In the past three weeks I have worked on three different youth ministry curricula, one of for our Metropolis summer camp, the others for mini-retreats in Romania. Regardless their context or language each of the dozen or so lessons that I have prepared have something very important in common-they begin not with someone talking at a group of young people, but with kids participating in an ice-breaker.
Ice-breakers are those sometimes silly, often high energy games that break down the walls between people. One hundred campers are told to group up with everyone who shares their birth month. Cabins race against each other to find items on their persons that represent all letters of the alphabet. A circle of 20 persons tries to count to 100, substituting the word "buzz" for all numbers that are multiples of five and "fizz" for those that can be divided by seven. (Guess what happens with "35?")
These activities do something far more essential than warm up a crowd. They make us laugh, very often at ourselves. Fun is an essential component of religious education. We can explain this in psychological, anthropological, and Biblical terms.
We learn both cognitively and affectively, that is both with our logical left brain and our emotive right brain. Memorization of multiplication tables is more of left brain task, quitting nail-biting more affective. Games activate our affective side so that we can enter into an activity as more than half a person. Lectures appeal more to our left than our right brains, which probably explains why so many persons are left unchanged by lectures. Faith develops both through our reason and our heart. Ice-breakers don't just warm up a group, they warm up our hearts.
Orthodox Christian anthropology affirms this reality. We define prayer as a descent with our mind into our heart, so that we might encounter God. We subordinate our minds to our heart, but we don't throw reason out the window. In fact, true spirituality depends on our reason (mind) and our heart. Orthodoxy rejects both the feelings based "faith" advocated by many contemporary Christians (have you checked your spiritual barometer today?) and the hyper-rationality of the smug preachers of the "Jesus myth." There's nothing like a good game of Buzz-Fizz gone awry to warm up both sides of our brain while simultaneously surrendering our minds to our hearts.
Jesus explains the necessity of being more than left brained simply and succinctly: "Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it" (Mark 10:15). Children know how to play and have innocent fun, a comportment 180 degrees out of phase with the Pharisee's stoic pomposity.
One of the mistakes that I made as a young priest was not allowing enough time for frivolity when developing programs. Fizzled events that emphasize cognitive learning and ignore the role of ice-breakers, games, and sing-a-longs provide cruel lessons to inexperienced retreat masters. Nowadays I would never plan any youth event that didn't have several "fun" components.
Grown-up programs need fun too. I can't imagine organizing an adult retreat that lacked time devoted to a light-hearted game or too. This brings me to the main point that I want to make.
We Orthodox are far too serious. We count our "Kyrie Eleisons" like a bank teller balancing her till. We stand to speak at Parish Assemblies with brows furrowed and voices filled with stridency. We greet each other not with a holy kiss but with tortured grimaces.
It's no wonder that so many parishes are spiritually atrophied-we've all but numbed our hearts. In all of our strategic planning and committee meetings we've forgotten the most important bottom line, "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it."
Parish Councils -- adjourn early and go out to dinner together. High School Sunday School teachers -- put away The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church and buy a book of group games. Choirs and chanters -- remember Psalm 66:2, when we take the joy out all that is left is noise..
I know that life can be burdensome, filling us with preoccupations and angst. But I can't believe that we live in more difficult times than those who endured the plague and the brutal invasion of foreign enemies. And yes, we need clergy, lay-leaders, and congregants that are sober and dedicated. But we need to remember the lessons learned the hard way by youth ministry pro's too.
Fun is not a four letter word.
Rev. Aris P. Metrakos is the pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He is frequent retreat leader and speaker for both teens and adults. Prior to attending seminary, Fr. Aris was an aviator for the US Navy. He travels annually to Romania to help the Romanian Orthodox Church establish ministries for Romanian youth. You can contact Fr. Aris at FrMetrakos@orthodoxytoday.org.