Providing Innocent Laughter

Originally published April 15, 2011.

Innocent laughter is when someone, preferably the teens whom we love, breaks out in giggles and joy from something simple.  Not contrived laughter.  Not schemed laughter.  Just simple laughter that happens when there is safety and relationships.

This frivolity of fun is a part of youth ministry.  Yes, it is not one of those more spiritual parts.  Or is it?  I believe providing a place for innocent laughter is an important part of youth ministry.  So much so that it must be planned.

 My youth group is a service project type of youth group.  When we do events, they are most often of service to others.  It is not I who is the task-master of the schedule because these decisions come from the teens.  The parents and I normally follow their leading (as well as do most of the detailed planning).  Over the winter I noticed a weariness in the teens so I planned a purely fun event which was a multimedia scavenger hunt at one of the Smithsonians.  I had no other goal than to do this fun together (of course, together meant parents and teens).

Attendance was high. And yes, we did “race” through a Smithsonian art museum with permission. What a joyful memory we now have.  I remember most the innocent laughter from hearing everyone tell and retell their stories of finding the clues.

I was reminded of this recent memory when I read a blog about what we can learn from teens who have graduated from youth ministry.  One former teen listed his takeaways and one of them was Game Nights.  To quote, “Sometimes its fun to come to youth group and just play games all night. It helps us become better friends with everyone in the group because a strong community is so important in a youth group. The games don’t have to be complex; games like Mafia, Catchphrase and Telephone can be used whether you have a large or small youth group.”  Source.

Would you have guess that something so “unspiritual” would be so memorable?  Did you know that the most popular search word used by youth workers is “games?”

Games together make memories and memory-making is one of the more important parts of youth ministry according to us at Wild Frontier.  We have often said, “If youth have no important memories of their faith, of the church, of an experience with God, of worship, or of spiritual feelings, they will find themselves in a faith vacuum as young adults.”

This next statement may at first sound stupid and obvious but still ponder it.  It’s okay for teens to have fun.  We’ve all read the culture news of high-stressed teens and teens growing up too fast.  One area of ministry we can serve is to provide innocent laughter.  Game times are just as important as the mission trip.

This doesn’t mean you have to open up every youth meeting with a crowdbreaker game.  Some youth groups do that and it works well for them.  This simply means to plan fun into your youth ministry.  Yes, often innocent laughter just happens when you are all together.  It is the outcome of ministry.  Every mission trip has many memories of innocent laughter.  But as a leader, also plan for times of such fun.

Nick Shore is the head of research at MTV.  From his presentation of his ongoing study entitled “The Millennial Edge,” he noted that Millennials have grown up with reality programming (much of it on MTV, including The Real World and even Jersey Shore). Having grown up with it, do teens even know what reality is anymore?  What is reality, what is hyper-reality, and what is actually scripted content? As a result he says there’s an untapped need for something absolute. As Shore noted, “There’s a real hunger for authenticity. Millennials crave something unequivocally real.”  Source.

Games are not scripted.  This is where the innocent laughter gets a footing.  Games are unequivocally real because the outcome is not controlled (other than safety).  Who else is offering this?  Yes, your youth ministry is a real place.  Games provide something unscripted which takes it to a different level.  Just about everything else led in youth ministry is somewhat scripted.

You also are not competing with the world at providing entertainment for teens.  The world will always be flashier and offer more thrills than you can ever try or afford.  Besides do our teens need to be entertained even more?  Hard question:  Does the youth ministry entertain?  Games are not entertainment.  Games require involvement.  No one gets to sit on the sidelines.  Movement is required.  Touching objects and people are required.  This is not entertainment but involvement.  And innocent laughter.

The games I’m referring to are not competition.  Our teens are weary from competition in the rest of their lives.  Choose games that put everyone on equal footing and watch what happens.  Listen for the innocent laughter.  See pure joy on their faces.

Beware of cheesy games.  As the graduated teen noted, he preferred the simple games of Mafia and Catchphrase.  There is nothing cheesy about a multimedia scavenger hunt in a Smithsonian.  Many zoos are offering overnight stays for groups.  With your creativity you can come up with some pretty cool game activity.  Also beware of games that make one person the target for the laughter.  That may not be so funny to that person and that person’s friends (and parents if they are involved in your youth ministry).

Games are not evangelism.  Attractional youth ministry or old-school youth ministry often involved games or some other fun event (inflatable samurai wrestling or all the pizza-you-can-eat, anyone?) that had a gospel presentation offered at the end.  What has come to be known as bait-and-switch.  This has not worked effectively.  I know there are stories of salvations and testimonies of now grown-teens who are still serving God.  But overall, this is not the best evangelism method for youth ministry.  (My opinion for best evangelism method:  actually teaching Bible with open-ended methods so teens have a safe place to wrestle their faith issues.)

Don’t do games because parents are putting pressure on you to socialize their kids for them.  It’s natural for Christian parents to want a safe environment for their kids to meet one another.  Don’t fight this as being unspiritual.  It is a real need from parents.  And socializing teens can be done over Bible studies with open-ended methods, servant projects, as well as games.

Parents aren’t off the hook here either.  Get parents involved.  Who said games are just for teens?  What a great way to get teens and parents moving together.  And touching objects and touching each other.  It would be good for teens to hear their parents have innocent laughter too.

I love this quote from Rick Lawrence in Group (December/November 2010), “Teenagers live in an ‘alone in a crowd’ culture that offers a surface version of connectedness, but very few ‘I see you well’ connections.”  May this be a goal we set for all that we do in youth ministry.  Fun and games provide such “I see you well” connections.  And that’s not so frivolous.