Some of us have fond memories of ‘playing church’ when a group of us little kids found ourselves together. One child would be appointed ‘pastor’ while the rest sat in the ‘pews’ during the ‘sermon’ (which was usually more dramatic than coherent), a few Sunday School songs would be sung, the ‘ushers’ would take the ‘collection’ and the ‘pastor’ would say a blessing. It was all done with great seriousness, and the grownups who witnessed this must have thought it was all very ‘cute.’
Sometimes adults also indulge in ‘playing church’ – and then it’s not so cute!
Our play as children was an essential part of our growing up: it is how our little minds explored the conventions and expectations of the adult world and how we practiced the skills of organization and relationship that our grown-up lives would require. But, by its very definition, play has no concrete objective. When children play such games they begin with the words “let’s pretend” and all of the energy is directed towards play-acting the form of the experience, not grasping its essence.
What was missing from our childhood games of church was a sense of the deeper purpose which was being accomplished. Certainly, we knew that adults gathered to ‘worship God’ but it was assumed that this was somehow achieved by the proper performance of the prescribed activities. We came together in our games of church to play our imagined roles, not to experience the transcendence of being in relationship with our Almighty God, which is truly the heart of worship.
No one can argue that Jesus doesn’t have a special place in His heart for children and their uncomplicated trust (Matthew 18:2-4) and He undoubtedly takes joy in their innocent play. However, we should not delude ourselves that He finds it amusing when childish attitudes and behaviors find their way into the life of the church. Yet, sadly, that is often the case when we find church members squabbling like children with differing ideas of how to play a game.
We ‘play at church’ when we forget why we are doing what we do. Unlike a child’s game which is organized by mutual consent for the enjoyment of the participants, the Church exists only to serve the purposes of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who directed us to “make disciples of all nations.” That is a command with both an inward and an outward thrust. Most people understand the importance of the outward thrust and support it with varying degrees of enthusiasm – there is a feeling of satisfaction that comes with believing that we are ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of others. But the inward aspects of disciple building are often less-well appreciated, and typically much less popular – to strip away our delusions of self-importance and grow ever more like Him. Like children at play, we may become preoccupied with enhancing our personal roles, and miss that true service to Christ begins with self-renunciation and humility – an attitude that He characterized as being “the slaves of all” (Mark 10:43-45).
Play is intrinsically selfish. When there is not a personal payoff of satisfaction, a child (or adult) will walk away. That reaction is so universal that we have an expression for it: “picking up your marbles and going home.” But that kind of behavior in the church is exactly opposed to the example of our Lord and Savior who sacrificially bore the sins of others. Unlike the child’s whine that “it’s unfair” when others get their way over ours, we are instructed that: “this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly” (1 Peter 2:19). Those underlined words “mindful of God” represent the critical distinction between ‘playing church’ and being the Church doing the work of the Lord. Children negotiate their play-time roles for the personal gratification of the moment, but spiritually mature disciples of the Lord, confident in the eternal joy assured by His sacrifice on Calvary, are willing to bear the cross of others in the present. It is then that our own personal preferences recede, and our attitudes and actions truly reflect our prayer that: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.” When our heart is set on serving Him above all else we stop playing at church and truly ARE His Church!
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)