my latest middle school ministry column for youthworker journal is online. i wrote about the importance and value of fun. and while it’s a middle school ministry column, the application, i believe, is broader than that.
Because the theme of this issue of YouthWorker is Best Games, I thought I’d use this space to address the issue of fun. It’s pretty much impossible to stay in young teen ministry for more than a few weeks without having at least some willingness to have fun. The most serious and Bible-focused middle school leader needs to add some fun as a value.
Fun is a God thing. God is the Inventor of fun, the One who designed the sensation of the tickle and created our mouths to turn up into smiles involuntarily. One might say, with some theological accuracy, God invented the “accidentally blowing Cherry Coke through your nostrils when caught off guard by something hilarious” response.
We often unintentionally teach a heresy about fun: that it’s all well and good, but isn’t actually spiritual. Fun is our non-formal curriculum when we say, “OK, we played that game, and it was fun; but now it’s time to get serious and turn to the Word of God.”
Fun is one of the last words most people would use to describe Christ-followers. It’s probably fair to say fun would be a weak ministry value if it were your only one; but let’s all stop apologizing and add fun with theological conviction to the vibe we desire in our youth ministries.
I have to believe Jesus and His boys laughed their heads off at times, especially after Andrew snorted and shot goat’s milk out his nose.
Fun is a cultural value and youth culture value. There’s no question that having fun is a high value to teenagers. We’re called as missionaries to bring a contextualized gospel to the world of teens. Because fun isn’t a value that’s antithetical to the gospel, let’s at least start with the assumption that it’s morally neutral, effectively used for good or evil, and can be experienced in a way that aligns with or diminishes God’s intent for our lives.
Of course, there are plenty of ways fun can be destructive. All lesser-funs are a bastardization of fun, resulting in the diminishment of a person God dearly loves.
When we don’t embrace fun as a value, middle schoolers subconsciously think, “This place doesn’t line up with what is normal and valuable to me; so this place isn’t a good fit for me.”
Fun engages teenagers. We can’t hope to play a role in connecting middle schoolers with the love of Jesus unless we first engage them. You don’t shape a young teen’s life simply by being in the same room.
Great engagement comes in lots of forms: offering genuine belonging, listening, asking questions, connecting with various senses. However, fun is at least one of those engagement tools in our kit. Attempted fun or forced fun can be lame; so there’s clearly a fine line to walk here. Fun can provide an avenue for engagement when the most proactive conversational approach falls flat in a pile of good intent.
Fun lowers defenses. You know you have middle schoolers who are naturally defensive to connecting with you or your middle school ministry program. That’s particularly true if they’re visitors, or for some other reason don’t feel a sense of connection and identification with the group.
Fun, though (particularly laughter) unfolds the arms, relaxes the tensed muscles and helps a defensive posture melt away. This really is a physical issue—defensiveness is a mindset with an accompanying muscle tightening. Fun, when it’s only observed, can cause a mindset change that naturally results in forgetting to hold the muscles clenched.
Fun fosters community. One can have fun when alone, but the best fun is usually a shared experience. That sort of concurrent fun amplifies the fun for all involved and plants seeds of community.
When you boil it down, community begins and is sustained by shared experiences. Allow fun to be a regular aspect of communal life. A word of caution: Community-building fun must be inclusive; carefully guard against exclusive fun that leaves some out.
Fun creates memories. A major part of any community (and the identity formation that comes with it) is shared memories. Those communal remembrances are major fodder for sustained life together.
Of course, it’s great if some of those memories are of tender times, times of overcoming adversity or of an intense shared experience of God. Shared memories of fun can fill in the gaps to create a full portfolio of stories worth retelling, stories that say something about who we are together.
Fun decreases differences. I suppose this reality is complementary to the “fun fosters community” reality, but in our current context, youth culture has splintered into hundreds or thousands of cultures (new in the past 10 to 15 years). That means every youth ministry is a multi-cultural (unless your youth group is three home-schoolers from the same family).
One of our greatest goals in youth ministry should be the creation of a new kingdom culture that supersedes the many cultures represented in the population of your middle school ministry. I’ve found three things that act as kerosene on the fire of decreasing cultural differences: serving together, worshipping together and having fun together. We tend to elevate the first two above the latter as they seem more spiritual, but remember: Fun is a God thing.