Nerf or Nothing

I have been involved with leading youth ministries for fourteen years.   I have taught a lot of different lessons, led multiple mission trips, and I might be finally getting too old for lock-ins.   Over the course of those years I have tried a lot of things.  Some have worked well and others have crashed and burned hard.   However of all the different ideas and events I have tried, there is one that stands out as the most fun, the most popular, and the most effective:  the nerf lock-in.   If you do not like staying up late or you do not think anything good happens after 1:00 A.M., then this idea can be adapted into a day event or even a long evening.   It is my hope that this guide can communicate to you what this event is, why it is worth doing, and how to do it.   

What it is

            This event is one that seeks to bring the video games the students play to life using nerf darts and blasters.   Churches have unique architecture, large spaces, multiple entrances, and several rooms so they are perfectly suited for this kind of event.   This event works especially well with junior high students, but even upperclassmen really get into it.   For a lot of students this kind of event is ultimate wish fulfillment.  On multiple occasions, they had dreamed of a large scale nerf battle and this gives it to them.  In my experience, one of the strengths of this event is that it appeals to both genders equally.    The students who come to the event have instant buy-in and a high level of engagement.  This makes it very easy to pivot from a nerf based game to a lesson that uses the game as a teaching point very easy.   This high level of engagement helps make the teachable moments stick and have a greater impact.  

How to Play

            One of the things we learned after the first year, is that many of the students will already have a large arsenal of nerf blasters they are more than willing to share.  Set a day and time, then invite people to come bringing their arsenals.  Just to ensure everyone was provided equipment, the youth ministry had a handful of blasters on hand to lend out to anyone who needed one (or if a student had one break during the course of playing).  

            After establishing basic decency rules and boundaries the games would begin.   Over the years we attempted multiple different game types.  The one that never worked very well was two flag capture the flag.  One game type we used regularly came from the video game Gears of War.  This is a team elimination match.  When a player was hit by a dart they were out and had to sit down.   However, if a team mate tagged them they were back in the game. 

            The best game mode was “Attack and Defend” and it was the one that we usually used as the object lesson.  This is a popular game mode found in Counterstrike, Rainbow Six, and Call of Duty (called Sabotage in Call of Duty).  In this game mode one team had a “bomb” (an alarm clock) set in one of multiple pre-designated rooms.  The alarm would be set for ten minutes from the game start.  The defending team’s goal was to defend the clock until the alarm went off.   The attacking team would often start outside the building, breach inside, attempt to find the objective, and turn it off.   To up the tension, students were eliminated when hit by a dart.  These rules laid the groundwork for experiences that re-created the rush and exhilaration that students get from playing video games. 

The Lessons

            For several years I did this as an annual event, and each time I used the nerf games to teach a deeper point.   For instance, the attack and defend game was used as a teaching point for Ephesians 6:1-10.  In that section on the spiritual armor there is an emphasis on standing one’s ground.  We led the youth in an honest and convicting discussion on media choices and on how without thinking about we concede ground in those areas very easily.   The students had just experienced the importance of standing firm when pressured to retreat in the game, so it made for instantly relatable examples that they could find a deeper application for. 

            On a couple of different instances we also used this as a teaching point for the scriptures on the body of Christ.   One year, we added special roles like the medic, radio operator, and engineer.   These special roles added a different dynamic to the game.  When we later talked about how there are different roles in the body of Christ that are necessary to complete the mission and ministry of the church, the students could instantly relate that back to the game.   Another year, we taught the same scripture with a different spin.  That year we allowed the students to use whatever nerf blasters they wanted, but each blaster was worth a set amount of points.  The students with the better equipment cost more points to draft onto a team than others.  However, as the game played out it worked out that those cheaper-point value players were just as valuable to the team’s success as their big guns.  This illuminated very well 1 Corinthians 12:22, “On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” 

Logistical Considerations

            As I stated of all the events I have done, these were the highlights of the students.  In general I do feel the experience did create an atmosphere that helped the more important spiritual point stick better than an average youth group lesson.    If you consider doing this kind of event, here are some final odds and ends to consider:

1.   You will need to buy a lot of darts.   It works best if the ministry supplies the darts, that way the students do not worry about retrieving their own.  They are not terribly expensive and can be ordered in packs of 100.   For our biggest event we had about fifty youth participate and we had over 1,000 darts on hand.  

2.   Consider carefully what the boundaries in the building will be.  After each game it is important to pause and pick up darts.  However, you will never get them all and they will be found for months afterwards.  For instance, the church had a pre-school so I let the director know that her teachers might be finding darts in odd places.   We also did not use the sanctuary to respect that space.  

3.   Nerf darts are safe and do not hurt.  However, the fear of elimination still adds tension.  The only way that a nerf dart can hurt someone is if it hits them right in the eye.   It is a rare occurrence, but requiring safety glasses or goggles is an easy fix to prevent accidents. 

4.  Because nerf does not hit hard like a paintball, one of the downsides is that a student that is hit may not feel it.  One of the biggest drags to these events was the inevitable arguing. Usually students were fairly agreeable, but as the night went on this always became a bigger problem.  Someone would claim they were not hit, while someone else would say they would.  Typically to prevent arguments we defaulted to the attacker calling if they hit or not.  This was problematic because there tended to be at least one student who assumed they never miss and would call hits while the dart was still in the air.  For this reason I highly recommend adult referees.  These referees will be able to observe and confirm what happened and help keep the arguing to a minimum. 

5.  Finally, remember the lesson is the point.  The students will get really into the night and it will be a lot of fun.  However, all of the fun is meant to serve a greater purpose.  When planning this evening the majority of the effort, preparation, and prayer should be in the lesson planning. 

If you try this out in your youth ministry, I would love to hear how it goes.  As I said, this event has always been a great success for me and I hope you find it works well for you too. 

Playing Stories as a Family

The Kobayashi Maru