The importance of playing—not just praying—together

By Rev. Laura Stephens Reed

Recently, I was talking with a pastor whose congregation has weathered the pandemic as well as any church I know. There have been no significant conflicts. The pastor has felt her people’s grace when she has made mistakes navigating new technology. The congregation has welcomed new worshipers and found innovative and COVID-safe ways to serve its larger community. Church members have stayed connected with one another as well as to the pastor.

What made all of this possible under such difficult circumstances? Simply put: It is play. The congregation was accustomed to playing together before COVID-19 hit, and they discovered new ways of enjoying each other’s company while online and physically distanced. Here’s why that spirit of play is essential:

Rev. Laura Stephens Reed

Playing together breeds creativity. When we can relax our bodies and our thoughts, we make space for new ideas. This reality is proven by neuroscience. Anxiety shuts down imagination in an effort to focus all of our resources on survival. When we smile or laugh or appreciate the beauty in something or someone, our limbic loops unlock and free us up to consider more possibilities. 

Playing together develops flexibility. Play is at root experimentation. Whether we are playing a sport, a board game, or make-believe, if we’re painting or writing, or if we’re telling a story or a joke, we’re constantly trying something out and seeing what happens. If we like the result, we repeat the action. If not, we attempt a different approach next time. Play, then, ingrains in us the belief that it is perfectly fine to change course when needed.

Playing together builds relationships. Most sanctuaries are designed so that worshipers all face the pulpit and cannot see one another very well. That reflects how many congregations operate: The pastor is the hub through which all substantive interactions flow. That puts a lot of pressure on the pastor and limits community development within and beyond the church. If a congregation plays together, though, participants get to know each other better on their own terms.

Playing together deepens trust. All of the pluses of play mentioned above contribute to trust, possibly the most important factor in a congregation’s effectiveness. Trust is the human-to-human reflection of our faith in the God who made us all and without it, we are subject to the grip of gossip, bullying, perfectionism and unhelpful assumptions. But if we can enjoy one another’s company, experiment together, and see and value those around us, we can build a bedrock of trust to which we can always return in tough times.

Fun, in other words, can have very serious benefits. And if you need further convincing, look no farther than scripture. Jesus loved to eat with friends and strangers. He told and listened to stories. He chose to value people and spend time with them, even the unlikely candidates. He even turned water into wine to keep the wedding party going in Cana!

How, then, might your congregation play together? There are so many possibilities, even if we (please no) need to return to physical distancing. For example, I recently coached a pastor on turning her report at the church’s annual meeting into a game of Charades, with key ideas from her report as the words and phrases to be acted out. (She handed out a written report as well; but she knew her people would retain much more from the game.) 

In the past. I have divided up my youth group at a local Target, given each segment a child’s wish list and a gift card, and challenged them to put together the best possible Christmas stocking for that child. I have converted a church’s mission statement into a Mad Lib, which resulted in a lot of laughs as well as better understanding and retention of the actual mission statement. I build some sort of game, puzzle or icebreaker into every congregational conversation I facilitate, because the discussion takes on a whole different tenor when I do.

Other congregations I know try on other ways of playing. They plan churchwide board game nights. They invite people to meet up for outdoor community concerts. They observe Holy Humor Sunday on the second Sunday of Easter, a longtime Christian tradition in which picnics and parties celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. They have birthday parties for the church on Pentecost. 

They organize sports teams and storytelling festivals and arts cafes and painting nights. They offer the ministry of Godly Play to invite children into wondering about and interacting with Bible stories. And, of course, many churches center play around eating together (a personal favorite!). 

I encourage your church to consider what kinds of play might work best in your context. You might have the capacity for a big event, or you might need something that is lower maintenance. Either is great. The key is to simply spend interactive time together in ways that have no agenda. And if your first attempt flops, no worries. As mentioned before, part of play is innovating, seeing what works, and adjusting accordingly. 

COVID continues, even though it is now less of a threat. The possibility remains that we will all be thrown for one loop or another. Play, though, will ready us to adapt and to stay connected with and give one another grace when that happens. Because, as my pastor friend whose church has played throughout the pandemic said, “Play is training for the unexpected.”

Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of fellowship! magazine. Check out the issue and subscribe for free at www.cbf.net/fellowship.

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