Updated: Mar 31
Growing up, I remember always finding the games that we did in youth ministry pretty lame. I understood why they were there - to try to make our youth ministry events feel more accessible to non-Christians & to get them engaged, but I had a hard time believing that they actually served that purpose. If my non-Christian friends simply wanted entertainment, they could find a lot better outlets that a youth ministry event. And even though there may now be much better youth ministry games out there than those that we played in my youth, Gen Z also has a lot more secular options for entertainment and socializing (and not just unwholesome ones). This puts youth ministries that lean on fun as a tool for outreach are in a competition that is mentally exhausting and difficult to win.
As fun becomes an increasingly less useful tool for outreach to Gen Z, youth ministries need to consider utilizing other options for low-barrier engagement with non-Christians. Let's consider a few reasons why the Arts can serve as a useful alternative for outreach to unchurched youth.
Even more than Millennials, Gen Z has a strong preference for experiences that feel authentic and personal (see their preference for social media influencers over traditional celebrities). Works of art created by youth in your ministry, although they may not be as polished (or accurate) as the videos or curriculum that can be purchased or made by church professional, can speak much more powerfully because they feel real and because they reflect the people who created them. Moreover, when asked by the creators if they will attend an event, they will feel much more obliged to come check it out, since turning down the offer would entail turning down something personal to their friends and not merely an event that their friends are going to.
Very few games are going to excite youth enough to invite their friends to a youth event, despite what youth leaders may hope. However, when youth have their creative work (whether it's a video or visual art or poem) incorporated into a youth ministry event, you can be sure that they'll be much more motivated to tell others about what's going on and want them to come.
Art can create space for non-Christians to see the life of faith in a different light, preventing them from writing it off too quickly.
Whereas games generally have little if any actual connection to the ideas or themes we may want to pursue through youth ministry (and if they do, they generally feel stretched and weak), Art can easily be selected with thematic considerations in mind. That being said, it's important to not turn the Art you use in ministry into a mere illustration of a message or moral. Ideally, Art that's integrated with the ideas or themes of a youth ministry event should have space to explore those themes from different angles, even angles that may not jive perfectly with what you may want to say. This will prevent the Art from feeling like inauthentic propaganda and provide a sense of depth and openness to your youth ministry, making it clear to non-Christians that you take ideas seriously and are not simply trying to brainwash them.
4) Beauty & Transcendence
As a result of smartphones, social media, streaming, and video games, Gen Z has an inordinate amount of its attention taken up by content that is superficial and lacks any sense of permanence or transcendence. When youth ministries lean too heavily on silly games, they play into the vapid aspects of our culture. The Arts provide an opportunity to offer youth an experience of slowing down and meditatively enjoying and reflecting on objects of value and beauty. Although this may initially feel weird for some non-Christians, in a culture that is filled with emptiness, weird is good - and can be surprisingly attractive, if done well.
5) Subverting Stereotypes
Popular culture has come to stereotype Christians with a variety of qualities that are unflattering, to say the least. Among these, there's a tendency to depict Christians as being narrow-minded Philistines who have no bandwidth for artistic, moral, or intellectual complexity. By intentionally and prominently offering experiences that run contrary to these stereotypes, youth ministries can begin creating a different reputation for the church with relation to the Arts.
6) Inviting Imaginative Experimentation
If you offer an apologetic argument for the faith, people will see what you're doing and very quickly raise their mental defenses. On the other hand, if you illuminate what it's like to believe through a work of art, you create a space for people to engage in an imaginative experiment exploring what it would be like to be a Christian or person of faith. This is particularly valuable because, for many people, the primary obstacle to faith aren't intellectual barriers (these can often be overcome once the will to learn is present) but rather personal and emotional barriers. Based on popular stereotypes, faith can seem foreign, unlivable, miserable. But Art can create space for non-Christians to see the life of faith in a different light, preventing them from writing it off too quickly.
Looking for some resources and ideas on how to incorporate the arts and adaptation into your youth ministry? Here are some other posts that I've done that you might find useful:
Youth Ministry and the Arts
Exploring the Chosen with Youth [Guides for Youth Leaders]
Episode 1 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Lilith, and the Redeemer
Episode 2 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, and Shabbat
Episode 3 Guide: Depicting Jesus in Art, Film, and TV
Episode 4 Guide: When Jesus Met Simon (Peter)
Episode 5 Guide: Mary, Mother of Jesus
Episode 6 Guide: Jesus, Shmuel, & the Pharisees
Episode 7 Guide: Did Nicodemus Follow Jesus?
Episode 8 Guide: The Woman at the Well, Eden, & Zohara