How many church members know what paintball is, and how many churches have a paintball ministry?
One answer is families in the Santa Ynez Valley Church in Santa Ynez, Calif., and their church. When members started playing paintball, they had no idea it would turn into the church’s most highly attended outreach ministry.
“About two and a half years ago my sons were wrapping up the school year and we wanted to do something to celebrate,” relates the church’s paintball coordinator Jack Drake. The Drakes decided to play paintball and figured it would be more fun if they got a group of people to join them. After passing out some fliers around school and church, their anticipated group of 15 became a group of 40 who traveled the two hours to the commercial paintball field. They had so much fun that day they decided to make their own paintball field, closer to home.
It wasn’t long before someone in the church had donated a few acres (Santa Ynez Valley Church is “out in the country” in central California) and the recent paintball converts had created their own field of doritos (triangle shaped bunkers), and snakes (bunkers in a snake-like shape) and were playing every other weekend.
When the idea of a paintball ministry was first brought up at a session meeting the session’s response was, “Paintball? Why paintball? “Drake credits Carol Bridgman, the church’s director of children’s ministries, whose own sons are paintball players, with being an early advocate of the ministry. Bridgman’s response to the session was that kids’ interests are changing and the church would need to change with them. As the church, Bridgman said, they need to be involved in what kids want to be involved in, or they are spinning their wheels.
In six months, paintball went from fun activity to outreach ministry.
Sure, the church kids were coming, but they were having so much fun that they were inviting their non-church friends to come too. The outreach component now consists of an opening prayer as well as a snack break and devotion mid-way through the playing day. But more than specific acts, the outreach seeks to provide a wholesome environment for kids to learn a healthy sense of competition along with teamwork. “A lot of kids go to church and hear the gospel but it doesn’t connect and they just don’t get it,” reflects Drake. “But it is different when you are out on the paintball field,” he continues. As much as possible Drake tries to tie paintball into the day’s devotional.
One example is a conversation Drake had with a mom about her son and how he was doing spiritually. She explained that her son seemed to have so many questions and he was not going to take the step of faith until he got all of his questions answered. Drake took the opportunity to address the issue at the next paintball. “Remember when you first started playing paintball?” he asked the players. “You didn’t know what a snake was, or doritos, you didn’t know how a marker worked or how to move around the field,” Drake continued. “Basically, you were clueless, but you still played even though you didn’t have all of your questions answered. That is how it is with the Christian life,” he persisted. “There are lots of questions but what God tells us is to taste and see that the Lord is good — you’ve got to live it to know it!”
When it began, the paintball ministry was just for kids, but it quickly grew. “Early on the kids were playing and the dads were on the sidelines watching,” recalls Drake, “and I could see them on the sidelines going nuts — they wanted to get out there!” So they did. “One of the things that has been exciting is to see how sons and dads have bonded together through paintball,” Drake says. “For some of them they never really spent any time together,” he recounts, “but then they connected through paintball and all of a sudden had something to do together and to talk about.”
Addressing the critique of the shooting and gun element of paintball Drake responds that it is not that connotation at all. He prefers to think of it as a cross between hide and seek, capture the flag and tag, but instead of tagging someone you use a paintball, which is shot not with a gun, but with what is called a marker.
The paintball ministry is presenting the gospel to enthusiasts who would never otherwise step into a church. It is speaking their language and advancing God’s kingdom in a format children, youth, and some adults find exciting. Drake notes that they have 80 people in the paintball group, and that with no advertising, just word of mouth. “We’ve had new people come that knew we were Christians and were worried that they were going to have religion stuffed down their throats,” he says. “But once they’ve come and tried it out, whatever their fears might have been about religion, they don’t even think about it anymore.” That is to the sheer fun of playing paintball, but also to the environment of welcome and teamwork that the group tries to foster.
Drake offers this advice to those considering their own paintball ministries. First, having your own field, close by, is key. That way, he says, you can change the field when you want to, and parents don’t mind dropping off their kids and returning four hours later to pick them up.
The second necessary component, he suggests, is to play regularly. “Kids want to get ready for the next game and they love it,” relates Drake, “and you don’t want to lose that momentum. The Santa Ynez Valley group plays every other week. It’s also important to have variety in the game play so there is always something new.
Drake’s passion for the ministry is contagious, and he says that having someone who loves paintball is important to keep the ministry going. After each play day, Drake updates the team’s Web site with photos, video, and stories of the day’s adventures.
“The church has changed,” he observes. “The church our parents went to is not the reality today. It used to be, you build a church and people came. But that doesn’t happen anymore. So what do you do when people stop coming? You take the church to them!”
Erin Dunigan is a seminary graduate and freelance writer/photographer living in Newport Beach, Calif.