By Brian Jennings
What role does playfulness have in the kingdom of God?
Yes, sometimes play can distract from learning. Yes, sometimes play is out of place. Yes, churches ought to enact policies to make sure kids are able to both play and learn in a safe environment. But we ought not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
God created us in his image, which tells us something of his playfulness. Travel to any place on the planet and you’ll see it: children inventing games in a field, adults laughing around a table of dominoes, otters slipping and sliding into the ocean. God created play, inserting it into creation’s DNA, and it is good.
God desires us to find joy in him. He knew the busyness of work would snare many. And while healthy playfulness is desperately needed in the lives of adults, it plays a special role in the lives of children.
Parents loved bringing their children to Jesus. The kids loved it, and Jesus loved it too. Some people possess all the qualities that make them a kid magnet: gentleness, kindness, patience, and playfulness. Fun is the language of kids, and Jesus spoke it fluently. So when the disciples tried to shoo kids away in order for Jesus to attend to what they thought were more important matters, they got a tongue-lashing (Matthew 19:13-15).
Jesus’ Rule: “Let the children come to me.” The disciples wrongly prioritized serious, adult issues over the playful love of children. The children loved Jesus because he loved them. Simple, beautiful, exactly what Jesus wanted.
Nothing squelches play more than busyness. But Jesus viewed people as his business.
The next person Jesus met was a rich man. Jesus loved him, but the man loved money. The complexities of wealth destroyed his joy and love. No wonder Jesus pointed to the children as examples.
One rule, told to me by my good friend Wade Landers, has radically improved how quickly I connect with kids and parents. His rule specifically applies to his frequent visits to missionary families, but it has broad application.
Wade’s Rule: “When I walk into the home of one of our missionary families, I spend the first 30 minutes playing with the kids. They love it, so do their parents, and it lays the foundation for me to be a blessing to the whole family.”
I’m trying to adapt Wade’s Rule for a variety of situations. When I meet a family, I introduce myself to the kids, getting down on their level. If it’s a family I know well, my goal is to make their kids feel like a million bucks. And regardless of the situation, finding an opportunity to play with the kids is the golden ticket.
Last year I brought two elementary school siblings to our church’s VBS. We had only been introduced to them one time, so when my kids and I picked them up, they were very quiet. I tried asking questions and telling stories, but nothing broke the ice. We arrived early at the church building, so I got out a basketball and they began playing. I surprised them by challenging them to a game. Within minutes, we were all three running, joking, and laughing. Since that one moment, being their friend has been very easy. And their parents think I walk on water. The truth is that I just took some time to play.
Seeing Is Believing
I daily witness the value of playfulness in the lives of my own children. My little girl thinks my office is a wonderland. When she visits, she wants to get candy from Linda, see Matt’s toys, hear Debby’s stuffed animals sing (which is terrifying when you walk by the motion-triggered animals in the dark), shoot Dave’s water gun, or cling to José’s foot.
Don’t you agree that our world needs a dose of healthy playfulness? Does your schedule allow room for play? How can you leverage playfulness to love someone in your life? We need a proper theology of work and play so that people will get more glimpses of the world God desires for us.
“The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there” (Zechariah 8:4, 5).
Brian and his wife, Beth, and their four children live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he preaches at Highland Park Christian Church and writes (brianjenningsblog.com).