Playing Church?

Written by Jeremy Pate on . Posted in Youth Minister

The phrase “playing church” is making the rounds in the religious community. The phrase indicates that the Lord’s Church simply isn’t “real” for many so-called “Christians.” What does this really mean? How can we tell when someone is “playing church?” Better yet, why don’t we start with ourselves; how can we tell when we’re “playing church?” Let’s go back to the days of our youth (well, MY youth anyway; you can go back to your youth on your own time) and try to understand some basic elements involved in this idea.

I used to play “cowboys and Indians” when I was little. This usually meant that I dressed up like a cowboy (or Indian, whichever costume was more accessible) and began running around like one. On occasion, my brother would join me in the masquerade and we would have some great fun “playing cowboys and Indians.” On other occasions, the game would take on other forms, such as “playing Dukes of Hazzard” or “playing Star Wars” or “playing Batman and Robin;” the basic principles, however, remained the same: we dressed up and acted out parts. If it was a cowboy, I based my “acting” on what I knew about cowboys (usually from movies or television shows that had other people “playing” cowboys and Indians! Bonanza, anyone?). I’ll have to admit, I had never actually MET a cowboy, so I’m not sure if it was an accurate portrayal or not.

The costume was always a vital part of the game, as were the props. Granted, I didn’t have any “real” cowboy stuff (I don’t think plastic hats and water pistols would’ve corralled too many herds), but I did the best with what I could find in the attic, my parents’ closet, the junk drawer and the garage. After an honest reflection of those wardrobe choices, it is fairly clear that they were rudimentary, at best, and at worst they would have been truly offensive to any real cowboys who may have galloped into the yard during the game.

The game began as soon as we got dressed and started running around the yard. There was hiding, yelling, throwing, running, falling, climbing, and several artificially produced “bangs” involved in the proceedings; and although there were no real horses, we had some cleverly disguised broomsticks that got us around that yard as quickly as any thoroughbred.

Sometimes the neighborhood kids would join us and the game could get pretty elaborate. There might be the occasional fort or “base” and even some walkie talkies if the “rich neighbors” came (which, as any historian will tell you, were authentic to the cowboy lifestyle). If all the pieces fell into place, we could have quite the experience in that yard.

When we were all tuckered out (whoever “tucker” is, he must’ve been tired a lot), we stopped playing. We would go inside and take off our costumes and go back to our real life, which usually consisted of several chores, a vegetable or two and bedtime. It was a real bummer. Why couldn’t we be “cowboys and Indians” all the time anyway?

As it turns out, actual cowboys don’t get to run around the yard much. They don’t wear those clothes because they found them in their parents’ closet and they look “fun.” They work. They work really hard, actually. Sure, they get to camp out a lot and they get to ride horses, but actual cowboys aren’t what I thought they were. In fact, in retrospect, I never actually wanted to BE a cowboy; in my simple mind, I wanted to pretend to be like the cowboys I had seen (who weren’t real cowboys either). I was so far away from the authentic cowboy experience that I wouldn’t have recognized a real cowboy if he had walked into my yard and said “Howdy.” To put it simply, I had no idea what a cowboy WAS. My entire “cowboy experience” was based on something fake; something I had seen someone else doing.

As I grew older, I stopped playing “cowboys and Indians” and looked for more “realistic” pursuits (like grocery bagger and waiter). I realized that my game was just that; a game. It was time to move on to real life.

But let’s say I actually DID want to become a real cowboy. What would I do? Would I keep putting on that vest and carrying around that water pistol and constantly calling my brother to say, “Hey, leave the kids with your wife and let’s run around the yard for a while!” I would hope not. I would hope that I would do a little investigating and find out how to actually become a real cowboy. I guess if I didn’t like what I found out, I might change my mind about it, but let’s get real: real cowboys aren’t PLAYING. Sure, it may have started that way, but eventually they made it real.

What about those who call themselves “Christians?” Does this little story help us understand our earlier questions about “playing church?”

For starters, how do you know what you “know” about what it means to be a “Christian?” There’s a big difference between getting your information from the source (God’s Word) and getting it from someone who is pretending to be something that they saw someone else pretending to be (and so on)! How much of what you do at “church” has anything to do with who you really are? How much of it is real? How much of it is a “part” you’re playing because you saw someone else playing it? How many times have you put on your “church clothes” and “played church” in the “church building?”

Still not sure? What about this: when you’re finished “at church,” is it time to go back to your “real life?” Is it time to go back to your “normal” behavior? Maybe it’s time to take out the curse words that you’d never say in the “church building” but you have no problem saying to your wife and kids. Maybe it’s the constant arguing, fighting and complaining that you and your family engage in that “stops” whenever you walk through the doors of the “church building.” Maybe you just simply flip the switch and start being yourself again when you walk out of “church.” You’re not trying to impress anyone; you’re not trying to appear “good;” you’re not pretending to have it all together; it’s just you now, and you are faced with the depressing realization that your life isn’t good; you don’t have it all together, and you really don’t even KNOW this Jesus you claim to be worshiping every week.

How long have you been playing this game? Isn’t it getting old? Aren’t you a little old to still be playing it? Make no mistake, we have gotten elaborate with our “church game” these days. We’ve gone beyond walkie talkies and we now have Power Point, pews, balconies, sound systems, fellowships, youth programs, and gospel meetings! Is there anything wrong with any of these things? Absolutely not; but if our Christianity isn’t real, they’re nothing but “props” to be laid down when we’re tired of playing. Why would we fight with a water pistol when God offers us a 357 Magnum? Why would we continue riding around on broomsticks when God has stables stocked with the finest horses money can buy?

Why not find out, from the source, what this “church stuff” is all about? If it turns out that we’re just not interested in it, it’s our choice to say “no;” but I dare you to take an honest look at Jesus the Christ and NOT be interested in following Him….for REAL. Are you tired of “playing” yet?