Written by Ivy Beckwith
Godly Play is a practice for helping children and others experience and explore Bible stories based on the methods of early childhood educator, Maria Montessori. In its most basic form children are invited into the Bible story through the telling of the story and the use of objects reflecting the plot line of each story. When the story teller has finished the days' story the children are asked to respond to a series of questions about the Bible story. The questions usually begin with the words "I wonder" and there is no right or wrong answer to the questions. The questions are not used to elicit a specific interpretation of the story from the children but to help them discover what they think and feel about the story and what God's spirit might be saying to them. After the story the children begin their "work" which is their opportunity to respond to the story through art activities and other types of play.
I find the Godly Play way refreshing because so much of what we do in the church is telling children, youth and adults what the Bible stories mean rather than giving them the tools to figure it out for themselves. In my book, Formational Children's Ministry, I wrote the following about changing the way we teach and tell Bible stories in the church:
So how do we do this? We need to change the way we use Bible stories. We need to really understand that Bible stories are not vehicles for getting us to propositional truth about God. Bible stories are already truth about God. Let's let the story be the story and tell its own truth to us. I think once we make this reversal in our thinking about Bible stories, some new ways to meaningfully introduce children (youth and adults) to the Biblical narrative may reveal themselves. (p. 30)
I think this idea could apply to how we think about sermons, too.
What if instead of preaching sermons about Bible stories we actually told the Bible stories in creative ways and then asked our congregations to "wonder" about the stories –to figure out for themselves what God has to say through these ancient stories and share it with the rest of the people? What would happen if we did this?
I imagine there would be some grumbling as some people look forward to the weekly biblical lecture. Others would need to work to become accustomed to speaking out loud in the worship service –learning how to answer questions and offer ideas. Since the sermon is often seen as the greatest impediment to pan-generational worship, this story-telling, dialogical approach would make it easier for children and youth to feel at home in weekly worship. And if we allow our people to work out the meaning of the story in their moment they might be more apt to make God's ways and Jesus' words their own rather than just take it in as something the preacher said.
In the Godly Play sessions I've taught and observed, the children express incredible insights about the stories and build on those insights from week to week. God's spirit acts in unexpected ways when we simply let the ancient stories of the Bible be stories that speak God's truth to us in our moment.
Sparking Ministry Conversations
What are some ways you could try this approach to exploring the Bible with children, youth, and adults in your church? How could you begin to incorporate this approach into your weekly worship services?
The Rev. Dr. Ivy Beckwith is the Faith Formation Team Leader for the United Church of Christ. Ivy and her team want to hear your stories about the transformative ideas your church has implemented in the area of faith formation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 216-736-3875.