Thursday, November 15, 2007

PLAYING CHURCH: A Sunday Paper Editorial

For a couple of years now, one of the professors at Yale Divinity School, as part of her class on “Teaching the Bible in the Congregation,” has used my book Offering the Gospel to Children, and then, in late October, brought her students down to the parish where I work, for a conversation and workshop. The workshop consists of a walk through our All Saints’ Halloween funhouse (described in Offering the Gospel to Children), and this requires a little bit of introduction, especially for the students from non-liturgical traditions who have little or no context for an exercise that retells the salvation story in the light of the Communion of Saints and the baptismal mystery.

My introductory material includes not only a broad sketch of the whole idea of All Saints’ Day as a celebration of the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, but also a fairly passionate presentation on the importance of giving children the opportunity to play with the scriptural story.

“What do children do with stories that, for whatever reason, captivate them and speak to them?” I ask. “They demand to hear or see them over and over again. They ask questions. They depict the story in art. And most of all, they process the story through dramatic play.” Choosing a costume for Halloween or a theme for a birthday party, dragooning a friend into dramatizing the Cinderella story, playing pirates all afternoon: this is how children explore the many possibilities offered by their growing world, safely practice a whole gamut of roles (good guy or bad guy, hero or victim, leader or follower) and constantly test and stretch their sense of self.

Parents watch with pleasure or amazement, or boredom or dismay, as our children enter with all their might into their imaginative worlds. We roll our eyes as our four-year-old demands to watch the same video five times in a row, or sings the awful songs from a favorite TV show. We see how earnestly they grasp at whatever our culture offers them, from classic fairy tales to the most crassly exploitative branded items where the fast food sells the movies and the movies sell the books and the books sell the toys and the toys sell the fast food. Thoughtful and conscientious parents work hard to provide rich and deep imaginative worlds for our children. We read them good books. We go to the toy store and come out with a dollhouse, a fire station, a hospital, a battleship, a space station, an enchanted palace, a prehistoric world full of dinosaurs.

The church is the inheritor of the deepest, richest story of them all: the Mother of All Stories. It begins in the garden of our people’s infancy and turns to bitter exile. Then, over many generations, we are called to hear God’s voice and bear God’s Name. Out of apparent abandonment, we become a people: delivered at the Red Sea, fed in the desert, entrusted with a Law, and blessed with a Land of Promise, a city, and a temple. And yet we break the covenant, abuse each other, pollute the land, and fill it with blood. Once more we are sent into exile, and even the Holy of Holies, the Temple on Mount Zion, is destroyed. Yet God gives us hope, and a new promise; and in God’s good time, God does the unimaginable, taking on our flesh and coming to be with us in our exile. God-With-Us shares our weakness and our temptations, and offers us a new vision of freedom, peace, and sacrificial love. Even when we turn on him, he is not defeated: he dies for us, plumbs the depths of our exile, and returns victorious, with new life to share with anyone who comes to him in openness and faith.

I talk about how ironic it is that the church, in our protectiveness of this story--our privileging of it as a body of doctrine--unwittingly boxes off this narrative and makes it far harder for children to tap into than any other story they encounter at home, school or in the wider culture. We reduce it to a series of lessons, placing layer after layer of didactic barriers between the story and our children’s imaginations. Having struggled with the story ourselves, on a very adult level, we bring enormous anxiety to it: we want to guarantee that our children don’t misunderstand it, reject it, or draw the wrong conclusions from it. So we serve it up in chopped-up little Bible stories, each with a bottom line: “God made the world.” “Jesus loves you.” “Love your neighbor.” “Be nice to your friends.” “We come to church to worship God.”

Now and then, church people have tried to do more than this, and “bring the scriptural story alive” in various creative ways. The evangelical subculture, with its belief that explicitly “Bible” themes should occupy every corner of Christians’ consciousness, has moved into the toy market by manufacturing muscular Biblical action figures (“The Almighty Heroes Action Figures are fully poseable action figures styled to look like modern superheroes. They also come with play accessories important to the character, and an easy-to-read adventure comic book with full color illustrations”). The main line, also buying into the “Bible can be fun” concept, has Veggie Tales. At the extreme end of the spectrum, the many commercial Vacation Bible School curriculums make everything in scripture “fun,” blending highly processed material extracted from Bible stories into synthetic “themes” like “Power Lab” or “Rainforest Adventure” or “Dino Detectives.” In the process, the real content and flavor of the Bible itself is utterly jettisoned: ironically, for all the “fun,” the lesson has taken over completely.

One of the students raised his hand. “I’m realizing as I listen to you,” he said, “that I’ve been making this mistake in my weekly children’s sermon. I have three to four minutes, and I’ve been doing little object lessons. But how can I do the story justice in only three or four minutes?”

