Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Just a Joke - Four Reasons to End Pranking in Youth Ministry

My day had been terrible. Anxiety seemed to bombard my 17-year-old mind from every angle--family, friends, school, personal insecurities, the works. The only bright point had been the ninety minutes spent with my high school youth group, the one respite of my week. A glimmer of light in an otherwise dreary day, I said goodbye to my church friends with a small smile on my face.

I walked out the front doors of the church into the rainy evening to find my car covered in soggy Cheerios. The smile disappeared. Frustration set in. The sanctuary of this place had now become another environment of stress in an already-difficult day. I began to scoop the mushy cereal off my windshield as the rain continued to pour.

Two friends approached me from behind with sheepish grins on their face.

"Sorry. We thought it would be a funny prank. It was just a joke."

Years later in the college dorms, after a long and difficult day of studying and some relational frustration with another college student, my roommate and I passed out in our beds. We were startled awake by a cacophonous demonic noise filling the room. Frightened and disoriented, I struggled to climb down from the loft bed to find the source, finally hitting the power button on our CD player. Two guys down the hall had a CD that played these horrendous and disturbing noises. Sneaking into others' rooms while they slept, the guys would turn on the CD player with the volume at maximum.

When I confronted the perpetrators, one graciously apologized. The other--a Resident Assistant studying to be a pastor--told me and my roommate to get over it.

"It was just a joke."

Maybe I'm stodgy or conservative in this area, but when it comes to the ministry environments I strive to create as a pastor and spiritual guide to young people, pranking simply doesn't fit. Ever.

Here are four reasons why I believe youth ministry needs to be a "no pranking" zone:

1. Make a bad day worse. In both of my stories, I was already emotionally struggling. The pranks did nothing to brighten my day or offer encouragement. It's the rare case where a prank actually encourages  or builds up the body of Christ. Even a well-intentioned prank can have negative consequences if it inadvertently causes unnecessary pain or stress to the recipient.

2. Isolate or ostracize a student. Nearly all pranks, whether directed towards an individual or a group of people, carry the underlying value of having fun at others' expense. If we are to foster environments and communities defined by love, grace, safety, and acceptance, pranking seems to be opposed to those values. Of course, there are funny pranks that occur between close friends, which is only possible because both parties recognize the irony of having fun at one another's expense in their friendship and can openly forgive grievances. Yet even these have the power to ostracize or dishonor if done in poor taste or timing.

3. Model irresponsibility. Both allowing students to prank one another without consequence and leading the charge in pranking another person/group is modeling something to students. Leaders' actions and attitudes offer a pattern of behavior and values to the people they lead. The RA who chastised us for getting upset by his prank modeled poor leadership, choosing to make excuses and redirect blame rather than take responsibility. Whether we are known as a humble servant or a practical joker, students will follow our lead. I'd prefer the former example to the latter.

4. Disrupt what the Holy Spirit is doing. When students have been experiencing a wonderful evening of worship, just had a healing one-on-one conversation that led to reconciliation, or put their faith and trust in Christ for the first time, a poorly-timed prank has the potential to take a beautiful spiritual moment and derail it. Imagine coming back from the life-transforming small group gathering only to find your house has been toilet-papered by another small group. Or walking back from the worship session at summer camp to your cabin filled with soap bubbles. I don't ever want to come between the Spirit and a student for a brief laugh.

Pranking and environments of love simply don't mix. The potential for something to go wrong far outweighs the potential for a laugh at someone else's expense.

What do you think: agree or disagree about pranking in a youth ministry context?


  1. I completely agree.

    Also, Reason #5:
    As a leader, planning small group nights/group events/meaningful conversation topics and questions takes more than enough time in a week and I feel like planning pranks takes away planning time from more beneficial things. Plus, if the group knows we're doing a prank at the end of the night they're likely to rush though the conversations and activities and whatnot that was intended to be uplifting in order to get to the "fun" part of the night. Pranks serve as a distraction all around.

  2. I am even older, more conservative and stodgier than you! I have seen the negative impacts of pranks many times over and I agree. I do still long to be in a place that is 'fun'...but pranks seem to get in the way of that because it is only fun for one of the two parties involved!

    - Mark Staples

  3. Add to this that our places of ministry need to be *safe* places, and it seems clear to me that pranks never belong.

    I recall being duped by a youth leader into a mime where I was told we were miming one thing and the audience was told another. I so angry it took me a long time to trust that leader again. Is a joke worth losing the trust of your student or leadership team? Ever?