If you’re a youth leader, you probably field a lot of questions in the hours just before your youth group meets. Questions like:
What are we eating?
What time am I supposed to be there?
Can I have another copy of the permission slip?
Can we play volleyball at youth group? Pleeeeeease? Can we?
And then there’s THE question. You know the one I’m talking about—it’s every youth leader’s “favorite”:
What are we doing at youth group this week?
Any time teenagers care enough about being a part of our ministry that they take the initiative to check in beforehand is a good sign. But I think as youth leaders we find this question particularly annoying not only because we’ve probably communicated the answer already at least four times on five different platforms—but also because it can turn some of our quiet insecurities up to a simmer. It prompts us to ask internal questions like:
- Have I done enough to make youth group fun?
- Do my students actually like coming to our activities?
- If I tell them what we’re doing tonight at youth group, will they come… or will they choose NOT to come?
Fun and laughter are vital to youth ministry. The games and activities you thoughtfully plan help to form friendships, welcome new attendees, and let’s face it—they’re one of the things we love about the ministry we do. But when the FYI team researched over 250 of the nation’s leading congregations who were successfully engaging and retaining 15- to 29-year-olds, one of several essential findings was that today’s young people aren’t asking for cool programs—they’re looking for warm community. More than fierce competition or flashy equipment, teenagers want friendship and meaningful connection with both peers and adults. They’re looking for identity, belonging, and purpose.
We all know that teenagers ask a lot of questions. FYI’s latest research shows that deep down at the heart of all these questions, teenagers’ questions boil down to these three:
- Who am I?
- Where do I belong?
- What’s my purpose?
Every day teens carry these questions inside them, adding layers to their perceived answers as they interact with friends and adults, as they engage in activities and navigate day-to-day life, and as they learn through formal teaching and life experience. So when Sunday rolls around (or whichever day your youth group meets) and a teenager asks us that question we all love to hate, really they’re wondering:
- Will I have fun and feel safe to be myself at youth group tonight, or will I end up hiding behind others?
- Will I be included, or will the group leave me isolated on the sidelines?
- Do I have the skills and abilities to contribute, or is there a chance I’ll come away feeling like I have less to offer than everyone else?
A mantra for youth group games with purpose
Whenever you’re tempted to dip a toe into the whirlpool of self-doubt by asking yourself, Are our youth group games and activities fun enough?, here’s a more productive question that will help you turn the tide:
Do our youth group games let students know that everyone’s experience matters?
Have you ever evaluated your youth group games in terms of the overarching values or aims your youth ministry seeks to achieve? My guess is the words “growing a hearty spirit of competition,” “fostering excellence in athletics,” or “epic daredevil stunts” are not in your ministry’s mission or vision statement.
So what vision does your ministry value? Is it to love God and love people? Build a vibrant community? Build character? Grow in Christlikeness? Let your mission be the playbook by which you shape your youth group hour (or two)—right down to the icebreaker games.
The amount of ministry time we have to spend with our students is limited. Remember, everyone’s experience matters—because if the game you choose means some students are sitting on the sidelines feeling rejected, embarrassed or even humiliated in front of their peers, or risking unnecessary injury, those experiences will accompany them as they listen to your message and choose how much (or how little) they’ll participate in small group discussion.
Let your ministry’s games be opportunities to build up their trust in you and your leaders—not set it back.
Follow your students’ lead
As you plan youth group games, events, and activities for your ministry year, turn teenagers’ 3 big questions of identity, belonging, and purpose into a framework to guide you. Ask yourself:
1. Who are my students?
Among your youth group is a remarkable, completely unique mix of cultures, interests, and abilities. There’s no other group just like yours. Yet the better you know your students, the more inclusive your planning will be. What is the age or gender ratio of your group? Does socioeconomic status keep some from the experience of playing club sports? Are there neurodivergent young people among your group? Do any have chronic illness or disabilities? Remember, everyone’s experience matters, so thoughtfully plan games that are likely to be fun for the group you have.
If your group is large, gaining familiarity with the uniquenesses of all your students may seem like a tall order. Try these strategies:
Empower your volunteers to each get to know a core group of students well and feed their insights back to you.
