Published at Youthworker Online (A part of Youthworker Journal)
Read the online article here
I hate messy games. All of them. Messy games, gross games, crud wars, I hate all of it. It’s certainly a personal preference and belief, and I do not look down on my colleagues who engage with these kind of games and activities, but you won’t catch me leading one of these activities anytime soon (at least I hope). My problem with messy games is certainly based on personal preference, personality and experience, but there is more to it than that. So here are the seven reasons besides my own personal preference that I hade messy games.
#1 They are mess to clean up and can be unsafe. Youth ministry requires a lot of time and effort on the part of staff and volunteers. While we should be open to any task no matter how large or small, I am not sure the best use of our time is cleaning up messy games. I could have a conversation with a high school student about their calling or pray with a middle school youth instead of cleaning up chocolate sauce. These games can also be unsafe, whether it is the risk of choking on marshmallow bunnies or having an allergic food reaction, there is often a risk with these games that we do not think about.
#2 They are not edifying. Sure messy games are fun, but are they edifying? While I might enjoy slamming a student’s face with a rotten banana, rarely have I seen a messy or gross game or activity that edified. In fact, many of them embarrass. While not everything we do in youth ministry is or has to be edifying, I think it’s worth considering. The nature of living in community and the sarcastic tone of many youth groups bring enough challenge to edification that I am not convinced messy games are worth another.
#3 They leave out certain youth out. Realistically our students care a little too much about their clothing, but if we are playing messy games and a student is wearing a $100 pair of jeans and the $50 shirt that their parents worked four jobs to give them (just so they did not have to feel guilty about never being around) we instantly leave that student out (put their relationship with their parents at risk-or better yet, OUR relationship with their parents). These games also leave out youth who might get sick from these games and those with food and other allergies. I know that I have a hard enough time getting my youth to play games that won’t hurt or ruin their clothes. Sure, almost every game could exclude a youth, but shouldn’t we make our best effort not to do that? The more we leave youth out of games and other activities, the more we become one more place in their life where they cannot fit in.
#4 More often than not, they waste resources. While contradiction is a part of life and great for creating tension that incites learning, messy games can be too great a contradiction. One week we spend hundreds of dollars on supplies (food etc) that we use to smear all over each other and just a week later we are off to a third world country to serve people that receives less food in a month than we just wasted in the annual crud war. While I am sure Jesus’ disciples wasted some food after a meal, I doubt that the abuse of resources (again food in particular) fits in the Kingdom narrative. The idea that a messy game might help a kid come to Jesus is fine, but as my youth ministry professor, Duffy Robbins was fond of saying; ‘what you win them with is what you win them to.’ Is Jesus a fun, unpredictable, easy-going God? I sure hope so, however I am not sure that Jesus would prefer we waste $500 on an ice cream fight instead of using $500 to supply a homeless shelter with food for a week.
#5 They are immature. Youth workers hate that word, and for good reason. Misunderstanding often leads others to see youth ministry (as well as youth and youth workers) as immature. I recognize my own immaturity and accept it. That said, there is immaturity that makes sense in youth ministry (being playful, childlike etc) and immaturity that does not make sense (dating youth, car surfing etc). I would argue that most messy games fall in the immaturity-that-does-not-make-sense category. While messy games are fun, they are often more obnoxious than they are childlike. While immaturity is good from time to time, it should not be the primary mode of operation for our youth ministries. While adult maturity is overrated, a mature faith is not.
#6 They do not portray a healthy image of youth ministry. This point may be redundant in light of the other reasons, however it’s not a point that I would want to miss either. There is so little that is healthy about our culture and the church today. With the changing nature of adolescence and the challenges that youth ministries across the North America face, ministry health is not ideal, it is essential. Creating an emotionally safe environment for youth and their parents builds the kind of trust that is necessary to lead the parents and youth of your church and community. While messy games usually end in a good laugh, they do nothing sustainable to create health in your ministry. Youth ministries must not look perfect, but they must be healthy enough that those who are sick would find healing rather than more illness.
#7 They are not rooted in theological reflection. Youth ministry must be a theological enterprise. Ministry leadership born out of personality, giftedness, program or philosophy alone is shallow. Everything that we say and do should have a theological basis, even though all human theology is imperfect. It is difficult to find a strong theological basis for messy games and activities. Having fun, relaxing, and letting go are all valuable and I believe that the promise of abundant life includes enjoyment, but messy games are not critical to enjoyment. If our theology is that messy games will bring students to Jesus, then I would suggest we need to reexamine our understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. If we are winning our kids to a Jesus who comes in the form of a 43 year old man trying to eat pudding and bananas through a stocking as a version of practical theology, then perhaps we need to spend some more time living in the scriptures.
I respect those who use messy, gross games and activities as a part of their ministry. While I personally do not enjoy or support these kind of activities, I believe we are called to work together in the midst of the diversity that exists in the kingdom of God. I would suggest however that we use discernment and caution before making messy games a staple of our ministries.
Rev. Marcus J Carlson has worked with children and youth for over 14 years and is a spiritual director. He current serves as Associate Pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, CO. (marcusjcarlson.com).