The Practice of Play

A pathway to living with purpose

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“Giftedness is not necessarily correlated with talent but rather the discovery that your being is a gift that can impact the being of others.” – Andy Root in Faith Formation in a Secular Age

I had just left my first particularly powerful worship experience at a summer church camp at the age of 14, when I paused on the dirt path that led back to my cabin and looked up at the starry sky. Truth be told, I had never paid much attention to the sky before as a city kid. But on that night with my eyes fixed and away from everything that was familiar to me, I felt it: a word. It came from seemingly nowhere distinguishable or audible. Yet, it crashed into my chest like an inescapable wave: “I created you for a purpose.”

Nearly twenty years later, in a church fellowship hall celebration after worship, I was eating my food across from a pastor who began sharing with me some of the heavy burdens she carried for many of the churches in our denomination as they’d come out of the pandemic. “Do you know that less than 10% of these churches have active youth engagement in them? It’s scary. We don’t know how to get people to care about what the church is doing anymore.”

And then she asked it: “Who is going to take our place?”

The problem(s) with “calling”

One of the major tasks of my current work with the church is to create and implement a strategy for leadership recruitment in our regional area. Naturally, this means recruiting clergy who can lead open churches. It also means identifying people at different ages and life stages who may feel a “call to ministry,” or a desire to explore their life’s purpose in relation to the work of the church. 

A primary question that I am asking myself in this work, especially as we have come out of the pandemic and learned that nearly 50% of people in the US are contemplating a career change and over 20% have done it, is: How does the church come alongside people who are in seasons of vocational transition or who are contemplating how they want to purposefully spend their life, and help them discern the answer?

Answering this question in a meaningful way is challenging and, on some level, always has been. Despite my own experience as a youth, it isn’t clear that churches in a U.S. context generally excel at creating experiences where people can regularly discern the purpose(s) of their lives. The vocabulary that has long been used in churches for speaking about one’s purpose is “calling.” And recently, one pastor I spoke to confessed with some exasperation, “It feels like everyone I know is struggling to understand what would make life feel more meaningful or what they feel “called” to do, but it’s like we don’t know how to have that conversation with them. Why is that?” 

At the surface of the problem, churches today seem to fall into one of two categories when it comes to this conversation: Either they don’t talk about “calling” because the word has generally fallen out of use with the wider culture and they aren’t sure what to replace it with, or they attempt to talk about it by offering people tools such as spiritual gift inventories, or welcome cards with “ways to get involved,” in the hope that a congregant’s answers would allow the church to assign them something to do that would help them find their “calling.” Only these tools tend to be designed in a way that wind up looking suspiciously like the church’s own pre-determined ideas for what it wants to call on people for instead.

Yet, there are even greater challenges for why the church wrestles with leading people in conversations around calling today. There is a deep anxiety over institutional survival that has plagued the church for years, now exacerbated by the many challenges COVID has inflicted upon religious communities. This makes it increasingly difficult to have genuinely helpful conversations with people. Many of those in an institutional role of authority believe that we should be inviting (sometimes, pushing) congregations to have conversations about “calling” now more than ever. But if we were honest, we’d also confess that this is primarily because of our own deep-seated fear that soon there will not be enough pastors to fill churches, or people to fill pews. 

Likewise, if congregations were honest, much of the reason we don’t engage each other in questions around purpose or what makes for a truly meaningful life is because we are either afraid that people might decide that the answer is elsewhere and leave, or that engaging these conversations it will require something more out of us than we are willing or have time to give. Further, to have intentional conversations around “calling” would also require a level of vulnerability and a willingness to engage the deep discomfort of admitting to one another that most of us are woefully unhappy people who often don’t know the first thing about what it would take to satisfy our own longings. 

This introduces perhaps the greatest challenge we face: the entire way we think about discerning or responding to a sense of “calling” in life is entangled with the problem Andy Root observes in his book The Congregation in a Secular Age, that our rapidly accelerating world sends us on a relentless human quest for some future “good life,” keeping us from experiencing actual good, which can only be found in the present (Root, 157). Root argues that since so little of our time is actually spent on the present, but rather on accruing resources to get to some undefinable “good” in the future, we hardly know what makes for a good, meaningful or satisfactory life most of the time.