“You can’t,” I said. “It’s a set-up. Suppose you wanted your kids to know and love The Lion King: would you sit them down for three or four minutes, and give a quick talk, about the Circle of Life with the help of (say) a package of seeds? Of course not! It’s absurd! They need the story. They want the story. They have a far longer attention span than we give them credit for, if what we are doing is telling the story.”

In spite of it all, I said, children find ways to play with the story. Often, it takes the form of “playing church.” Until we make radical changes in how we present the Bible to children, the enacted rituals of church are far more accessible to their imaginations than the stories of scripture. Almost any churchgoing child, I said, will at some point scrounge around for a plate and a cup and pretend to be the priest, serving communion to dolls and stuffed animals. A wave of energy rippled through the classroom as the students began to remember their own childhood selves, baptizing their dolls or lining up stuffed animals--or siblings or friends--for a sermon or a pretend eucharist. And I was amazed when several Pentecostal students suddenly became very animated, and told how, when they had “played church” as children--singing, moving in rhythm, and “preaching”--they had been scolded for being disrespectful, and sternly warned never to do that again. Another example of how, in our well-meaning protectiveness of the sacred, we render it inaccessible to the actual processes by which children take ownership of images, concepts, and ideas.

Last week, a friend--my children’s godmother--sent me a link to a blog ( maintained by one of her other godchildren, an Episcopal seminarian and mother of a toddler boy. There I found this story, which I give you with her permission.

(Her nom de blog is WeirdBird; her child goes by “Zagazoo,” presumably from the Quentin Blake book of the same name. “Tilt” is her husband, Zag’s dad.)


My son gave me Communion today.

We spent much of yesterday at this special workshop on including children in worship, featuring Children at Worship, Congregations in Bloom ( and Fiona Vidal-White leading music. … This morning the Children at Worship folks had some role in the Sunday liturgy at the church that had hosted the workshop. After fulfilling my responsibilities at the church where I work part-time, we zipped up to this church, arriving only a little late for the main service. It was a nice enough service, but nothing terribly new and exciting. … Anyway, Zag was restless--it was getting on towards his lunch- and naptime--and the service was nowhere near child-friendly enough to hold his interest. So I eventually let him escape from the pew and followed him out of the nave … .

Exploring a little, we discovered a small chapel a few rooms away. I found some paper and crayons in a corner, but Zag had other ideas. The room had chairs arranged in a circle around a small table, on which there was a large white candle and a large footed glass bowl. Zag went right to the bowl, picked it up by the foot (with some difficulty; it was heavy), and told me, “Jesus took some wine.” I came over to him, and he gave me some “wine” from the cup. I asked him what comes next in that story. He said, “Jesus lights candle,” but that obviously didn’t seem right to him. So I suggested we could go try and find some bread, to finish the story with.

So we stopped by the fellowship hall, where some refreshments were laid out. Zag selected a muffin. Now, I figured the Eucharist game was over; he would eat the muffin and perk up a little, we would sit in our pew and draw some pictures, we’d take Communion, we’d head home. Zag had other ideas. When I tried to take him back into the nave, he burst into tears, telling me angrily that he wanted to go back to his church. Finally this got through to me, and we went back to the chapel. Zag immediately took the muffin over to the little table and announced, “Jesus took some bread.” I went to kneel opposite him, and reminded him what Jesus says about the bread--“This is my body.” (Zag likes that part and often remarks, “Body!” while the Eucharistic prayer is going on.)

Zag said, “This my body,” broke the bread and gave me some. Then he decided to try it at the little altar rail surrounding the small altar at one end of the room, so we went up there, and he practiced distributing Communion some more. Tilt came in at about this time, to check on us, and Zag gave him Communion too. He gave him some muffin and said, “Bread of heaven.” Then he got me to help with the wine bowl, since it was so heavy, and said, “Cup salvation.”

After that, we pretty much decided we were ready to go. Eucharist in the main church couldn’t add to what Zag had offered us.

It’s going to take me a while to unpack this. Here we have a church full of people trying to be inclusive of children and invite them into participation in the church’s worship--but there’s still nothing for our kid to do, or look at, or engage with. And here we have a two-year-old who knows perfectly well how to do church and is ready to administer Communion. Where do we go from here?

A comment, posted by WeirdBird’s mom:

I have been slow to comment on this blog entry
because I am awed by the holiness
of the experience you describe
and because I did not have an answer ready to hand.
Here’s what I think today.
If Zag has this story, the bread and wine story,
written on his heart,
maybe it’s time for the next story.
We have a batch of good stories.
All I remember of church from my childhood
is generous food, strange, wonderful stories,
and helping with things. Helping is big.

Helping is indeed big. But the stories are biggest of all. If we take their holiness seriously enough, we will not wall them off from children, but, precisely because they are holy, we will invite them in, to play with the story.

© 2007 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.

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