You may not know this about me, but I’m dreadfully serious. I’m prone to displays of intensity, anger, and power. My chosen profession doesn’t diminish this. In fact—both as a pastor and a professor—most of the people around me encourage a hard-lined intellectualism that demonstrates my intelligence, trustworthiness, and austerity.

Unfortunately, all of these traits make me miserable.

Which is why I’ve had to learn how to play.

We all know how to play—we do it as children. But adulthood, if nothing else, seems to be the triumph of the serious over the silly, of responsibility over revels, and earnestness over entertainment. Yet psychologists display remarkable consensus declaring that we do not lose our need for novelty and pleasure as we grow up. If anything, because it is no longer natural, that need intensifies.

We have to force ourselves to play.

And what do I mean by “play”? There is a technical definition. Play is:

  1. Voluntary—play is self-chosen and self-directed.
  2. Fun(inherently rewarding)—play is activity in which means are more valued than ends.
  3. Devised—play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but which emanate from the minds of the players.
  4. Creative—play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life.
  5. Mesmerizing—play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

In The Adventure of Happiness, I wrote about how to play at work and how to use daydreaming to enhance your creative capacity. I also outlined the chief obstacle to a playful spirit—fear, most notably concerning the opinions of others; but also fear of looking like a Happy Idiot. Most of us are afraid to cut loose and have fun because we think only irresponsible, sinful adults can laugh through the work week.

Ben Redmond told me this is why other Christians hate us. They think “No one can have this much fun without feeling guilty about it.”

Actually it was Ben and Terri McGarry and Mel Evans who encouraged me to address this topic today. They told me that my playful spirit was the most special quality about me, and that it was missing from the weekend. They told me that our church needs to play more, that our people need to learn to have fun. So if you’ll trust me not to make you into a buffoon, I can make your relationships healthier, your job more profitable, your bodies more enjoyable, and your spirituality more godly.

You see, “playfulness is not the meaningless pursuit of frivolity” (see Play, 34). During play, our brains are making sense of our context and identity through stimulation and testing. This means that the more we play, the more self-aware we become. Additionally, research has shown that the benefits of play include:

* more rewarding friendships

* better sex

* improved short-and-long-term memory

* increased attention span during non-play times

* enhanced creative problem-solving

* higher level language skills

* more resilience

* a sharp uptick in overall happiness

– Gwen Dewar, PhD., “Cognitive Benefits of Play: effects on the learning brain


There is all manner of playfulness in scripture.

* Heaven is full of play (Revelation 14)

* Play is representative of innocence and safety (Isaiah 11)

* Play infers health and wellbeing (Job 40)

* Playing creates an atmosphere for celebration (1 Kings 1)

* Playing heals (1 Samuel 16)


But perhaps the biggest justification for the importance of play comes from examining the character of God Himself. He is first revealed as a Creator, he requires Creation to “play along”, and he concerns himself with novel pursuits—namely the behaviors and interactions of his people. Perhaps this is what has led psychologist Peter Gray to remark that “religion is sacred play.”



Have I sold you on WHY being playful is important? Possibly. But I’d wager most of you still think of playfulness as something that would be nice, but it’s unnecessary and possibly even undesirable (since, again, you don’t want to waddle through life like a giant child).

But consider, a high number of people who come to see me for counseling do so because their lives are unenjoyable, their marriages are failing, they feel like garbage, and they never have any fun. And the first thing everyone wants to do in these situations is focus on what’s bad—to name it and shame it, and then proclaim that they have identified the problem. But articulating the problem is actually less significant than articulating the solution.

When couples are in trouble, they want to focus on what’s wrong. But if you want a healthy romance, you need to focus on what’s already right and could be strengthened. You need to focus on what you enjoy and amplify it.

The same is true in our relationship with God. Most of us believe that what God wants is for us to stop sinning. But that’s only part of the equation, and not even the easiest or most important part. Repentance, remember, is a word that means “to change your mind.” I was going to go to Starbucks, but instead I decided to eat sushi and “go in another direction.” Or I was going to marry Susan, but I’ve changed my mind and will now continue living with my mother. The emphasis isn’t on what we’re stopping, but what we’re doing instead. Repentance, then, doesn’t mean sinning less—it means living more.

And by “living” I don’t just mean breathing, but laughing and loving, taking risks and capturing moments, putting a spark in your smile and a twinkle in your eye. I mean living well—enjoying the abundant life Christ promised in John 10.10.

The way we experience this life is through play, because play makes us strong.

I’m concerned about how much we celebrate weakness, vulnerability, failure, flaws. I’m not interested in hiding those things. But we’ve somehow lost the ability to celebrate, laugh, and be strong.

Have I not commanded you, be strong and courageous?

-Joshua 1.9

Be strong and courageous, for the Lord your God is with you.

-Deuteronomy 31.6


I have discovered that joy is secret sauce of strength, and there are certain behaviors and practices that foster joy (and thus make us strong).

You want to make God happy?

Be strong.

You want to be strong?

Be glad.

You want to be glad?

Go play.


The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

-Nehemiah 8.7-10 NIV

Let me reiterate: Joy makes us strong, and we cultivate joy through play.

This is the reason for the following statements:

We see a church ennobled in creativity and the arts, not emulating present fashions but surpassing them in style, ability, and verve.

We see a church infused with playfulness, artistry and interactivity; where the lines between audience and attraction are blurred; where the decisions, abilities, and behaviors of the common people influence the form and flavor of worship.


At Westwinds we pray and play at the same time. We worship God with our bodies, our interactions, and our whole selves as distinct members of the Church, envisioning the future, creating new songs and new artifacts with which to proclaim the glory of God



Let’s conclude by looking at the different types of play and how we might enjoy them together:

Types of play

– locomotor play—bodily activity (exercise)

For example, during the service on Sunday, we bounced beach balls around the auditorium.

– language play—speech sounds, rhyme, vocabulary/meaning, enjambement, portmanteaus, etc.

What was your nickname as a kid?

– pretend play—imagining one thing is something else

This could be something like taking a banana and talking into it as if it were a phone.

– parallel play—playing next to (but not with) others

On Sunday, we had the audience toss little wooden cards toward the stage.

– object play—using “things” (but be careful that they don’t require too much instruction)

During the Sunday service, we gave folks a 6 word mantra (Godly play will make you strong) to remember and associated it with the tones of dialing a phone number

– social play—interactions between others

We stomped and clapped together while repeating the mantra.


(“Learning through Play”, Peter K Smith, PhD; Anthony Pellegrini PhD)