When I paused during a session, a young person raised his hand, ‘But, why don’t we have competitions?’ This was during a training for Kids Companions, young JYs who would reach out to children. Among the various things they could do, I had mentioned imparting skills to children. Then we started listing some possible skills. Naturally the discussion went on to skill-related competitions. I said, ‘Competitions have only very limited scope and it can also be damaging.’

For many people, galvanising youth means competitions

The parish committee was discussing what needed to be done for the upcoming Youth Day. ‘Gather youth, have a talk and then arrange competitions. Most of them will not be interested in the talk, but many will come to take part in the contests. And what items? Songs, dance, painting, memory skill, different sports items and so on. Then have prizes for the first, second and third positions.’

This approach is now the time-tested style of youth activities in most places. Many parish youth programmes or youth clubs limit to one form of contest or the other. But why do they focus on competitions in youth ministry?

  • A quick way to gather youth. Skilled youth will come to win prizes; others will gather to watch, especially if the whole thing is interesting.
  • Find the best and train to excel. Competitions help spot and promote talent in specific fields. Many people sharpen their skills only in the pressurised context of a race. Even in the media, for these reasons, contests are gaining popularity.
  • Rather easy to organise. A small team with some preparation, and without much expense, can organise a day for competitions.
  • Good publicity. Many small organisations gain mileage through contests. It is a hassle-free road to attention and gives an impression of productivity.
  • Interesting and eventful. For a youth organisation or for those motivated for youth, a series of contests can keep so many engaged and happy.

When do competitions become damaging? 

In our Sunday school the day of competitions was a big thing. It was a day of great joy when all gathered, many to compete and others to watch the fun. Over time, routine set in, people lost interest and continuing it turned burdensome for the organisers. So the big question is – how can competitions become harmful?

  • They divide and disappoint. In the search for a couple of best singers, many losers are created. All of us are slowly becoming sympathetic to the experience of those rejected and dejected youth.
  • Narrow scales to measure. In a speech competition we rank people on certain rigid standards, indirectly inferring these as best modes of communication, forgetting the myriad simple ways to speak and express ideas. In brief we kill so many approaches and talents.
  • Forget the unique beauty. Each person is special and unique in so many ways. Today there is much talk about different learning styles in children. We are all ‘differently abled’ and contests blind us to that beautiful miracle of God.
  • Build a culture of competition. We speak of ‘healthy competition’, but what is healthy in defeating others? Life need not be ensuring my winning and other’s losing, but it is together living a life of joy and fruitfulness. That is the counterculture of collaboration, cooperation or helping one-another.
  • Undermine love, kindness and community building. A community is ‘varieties of gifts, varieties of service and varieties of working, all for the common good’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:4-7). If we open our eyes to the special gift of everyone and realise that our inadequacies are filled by others, we build community as dreamed by the Lord. The dynamics of competition is against all this.

Not competitions, but growing in love and as community

‘Wrong question,’ Jesus seemed to say when faced with the competitive spirit, ‘who is best among us?’ (Luke 22:24). In the Jesus Youth movement there is no rule against competitions; but for some fun events, there has rarely been contests to determine the best skills. Yet, skills were noticed and groomed to perfection, in an ambience of encouragement, guidance and loving support.

There are organisations created for contests and they should focus on competitions. But many groups think of competitions as a quick way to engage youth. Though we say that competition is to bring out the best in a person, what it often brings out is negativity, such as jealousy, rivalry, discouragement, and groupism. In many groups through a culture of competition or though specific contests, many young ones withdraw in despair, feeling worthlessness and many others wait for a chance to ‘pay back’.

A very interesting aspect of Jesus Youth is there are enough possibilities to compete and fight even without competitions. As its groups are not just ‘passive and pious’ and as there are a lot of challenges to action or mission, a spirit of negative competition can easily creep in. But the saving factor in the movement is its emphasis on interiority, loving fellowship and actual mission. The Jesus Youth know that instead of competitions love of God, good fellowship and challenge to mission can gather youth, help them discover their talents or lead them to mission.

‘No, when JY work with children, competitions needn’t be the main method to impart skills.’ That’s how we concluded the discussion among the Kids Companions. There are numerous skills and ever new ways to train children. Let’s surely use them!      

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