Extending ministries

A Game for the Gospel

How an EFCA youth leader’s creativity would unite youth groups across the country.

Pastor Steve Otey watched his youth group from a distance and noticed something. Every week, the same kids played foursquare, the same kids played volleyball and the same kids played basketball, but they rarely intermingled. He wanted to bring them together, but he wasn’t sure how to do it. Little did he know, God was already at work in the situation and would use him in to creatively extend gospel ministries through his leadership in the local church. 

Steve was called into ministry in high school when he went to a youth ministry conference in Fort Collins, Colorado. At the time, his senior pastor, youth pastor and several others had been praying that he would answer God’s call into youth ministry. When he told them he felt God’s call, and later found out they had been praying for that, he said with a laugh, “I feel like I’m the last to know.”  

He pursued ministry training at Greenville University in southern Illinois and served in several internships before becoming a youth pastor in southern Wisconsin. He pastored there for four years, and saw God grow the youth ministry from 12 students to 80 students, before being called to become youth pastor at First Free Church in Manchester, Missouri.  

As he entered this new role, he wanted to move away from the consumer model of youth ministry and cultivate a space that empowers students to lead, participate and contribute. To do that, Steve developed student leadership teams, student prayer teams, included students in giving announcements and reading Scripture and expanded existing ministries of high school students serving middle school students. 

Little did he know, God was already at work in the situation and would use him in to creatively extend gospel ministries through his leadership in the local church.

“It’s about making sure there are opportunities for students to grow spiritually and plug in and not just show up to check the box. It’s something that is transformative. Their relationship with Jesus is impacting their every day,” he said.  

As he built relationships with the volunteers and watched the rhythms and routines of ministry, he noticed they had established a culture of creativity and would also lead their own games. The students would play the typical games, like basketball, volleyball and foursquare, but would also play their own games. The volunteers developed several versions of ultimate frisbee; one of the most popular was called “iceberg ultimate,” where players throw lettuce instead of frisbees.  

Another game they played was called “milk jug lacrosse.” You take a regular milk jug, cut off the bottom and then use that to catch the ball. In addition, they’d offer many well-known walk-up games, like gaga ball and carpet ball, where students could quickly and easily enter the game. He found walk-up games were the most effective for building relationships, because you could have conversations while you’re standing in line.  

A new game to bring the students together 

Despite the games and the culture of creativity, Steve still noticed a divide within the student body and wanted to bridge the gap. The solution eluded him until the youth group's traditional fall kickoff event. Every year, they would invest a significant amount of money on inflatables for the event, but after the party was over, they didn’t see a return on that investment.  

“It was a fun event, but other than pictures, you didn’t have a lot to show for it,” Steve said.  

Steve wanted to unite the youth group while also improving their outreach. He just needed the right idea to make it work. So, he started to develop ideas on how to change the ministry for the better.  

“It’s about making sure there are opportunities for students to grow spiritually and plug in and not just show up to check the box. It’s something that is transformative. Their relationship with Jesus is impacting their every day,” he said.

He considered the games the students played regularly. One popular game was “Knockout.” Students would stand in a line in front of a basketball hoop at the free throw line. Player one shoots at the free throw line, but if that player misses, they must get the rebound before the player behind them (player two) shoots and scores. If player two successfully shoots a basket, player one is out of the game. Player two goes to the back of the line. Repeat.  

Then he considered the line leading up to volleyball and nine square. There was always a single player elimination line in those games as well. So he asked himself, what if I combined the two games? What if I took the nine square grid that’s on the ground and raised it up? What if that worked? And that was how he came up with the idea of 9 Square in the Air. Inspired by this new idea, he looked around for whatever he could use to build it.  

Eventually, he found himself in a home center, looking for materials to make the project come alive. He decided to use PVC pipe for the frame. Piece by piece, he built the structure that would eventually become a well-known party game on church lawns.  

“Generation one was held together by prayer and duct tape,” he said. “It was kind of like, I hope this doesn’t fall on anybody.” 

The unveiling 

The night he unveiled the new game, he didn’t have to work hard to convince students to play it. He brought out a group of 15 students at first and explained the basic rules, most of which he took from the grounded version of nine square. Within ten minutes, all the students were playing the game, forming a long line. Even students who didn’t play games joined the line. No one was playing the other games. And when the parents came to pick up their kids, they joined the line, too. 

“I saw conversations happen that usually don’t, conversations between parents and students and youth leaders. And the kids who didn’t talk to each other were talking to each other. And I thought, ‘Wow, we’re going to do this again.’” 

The first version of 9 Square in the Air at First Free Church.

Significant popularity 

As Steve and his team continued to introduce the game week after week, students never tired of the game. It retained its popularity. But, after a month, they gave it a break and didn't bring out the game. The students pushed back; they wanted to have it available every week. It suddenly dawned on him that he had invented a successful game.  

The word quickly spread. Steve received multiple calls and requests for it within weeks of their first use of the game. Pastors, physical education teachers and camp staff asked him if he could make the game structure for them. Now, the game turned into a viable business opportunity.  

He approached one of the elders of the church, who also happened to be a patent lawyer, and asked him if he should patent the idea. They researched whether or not something like it had been invented.  Only one other business had a similar product, but they never brought it to market.  

While he pursued a patent, he also worked on building more sets for other groups. At first, he simply bought more PVC pipe (this time with the appropriate PVC connections, not duct tape), drilled the holes, sanded the printing on the pipe and shipped the sets. As the business grew, he found manufacturers to produce the materials for him.  

Ministry impact 

Meanwhile, Steve saw how it had a gospel impact on his youth group. Students would invite their friends to church to come and play the game. As more students came to the youth group, more had an opportunity to hear the gospel. Steve credits the game’s ability to bring people together and develop relationships.  

They also used it as an effective outreach tool to attract students to their youth group. On one occasion, they put together a tournament for the students. They found this tournament drew at least 25% of the visitors to the youth group. With that kind of impact, he hosted more tournaments.  

“We saw it was a good ministry tool, but also a good community building tool. It just brings people together,” Steve said.  

Students playing 9 Square in the Air in Kazahkstan.
Students playing 9 Square in the Air in Kazahkstan.

After many years as the youth pastor at First Free, Steve felt God was calling him elsewhere. He resigned his position in 2019 to start Engage Family Ministries, a non-profit that helps churches and families, and also continued growing his 9 Square in the Air business.  

Since its inception, 9 Square in the Air has expanded to 25,000 youth organizations, including schools, camps, churches, military bases, the YMCA and Disney. It's also been to 20 countries around the world, from Mexico and Scotland to Australia and Japan. Churches and missionaries have brought the game overseas to help break down language barriers and open opportunities to share the gospel. Steve estimates over three million people play 9 Square in the Air each year.  

Student from Africa playing 9 Square in the Air.

Steve used his creative thinking to solve the problem of bringing his students together. But God used it in much larger and more significant ways, helping extend gospel ministries in his youth ministry and later, countless youth ministries across the country and around the world. 

“God took this way further than I ever could have imagined,” Steve said. “We hear from youth pastors all the time about how great of an outreach tool it is, and how it is helping to make their ministries more welcoming and engaging places for teens.” 

Today, Steve leads a staff of 8 employees, many of whom were former students of his youth ministry, youth leaders and parents. He also leads his non-profit and has returned to ministry part-time as an associate pastor at Wellspring Family Church (EFCA) in St. Louis, Missouri.  

How can you bring glory to God by thinking creatively about solving problems in your context? 

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