Gaming Well at Youth Group
If you’re like me, game time has never been an easy part of youth ministry. Sure, you know what games will generally get a good amount of your youth up and having fun, but more often than not, games are the last part of our weekly planning for Sunday and Wednesday night youth meetings.
A lot has already been written about the pros and cons of recreation in youth ministry. Regardless of which side of this debate you fall on, all of us in youth ministry agree that game time is an essential part of what makes a good youth group. Games have the power to unite or divide, build up or tear down. How we intentionally choose to recreate sets the tone for the entire youth meeting. As someone who has always struggled with planning games, let me offer some suggestions on gaming well at youth group.
1. Know your Group
You’ll never get a middle school boy to sit through an hour-long talk on… well, pretty much anything. And to be honest, you’ll probably have a hard time getting me to do the same. Our teens come to youth group because they want to have fun with their friends. Whether your group is stacked with varsity athletes or kids who feel awkward dressing out for gym, they almost always want to have fun playing an epic game. As a youth leader, you have to know your group to maximize the amount of fun they have playing together.
While I’ve got some pretty decent athletes in my youth group, there are a good number of kids who occasionally trip over their own feet. While Capture the Flag can be fun at times, playing it every week will only isolate half of my group from their more athletic peers (and doesn’t everyone cheat in Capture the Flag anyway?).
We recently held a Dodge Ball Tournament during our Sunday night meeting. While several kids invited their friends to play, we also had a fair amount of youth who I knew wouldn’t want to participate. My solution was a board game night packed with water bottles and snacks in the adjoining room. Both kinds of kids got to play in their comfort zone and everyone had fun when the Dodge Ball players took breaks and spent time with the board gamers.
2. Choose Games that Level the Playing Field
Too often our non-athletic teens feel left out of game time. Many aren’t as aggressive or gifted as their peers. We can level the playing field by regularly incorporating games that are fun to play regardless of athletic prowess.
Whether it’s something as simple as Q-Tip Wars, Human Foosball or Four on a Couch, the games you select as the leader indirectly communicate to your non-athletic teens that they’re valued just as much as the kid who just accepted a field hockey scholarship at a D-II college. We want them to have fun, so we have to level the playing field from time to time.
3. Recognize that Games are Social
Our teens also come to youth group to socialize. While some are more comfortable standing on the sideline, the vast majority of them want to spend time together. During game time, our youth build new relationships, strengthen friendships and grow closer to one another. Games allow youth who wouldn’t normally socialize with one another to connect with other teens outside of their social circles. Even the few who decide to sit out of the game will inevitably spend time socializing together. Don’t miss a chance to have a leader or two sit out to get to know the kids on the sideline.
4. Ramp it Up
New games are the ultimate gamble in youth ministry. Will the youth like it? Will it be fun? Will it be too complicated? Too boring? Too intense? The key to successful game management is paying attention to the group dynamic. How we modify gameplay, add additional rules and ramp up the fun is essential to making a lame game fun for everyone.
For example, last Wednesday night I introduced Throne Ball to our group. One person sits in an office chair with wheels encircled by the rest of the players trying to protect this “throne” from dodgeball wielding teenagers. Once someone hit the “throne” with a ball, they took the seat.
I intentionally started the game out with only one chair and one dodgeball. After five minutes, several middle schoolers began to complain about how boring the game was. This was my cue to add in another ball. I spent the next ten minutes adding chairs and balls until the game turned into an all-out frenzy of activity. Oh, and those middle schoolers who were complaining earlier? They ended up having just as much fun as the rest of the group.
The key to ramping up a game is starting simple, building momentum and not being afraid to shake things up if they’re not going well. It’s all about reading the room.
5. Leave them Wanting More
Psychologists have proven that our lasting memories automatically correlate to how we were feeling during the last thirty seconds of an experience. With this in mind, you always want to leave your youth wanting more of a game. Once you see the excitement building and the fun flowing, start your countdown alerting the youth as to when the game will end. It could be anywhere from a two to a five-minute warning. Be flexible with the actual time passing as you read the emotions and intensity of the gameplay.
You’d be surprised to see how well this works once you’ve mastered the concept of reading the room. Make sure to end things on the emotional crescendo of the game. This will leave your youth wanting more, while your countdown managed the emotions of the kids who maybe weren’t ready for the game to end.
A Closing Note
Game time really can make or break youth group. Games play just as much of an important role as worship, lesson time and small group do in faith formation. Stop putting games on the backburner and start planning them out just as intentionally as you do your weekly large group talk. You’ll be surprised how gaming well opens doors to greater Christian community at youth group.
Bryan Lees is the Director of Youth Ministry at Hope Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia. A Master of Divinity Student at Reformed Theological Seminary Washington D.C., he’s spent the past ten years working with children and youth at various churches and summer camps. When he’s not cheering on his Green Bay Packers or buried in seminary books, he loves hanging out with kids teaching them about Jesus. Bryan infrequently blogs at and you can connect with him on Facebook.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.