The church speaks of “calling” or purpose in a similar way. First, it is almost always singular, meaning that for each person, there is only one purpose, calling or road that God has uniquely equipped them for and it is their job to find it; which may explain why pastors who contemplate a vocational change away from congregational ministry often feel conflicted about whether they are forfeiting their “call,” and why some people all but give up on the quest for identifying the meaningful thing to do with their life because they never felt that there was one particular thing they were built to do (or because they may not have the ability to do the thing they desire to do). Further, the way the church has primarily led people into conversations about “calling” has always been future-oriented, focused on one’s potential to attain or enact (or both) some future good: What am I supposed to do or work toward so that one day I can make a difference … and find satisfaction in life? As a result, engaging the question of what would make for a purposeful life in this secular age doesn’t often move us beyond our discontentment, but reinforces it. 

What is our purpose and where is it found?

Western culture tends to closely associate one’s “purpose” or “calling” with vocational work, goals, or “special talents.” However, on a more fundamental level, discovering one’s call or purpose is less about what one is supposed to do and more about how one chooses to be in the world. “Our calling emerges from who we really are … before calling has anything to do with doing, it has everything to do with being that essence of yourself that God knew before the foundations of the earth” (Ruth Haley Barton). I would argue that, similar to Root’s critique about our search for the “good life,” living into our “calling” or purpose is not about finding the one task our lives were created to undertake in some undefined future. It is about discovering the gift that our lives have to offer to God and to our neighbors in the present moment. Root remarks that one of the core dispositions of impactful faith communities and its members is the cultivation of the awareness that our very being, as it exists in this moment, is a gift of God, so that we might move through the world as a gift to others (Faith Formation in a Secular Age). His reference to our own “giftedness” is not about identifying talents that we can use or become known for. Rather, it is the recognition that our being is created and lives in a state of interdependence with others. It is a gift that can bless, especially if we are mindful about how we live in relation to others. 

Therefore, if the church is to help people identify and live out their purpose, one of its primary tasks should be to create space for people to connect to the moment they find themselves in, so that they are able to come to greater awareness of their own being, and the being of others found in community. I would argue that faith communities must be places where people can practice recognizing the “giftedness” of their own being in a way that moves them toward transformative action. What if churches were to shift focus away from anxiety-driven conversations about how to find purpose, and toward creating spaces and cultivating practices that helped people live with purpose? The rest of this paper will explore the question: How does the practice of “play” practically create or help people inhabit spaces where they can experience the gift of their own being in ways that inspire them to live in the present with a greater sense of purpose?

Invitation to come, rest, pray … and play?

In the book The Church & the Crisis of Decline, Root argues that in our secular, time-famished age, the crisis that faces the church is not actually the loss of people in attendance on Sunday mornings. It is the loss of transcendence, or the sense that the living God is active and moving in the world and in our lives. As opposed to focusing primarily on what resources it would take to become relevant to an increasingly secular culture, pastors should be asking: How does the church see, speak about, and passionately participate in the work of the living God, wherever and whenever God may choose to show up? In Faith Formation and the Secular Age, Root suggests several practices that help churches move away from striving for relevance driven by our own anxiety, and toward experiences of resonance, wherein we cultivate our connection with the world and our relationships to one another, so that we might experience God more readily. “The household of ministry is the house of prayer that invites people to come, rest, and pray. It is through this prayer that we enter and discover our giftedness.”

However, intrigued by Root’s suggestion in The Congregation & the Secular Age that the move from relevance to resonance is also deeply connected to the lives of children, I would like to draw on the work of theologian Jürgen Moltmann, child ethicist John Wall, and practical theologian Courtney Goto to argue that the concept of “play” has much to offer the church in exploring the practical conditions by which people can be guided into a greater potential for experiencing resonance and thus, helping them see their own ”giftedness” and the gifts of others. While Root argues that God’s actions remain elusive to us and cannot be something the church manufactures or controls, the church can create conditions that might allow for a greater sense of awareness and connection to others and how God might invite people to live out their purpose in community.

Rethinking “calling” in light of play

Despite most of our western conceptions of “play,” Moltmann argued that play is not simply the activities of children, nor is it the means by which we do, have, or achieve what is “good” or “leisurely” in this life. Rather it “leads us into categories of being, of authentic human existence…” Likewise, John Wall’s work describes play as “the gift in all persons from birth to death for opening themselves up to more expansive experiences of being and relations… play can be understood as the very dynamics of human-being in the world.” Play is not a specialized childhood activity but it is something we all do, and with intentionality, it can lead us into deeper experiences of human existence. 

