Category: Ministry

The Play’s the Thing


There’s a common thrash amongst youth pastors – should you use games to attract more kids to your group? Or do games distract from your message?

Both camps, I think, miss the point somewhat. Games are so much more than a means to an end. Play has powerful benefits it its own right. Young people who know how to play well with others have more options available to them.

Consider these real-life scenarios:

A group of twenty teenagers and their youth leaders are standing in the dark on a street corner in San Francisco waiting for a bus that won’t come for another half hour. Every one of them is bone-tired from working in a food pantry. Some of them didn’t bring enough warm clothing. It is freezing cold.

One of the kids has an idea – let’s play Big Booty. What could have been a 30 minute grumble fest turns into a fun-for-all.

Too old for Trick-or-Treat, a high school girl isn’t thrilled by the idea of staying home and handing out candy to an endless parade of Cinderellas, Transformers and Harry Potters. She gets permission from her parents and then meets her friends at a warehouse owned by the family business where they all play a ginormous game of Sardines in the dark.

A group of college age young men and women get together and hang out. They all want to do something besides beer pong. One of them suggests a game of Team Assassin. Hilarity ensues.

Increasingly I’m seeing young people take the games they’ve learned in youth group and and play them with their friends who don’t attend church. Playing group games may not be evangelism, but it’s a great way for people young or old spend a Saturday night.

Game-Changers: Homeless World Cup

preparation for the Homeless World Cup

Inviting homeless players into the game

Our youth group has a regular activity that we call “sack lunch evangelism” where we go into the downtown area and share a meal with someone we think would appreciate it. At the same time we share our stories and listen to other people’s stories. It’s a great time.

But our activity is based on the presumption that homeless people need food. Maybe homeless people need something else as well?

Reading about the Homeless World Cup, an organized tournament of street soccer that brings together homeless and disadvantaged people from around the world in a global trophy challenge, I got thinking. Homeless people also need the ability to participate, develop or restore a sense of self worth, they need teamwork. And they simply need to do something fun every now and then.

Some ideas: Checkers on the Square. Arm your kids with checker boards and send them downtown in teams. See if they can strike up some play with people on the street.

Soccer for a Change. For a youth group activity play some street soccer. Show some video clips to get some discussion going on how we can find creative ways to reach out to others in our community. TIP: Check out this crazy freestyle street soccer clip!

Board Game Street Soccer. For a rainy-day small group activity, try this Street Soccer board game. Follow up with video clips and a discussion of the Homeless World Cup.

Taking it to the Streets. Grab some kids and a soccer ball and start a pickup game in public alley or square. See who joins in. Discuss.

More freestyle Street Soccer Videos:

Football Freestyle
Freestyle Futbol (atop skyscraper, skeery)
Street Futbol from Brazil

The Lesson that You Taught is Not the Lesson that You Thought

Good or forgiven | Image Public Domain

Good or forgiven? | Image Public Domain

Last week I was reminded why I love using games to teach. They create an immediate experience that can be discussed in the present moment.

On Sunday I ran a prototype of a game I’m working on, codename “Temptation Nation.” Players had the option of contributing to the church offering or keeping two “dollars” for themselves. Those who kept the money got an immediate reward (an Oreo and a glass of milk), but those who contributed to the offering would get a greater reward – but only when everyone chipped in.

Knowing the group pretty well I expected four or five kids would be tempted to “cheat” and keep the rest of the group from getting their Oreos. Then we would sit down and have a good talk about temptation and how our behavior impacts other people.

Something entirely different emerged in the group. Only two of the kids gave in to the temptation for immediate Oreos, and these were kids who have some verbal processing challenges. In other words, their behavior might not be a good example of giving in to temptation. What followed was even more unexpected – some of the players started using namecalling to try and bully the holdouts into cooperation. Now we had some unexpected material to talk about.

The thing that I imagined would be tempting, Oreos, turned out to be mostly uninteresting to the kids. Too soon after breakfast one player told me. But something that I hadn’t imagined, the temptation to resort to bullying, turned out to be a pretty big problem for the group.

