If youth ministry is really “ministry,” should we bother with time to plan activities that are “just for fun”? Yes . . . and no.

Fun activities are essential in youth ministry . . . but they need to be the RIGHT fun activities. There are several reasons why we do fun activities, but one of the most important reasons is that they do a great job of building community among students. What builds community? Well, a lot of things, but here are a few:

1. Communities of teenagers have shared experiences. The students in my group love to tell the story of almost being killed by a tornado that swept across Florida while we were on an “amazing race” last summer. It really wasn’t as life-threatening as they make out, but the winds did get scary enough for us to take shelter in a truck stop. The story is important because it is an experience they share.

2. Communities have shared stories. One youth group I worked with used to go to this retreat center that had a cemetery beside it. Once while we were walking through the cemetery, one of the middle schoolers asked me why one of the headstones had a carved dog on top. Honestly, I had no idea, but I made up a story about how the guy buried there had a faithful dog that tried to save him from a fire. The dog failed, and was so damaged that friends decided he should remain with his master. “What you see here is not a replica of the dog, but the actual dog encased in concrete,” I concluded. While the students decided I had a worse sense of humor than they had realized, the story became a defining myth of our ministry. Every time we went back to the retreat center, they insisted we go to the tombstone and I tell the story again.

3. Communities have inside jokes. Some time ago, I started calling all the students in our youth ministry “Charlie.” We even did a T-shirt once that said our church was a place where we call you by your name–“and your name is Charlie.” When I call one of the kids Charlie and a guest tries to figure out why, they explain, “It’s just a thing with our group. Go with it.”

So, what fun activities are NOT the right kind? The kind that don’t build community. Take students to an amusement park and let them run off to ride roller-coasters with their friends from school. Meet together to eat supper. Then, meet to go home. Was it fun? Yes. Did it build community? Not likely. I’m not saying don’t do amusement parks; I’m saying make sure any activity you do gives kids an opportunity to connect with each other.