The Black Gong game was something packed away in the back closet of my mind. Years ago, when I was a youth pastor, we (the youth staff I was a part of) devised a game where kids would have to work together to solve a game.
So we divided them into teams with flags (or pennies or bibs, depending upon which Commonwealth you came from) and told them to find 3-5 hidden stations. Complete the task from each station, then they would earn a token. Get all of the tokens, you could ring the Black Gong; the team with the most rings won. However, there would be enemy teams out there. If they pulled you flag (or penny or bib), you couldn’t go to the next station but back to the Black Gong for a refill.
This simple game worked well in the beginning because we were trying to teach kids about small groups and how to work together with people. As well, we needed the kids to run, get chased, and have some kind of engine that drove them around the campus: so we turned the other teams into that impetus.
Originally, the Black Gong was an Aztec metal sundial that used to hang in our family’s cabin. Us kids would play “The Gong Show” with it: we would have one of us perform and act only to be stopped halfway through with the ringing of a gong. We had the idea that everyone on the Gong Show got gonged and the show was steeped in rejection.
So we had this gong and the game and played for years and years and years. Through the evolution, we came up with magical items used to be little aids in playing the game. A committed MMORPGer lifted this from his gaming experiences. In order to lighten the Black Gong, the items were played more absurdity than any real threat.
Added to this insanity was a character called “The Floating Head of Red Death”. He was our intern, David Maust, running through the forest, wearing a devil mask and pulling kids flags. We took it a bit far and, at the end of the night, he was yelling things like, “I’ll steal your soul!!!!!” We had to apologize for that later because it bothered some campers. At the time, it sounded like a fun idea.
So I moved to Canada and took this tradition with me to a nearby summer camp close by to our northern, rural parish. One night, when all of the youth groups in our area were getting together to play the game, Crean Capot (my Jr. High aged next door neighbour) gave me the idea of adding races/tribes to the game. I got mad at him: “Crean, why did you give me an idea that is SO good five minutes before we’re to play this game!?!” Later, I was able to incorporate his idea.
But that is the point: the Black Gong always changes, always can be something new.
Three years ago, I came to Edmonton and became a serious senior pastor. I thought my summer camp days and Black Gong rings were behind me.
Something wonderful then happened. Last fall, the director of Pioneer Camps in Sundre invited me to be the speaker of one of their youngest camps. He asked me, quite off-handed, if I had any ideas for camp games.
So we played the Black Gong again. This time, I was encouraged to tie it into the evening campfire stories. The setting of these stories was a mythical land that was in ruins, the only thing that could heal the land was ringing the Black Gong. When the Black Gong rang, an allegory of the Gospel was told (A mighty king dies and forgives a group of selfish people and then rises from the grave for the purpose of leading anyone to the new kingdom). The game took hold and suddenly words like “missional”, “fellowship”, and “alliances” took on a whole, new meaning.
The groups were cabins, but given races/tribes into this fantasy world. Pirates, elves, monsters, knights, and scientists were all teams. In the campfire stories, the races formed an alliance to ring the Black Gong so this inspired many of the cabins to think that way as well.
My wife helped out with crafts and the campers made their Black Gong costumes, dressing up for the game. My daughters were campers, joining the throng at camp.
The last night of camp was the game. 2 hours for campers ages 6-10 years.
Originally, the Black Gong was going to be a garbage can lid. However, one of the staff members- a Fine Arts Major- found the ring pathetic and wanted it to be a deep, sonorous ring. So he spent the week, on his off hours, building a mammoth construction.
Along with his work, another male cabin leader found a horse’s skull in the woods and painted it, mounting it on a stick. His cabin were the monsters, so they covered their bodies in markings done by ash and paint. He led them to battle with the horse’s skull called, “Gary.”
In a costumed frenzy, the camp waited for the wranglers to bring out the Black Gong on horseback. However, we couldn’t pull off the pageantry because the Gong was way to heavy. So a horse marched out and the construct was gently drug to the center of the camp.
