In my early years of ministry, I used to repeat something I’d heard a lot when I was younger: when we gather together for worship, we need to expect God to move. While I don’t want to minimize the value of having expectation or of the importance of Christians gathering together, I think this type of thinking can sometimes be shortsighted. It seems like this is gathering-centered versus being kingdom-centered. And to state it more bluntly, this is often more building-focused than Jesus-focused. Any time that we place at the center of our theology and praxis the idea that a building or people are the most important, I think we minimize that which is most important and essential: Jesus, the kingdom, and the greater glory of God.
In our Western culture, it’s difficult to move away from a “come and see” to a “go and serve” way of thinking. The influences that shape our practices aren’t always very helpful in this regards. Churchianity breeds a culture of folk theology and Christian bumper stickers, little reflection, and a commitment to drive-thru spirituality. In this context, the church, and everything else related to the kingdom of God, is seen as a museum. It’s a “place” that we visit once in awhile in order to remember what used to be, not to experience what is current.
So what happens when we begin to look at our lives as being integrated into the kingdom of God breaking into our realm? I believe that one of the first changes in the way we approach following Jesus is that we go from being spectators to being participants. His kingdom came, is coming now, and will come in the future. It’s the now and not yet. But if we keep associating the kingdom of God with a stuffy old museum, it’s hard to see how it has relevance today.
As far as I’m concerned, I think we theologian types tend to make these things more complex than helpful. This isn’t to suggest that our faith is simplistic; it isn’t. Simple, yes. Simplistic, no. Life is complex and the good news is that the kingdom of God has something to say about every sphere of our lives. It has bearing on all of the complexities that our brokenness brings to the table. So while I’m not trying to minimize the importance of serious theological reflection, I want to also suggest that our faith demands that we think more child-like. After all, Jesus said, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15) and that “whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4). Child-like faith is not the same thing as foolish faith. Child-like faith just sees things differently.
With child like faith, the kingdom of God becomes a playground.
Yes, you read that correctly. A robustly theological perspective sees the kingdom of God as a playground. So let’s think about praxis here. How can you implement viewing the kingdom of God as a playground? Here are three simple ways to view the kingdom as a “playground.” This can shape the daily missional rhythms of our lives in amazingly practical ways! They are as follows.
(1) Playgrounds are where all the kids gather. If you ever have the chance to sit at the park and watch the playground, you’ll notice that it’s full of kids from all kinds of social structures. Playgrounds are often the location where rich and poor, white and black, and young and old gather. You’ll see kids from across the street and kids who have walked from across town. You’ll see toddlers who are barely able to walk along side the more “seasoned” children nearing the age of twelve or thirteen. The playground is open to all. An Asian kid will cross paths on the monkey bars with a Hispanic kid; sharing the swings will be the child of African immigrants, two brothers from Norwegian roots, and a little girl who was adopted from China. The playground is supposed to be a melting pot. Everyone is equal when going down the slide, especially when the sun is hot and the slide is made of metal. If we think about the kingdom of God in this way, we will begin to see that everyone is created in the image of God and deserves our love. Our church communities should do all that they can to provide a context where everyone feels welcome.
(2) Playgrounds are safe. The last time I was at the playground, there were about twenty-five kids playing and probably twelve adults sitting on benches observing. Whenever kids fell or were being bullied, there were plenty of adults around to help clean the wounds and provide correction to those who weren’t playing nice. As a father of four, I was looking out for both my own kids and the kids that were interacting with my kids. If anyone came to that playground to hurt kids, they would have to go through a lot of dads. On top of that, the majority of playgrounds that exist around us were constructed using materials that are deemed “safe” by the authorities. You’ll often find that the ground that playgrounds serve to soften the falls of our kids. If we think about the kingdom of God this way, we’ll see that God functions as the ultimate protector in our lives. He’s there to pick is up when we fall and to brush us off and send us back up the stairs to the slide. And lastly, our gatherings should be safe enough for “toddlers” to “play.” We must approach the kingdom with the sense that everyone can safely participate in the things of God; it’s not just for the “superstars.”
(3) Playgrounds are great places to see kindness. I have seen some of the most amazing acts of kindness on the playground! I’ve seen kids fall and scrap their knee and a bunch of kids stop playing and go over to comfort the hurting child. I’ve seen kids stick up for kids being picked on by bullies. I’ve seen older children help younger children up stairs and down slides. If we think about the kingdom of God this way, we’ll see that the community of the Kingdom (i.e., the church), is a place where there should be other followers of Jesus who are there to encourage and comfort those who are hurting.
Now I think that leaders to need to kind of “guard” this playground environment. There are always going to be bullies out there who want to change the dynamics of the playground (my friend Chelsea is starting a group that focuses on standing against bullying!! Go Chelsea!!!). There will also be outside forces at work trying to change the atmosphere of the playground. You’ll also find a bad “parent” or “supervising adult” out there. As a pastor, I want to guard the kingdom community I serve as well as the theology that drives the people in this community. That means that I want to be aware of the fact that not all “kids” play nice and that there are spiritual forces at work against what we’re doing and that there are even some leaders who may be manipulative or abusive. The apostle Peter told pastors to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet. 5:2), but a “playground reading” might say, “Guard the playground and those who are playing.”
Welcome to the playground. As John Wimber said, ‘play nice.