Many youth groups have a simple formula for their meetings: game + lesson, with the occasional pizza order or lock-in.

It’s a centuries old formula dating back to youth ministries out of Ancient Mesopotamia in the time before Christ (not even a little bit true). Really, it’s a formula we use because it’s easy, or it’s what others do, or it’s what we grew up doing.  Sometimes, the occasional rogue leader decides to buck the system and ditch the game for loftier pursuits. I’m not being condescending, I had a period that I tried this very thing. And, it didn’t necessarily work. Here’s why skipping games at youth group can work against your teaching.

The Human Brain…

The  brain, especially during the developmental years, functions differently when the body has been active. Sitting for longer than 20 minutes causes the brain to change it’s physiology; the glucose and oxygen levels drop, both of which fuel the brain’s ability to function. It’s like the brain begins to fall asleep. This will dramatically effect youth’s language development, problem solving, bridging complex concepts and has been linked to decline in independent learning skills and behavioral issues. So all work and no play actually do make Jack a dull boy.

Kinesthetic Learners

Studies show that upwards of 5% of all learners fall into the kinesthetic learning style as their primary type of learning. A larger percent of youth identify as a kinesthetic secondary learning style learner, which means odds are that 1) math is hard and 2)  there is probably have at least one student who needs movement to learn properly in every youth ministry.  These students learn best by moving around and through activity. Simply telling them something or writing it on the white board isn’t enough for them, movement is crucial.  These are the students that may be identified as fidgety or likely the ones with minor behavioral problems.  Playing games before or during a lesson helps them to focus and learn.

Shifting Gears

Breaking up the routine from one long activity to, at the very least, two activities like games and a lesson helps developing brains learn to transition and focus. This has less to do with the spiritual development of the youth and more to do with the physical development of the youth’s brains.  By causing the brain to have to shift gears from games with a set of rules and parameters, or perhaps a leadership or team-building exercise that forces creative problem solving, to engaging in a lesson and discussion on a topic, verse or video actually teaches the brain to be quicker in transition. I know that the job description of the average youth worker probably doesn’t mention helping youth build super-brains, but think of it as a perk.

Burn Off Energy

Especially for your younger teens, it will burn off access energy that would otherwise inhibit their ability to engage fully in a lesson or discussion. I’ve found that with my Jr. High ministries, I HAVE to start with a game if I want focus during my lesson time. Otherwise I find students distracted, fidgeting, talking and throwing/tapping/sliding/kicking things in some sort of instinctual need to be playing a game.  So, I begin all of those meetings with a game or activity that can be highly active for the ones who crave the activity, but also less active for those who are less inclined.  This balance isn’t always easy, and occasionally my older youth ask to play sit-down games, but finding the right game or activity has huge benefits that I can’t ignore as their leader and amateur brain-builder.

Covert Teaching

Games are an opportunity to teach without teaching.  Games are full of structure, rules, and lessons on fair play.  They are also a chance for teens to practice being supportive of one another in a competitive atmosphere.  But games are not the only activity that can be done during that time.  Team building activities do exactly that – build teams.  Ministries that spend time developing their ability to communicate as a group, follow directions, aim for and achieve a goal, and problem solve as a community have a higher rate of bonding, intergroup friendships and deeper connections.  Leadership development activities are great, too.  Developing young leaders is essential in both the evolution of a student ministry and building the Kingdom.  Spending weekly time investing in teens through activity has a high return on that investment, just ask the youth groups of Ancient Mesopotamia (still not true).

Activity has become a staple in youth ministry, and it’s good that it has, because it is incredibly important – so even when it feels like it makes more sense to cut it for music time, longer discussions or nap time (all positive things, too, by the way), consider all the benefits of activity to the health of your teens’ brains, the success of your teachings and the overall energy of your youth ministry!


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About The Author

Kellen is the Youth Minister at Community UMC of Elm Grove and has been serving churches and the community for 10 years, serving the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), the United Church of Christ (UCC) and is currently working with the United Methodist Church (UMC). He majored in Music Education but was called to serve in youth ministry after volunteering to teach Sunday School at his home church. Now Kellen also does youth ministry coaching, speaking and ministry consulting with the AMC Group. In his free time, Kellen enjoys playing ukulele, writing and doing a mediocre job fixing up his house.

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