Thinking Out Loud

July 28, 2012

Playing Church

Have you ever watched a group of children playing “school,” or do you remember playing the game yourself? Kids may say they hate school, but interest in this game usually intensifies in mid-July, and the same kids who were chanting, ‘No more teachers, no more books…’ just a few weeks previously find themselves engrossed in a complete reconstruction of the educational process.

The teacher plays the role perfectly. There’s instruction, discipline and a test to see if the students are learning. The students also turn in a flawless performance. But wait! Now somebody else wants to play the part of the teacher. The roles have been exchanged and the new ‘teacher’ is even better than the last. These kids have never been to teachers’ college; where did they learn the teacher’s role so well?

It has been said that of all the occupations available to young people, the job of schoolteacher is the most self-perpetuating. This means that the teacher’s activities receive constant exposure and we gain a full understanding of what teaching entails without being formally trained to take on the role. We are what Hollywood would call understudies for the part, even though only a handful of children ultimately choose teaching as their life’s work.

[Sidenote: Some will argue that motherhood is actually the most self-perpetuating role. No problem here; have you ever watched the same group of children play “house?” It’s the same principle: Monkey see. Monkey do.]

Having grown up in a Christian home and having shared that heritage with many of my friends, I’ve learned that it is equally possible to play “church.” It is actually a game that affords a greater variety of roles. One can be the worship leader while another is the preacher. A cardboard box becomes the offering plate. A battery-operated toy piano is transformed into a four-manual cathedral organ. For Baptist children, a nearby wading pool offers the opportunity for the sacrament of baptism; for Anglican children a glass of water serves the same purpose. Those who don’t sing, preach, or serve communion become the congregation.

The problem is that the game never ends. As we progress through our teens, twenties and thirties, we continue to perpetuate the game the way we’ve always played it. When someone tries to play the game differently — maybe they didn’t play church when they were young — we encourage them to play it our way because we’ve been playing it longer and we know the rules.

Think about this one: Its 9:00 PM on a Saturday night. The kids have had their ritual weekend bath and gone to bed. Time now to read the paper, play with the TV’s remote control for a half-hour, and then review your Children’s Church lesson for the next morning.

The phone rings. It’s the pastor, and he doesn’t sound too good. He’s come down with Somethingitis and can’t get anyone to take over the worship service, because everyone has gone to the cabin for the long weekend. He needs you to run the entire service; there’s been no order of service written. Choose a few choruses that the kids from the youth group can play on guitar or piano. Be sure to read a scripture. Don’t forget the offering. “Look;” he says, “I need you. You have one hour together to worship God, and you can do anything you want to with that hour.”

You hang up the phone. Nobody would ever believe this one. You grab a copy of the church’s old hymnbook; the one you should not have taken home with you. You flip the pages back and forth, and set it down and pick up a CD copy of Wow Worship and start reading the list of worship songs on the two discs. All this time the pastor’s words are echoing in your brain, “do anything you want to with that hour.”

Your creative juices start to flow. You begin to think of all the things you wish would happen at a Sunday morning at your church. Testimonies. Praying together in small groups. Interactive discussion. All those concepts that have been locked away in your head for all those years.

On the other hand, you realize that a very sacred responsibility has been entrusted to you. Everyone will be watching to see what you do.

Why rock the boat? Why make waves? Why get everyone mad? Because you were on the sound and lighting team, you have a copy of the order of service from the week before; so you change the music selections, adjust the scripture reading, and enlarge that Children’s Church lesson so that it becomes an sermon for adults.

The next day your service is a perfect imitation of everything the pastor normally does. When it ends, people come up to you and say how much they enjoyed the service. What they mean is that they weren’t challenged, weren’t made to think, weren’t robbed of any program elements that make them feel comfortable. You were a hit!

After 20 years of playing church, you finally got to play in the big leagues, and you let everybody know that you know how the game is played.

Congratulations. Your religion is now completely devoid of any real meaning.

~ Chapter 8 from For Members Only, an unpublished manuscript I began working on many, many years ago.

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