I’ve always been the playful type. Unfortunately my “life is-too-important-to-be-taken-seriously” attitude has not always gone down well. School was a nightmare. And of course, the stereotype for ministers of religion wants to confine me to seriousness.
Nonetheless, I choose to keep playing. We are all explorers. I must pursue adventure my own way, even if it sometimes lands me in trouble. So when Chris Barnett pulled out the party-poppers at our workshop on inter-generational worship, he had my full attention.
It was a great day at Tatura UCA as about 45 church leaders from our own congregations and across the north-east came together to learn both the theory and practice of making worship meaningful and accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.
Chris had all the tips and tricks. He explained to us that intergenerational was not just about children, not just about what we do and not something that just happens. But he kept us waiting for when we could fire off our party-popper!
The definitions were serious and academic sounding, which is good because it’s a lot easier to justify having fun if you can refer someone to an academic.
Neuroscience has said for some time that play and a playful attitude are not just enjoyable, they’re an essential ingredient of good mental health. So it’s good to have the theologians on board too.
For most of us “play” is the opposite of “work”. But psychiatrist Dr Stuart Brown says, “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.” Dr Brown has spent decades taking “play histories” from patients, after discerning its absence when studying a group of homicidal young men. He believes that play is essential to brain development. “Nothing,” he says, “lights up the brain like play.”
We know this instinctively when it comes to bringing up children. But research shows that adults need to play, and be playful, too. Prioritising it might seem frivolous ; surely we should be more concerned with the problems and injustices of our world! But problems need creative solutions. What if play could help us find them? What if play was one of them?
We are too easily convinced we’re too busy to play. Our culture values busyness – it is how we measure goodness. In the old days people distinguished between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor along religious lines; these days politicians differentiate in terms of productivity: “jobseekers”, “the hardworking poor”, “hardworking families” – busyness has replaced godliness, but the new language is just as unhelpful as the old.
“What all play has in common,” Brown says, “is that it offers a sense of engagement and pleasure, takes the player out of a sense of time and place, and the experience of doing it is more important than the outcome.” Now hang on, that sounds like as good definition of worship.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. It’s absolutely imperative that we reintegrate children back into our gathered worship. It’s absolutely imperative that we all rediscover the sense of wonder, surprise and playfulness of God and the wondrous child within us all. This may take time, it may be messy, but we’ve got to do it.
This is the gospel, and it’s good news.
Brian Spencer, Minister,