If I’d been giving a talk I might have been a mile off the mark and never known it. I might have talked about temptation in terms of the Big Three (sex, drugs, and gangster rap), plus the temptation to cheat on tests, shoplift, lie about things to one’s parents. I hadn’t thought at all about bullying, self-doubt, the temptation to conform. It took a game to bring these issues to the surface, issues that these kids are struggling with all the time.

What comes up in the game may not be what you started out to teach, but it may be just what the kids need to hear most.

Toward a Theology of Game Design


Design for Blueberry Garden on Gamestorm by Erik Svedäng

Sometimes you read a book that flips a light switch in your head. For me one such book was  A Theology of Children’s Ministry by Lawrence Richards. It changed the way I thought about teaching.

Richards looked at the way children learn best and concluded that heart-knowledge was more effective than head-knowledge. A lecture or a lesson plan can’t penetrate the heart the way friendship can. He believed that faith is best taught by modeling behavior in the moment.

It is in fact our emotional responses to situations that trigger our thoughts and shape our perceptions, rather than an analysis of a situation triggering our emotions. As long as our understanding of the Bible and its teachings is not linked to our emotions, it is unlikely that we will remember and apply appropriate Bible truths. (As cited in People in the Presence of God.)

Certainly this is the way Jesus taught. When he wanted his A-team to learn about trust he took them out in a small boat and into a big storm. And then he went to sleep.

If I had the energy, the patience and the grey matter to go to seminary I might attempt to scribble out a theology of game design. Youth workers can’t drag out a leaky boat every time they want to teach a lesson. But using a game youth leaders could capture the essential experience of fear that the disciples felt, and walk students through it.

There is a catch however. Experiences within a game are endogenous, which is a fancy way to say that what happens in the game, stays in the game.

The endogenous nature of gaming experiences is a good thing if you’re playing Grand Theft Auto. But it’s problematic if you’re trying to use a game as an experiential learning tool. For instance you could create a game where the recitation of Bible verses made it possible to overcome obstacles. Inside the game those verses would be valuable and powerful. Would they retain their power outside the game? Or would they become  just that much Monopoly money?

Important things to think about. And if you’re the thoughtful sort, by all means feel free to post a comment.

Hello World

Hello World | Photo by Rosan Harmens

Hello World | Photo by Rosan Harmens via Unsplash

The other day I was thinking about our High School guy’s small group ministry. We have a lot of fun, particularly in the form of beating each other black and blue.  But I can’t say that I’ve created a really good faith-based experience. I’ve tried a couple of promising studies (ie. The Gospel according to The Simpsons ) but every time I bring a book into the room the guy’s eyes glaze over and their tongues unroll. It’s more like Zombie school than Sunday School.

Rick Bundschuh once offered a little insight. “Most curriculum is written – or edited – by women. And most women think very differently from men.” Bundschuh went on to describe a seminar where the leader asked the people in the room to describe their day using a color. The women in the room found the task easy and enjoyable. Their days were mauve or peach or kiwi, amber or blush. The guys on the other hand were “huh? A color? I guess it would have to be blue because that’s the only color I can think of.”

Most curriculum is designed around two goals. The first goal is to drive home some bit of knowledge. The second goal is to generate discussion. Asking a group of women what color the day was is something that works. By and large most women enjoy discussion and the question simply provides a framework. Guys on the other hand are more likely to be energized by a challenge. Who can think of the most names for the color blue? The person who succeeds is 1) the winner and 2) recognized as having a special power and a special place in the group.

All this got me thinking. If guys (on the whole) aren’t motivated by learning information and aren’t interested in discussion for the sake of talking then how do I get more Bible knowledge into the group? Well, let’s rephrase that. Guys are motivated by learning new skills and they are interested in a challenge. They want to compare themselves to other guys and see how they stack up. They want to discover their own unique “super powers.”

And then I had an idea. What if, instead of another small group study we rolled out something entirely different. What if Thursday night Guy’s Group wasn’t centered on a study guide, but was based on a game?