Confession. My favorite nights in youth ministry—the nights I feel most satisfied and faithful in my vocational calling—have nothing to do with the devotion or message. Don’t get me wrong—it’s great to see youth make a connection with what Jesus says in the Gospels and to see their identity become more rooted in Christ. And I love it when youth reveal the depths of their hearts in their prayers to the Triune God of grace. These are all wonderful movements of the Spirit in our ministries which should be treasured.
For me personally though, the nights I go to bed content come from the moments of hard play in a pick-up basketball game of 21 or three-on-three. It comes from the nights we laugh and play together. It is in these nights I am convinced the Spirit is moving in new ways, drawing us into the vision of a creation being renewed.
For on those nights when we play, it’s not simply the gifted athletes on the floor. It’s for everyone who simply enjoys the act of playing the game… It’s in these moments where I see the kingdom of God made present in an act of grace, as we let go of the identities formed by what we do, and simply celebrate who God has made us to be.
At this point it would probably be good to clarify a couple of details to push back against current stereotypes of youth ministry. This isn’t the confessional rambling of a youth minister who sees youth ministry as primarily a time to entertain youth with fun and games. Nor do I see youth ministry as a stepping stone to something greater—I am a 15 year youth ministry veteran. And in high school my shots on goal went wide left or right more often than they ever went in the net, so neither is this coming from a “has-been” athlete trying to live vicariously in the present.
Fun. Play. Both have fallen on hard times in the church recently.
They have become easy scapegoats, due in part to the study released by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, which revealed that churches and youth ministries were not so good at making disciples. While on the surface it appeared youth ministry was successful with its ability at attract large crowds of teenagers on a regular basis with its pizza nights, games, and entertaining worship venues, it resulted in cultivating moral therapeutic deists, not Christians.
In other words, youth ministry was great at making Christian consumers…not so great at forming Christian disciples.
Smith and Denton’s study has resulted in some much needed rethinking of how we go about forming youth ministries in churches. This conversation needs to continue. But I am convinced play and fun must be seen as quintessential elements to a healthy church ministry and not obstacles hindering youths’ and adults’ engagement with God.
One of most renowned theologians of the twentieth century is Jürgen Moltmann. A prolific writer, he has written dozens of books over the life of his career—The Crucified God is probably his most well known work. My favorite book of his though is a little more obscure. It’s entitled Theology of Play. It’s unfortunately no longer in print and currently goes on Amazon for over $100 used. In Theology of Play, Moltmann makes the case for play as an essential Christian faith practice. And not only is it an essential Christian faith practice—play is an essential characteristic of God. In his book, Moltmann uses play to critique the way capitalism forms us existentially. He argues capitalism reduces our humanity to one’s sense of purpose, goals to achieve. One becomes known by what he or she does; what she or he achieves in life.
Moltmann challenges the reader to see that an identity derived only from one’s sense of purpose actually comes into conflict with some foundational beliefs of Christianity. He writes, “Life which is made meaningful by purposes and goals must find the vision of heaven terrible, since that vision only invites infinite and purposeless boredom.”1 Identity based on what we do is in many ways antithetical to God’s story.
What we do becomes an idol by which we understand who we are existentially.
This is a system youth are all too familiar with. It’s a game they know how to play.
In fifteen years of youth ministry I have watched it happen over and over. Youth—particularly early in middle school—are still willing to try a new activity or risk not looking like the all-star athlete when playing a game they enjoy. However, by high school, the script has flipped. Youth know there is an idolized image. They know they gain social acceptance and build an identity based on what they are good at. And by the end of high school, youth have a tendency to stick with those activities where they can be seen as a success and not a failure. Whether they enjoy the activity doesn’t necessarily matter.
Instead of creating a meaningful life through the discovery of our sense of purpose, Moltmann advocates for freedom—and play as the praxis which leads to freedom—as the key to a meaningful life. Moltmann writes, “Being aware of God is an art and—if the term may be permitted—a noble game.”2 Play is a practice by which one comes to know God.
Perhaps the most prophetic statement and underutilized scripture passage in the Old Testament for today’s consumer/merit society comes from the Exodus narrative when Moses learns God’s name: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). It is an identity not based on the merit of what God has done, or will do in the future. It’s a proclamation for the value of life itself, regardless of one has achieved.
Play is not an accessory to ministry—notice I said ministry; adults need to time to play too—but an essential practice for it. Brené Brown argues play is necessary if we are to live “wholehearted” lives. She cites psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown as she writes, “… [Stuart] Brown explains that play shapes our brain, helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups, and is at the core of creativity and innovation.”3 We risk much in our continued sacrifices to the twin gods of “productivity” and “success.”
This is why some of the best nights for me in youth ministry come from dribbling a ball, passing it around, and laughing at the humorous moments—of which their are plenty. For on those nights when we play, it’s not simply the gifted athletes on the floor. It’s for everyone who simply enjoys the act of playing the game. It’s the musicians, the academically inclined, the tall, the short, the actors, the part-time workers, all of us coming together to play. To simply enjoy our time together. It’s in these moments where I see the kingdom of God made present in an act of grace, as we let go of the identities formed by what we do, and simply celebrate who God has made us to be.
1. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Play (New York: HarperCollins, 1972), 34.
2. Moltmann, Theology of Play, 27.
3. Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing, 2010), 100.
Rev. Seth M. Vopat is a writer and American Baptist ordained member of the clergy who currently works as an associate pastor in the Kansas City area. He is an M.Div. graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary and has a certificate in Youth & Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. His Twitter feed is @svopat.