Invite students to take a survey, or empower your volunteers to ask them your survey questions.
Create a list of activities, games, and icebreakers students recommend. If interests vary widely, sort them into categories and make sure you chose something from each category once a month.
Some students may even suggest games you don’t know—which is a prime keychain leadership opportunity! Encourage leadership and public speaking skills by inviting those students to prepare and teach the game to the group. You might be surprised how often young people need practice before they can clearly communicate instructions or the roles of a game!
Think ahead of time about creative participation options for your students with special needs. Parents, teachers, or students themselves might have ideas for what would be fun and inclusive.
2. How will we level the playing field so everyone feels like they belong?
Sports may seem like an easy option for youth group games: they’re easy to plan, the rules are clear, and most students will probably know how to play them. No doubt, the varsity volleyball players in your youth group will be content—and are likely to attend—if you set up a net and hand them a ball. And let’s acknowledge that when teens come to church we want to affirm their gifts and give them a chance to shine—everyone’s experience matters.
But we must also hold this tension in the balance: for every athlete in your group, there’s also at least one student who never even made the team. Maybe they don’t care much for this (or any) sport. Perhaps they worked hard at it but just didn’t make the cut. Or maybe they shied away from trying out because of thoughtless remarks made by PE classmates (or the coach). It’s possible their family couldn’t afford the fees, the uniform, or the equipment. And it’s also possible—because of language differences, culture, or simply because no one ever took the time to explain it to them—that they very much want to play but don’t know how. Those experiences matter too.
So how can we play sports and games in youth group while helping every student feel like they belong? Try these tips:
Change the game. Play volleyball with an enormous beach ball. Dim the lights and play it with a fluorescent ball and a blacklight. Use water balloons. Have everyone play on their knees. Incorporating a simple change to a well-known game reduces the advantage for your experienced players, piques curiosity for your inexperienced players, and creates a shared learning environment for the whole group.
Create a new rule. If “community” is in your youth group mission statement, require that every member of the team passes the ball before they can hit it over the net. Or perhaps your group aims to build character; ask students to partner up and play 3-legged race style or pass the ball in pairs with beach towels instead of their hands—anything that gives them an opportunity to practice teamwork and communication as they play. Turn your game into an active teaching moment by explaining why you made the change and emphasizing the quality they’re there to nurture.
Turn your varsity students into keychain leaders. If your group really loves sports, give those who typically shine on the field the opportunity step back from the limelight and develop their leadership skills instead. Ask experienced players to explain the rules to the group before they play, serve as referees and encouragers, or offer skills workshops for students who want an opportunity to learn. And while your star players are relishing their newfound responsibility, they’ll be giving other students a chance to show what they can do.
3. What games can we dream up that will help students explore their purpose?
Teenagers love fun and can be incredibly forgiving. Which makes your youth group an ideal space to think outside the box and try new things. (And if innovation strikes fear in your heart, we’ve developed a process that can help.)
As you get to know more and more about your students, craft friendly competitions that invite them to discover new skills and abilities together. Here are some my youth group has tried and loved:
Kitchen games with purpose
Get students in the kitchen and host a Nailed It or Iron Chef event. If your church values intergenerational ministry, pair (empathetic and encouraging) older members of your church with cooking teams as mentors (as well as extra pairs of eyes when it comes to safety), or invite them to judge the results.
Gather Legos or building materials and create a building challenge.
Board game night
Set out board games (I guarantee members of your church will be glad to donate!) to create a relaxed environment—maybe just before finals week.
DIY science lab
Find a few slime recipes online, gather the ingredients, and host a DIY science lab.
Pair slideshow quizzes with fun prizes for right answers and silly (yet safe!) penalties for wrong ones.
As you plan games and activities for your youth ministry this season, keep in mind your teenagers’ longing for identity, belonging, and purpose to make every student’s experience matter. Your intentional effort might make all the difference.
Tweet this: Do your youth group games build students’ trust in your ministry—or do they set it back? Here’s your new mantra for game-changing youth group activities.
A new vocabulary for teen discipleship
Want deeper discussions with the teenagers you care about most? Gain over 300 questions you can use any time at any place, plus insights from our latest research with 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager.
Photo By: Jesus Loves Austin
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