One of the more difficult parts about being "church" during those odd times of the year, when there's no major holiday around and the weather just doesn't support being outside, is finding ways to bring everyone together. Since fellowship is one of the key functions of a congregation, you need to have things to do. Many congregations schedule meals. Some even schedule shared viewings of important sporting events or movies, often mixed with missions projects and virtually always involving food. I've yet to hear of a congregation willing to host a high-energy lock-in for everyone willing to be there, but I'm sure you're out there somewhere.
As a committed nerd - or maybe one who needs to be committed - I really enjoy a program that I used to call "table games night." Many people play table games, particularly when it's dark or they cannot give out, but if can sometimes be difficult to find a large enough group to play cards or some boxed games on a regular basis. If you can schedule a time to do that together, you might find an event that is relatively easy to facilitate, involves people of multiple ages, and brings together people who you never thought would even talk to each other. Entire dissertations have been written on how play can affect a congregation's life, and although they may be the most profoundly interesting and important documents ever produced by humankind, you probably don't need to spend a lot of time dwelling on why it's good for people to play together. That should be obvious. Since it is, here are a couple of lists of things you might want to know if you are thinking about hosting a table games night for your congregation. Please bear in mind that there are some basic things you should bear in mind about all congregational events, so I'll not go into them here. Let's assume that you have somehow convinced a segment of your population that a "Table Games Night" is a good idea and you've gotten all your food, promotion, and information ready. Here are some things to do when the night comes:
- Pray first and very strongly bring emphasize that ours is a God of mystery, imagination, and fun. Building community is a critical church function and it helps when people understand that. One of the worst things that can happen when a congregation or group gets together in this way is that someone shows up with the warped idea that the event is about "winning." The only "win" to be gained here is the time you get to share with other people; the things you will discover; and the unique opportunity to set some burdens down and just "be" for a little while. If that is not enough for some people, they should be helped to understand that this my not be the event for them.
- Try to provide a variety of games, but don't empty the gaming cabinet every time you get together. Instead, rotate games through, keeping the favorites, and introducing new potential favorites. This requires some people who know the rules very well, and it helps to have a digest of the rules at the table with every given game, just in case. If you're going fully inter-generational, you may also want to consider games that allow people to move and make a lot of noise - hopefully in a different area. Either way you , understand that games have participation limits and suggested ages for a reason.
- Try to work out some cooperative way for games to end early, lest you have people wanting to do something that drags on and never allows them an opening to participate. Some turn-based games work well with a "5-minute rule," where if you have multiple groups playing the same thing and one group finishes, a 5-minute warning is called out and the other groups playing have to end at the conclusion of whatever turn is in progress after that time. It could frustrate people who are new to it and kill some of their good vibe if you do this with games that are different, but if you have split sessions of the SAME game, that ought to be fine, especially if this is spelled out in advance.
- Have a definite end point to the night which you announce in advance. That is something that people can easily respect and takes the "arbiter of who plays when" role (and thus some measure of blame) off of you. You may have to announce it quite loudly, and provide an advance warning, but however you do it, be sure that you have included time for cleaning up and saying goodbye. No one wants to be left alone to clean up, or be forced to be the only one putting the game away while others are doing their leave-taking, so it should be part of the festivities.
- Many people will tend to congregate around games that they already love or people who they already know well. While this is fine, you can often gain more for everyone if you can encourage them to stretch their horizons in that regard. You might consider a random draw for some games, where everyone's name is placed into a hopper and drawn to fill the table slots for a given game. This helps push interaction in a "game-like" way. You might also have a game or two that take a more serious time commitment, with everyone understanding that playing them will consume their night and limit their chance to try other things. Such games do not do so well with a lot of outside disruption, though.
- Have at least one "ref" to help groups decide questions and explain rules. There should be no games used for which at least one person does not know the rules, and having a couple of leaders who can forego the strong temptation to play with everyone else and just be wandering "problem-solvers" goes a long way toward making the time special for others.. It also helps prevent players from getting too contentious if they can't work something out quickly, which could, again, break the essential good-feeling of the event.
- Place a very high premium on both emotional safety and the gaming materials (and with a lot of people that can be the same thing). Fun and enthusiasm is good. Over-aggression, hurt-feelings, breakage, and other things that could occur when certain parties get a bit too into their game are not. Great care needs to be taken with this. Also, unless you're a very avid game-collector or have a great activities budget, there's a good chance that you will end up using other people's property, and it needs to be respected as such. Part of the fun of gaming is being able to repeat the experience and/or share it with others, so work hard to ensure that the experience is not traumatic.
- As part of the previous point, keep liquids and sticky things FAR away from gaming tables - particularly for expensive adult games. Accidents happen. Say this to yourself at least five times, then get a tattoo that says this before playing games in public. You may still have an issue with this, but at least it won't be a surprise. People should respect all the things that they own in this regard, but as a practical matter, this speaks to the need for monitoring who has food and drink and where it can go. Another practical concern along this line: where possible, avoid using games that have many small or easily breakable pieces that can get swallowed, fall on the floor, be spilled upon, have someone bend them, and experience other disasters.
One more thing.... if you decide to do this and things go well, think about the long-term implications. You may want to do it again, so plan for how you will implement the things you learn as you go. Some small groups might decide that they really like playing certain games together, or want to play some games that cannot be played within the constraints of your activity, so you might want to help them organize a bit. I'm not so great at softball anymore, but if there are some churches in my community looking to form euchre leagues, "I'm your huckleberry." Some people might not be able to get out and socialize anymore, but could enjoy a visit from a couple of people toting a familiar favorite game, so look for some ways to set that up. If you'r every fortunate, you may have some generous "gaming geeks" in your congregation who are willing to share their gifts with the congregation, and possibly even lead people in creating new games or new ways of playing old ones. If it gives them a constructive ministry, find a way to help them make it happen!
Bad weather and low energy do not have to sap the fellowship life of your congregation, and table games are making a comeback. If nothing else the fact that there are now businesses being set up to give people a place to play ought to alert us all to a need for this kind of fellowship among a segment of society that you may not be reaching. Check your selves for the games you love to play. Isn't it about time you loved to play them with someone else?