How to Play Better

Fostering good games and godly outcomes

by Amy Kim Kyremes-Parks
Illustration by Terri Scott

I once served a church where the youth group had a long tradition of a night entirely devoted to games that had to do with food. By the end of the night everyone was filthy with food—food that could have been enjoyed by someone who needed it. When I questioned the use of food as play and our stewardship of food, I heard answers along like, “But the kids love it!” and “It’s so much fun!” Yet in the midst of food shortages and debilitating droughts, I just couldn’t justify this use of food.

For the record I am also that person who chooses not to have youth play dodge ball.

Nothing says, “God loves you and this is a safe space” like a whack to the body from a rubber ball. But I digress.

At church, the word recreation is often synonymous with “playing games” or simply “having fun.” This kind of play can be an excellent way of gathering generations and building community. With the right planning and thoughtfulness, playing charades, teaching easy dances or a friendly game of community kickball can build and transform communities. In my denomination, there is even a recreation micro-culture of “energizers,” or silly dances that youth at church camp do together to start off each day. Trust me, if you’ve never seen thousands of high school students jumping up and down in unison to “The Camel Dance,” you are missing something. Yet this quirky custom has a way of breaking down even the most intense social hierarchies—that is, high school—by creating community and celebrating silly.

However, “fun” is not a theology of recreation. It can be an aspect of it, but they are not one and the same. As church leaders we need to get past the idea of “fun” for “fun’s sake,” or a recreation theology that refrains from questioning the kinds of games we play, what resources we use to play them, and what we aim to do when we play. We are called to think through all that we do and understand the spoken and unspoken messages we communicate and model to our community in the midst of recreation.

This includes asking questions before we play such as, What is the goal of this activity? How does this activity build our community? What are possible downfalls or unintended consequences of this activity? And, how is God glorified in this activity? We must also ask questions after we play together like, What did you learn through this activity or game? What did we do well? And, what do we need to remember for next time?

Leaders are also called to ensure that all members of the community can find ways to enjoy the play. Young, old, able-bodied, less able-bodied, those with stamina and those with little, those who naturally join in, and those more comfortable off to the side—all of God’s children are invited to play. Of course, not everyone will be comfortable with every game. Yet attending to the breadth of our communities can yield a significant change in the outcome of any given activity.

One method of embracing a more welcoming theology of recreation—or, playing a “better game”—is to consider recreation, games and play through the lens of multiple intelligences. In 1983, Dr. Howard Gardner developed a helpful method that I regularly use. Dr. Gardner introduced the idea that IQ tests are limited, and that intelligence should not be measured by asking who is intelligent but by asking how a given individual is intelligent. He proposed eight different intelligences for both children and adults:

  • Linguistic (“word smart”)
  • Logical-mathematical (“number/reasoning smart”)
  • Spatial (“picture smart”)
  • Bodily-kinesthetic (“body smart”)
  • Musical (“music smart”)
  • Interpersonal (“people smart”)
  • Intrapersonal (“self smart”)
  • Naturalist (“nature smart”)

These eight intelligences are described as pathways to learning. In congregational settings, we can also look at them as recreation pathways that can lead to an experience of community and, ultimately, to the Holy One. For example, recreation is often focused on those who have bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. These folks will thrive in typical, sports-based recreation. Yet people with other intelligences might enjoy playing at word games, singing karaoke, or going camping. When we take some time to think through the community we serve, we can adapt or assign specific roles or tasks to people who may have varying intelligences. We may even intentionally assign folks a challenging role as a way to equalize, develop skills in others, and teach.

The apostle Paul wrote, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). Communities of faith are responsible for leading and modeling how recreation can be transformative. This is part of our spiritual worship, to lead our communities in a recreation that builds up our communities and reflects our creation in the image of God. When the fun-ness of recreation is understood as a part of spiritual formation, we can create opportunities for our communities to play together, and with God in mind.

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