Dodgeball Theology: Exploring Play and Imagination

The following is an excerpt from Dodgeball Theology by Blair Spindle:

Dodgeball is play, although, for some, the game brings back welts of painful memories. Angst is a grown-up word that best describes my own childhood experiences with the game of dodgeball on the playground. I can still feel the sting on my face from the red rubber ball Corey Bradford sent blazing my way in third grade. So, as a metaphor, I’ll be the first to admit that it is far from perfect.

But dodgeball has come a long way. The balls don’t hurt anymore. It is still a game that requires movement and even agility, but it is one of the few games left that is still played for pure enjoyment. It is recreational. There are no organized high school teams requiring three hours of practice every day. There are no club leagues or traveling teams for adolescent dodgeball. (God help us all if there are!) There is no future to be had in professional dodgeball. You never hear about million-dollar signing bonuses, free-agent acquisitions, or salary caps for dodgeball players. There are no ESPN dodgeball highlights. Though some might disagree with this conclusion, I contend that dodgeball is still only a game.

 A dodgeball theology is a colorful way of talking about the theology of play, which is an integral part of developing ministries that foster imagination and authentic play. It is important to who we are as spiritual people and as Christians.

Too many pastors have equated spirituality with some kind of Puritan somberness or Protestant work code. The kerygma–the good news–is proclaimed like some kind of math problem that needs to be figured out.

The concept of play is frowned upon. Just typing the word giggle makes me feel childish. What will theologians think? We need to get serious. We need to be safe. We need a symposium to talk through these things. We need to be sure we follow the proper steps. What formula works best for you these days?

I’m not here with a formula. This ministry business is not so neatly bundled. It’s a purposeful journey toward a certain destination, and the journey is sketchy at times. It is a community, or even better, “a communion of saints” (24) who walk together, know one another, weep together, laugh together, and play together. Numerical growth is not a goal of communions but is often a result of them. This kind of growth is an obstacle that will have to be overcome. If a creative God is compelling, then a creative communion flowing with his power, grace, forgiveness, and intimacy will likewise be compelling. The family that plays together, stays together (and grows).

Eugene Peterson’s book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places had me at hello. The title itself is compelling. Peterson believes the word play catches the exuberance and freedom that mark life when it is lived beyond necessity, beyond mere survival. Play also suggests words and sounds and actions that are intentional and meaningful renderings of beauty or truth or goodness. He explains that his intent is:  “to enlist your play (my friends and neighbors, my family and congregation my readers and students) in the play of Christ. I don’t have anything new to say: Christians already know the basics simply by being alive and baptized. We are already in on it, for Christ does, in fact, play in ten thousand places.” (26)

Dodgeball theology is practical in nature, but it also affords opportunity for transcendence. Authentic play in ministry is important with many transcendent results. Johnston says, “Though play is an end in itself, it can nevertheless have several consequences. Chief among these are the joy and release, the personal fulfillment, the remembering of our common humanity, and the presentiment of the sacred, which the player sometimes experience in and through the activity.” (27)

Resist the temptation to remove play from the curriculum. Imaginative youth ministry proudly sounds the call of deep play to the world and the church. Spirituality and play are not mutually exclusive. Depth and fun are not opposites. Often these elements are best when paired together.

If we’re not careful, we’ll get cynical and serious. I like what Mike Yaconelli says in his book Dangerous Wonder: “Before you know it, you not only stop bouncing on your bed, you stop skipping, you stop playing hide-and-seek, you stop playing” (28)

The stained-glass windows in our youth room that reached to the top of the cathedral told the story. Eyes were drawn automatically to multi-colored depictions of Christ as infant and shepherd, healer and teacher, servant and savior. It was a perfect and sacred environment and spoke the language of that mid-‘90s postmodern generation. It wasn’t a place for the trivial. Somehow basking in sun-drenched reflections of our sacred stories made games like Human Battleship or Poop Deck seem irreverent at best and certainly out of place in this kind of space.

So I drastically changed the midweek youth ministry program. In harmony with the room, we made all things deeply spiritual, which of course meant we put an end to play. No more fun and games. We instead inserted the creeds of the ancients and focused on upgrading our worship experience by using better visuals, turning down the lights, lighting candles, and developing outstanding, student-led worship bands. All these things seemed to fit the transitioning culture of high school students with their hunger for experience, image, and participation. Or so I thought.

As we progressed, the worship got better, the crows got smaller, and something negatively affected the morale of our students. It was frustrating to feel like we were on the cutting edge of emerging trends, only to see the edge actually cutting away at our momentum. It left me constantly wondering what was wrong with these students.

Until Mat, a student who played power chords in a punk band, stopped me in the hall after church and said, “Hey, this sucks. It’s no fun anymore. Why would I want anyone to come to this?”

My immediate cerebral response was to assess Mat’s spiritual depth-or lack thereof-and perhaps his ignorance concerning the traditions of the church. Everything I was doing looked good in presentation and theory. It was well done. Maybe it would just take time to adjust to the change. But my gut feeling told me he could be right.

I went with my gut when Jimmy, one of our respected adult youth sponsors spoke up at a meeting and said virtually the same thing. “This approach we’re taking is deep and spiritual and really enriching, but it’s no fun at all. There is no joy. There’s no laughter. Why does being spiritual mean we have to stop playing?”

This is a good question and important as we develop imaginative youth ministries. We desire for our students to be deep, grounded, and spiritual. We yearn for them to enlist their stories in the stories of Christ. We want them to be sanctified. We beckon them to delve into the deeper things of God.

Authentic play and imagination are no hindrance to these desired outcomes. They are helps as we present a theology and example of faith that is full of color and life. We draw them toward the freedom that is in Christ.

I listened to Mat and Jimmy, and we starting playing again. We continued with worship, creeds, and spiritual practices, but we never stopped playing. If those stained-glass windows could talk, they would tell of sermons and series, worship and passion, changed lives, and renewed hearts. They might tell who stole the acoustic amplifiers or who snuck into the catwalk during the Christmas musical. And they would certainly laugh as they tell of narrow misses from giant beach balls or packets of flying pudding. They would recall the real moments.

Taken from Dodgeball Theology © 2012 by Blair Spindle, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, MO. Used by permission of the Publisher. All rights reserved.