The game began.
Quickly, three of the boy’s cabins found the goal of searching for stations difficult. Some cried. Tire from a full week of camp, the mental gymnastics of pulling flags AND trying to ring the Black Gong was too much.
I snuck up on a parlay in the forest, as three cabins formed an alliance. “Look, we’re just going to pull flags. That’s it! It’s time to be scary!” The boys all cheered. Later, when asked how this worked, a leader shared that the boys no longer were crying or tired: the game was fun again.
This created a big, scary engine for now an army of about 30 monsters were against anyone seeking to ring the Black Gong. Led by a horse skull named Gary, these monsters stomped, charged, and chanted there way through the camp. The boys were great and loved throwing themselves into the role of that camp’s monsters.
My eldest daughter’s group made a couple of alliances with other cabins, all helping each other ring the Gong. They’d communicate to each other where the other stations would be, trading magical items and giving warning where the flag pulling monsters might be hiding.
Some cabins worked by themselves; others jumped from alliance to alliance. Slowly, most of the cabins got four tokens and needed the final fifth station.
We brought back The Floating Head of Red Death, but tamed the character down to just “Red Head”. He originally was going to pull flags and kidnap leaders, but we figured we had way too many villains in the story: so he handed out flags and tokens to cabins struggling with the game.
Red Head sent all of the teams to the last station, a leader hidden deep into the woods of the camp right at the boundary’s edge. I tried spying what this run in looked like, but couldn’t go that deep. All of the camp, I heard, was there, looking for the final station: including the flag pulling monsters.
The scene in my head reminded me of an end to some epic comedy from the 1960’s that ended in a chase or a pie fight, Henry Mancini playing music in the background and Peter Sellers striding around amidst the mayhem.
Five teams got the five tokens and rung the Black Gong, bringing order back to the land of chaos.
The game ended, the campers went to bed, and upon the next morning, their parents came to pick up their kids.
Debriefing the game with the staff, a boy cabin leader shared his frustration: “I got the idea of the game as a living, breathing allegory of the Gospel. We got to share God’s love with everything. Things don’t get better until His story is told. Got it. However, I wish there was a rule stopping people from just pulling flags.
“I had a young cabin. I’d sit them down and they’d cool off. I’d pitch the idea to them about playing the game. They’d agree. We’d stand up to find a station, when all of a sudden a group of monsters would come along and I’d spend 20 minutes trying to get my cabin back from scattering. Then we’d do it over again. We never made it past the first station.”
Sadly, there’s freedom in the game. Sure, we could make all of the cabins work together and seek to ring the Black Gong; but then something would get lost in the discovery of the game. The fun would be lost. There has to be a risk, a choice.
“And,” I explained to the young man. “It’s still an allegory for the church. How many of us know of Christians or whole churches that have given up on God’s mission for their neighbourhood? Instead, they exist to pull other Christian’s flags. They found that sharing God’s love and telling His story was too difficult. Or it didn’t get what they wanted. So instead, they existed in a “for/against” view of Church.”
The boy’s cabin leader was a friend of mine and so when he nodded, I knew her knew of some Christians that sought to only pull people’s flags.
When I reconnected with my girls about camp, the cited that the Black Gong was one of the highlights of the camp. My eldest daughter’s favourite component was forming alliances. “You can’t do these things alone,” she said.
“Other than the game, what was your favourite part?” I asked.
“Oh, the horses. Now if you could play the Black Gong on horseback, that would be amazing.”
 When I worked at a camp in Northern Alberta, we had to change it into “High Science” items. The back story was that these items were recovered from an advanced civilization, but perceived as magic by primitive cultures.
 Example would be the “Horn of Chaos”: whomever blew this, an enemy team would be stuck hopping on one foot while making a raspberry sound. Another example was the “Flask of Hmmmm” which was just a Tupperware with lots of flags (or pennies or bibs).
 Pioneer Camp is a horse camp, otherwise this would need a back story.