For many people, the word “church” sounds serious. It might bring to mind stiff liturgies, outdated suits and ties, or serious discussions of eternal consequence.

But church can also be something “playful.”

Allow me the opportunity to explain.

Permission to Take Your Faith Outside the Church Building

It was seven years ago when our church first came across the idea of fresh expressions. The idea of meeting people where they already are and building communities of faith in a way that we hadn’t considered before was brand new to us.

As we began to delve into what this may mean for our church, we found ourselves contemplating how Jesus dwelled among us, compelling us to consider how we might be more like Jesus in this way.

To help explore this journey as a church, we committed a sermon series to the book of Acts. We followed along as the Gospel was carried from Jerusalem to Rome, demonstrating that the message of Jesus was for the entire world. 

At the end of one of the sermons in this series, there was a question asked of the congregation. “Have you ever thought of how your passions and hobbies could be used to build God’s kingdom?”. To be honest, I’m not sure how most of the congregation responded to this question. But I do remember Alec.

Immediately following worship, Alec came up to me without missing and a beat said, “Do you think that means we could see what God could do in the gym I work at?” I answered with a resounding “yes!” although I had no idea what it would look like. This was the start of “Fit Faith”. 

Overtime, we found ourselves working out, praying, reading scripture, sharing in communion, picking up trash in the community, and experiencing a baptism with a gentleman who hadn’t walked into a traditional church building in 14 years. This church at a gym was a blessing to many.

Talking with Alec about that moment in worship, there was a word that continues to stick with me to this day: “permission.”

“Before that moment,” Alec shared with me, “I didn’t feel like I had permission to take my faith into a place other than a church building.”

Since then, I’ve met many who feel that they couldn’t or shouldn’t, explore how their Christian faith could impact the world outside the common ways we have lived out our faith. Sunday morning worship, mission trips, and Bible studies are familiar practices of the Christian faith. But somehow, weaving faith into passions and hobbies is seldom considered.

Fresh expressions is the sense of permission it gives to doing exactly this.

What is “Play?”

One definition “play” is “a way to connect with our being by doing”. In this definition, there is a recognition that we are both physical and spiritual beings. This thing called ‘play’, is a way for us to connect these realities. When we play, we do not to dismiss our physicality but sit up straight, lean in close and look at how God is at work. 

Can you remember a moment that you’ve been laser-focused on an endeavor? A moment where you engaged with your full being? A moment when your intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and passion start to align? That is play.

Play is not a distraction from reality, it’s a digging deep. Play, when approached with curiosity and intentionality, becomes more than games and a good time. It becomes an opportunity for us to engage rather than disengage. 

Watch a child play for more than 5 minutes and you’ll see what I’m saying is true. Whether a child is making up rules for a new game, trying to balance on a log in the backyard, or making chocolate chip cookies for the first time, they dig deep and are invested. They are learning, they are serious about play, they are connecting with their being by doing. 

Churches that Play

Coming to an understanding that play is different than a distraction from reality and more than board games (a type of play) and silliness (a quality of play), and rather it’s a way for us to connect with who God created us to be, we can start seeing how a church can form around it. 

From my experience, a fresh expression most commonly starts in one of two ways. The first is through observing and meeting a need that exists in a community. The second is observing one’s own passions and hobbies and exploring how those very things could be used to build a community of faith. It’s in this second way that the Alecs of the world gain the permission needed to create fresh expression of this kind. 

At the start of this journey, I thought I might be the only one that believes in taking play seriously. However, I’ve discovered that many are already doing this type of ministry. There are Churches meet on mountain tops with Snowboarders and Skiers for Christ (SFC), church services happening on a racetrack before events, yoga churches, motorcycles revving their engine all together to say “Amen”, surfers exploring discipleship on beaches with Christian Surfers, and the list goes on.

Today’s networked world makes it easier than ever to connect with others who share our interests and passions. At the same time, we have pioneering leaders like Alec who struggle to find their place in our most common expressions of church. Fresh expressions, among other things, is the promise that we don’t have to “be so serious”, that we can play and develop Christian community at the same time.

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Mitch Marcello
About the Author

Mitch Marcello

Mitch is the Director of Worship at First United Methodist Church in Williamsport, PA, founder and Director of Imago Innovation, and is Mission Strategist & Innovation Specialist with Fresh Expressions. Prior to these pursuits, he founded the Acts Network, a collection of fresh expressions of faith connected to his local church, working with leaders to explore the creation of Christian community where there is none. Understanding that we are called to create, he is passionate about helping unlock creative potential in individuals, teams, and churches, assisting Christian leaders to apply tools for innovation to mission and ministry. Mitch holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts and Artist Diploma from Carnegie Mellon University, and a Masters Degree in Creativity and Innovation from Drexel University.