In Defense of “Fun and Games”: The Importance of the Unspiritual
One of my favorite critics (of my own work) is a guy who criticizes my embrace of a basic youth ministry principle that I call the Importance of the Unspiritual:
[bctt tweet=”Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is something un-spiritual.” username=”ys_scoop”]
In some ways, it’s a principle I would criticize myself because I’m not sure, in a broader sense, that anything is unspiritual. I wholeheartedly affirm Abraham Kuyper’s dictum that “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” So, to that extent, everything is spiritual.
But, when I talk about the Importance of the Unspiritual it’s my way of affirming that youth ministry takes place even in those programming spaces that don’t explicitly mention “Jesus”, or “God”, or don’t involve Bible study or worship. In other words, as much as youth ministry thinkers seem to like to dismiss and deride “fun and games” and “water balloon fights”, I’m convinced they can have a place in a serious, missional youth ministry. Certainly, a youth ministry that is solely, or even principally, “fun and games” is a ministry out of balance. That’s a menu of all sweets and no meats, and that’s not a ministry diet that will nourish mature disciples.
But, the question my critic raises is this…
Can we really claim to take a biblical approach to youth ministry when we invite teenagers to meet Jesus by inviting them to pizza parties? Can we really embrace a mission to make disciples by inviting kids to come and play laser tag? In the words of my friend and critic, “Isn’t the core of Jesus’ message, ‘Come unto me’ – and not, ‘Come and play laser tag, come and ski, come and eat pizza?’”
Let me say, first of all, the strength of this question is that it takes us to a core issue of ministry: how does this approach look when we examine it under the bright light of God’s Word? Every ministry methodology and activity, regardless of how well-intentioned it is, must be measured by that standard. Secondly, one of the strengths of this question is that it reminds us that methodology does matter. The ends do not justify the means. Having a good, clear ministry intention is no excuse for ministry activities that reflect poorly on the Name of Christ. It’s my brother’s commitment to these core issues that lead me to embrace him as a friend, and respect him as a co-laborer even though he finds strong disagreement with some of my writings.
On the other hand, at the heart of these questions is a flawed understanding of communication. In particular, my friend ignores, I think, what communication theorists affirm as a basic fact of communication: the audience is sovereign. Now, again, in a broader sense, we wll understand that God is sovereign. But, we also understand that this sovereign God allows us to make free choices. What that means, in essence, is that it isn’t enough to have a message and a messenger; there has to be a willing receiver. And as human beings, our receivers are badly damaged (cf Romans 1).
One of the most telling passages in C.S.Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia comes midway through The Magician’s Nephew when, for the first time, we hear Aslan’s voice – not so much speaking as singing. In the midst of the mystery and the delight, as Aslan awakens plants and animals with his song, there is one who is hiding at a distance.
“Ever since the animals had first appeared, Uncle Andrew had been shrinking further and further back into the thicket. He watched them very hard of course; but he wasn‘t really interested in seeing what they were doing, only in seeing whether they were going to make a rush at him. Like the Witch, he was dreadfully practical. He simply didn‘t notice that Aslan was choosing one pair out of every kind of beasts. All he saw, or thought he saw, was a lot of dangerous wild animals walking vaguely about. And he kept on wondering why the other animals didn‘t run away from the big Lion.
“When the great moment came and the Beasts spoke, he missed the whole point; for a rather interesting reason [DR note: pay attention here]. When the Lion had first begun singing, long ago when it was still quite dark, he had realized that the noise was a song. And he had disliked the song very much. It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel.”1
The great challenge in effective youth ministry, particularly if we really are serious about reaching students who are not believers, teenagers who are unchurched and not friendly to a Christian worldview, is that some of our students simply don’t want to hear what we have to say. Sometime that’s because we make “them think and feel things (they do) not want to think and feel.” Sometimes it’s because they come to us with preconceived notions about God. Sometimes its because they have preconceived notions about those of us who talk about God. As C.S. Lewis points out
“… what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.”2
The primary task of persuasive communication – and effective youth ministry surely must entail persuasive communication (cf. 2 Cor 5: 11) – is to break through the listener’s unwillingness to hear. For a lot of teenagers out there – kids who never come to our youth groups or programs, it’s not enough to simply offer Christ’s invitation to “Come unto me”, because what they hear in that invitation is not the voice of the Shepherd seeking lost sheep, but the voice of the Sheriff looking for fugitives he can hunt down. We see this vividly in the attitude of Uncle Andrew:
“And the longer and more beautifully the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Asian‘s song. Soon he couldn‘t have heard anything else even if he had wanted to. And when at last the Lion spoke and said, ‘Narnia awake,‘ he didn‘t hear any words: he heard only a snarl.”
A lot of us know kids like Uncle Andrew.
A lot of us were kids like Uncle Andrew! And a lot of those Uncle Andrew-kids who aren’t willing to come to Jesus, might be willing to come and play paint ball or attend a lock-in or spend a day at the climbing gym or come to a pizza party. And it may be that a “yes” to that invitation will help us to draw them close enough so that, in time, they can hear the invitation of Jesus. Our task in trying to reach unchurched teenagers is to help students overcome that reluctance – to get our students to the point where they can hear the song instead of the snarl.
It doesn’t matter what we say if we can’t get them to listen. We do “unspiritual” activities for the same reason that mission hospitals practice medicine, and agricultural missions run drip irrigation projects, and churches host Mother’s Morning Out programs. We want to bring teenagers within the reach of our embrace so that we can love them into the arms of God. And, frankly, I’m not sure we take that challenge seriously.
That certainly doesn’t mean that every ministry has to offer pizza parties and laser tag and “fun and games”. I’m not arguing for any particular activity. In fact, I would readily agree that some activities – even though they might draw a crowd – are activities that distract students from Jesus even if they attract students to youth group. We’ve already said biblical youth ministries cannot simply point to the ends to justify the means (cf. 2 Corinthians 4: 2-7, 1 Thessalonians 2: 3-6).
How we engage with any particular students who choose to hide from Aslan’s song will depend very much on those students we’re trying to reach, their interests, their needs, their particular life context, and where they’re hiding. We would expect that fishing for men (cf. Luke 5: 10) would require different types of lures and casts, just as it does when fishing for fish. It might just as well be a tutoring program or a robotics club or a sports team, as a pizza party and “fun and games”.
But I want to affirm that we need to own the responsibility of finding a way to earn the opportunity for engagement with those kids. No one is saying Jesus is unattractive. What I am saying is that we may need to use some activity – yeah, even fun and games – to bring students out of “hiding” so that they will come close enough to see Him. This is not inviting teenagers to pizza parties instead of inviting them to Jesus. This is inviting teenagers to pizza parties so we can invite them to Jesus.
And I don’t even like pizza.
For more information on targeted programming, see BUILDING A YOUTH MINISTRY TO BUILD DISCIPLES, Duffy Robbins, Zondervan (2012)
1Lewis, C.S., The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Collier Books) 1955, pp. 125-126.
2Ibid., p. 125.
Dr. Duffy Robbins, professor of youth ministry at Eastern University, is a youth ministry veteran with more than 40 years of experience. He speaks around the world to teenagers and people who care about teenagers. Duffy serves as a teaching pastor at Faithbridge Church, and his conversational style has made him a popular speaker. He’s the author of numerous books, including his latest, Building a Youth Ministry That Builds Disciples.