Towards vulnerability and transformation in the church
More than playing church
How our institutional language and attitudes trivialize new church developments
by Mihee Kim-Kort
Children come running at us clapping and shout-singing like my 4-year-olds but enunciating a lot more clearly: G-O-O-D M-O-R-N-I-N-G, GOOD MORNING (WOOT WOOT) GOOD MORNING (WOOT WOOT). They lead us into a bright space with flying leaps and cartwheels. Stained glass windows line one side of the wall near the ceiling and overhead are the dark wooden beams of an early 18th-century church. We walk in, and like good Presbyterians, we sit in the back row but immediately get lovingly reprimanded by a smiling woman named Eileen. But she lets us stay there as we watch 60 children stomp the floor, not only with their feet but their bodies and voices. And we can feel the tremors in our feet.
Then they sing about “being strong and finding that what’s inside helps them to resist the wrong,” and I just weep quietly. I cry any time kids are playing and singing fervidly—sometimes out of weariness and sometimes because it’s all so beautiful.
Later, I meet Savannah. She is a rail in bright, pink kicks. Her short hair falls to her shoulders, making her look a little older than her nine years. I am taken with her green eyes and freckles. She is quiet and shy but smiles so huge as she explains the art on the wall that is hers. I wonder if she is someone that normally needs to be coaxed to talk aloud. She buzzes with pride and excitement, as I see the influence of Matisse and Monet in these tissue-paper and crayon pieces.
Above us there are light bulbs hanging down from the ceiling like huge raindrops suspended in time. It’s a lovely effect—these tiny angels that hover above our heads, reminding me that even when the sun is shining we still need light on the inside.
Some colleagues and I were visiting churches in Philadelphia. We specifically chose, for our tour, the churches that, according to the executive presbyter Ruth Santana, live “on the fringes”—the unconventional ones whose passion and creativity more than make up for their marginal funds and status. The familiar elements of pulpits and pews, table and font, were present but positioned elsewhere or covered in tarps, paint, and bowls glass-blown and bright blue like the ocean. The pews were old and tired but set in a circle like in someone’s living room—cozy and intimate. Bright windows, some stained, some cracked, let in so much light that it was hard not to be overcome by it.
‘I look at these churches on the periphery of our radar and think that all the institutional language used to describe them makes it seem like they’re baby churches, pretend churches, play churches.’
Now that the trip’s over, I keep asking myself, What is real church? A clergy friend told me her congregation has a “play church” set up in their childcare room and that the kids love to play preacher. I look at these churches on the periphery of our radar and think that all the institutional language used to describe them makes it seem like they’re baby churches, pretend churches, play churches.
But, they are church. Whether we designate them or not with the official language of our institution—charters, new church developments, members—is moot because they are doing the best of church. They’re offering a space to encounter the Triune God. With an extra dose of the love of Jesus, the wild child of the Trinity is allowed to play and run free.
And maybe they are, in a way, performing. They are performing hope. There’s stigma when it comes to talking about church in terms of performance, as though there is something illegitimate and false about it. But, when we recognize how necessary it is to understanding and engaging worship, we see it permeate our ordinary lives day-in and day-out. We embody hope as we chant and step across the room. We express it in our art as we play with colors and mediums. We share stories; we explore with our songs—ones that we know and ones that we make up. We trample the darkness beneath our feet, clutching each other’s hands with shouts of WOOT WOOT.
In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17–18)
These communities are not just playing at church. Though they may bring the fun, experimentation, and youthfulness of play, they are prophesying, seeing visions, and dreaming dreams. That is serious and demanding work, and it deserves our attention.
This is church—walking, singing these dreams.
Mihee Kim-Kort is a Presbyterian pastor and UKirk college minister at Indiana University in Bloomington.