In her book The Grace of Playing: Pedagogies for Leaning into God’s New Creation, Courtney Goto uses the term “revelatory experiencing” to speak about the same fundamental phenomenon of resonance, stating that it is a “symbol for the felt sense of gracious awakening, opening, and relating deeply to others.” She argues that intentionally cultivating spaces for play is essential to helping people become open to revelatory experiencing throughout the lifespan, and that the church would have much to offer if they “provide opportunities for playing, where the faithful might have creative encounters with mystery and one another … as well as facilitate and reflect theologically on revelatory experiences beyond the church walls, helping others to recognize the Spirit creatively partnering everywhere for the sake of the new creation.” She observes that in a rapidly changing world with much institutional transition keeping us in a constant state of anxiety, we need experiences that interrupt that anxiety, so that we can recenter ourselves.

Thinking in terms of “play” would offer the church a conceptual framework and concrete, embodied practices which ground us in the present moment and cultivate intentional environments where people are more likely to encounter the Spirit at work in the personhood of ourselves and others, so that we might come to sense our own “giftedness” and purpose(s) we are being called to in the moment. For the purpose of this paper in thinking about how to help people engage in conversations around “calling” at crucial transitional periods, there are at least two practical dimensions of “play” that bear further reflection and that I will briefly outline.

Playing aesthetically 

There seems to be a different level of commitment among people who participate in a group activity that engages the senses. Members of choirs, mission trip groups, drama clubs, and sports teams would all attest that something formative happens in these experiences within oneself and in relation to others. Though western thought has historically prioritized intellect or the mind as the primary way we measure the strength of human imagination, it is becoming more widely accepted through studying the “play” of children that imagination is largely developed through the body and not only in children but in all of us throughout the scope of our lives. Goto points out that activities which prioritize sensual, imagistic, symbolic, narrative, and affective dimensions tutor the imagination through “healthy illusion” and enable people to engage transformation symbolically, so that they might become able to experience it in reality. Creating imaginative environments within the congregation that helps a community attend to the human senses, foster wonder, and use what Christopher Bollas refers to as transitional or “transformational objects,” can create aesthetic moments that increase our capacity for creativity, spontaneity, and human expansion. Engaging in these aesthetic experiences together in community opens us to the “giftedness” of ourselves and others and creates meaningful bonds that invite us to explore what we might offer to one another. 

As I reflect on my own experiences of playing aesthetically, I can’t help but recall my own first encounter with feeling “called” and wonder if the aesthetic dimensions of being in a new space, connecting with nature, engaging in interactive worship, and hearing the stories of scripture in a new way helped to cultivate an openness to experiencing my purpose in that moment. I can also think of instances in ministry when playing aesthetically seemed to open new possibilities for people seeking out their own purpose. During the pandemic, a congregant I’ll call Bill came to me and indicated that he was raising hundreds of wildflower seedlings in his house. Bill was looking for a way to make a difference, but like so many other people at the time, he didn’t know what to offer that might help people move through a global crisis. He wondered if he could invite congregants living in social isolation to volunteer to take care of a plant to engage in a creative activity together that might help them imagine their connection to one another in a different way. He also wanted to engage in a social good together. As a scientist, Bill cared deeply about creating habitats for the pollination of bees, which were becoming endangered due to global warming. 

Throughout the winter of 2020-2021, congregants took care of Bill’s seedlings and later that spring, planted a community pollinator garden. Throughout that time, we connected the work of the garden to our virtual worship services, wrestling deeply with themes of growth, the difficulties of change, the importance of community, and finding our purpose in seasons of transition. When the community re-gathered for the first time in the fall of 2021 for an outdoor worship service next to the garden in full bloom, we dedicated it and reflected on the theological concept of new life, which is often birthed in seasons of death. We invited the congregation to reflect on how this has been a reality for them as they interacted with the garden. After the worship service, Bill and another congregant came up to me and shared that as they reflected on the new life taking root in them, they decided that they wanted to partner with the church daycare (which was also an initiative taken on during the pandemic) to offer preschool children the opportunity to connect with God and each other in nature. Engaging aesthetically in practices of play opened the possibility to connect with a present purpose in that moment.

