Playful Mischief and Worship

May 11th, 2011

We sat in worship as I observed a five-year-old occupy himself and his mother through various antics that appeared to be mischievous play. The young boy descended under the pew in front of him. Mother, intent upon the service but with one eye fixed steadily on the boy, communicated through body language a clear no to whatever the young child had in mind. I mused how many possible revolutions the child could roll under the pews before encountering a gateway of legs. With impish grin the boy lingered under the pew but ultimately returned to his station beside his mother, to her obvious relief. During the time of greetings I moved quickly to meet our adventurer, thankful for his presence and yet thankful it was not my duty to serve as referee. His greeting was vigorous and his smile infectious. To say the “peace” of Christ was passed that day might be a bit of a misnomer; instead, I think I had a newfound respect for what Mary might have put up with while searching for a carpenter’s child in the synagogue.

I am not sure we would even notice this type of activity except for the fact such events remain so rare in many congregational worship services these days. With the advent of children’s church services or congregations’ employ of a parallel Sunday school strategy, pew adventurers do not seem to abound. So I imagine it means that the carpet under the pews no longer remains as clean as in generations past. Let’s face it, neither startling impositions of laughing children during scripture reading nor the occasional adolescent belch during prayer seem to dot the landscape of worship these days. Rarely are children seen, much less heard, since so many remain excluded from the adult congregational worship. For some families, this “outsourcing” may appear as welcome respite. However, for the congregation, the absence of children, even when at their playful worse, might signal a shift of the presence of the kingdom of God.

Biblical scholars such as Judith Gundry-Volf (2001) raise the surprising question whether the exclusion of children might also mean the exclusion of the kingdom of God from our worship. Volf notes that children maintain a special interest to Jesus, not because of natural innocence or an innately cute quality, but often because of their marginalization. Yet Jesus argues that the Kingdom is somehow reflected in the presence of children. Historian Martin Marty (2007) raises an important question whether our exclusionary efforts resemble more a desire to control children (often seen as possessing problems to be solved) or reflect our welcoming them as a part of God’s mystery that awakens the child in us all?

What if worship, by definition, proves impossible when children remain absent? What shall people make of the presence of children in worship, even when they challenge adult “expectations?” How should the church respond to children who bend boundaries and challenge traditions in ways that many adults appreciate only when it is not THEIR children or THEIR worship?

Perhaps the answer lies in a redefinition of the term “mischief.” Ritual studies expert Catherine Bell (1992, 1997) notes that rituals bind together meaning and action in our lives, including worship. When we practice rituals we feel a sense of empowerment in our ability to negotiate the various shifts in worship. Just visit a new church and note the sense of disequilibrium when we have to learn how to worship in a new manner. Our negotiation of worship can empower our sense of presence before God and as we live out worship in our daily lives. However, Bell also explores our tendencies toward ritual mastery, when we begin to “dictate” the appropriate forms of worship and claim a type of expertise over what appears to be authentic (or inauthentic) worship. We construct boundaries about appropriate or inappropriate practice and often begin (tacitly if not explicitly) drawing a line between what—or who—“fits” into our world of worship. In doing so, children may be excluded either directly (banished to children’s church or Sunday school) or indirectly through our refusal to contemplate liturgical forms that include their presence as well as that of adults.

Along come children, who remain experts at “play.” The term “play” often describes a number of actions, including gaining competence in life (playing a role) and relationships (playing with others). In addition, theorist Brian Sutton Smith (1997) notes that play, particularly mischievous play, might also signal a creative testing of boundaries during which children explore their strengths and expose adult expectations (and perhaps control). When children playfully interrupt our expected patterns of worship, they often test the boundaries of adult ritual expectations. Children remind us of our humanity, our proclivity toward mastery, and expose us to the possibility that worship needs to maintain a sense of openness for the sake of the kingdom of God. Although they may be excluded from the planning of worship, their playfulness often asserts their desire to influence the practice of worship.

The church has always possessed such people throughout her history. People that congregations both love and often venerate, but whose “quirkiness” often challenges our sense of dignity and piety. Historically the church identifies many of these people as “saints” of the church. Edith Wyskcogrod (1990), reflecting on the role of sainthood, notes often saints defy traditional accounts of everyday holy living. Many times the oddity of their lives serves as a form of testing or “troubling” the traditional roles the church plays in that historical period. These saints often challenge churches to examine how their congregations are embedded in cultural expectations through saintly vows of poverty, through extreme examples of care, or, frankly, through all too extreme lifestyles. Sainthood (whether formal or informal) often reveals both the best of the church and her awkwardness in dealing with people marked by God to live to a different drum.

Understanding the role of “saints” might help our understanding of the role of children in worship. Ministers might argue for the presence of children in the life of the worship as necessary, not only in forming children into the life of worship, but also for helping adults benefit from their playful, mischievous presence. If we accept this perspective, adults could acknowledge that mischievous play signals a new call for discernment, one that seeks to understand why we limit our view of mischief to a problem to be solved rather than a mystery to be explored. Asking these types of questions may help adults explore why contemporary culture, including the church, often addresses similar issues to the detriment of children. Ministers could redefine both worship and certain forms of mischief within the larger framework of play and ritual practice in order to explore how the actions of children actually reveal the work of the kingdom of God. Congregants could perceive child mischief as a theological or “saintly” gift, when children playfully challenge adult ritual boundaries so that new aspects of the kingdom of God might indeed be revealed in the church.

The next time a young child chooses to laugh or explore the underside of the pews, we might all do well to ask how that child’s actions both challenge our adult preconceptions and contribute to the life of worship. The presence of children—mischievously playful children—may provide echoes of the Kingdom in a world of ritual mastery. In doing so, perhaps the church will rediscover what we mean by “all saints” day, as we collectively explore the mystery of God’s creative activity in our congregations and in our world.


Bell, Catherine (1997) Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press

--- (1992) Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press

Gundry-Volf, Judith M. (2001) “The Least and the Greatest: Children in the New Testament” in Marcia J. Bunge (Ed.) The Child in Christian Thought. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans,

Marty, Martin E. (2007) The Mystery of the Child. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans 2007

Sutton-Smith, Brian (1997). The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Wyschogrod, Edith (1990) Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Dean G. Blevins (Ph.D. Claremont School of Theology), Professor of Christian Education, Nazarene Theological Seminary

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