Have we made the church so sterile and serious as to function less or other than God intends? Can the rigidity of a congregation—like that of a wineskin that has dried out and hardened, no longer pliable—ever fully hinder the Spirit from coming in and expanding it with fresh festivity? We wonder why younger generations are increasingly absent from our congregations, and a growing majority find the church irrelevant. Christendom and its long-held assumptions are crumbling before our very eyes as we move into a new era—causing great anxiety among many and raising questions on where we went wrong and what needs changing, if anything. Sacredness and piety, in my opinion, have been misunderstood (and misportrayed) along the way to the point that we many times respond with formality and facade instead of being open to playfulness. Is it perhaps the doing of us on the inside, and not the external culture or those beyond the congregation, that is most threatening to the life and longevity of the church? Considering the nature and necessity of play for the individual’s development, is something to be said of its equal importance for the Christian community? The other day in the monthly Family Systems class I attend we talked about how play shapes the brain and opens the imagination, and what all systems (familial, social, political, religious) are effected by its implementation or absence.
Helmut Thielecke writes: “A church is in a bad way when it banishes laughter from the sanctuary and leaves it to the cabaret, the nightclub and the toastmasters.” Unfortunately, I can say I’ve been in a few churches that were so cold—and I’m not talking about the temperature—that they could’ve been confused for morgues. On the other hand, I’ve also attended churches that seem to just get it—communicating and freely practicing play as part of who they are and what they do. Can this one trait have such an altering impact on the greater whole? It’s so simple, yet vital to the system. Without play, the reason for gathering, worshipping, learning, serving, etc. is lost—zapping the joy within a community of faith and leaving it burdensome on everyone alike. Are you saying what we’re doing here, Pastor, isn’t enjoyable enough for you? No, not at all. What I’m asking is, are we being cognizant and intentional about making playfulness a spiritual practice in everything from the Sunday assembly to our daily vocations? Or, are we pursuing it with the same approach we’ve done evangelism over the past couple hundred years—waiting and hoping for it to finally walk in, not get scared and leave? Don’t make any sudden movements, or you might spook it! Is that which hangs from the vine succulent grapes, or raisins waiting to be boxed? So, what then does playfulness mean here? It’s more than just humor or some appeal to make Sunday Funday. To be playful means flexibility, the ability and willingness to change more than as a last resort, unadulterated joy, an uncoerced desire to engage and participate, disregard of one’s personal image, getting lost in the moment unencumbered by outside problems. It’s what we see in our children when they play hide and go seek, tea party with stuffed animals and imaginary friends, and other games stimulated by a will to be with others.
Playfulness is fundamental to one’s faith formation. In developing one’s imagination and being open to others, we grow in both our theology (how we think and talk about God) and ministry (how we serve our neighbors around us). When we encourage and participate in play, the building blocks are set for practices such as critical thinking and empathy which are core to the life of faith. Pondering the mystery of God and God’s work in the world begins not in a Systematics class, but rather long before that through the eyes and mind of a toddler who envisions how things come into being and function in all kinds of fun and interesting alternative ways. Likewise, learning how to live with and relate to others starts with being in a community where the individual is valued over and above cultural expectations or social standards. The task is not to suppress questions and instill rote mindless behaviors. The church should be serving to help people become more open to who God is, what God is doing, and how we might respond and share in God’s mission for the world. Playfulness breaks down the barriers that prevent this, and renews the vibrance of the community gathered and equipped to meet and care for the world for whom Christ gave his life in love. So how are we being playful in our worship, education, fellowship, interactions with strangers, variety of congregational ministries, daily vocations? Is there room for young voices and fidgety bodies? What’s the response to those who don’t know or follow the particular order engrained in our traditions? Are we more concerned about being prim, proper, and “put together”? How do we accept and affirm amongst us that which is viewed as crude, coarse, and crass? Can we laugh at ourselves, and be honest about our impiety? How might we continue to be open and embracing of the world around us—meeting others with the same grace, love, and playfulness, that God comes to us in Christ Jesus? Let’s play!
– Pastor Andrew