes but justifies created existence as such.” The question of a person’s worth, a person’s value to God, is not a joyful question. In God’s joy, “our existence is justified and made beautiful before we are able to do or fail to do anything.”

We Need To Play

So Pascal was right! Real joy does come from being “worthless” before God… but probably not in the way Pascal thought about it. Embracing Luther’s doctrine of joy as freedom from fear of the wrath of God and Calvin’s doctrine of happiness as humility before God, we can say that real joy comes from being “worthless”… that is, being in such a relationship with God that “worth” has nothing to do with it. We call this relationship friendship.

The games we play in youth ministry, when they are truly playful, will offer a space that anticipates young people’s liberation from the need to be useful, the need to constantly worry about status, the constant pressure to improve and mature. When we have fun, and discover that God is there in the playfulness of joy, we are inviting young people into the experience of true spirituality, a coming before God in the “worthlessness” of free joy and friendship with the God who is joyful in God’s very being. Our play can be our ministry.


About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

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