Playing Church

“Let’s play church,” said my two-year old daughter, Hope. She then proceeded to seat my husband and I, hand out songbooks, and push two ottomans in our living room together to form a makeshift altar.

“I’ll be Pastor Wende,” she said, reciting the name of our interim senior pastor. “You,” she said pointing at her daddy, “Can be Pastor Joe.”

She then led us in singing the Gloria, Hosanna (as sung in Jesus Christ Superstar), presiding over the communion table, passing the peace, and giving blessings. Our pretend church even included other pretend people based on the names of her real friends. (Apparently even toddlers like to have a crowd at church). At one point, Pastor Hope communed her friend from school. “This bread is for you, Aarna.” 

Our church's communion table is, after all, open so why wouldn’t the communion table at pretend church be open as well?

I joked to my husband that you know you’re a youth pastor’s kid when you “play church” but inside, I was delighted by this game.

Despite growing up in a Methodist church that included no formal liturgy, I fell in love with liturgy years ago when I first began working in the ELCA. For me, the appeal of liturgy is that it points squarely to Jesus.

Oh, I know plenty of people who criticize liturgy as dull and repetitive. They believe that by singing and saying the same words week after week, they become rote, devoid of meaning.

Yet, for me, the more I’ve said and sung our liturgy, the more I’ve grown to love it. The words comfort me. They’ve become part of my very being.

Yesterday, as my family played church together I fell in love with liturgy even more.

It’s clear liturgy has become part of Hope’s bones too. Hope may not understand what every part of the liturgy means but she knows the pattern of our liturgy. She knows the words – more than I ever really expected her to know at this point in time. And she repeats them… Not just when she participates in the liturgy during Sunday morning worship but at home as well, as she plays.

For years, people have debated what the word liturgy means. Many people believe it means the “work of the people” and that the work refers to the participatory nature of the liturgy. Other people believe liturgy is more accurately translated as the participation of the people of God in the “work of God.”

I’ve traditionally thought of liturgy as meaning the “work of the people.” Yet, as Hope plays church more and more, increasingly I’ve begun seeing liturgy as the participation of the people of God in the work of God.

The words of the liturgy are shaping Hope’s faith. They’re forming her, becoming part of her DNA. They’re instilling in her a language of faith that will, no doubt, continue to mold her. They’re teaching her that the church is open to everyone. They’re solidifying her identity as a beloved child of God.

Through the liturgy, God is working. Through her recreation of it, Hope is participating in God’s work, creating the church she experiences on Sunday the rest of the week, at home and at school.

And maybe that's the point of liturgy: To help us know who we are so that when we leave church, we, too, can live as God’s faithful people, enacting God's kingdom wherever we go.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and the forthcoming A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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