Playing in the presence of pain

In addition to arguing that “play” is not simply the activity of children, Goto and Wall both emphasize that “play” is not simply an activity that seeks to evoke feelings of joy or ecstasy. It is the practice of decentering the self for the purpose of recentering, and it engages a full range of human emotion that can make experiences of place powerful, compelling, disorienting, and at times, tragic. On the podcast On Being, Krista Tippett interviewed children’s author Kate DiCamillo, who spoke eloquently about a letter she received, wherein the writer asked her opinion about whether the focus of children’s literature should be to tell the truth to children about the hard realities of the world, or rather to preserve their innocence for as long as possible. In her reply, she spoke about a conversation she had with her childhood best friend, who loved the book Charlotte’s Web and read it repeatedly. She asked her friend: “What was it that made you read and re-read the book? Did you think that if you read it again things would turn out differently? Better? That Charlotte wouldn’t die?” In response, her friend said: “No, it wasn’t that. I kept reading it not because I thought it would turn out differently, but because I knew for a fact that it wasn’t going to turn out differently. I knew that a terrible thing was going to happen, and I also knew that it was going to be okay somehow. I thought that I couldn’t bear it, but then when I read it again, it was also beautiful and I found out that I could bear it. That’s what the story told me … that I could bear it somehow.” 

In reflecting on this conversation, DiCamillo writes that the primary question in the sacred task of writing children’s literature is: “How do we tell the truth and make the truth bearable?” This is also a sacred task of the Church—not to simply rejoice with people in the joys of life, but to help people wrestle with the most difficult aspects of human becoming in the world, which is often precisely when they are most likely to question their purpose, and to wrestle with it in a way that it becomes bearable. Practices of “play” can help people at every age engage the present reality, no matter how difficult, and prepare us for new possibilities. Creating communal spaces for “healthy illusion” helps people engage courageously even the dimensions of life that humans would rather not know (for example, Deconstruction, loss of meaning, tragedy) but that we all face, without letting it be the final word over our lives. Engaging in intentional practices and in conversations that allow people to acknowledge, process, and build relational support through seasons of challenge and transition can create a foundation upon which a new word can be heard. 

Conclusion

The question of “calling” or purpose in the life of the church is one that cannot be born out of anxiety about the church’s current decline in participation, or the individual’s anxiety about what potential good it will take to live a meaningful life. “Calling” must primarily be a question that we locate in the present moment, asking how our being as “gift” can intentionally become a “gift” to others now.

The concept of play, as it is being developed across the fields of psychology, theology, ethics, and education, can be helping in providing the church with a framework that grounds our conversation about calling and purpose in the present moment, and can provide us with practical resources for how to create spaces that attend to various important dimensions of human becoming—development through bodily, aesthetic experience, and through human suffering.

For further reading

Barton, Ruth Haley. Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, 76.

Goto, Courtney. The Grace of Playing, 12, 19, 81, 85, 104. Goto references Bollas’ work which suggests that though transitional or transformative objects exist in childhood as a way to develop healthy attachments with and apart from one’s mother, we also never stop searching for these objects as human beings.

Moltmann, Jurgen, Theology of Play, 23.

Root, Andrew. Faith Formation in a Secular Age, Andrew Root, 203.

Root, Andrew. The Church & the Crisis of Decline, Andrew Root

Root, Andrew. The Congregation in the Secular Age, Andrew Root, 157.

Tippett, Krista. On Being, “For the Eight Year Old In You,” Episode 1043: Interview With Kate DiCamillo, March 17, 2022.

Wall, John. Ethics in Light of Childhood, 13, 42-43, 51. Wall states that to play “is a primordial experience,” which means that play is a generative act.  There is a great deal to explore around the work of “play” and its connection to creation and new life in Wall and Moltmann. I think there may also be a biblical case to be made that Wisdom or the Spirit in Proverbs 8, which is usually conceived as being personified either as an adult feminine “co-creator” or a young child growing up and playing before God at the beginning of creation, could actually be both, and indicative that “play” is a biblical concept, identified as a generative act that helps to bring forth the creation.

  • Kate Monahan

    Rev. Kate Monahan is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church in the Greater NJ Annual Conference. She has served in three churches as lead pastor, as well as in children & youth ministry throughout her career. She also worked for four years as a chaplain at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. Kate is currently on staff of the Greater NJ Annual Conference as the Director of Resourcing and a program called Mosaic Ministries, which works with high school, college, and theological school students across the state to explore their call to ministry and train them in leadership in their local church settings. She is passionate about helping people find their purpose and live into it with joy! She also loves hanging out with her family & friends, baking, running, and a good practical joke every now and then!

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