“Games don’t work.”

That’s what he told me. Yes, he was a little dogmatic, but he wasn’t inexperienced. He actually led a ministry that was effectively reaching young people in his community. Teenagers gathered from all over the area, made decisions for Christ, and grew in their faith… no games required.

“Teenagers don’t want to play games!” He contended.

It’s funny how often people’s worldview is myopic in nature. This is what I’ve seen, so it must be true everywhere.

A plane flight across the country and I met with another youth leader who swore by games (which is better than swearing while playing games). “I’ve got kids coming from rival gangs, laughing and throwing marshmallows at each other.” For this ministry, games were an opportunity for young people to let loose and have fun in a positive way, something they rarely experienced in their world. This ministry was impacting the community in a mighty way, changing lives for Christ… with the help of games.

So which is it? Do games help ministry… or hinder it?

Let’s be honest. Sometimes the youth ministry world gets scared of certain practices or methodologies because of the stigma they carry. Yes, some of us may have witnessed ministries that were nothing more than “fun and games” and yielded very little fruit. But should these examples “blacklist” games for everyone? Should we throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater?

What if we discover games to be a very effective ministry tool?

The fact is, games can be a very helpful means to an end when they aren’t just “the end.” Here are four ways to use games to be far more effective than just “fun and games.”

1. Use Games to Break Down Walls
When I was in my first year of youth ministry I borrowed a game book from a longtime youth worker, and the book was titled, “Icebreakers.” That term truly defined exactly what I used those games for. I was reaching a group of kids who didn’t go to church at all, but I met them on campus and invited them to hang out in the gym with us after school. The “icebreakers” we played usually got kids laughing, relaxing and being themselves. The games loosened up the tension that anyone was feeling and opened the door to the next way games can help…

2. Use Games to Connect
Games and fun activities can be a very effective arena where we get to know kids better. Think about it. If you’ve ever got into the mix and interacted with kids during games, my guess is you can remember some fun bonding moments. I can recall countless times where I was standing side-by-side with a teenagers, dodgeballs in hand, planning our plot to ambush the other side; or crawling through the brush in black of night with a cabin full of young men, plotting to seize the other team’s flag. Those are the bonding moments kids often mention later. Those are the building blocks to future connections and meaningful conversations.

3. Use Games to Springboard a Discussion
Games don’t always need to have a point, but sometimes games or activities are great discussion launchers. For example, if you used DYM’s helpful four-week parenting series, Parenting Teens with Smartphones, you’ll notice we kick off the discussion each week with a fun activity that also introduces the subject. Like Week One with the game, “Name that Tech.” That fun PowerPoint game provides a great segue to the next subject, with this transition: “Sometimes it proves difficult for parents to keep up with all the technology our kids enjoy…”

But games don’t always have to kick off discussion…

4. Use Games for Good Clean Fun and Fellowship (because what’s wrong with that?)
I think today’s youth workers feel the pressure to provide a lesson for everything. If we serve pizza, we force an object lesson (“Just like Moses crossed the red sea, so these Pepperonis will cross into our mouths…”). In a world where kids have abundant unhealthy options on any given weeknight… don’t feel guilty about providing an occasional activity for the pure fun of it.

No, our entire ministry probably shouldn’t be so focused on fun that young people are never introduced to Jesus or challenged in their faith. Fun and games are far more effective as an icebreaker, a connection point, or a discussion starter. But games are also fun… don’t be afraid of that.

What about you? How have you used games and activities as a tool in your ministry?