Churches That Play Together Stay Together
In its new Households of Faith report, Barna researchers claim that one of the many reasons “vibrant households” stand out from others is because they engage in “meaningful, fun, quality time with both their housemates and extended household members.” That includes playing games together (32%), sharing meals (63% eat breakfast as a family and 75% eat dinner as a family), and enjoying other leisure activities. “These are practicing Christians who know the meaning of play—and indeed, half call their home life ‘playful,’” according to the report.
In other words, the old adage still rings true: Families that play together stay together, and more than that, exhibit signs of strong spiritual health.
The same can be said of the church family.
From softball leagues to book clubs, jazz ensembles to craft nights, churches that play together seem to stay together and grow together, too, adapting more easily to upheaval and building up the camaraderie, compassion, and collective resilience that are essential to a robust church body.
“Our congregation is experiencing some growing edges as younger families begin to assume leadership roles,” said Katie Nix, lead pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Moberly, Missouri. “Usually the generations become divided between gatekeepers and new people, but kickball helped to break down some of the walls of fear and create relationships. I believe we avoided several potential turf wars because the two groups experienced an opportunity to play together.”
Other pastors, too, report the unique gains of “letting loose” as the body of Christ.
Jackson Clelland, head of staff at Presbyterian Church of the Master in Mission Viejo, California, often provides opportunities for his church staff and board members to play together as a way to lay the foundation for their collaborative work as the people of God.
“My mentor, the late Chuck Miller, taught that we need a proper order to our relationships within the church. [We need to view our colleagues as] brothers or sisters and then fellow workers,” said Clelland, quoting from Philemon 1–2. Staff meetings at Church of the Master are commonly held in a conference room—except when they’re not.
“We went to an escape room a month ago,” said Clelland. “We play so that we can learn to enjoy each other beyond the tasks we need each other for.”
In the earliest Scriptures, the people of God are called to a regular rhythm of work and worship, rest and play. In addition to the weekly Sabbath celebration, the Pentateuch mentions seven feast days. After the Exile, three more were added. Wedding celebrations commonly lasted a week or more. While some contemporary congregations find play by practicing these feasts of the ancient church and other traditional “holy day” celebrations, others are discovering it in even simpler, almost child-like forms.
Antoine Lassiter, pastor of Think Kingdom, a multiracial congregation in Kannapolis, North Carolina, extols the power of play to bring diverse groups of people into deeper relationship.
“This church was the result of two churches merging—a predominantly black church with a white church. Play was a way to get folks who didn’t normally interact to talk. We’d encourage them at the doors—‘Find someone you don’t know and sit with them!’—and they wouldn’t do it.”
So Lassiter and his team came up with a creative solution in Sunday worship. “I’d say, ‘Grab all your belongings!’ Then the musicians would play some happy music, and we’d play musical chairs.”
As Lassiter helped shepherd his congregation through the change, he learned that play was essential for him as a leader, as well.
“For the first three months [after the churches merged] I was a politician,” said Lassiter. “I had stopped having fun and the ministry became dark. It became stressful. Then I realized that it wasn’t for me to make it work. It needed to be a Holy Spirit–led thing.
“We have a church full of young men who play basketball, so I started walking with them and having fun with them. And that’s where I think the church turned.”
Pastors in international churches, too, notice the benefits of church play in developing a community spirit and practicing creative mission.
“One of the signs of healthy community is laughter and the ability to have fun together,” said Ondřej Szturc, preacher at Evangelical Christian Fellowship in Hairov, Czech Republic. “It also attracts people and speeds ministry up, making it easier and more pleasant. Hospitality is one of the big priorities for us.”
Two other Europeans, Andrej and Nina Lovse, helped plant their church in Maribor, Slovenia. “We do yearly church retreats where we intentionally build in play time—bonfires and s’mores, hikes and swimming time,” said Andrej Lovze. “We had to push ourselves once a month just to play games together as a leadership team.”
Lovse finds that occasionally replacing traditional worship with play can strengthen bonds of friendship and fellowship, especially in the group of young adults who comprise the bulk of his congregation.
“There have been times when we canceled our church service and all went out for coffee,” said Lovse. “When we grew distant and needed to reconnect with one another, through play we got to know and appreciate each other.”
Agaba Moses, an ordained minister in the Anglican Church in Uganda, noted that play hasn’t traditionally been part of his church culture, but that is starting to change. “Churches in Africa commonly do not go beyond pulpit preaching to engage Christians in play activities like football, swimming, or drama, calling them ‘secular.’ But playing well is of great importance in navigating conflict and developing a united and focused church.”
“Towards the end of last year, we invited the bishop as the chief guest” of a soccer event, Moses said. “The bishop knew how to play, and he demonstrated it by kicking a penalty. This helped people change their attitudes toward the entire church.”
Research suggests that organizations whose members fail to play often descend into unhealthy seriousness, leading to increasing anxiety and resistance to change. By contrast, study after study show that play begets creativity, innovation, relationship, rejuvenation, and joy—all qualities found in healthy congregations and their time together both outside and inside of worship.
“If a fundamental purpose of corporate worship is to proclaim and to enact the gospel,” writes David Taylor, “then surely, I would like to believe, our practices of proclamation and enactment would somehow point to the astonishing, gratuitous, even hilarious nature of the good news.”
For pastors whose plates are often filled to overflowing with the traditional work of the church—preaching, visitation, committee work, administration—enabling play in any form can feel like an additional burden. But when congregations engage in recreation, laughter, and creative pursuits together, they are building bonds that strengthen mission, deepen fellowship, and create a relational foundation for discipleship.
“As leaders, we have to teach people to flow with the rhythms of life,” says Lassiter. “Sometimes the music is happy. Sometimes the music is somber. We can dance to both.”
Courtney Ellis is a pastor and speaker and the author of Uncluttered (Feb. 2019, Rose Publishing). She lives in Southern California with her husband, Daryl, and their three kids. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, or her blog.