The cover image of the book, A Theology of Play

A Theology of Play: Learning to Enjoy Life as God Intended
(Kregal 2024)
Kevin Gushiken

Why are Christians so serious? One might not expect this question to come from a Bible college professor who serves as a ​department chair and directs a doctoral program in leadership. And yet, as Kevin M. Gushiken observed church culture post-COVID-19, he couldn’t help but think that many believers didn’t seem to be enjoying life. Why, he wondered, did so many Christians seem to be missing out on delighting in the “beautiful sanctuary” or, as he likes to call it, “playground” that God has given us?

Gushiken realized that the answer likely lies in the fact that the concept of play is often reduced to a human, or even worldly, status. In other words — it’s thought of as something like cheap entertainment rather than meaningful enrichment with positive spiritual, personal, and relationship benefits.

“We shove it down,” says Gushiken,” relative to other spiritual disciplines like prayer, reading the Bible, and church attendance. I thought, ‘perhaps if we ground it theologically — [if we ask] what does God have to say about play? — that that would give us permission to play.’”

These questions and desire for theological grounding led Gushiken to write A Theology of Play, which he spoke about with Common Good a few days ago.

What are some of the benefits of play in the lives of Christians?

To use a personal example, if I have a stressful day at work and I come home, it’s easy to get caught in that stress, and it just lingers. But I’ve sometimes come home feeling stress from work, and my wife or children will engage in play. Immediately, the stress doesn’t seem so much. Research has shown there’s benefits in terms of optimism and mental health. Play really does help us in terms of seeing a better outlook in life.

I also think there’s a restorative piece. I’ve talked to a lot of people about play, and what they say is, yeah, I feel better after I play. I’m more energized, I’m more relaxed, rejuvenated. I wonder how much of our stress is because we don’t take time to play.

I think there’s relational benefits, too. In terms of the team I oversee here, we try to play on a regular basis, and it builds that relational trust. I think that when you play with someone genuinely, you feel safe with that person. And so when you feel safe with someone, it builds trust.

I also think play has spiritual benefits in the sense of if we never play, how does that shape our view of God? As if God is always serious and doesn’t want us to enjoy. When we do play and we actually think of play as a gift from God, it actually helps our view of God to say, oh, our God wants our joy and wants our playfulness

You wrote, “Play is a means by which God provides a life-giving oasis in the desert moments of life.” How so?

Back in 2013, I was diagnosed with leukemia. I have leukemia. It doesn’t go away; it will never go. In the book, I talk about the moment I got the call from the doctor. I was in the middle of a store in the mall. And when a doctor calls you, it’s never good.

I got that news and was really processing that news.  The mind starts racing. Am I gonna see my daughter get married? Am I going to grow old with my wife? Am I going to see my son graduate from high school? I had that night as my wife and I were processing. A very sleepless night. Definitely a desert moment.

The next morning, it had snowed in Chicago, which is where we lived. Our kids were younger, obviously, and they wanted to go out and play. My wife took them out but because I didn’t know what this meant in terms of my health, and I decided to stay inside. I thought that I needed to kind of protect myself. But thankfully in that moment, God prompted me and I said to myself, I don’t know how long this is going to last, this can’t define me, I can’t live in fear. I need to live my life. I need to enjoy my life.

I got bundled up and I stepped outside threw a snowball at my kids and played. My wife was like, is this wise? I told her I didn’t know, but I needed to enjoy my life. I needed to live.

To your question, I think I’ve played more in the past nearly 11 years than I did before that. Play has helped me not to be defined by my difficulty or my desert. It’s helped me to see life as more than something that is challenging. It’s helped me see that my joy is not dependent on my health and my play is not dependent on whether life is good. In fact, I would say in those moments, I actually need to play because play is an antidote to those mental barrages that want to consume you.

In the “Learning to Be” chapter, I was really caught by how you explained the ways we’re simultaneously obsessed with the future and reliving our past. How can play can be a catalyst toward living in the moment that God has given us right now?

I will be the first to say that I’m still learning that. I would say play helps us be in the moment because I don’t think you can play and not be in the moment. You can fake play not be in the moment. And that’s sometimes what I would do, which is like, I would be playing with my kids, but I’m thinking about work. Or I’m playing with my wife and I’m thinking about a regret I had in a work decision or family decision the day before.

For me, taking those moments and saying, No, this moment is precious and I’m going to prioritize this moment of play — it kind of frees me from yesterday, gives me pause to tomorrow, and allows me to just be present.

Kids do this so well. They’re just there. They’re not worried. They’re just there. And I think we could learn a lot from kids in terms of playing in the moment.

Relatedly, kids shine at play as a means to growing their personal relationships, even though they don’t probably consciously know that’s what they’re doing. You’ve spoken to this some in your own family — how else have you seen play enrich relationships?

Sometimes we think of play as an activity, right? While that can be true, we also need to be playful, which is an attitude that really can permeate every aspect of our life.

At work, I’m always trying to joke with colleagues. We have some friendly banter. We try to build into our workplace environment opportunities to laugh and to have friendly competitions, basically to try to cultivate playfulness. Relational trust has deepened as a result. When we talk about serious issues or concerns or institutional difficulties, we start not from a point of, “This is a workplace decision,” but rather, “Hey, we have a relationship and we have trust and we’re safe with one another.” Then we can really get to the heart of it.

Many Common Good readers are involved in ministry either vocationally or as lay leaders. How would you encourage them introduce playfulness in their ministries?

I would say it starts with them personally. They can ask themselves, Am I playing? Why or why not? Am I playing outside of work? That’s a good place to start.

From there, maybe ask, Are you playing with your family members? Are you yourself taking time to play? Is there a hobby? Are you neglecting that hobby? Are you neglecting Sabbath? You need to play personally.

Secondly, then, are you open and willing to begin to have moments of play in your ministry context? You have to play individually and then it can permeate your ministry context, your workplace, environment, whatever it might be.

Introduce moments of play, like scheduling something with your workplace team or ministry team where you go do something fun — and view it not as quaint or a waste of time, but as truly productive. Recognize that play helps relationship trust.

A lot of people, I think, consider play to be separate from work. But the research says that workplaces that play enjoy an increased productivity of 20 percent. When you play, you build relationships, get a break, and are re-energized to work.

I think I might already know the answer to this, but was there a chapter of the book that was the most challenging for you to write and, if so, why?

Yeah, you guessed it: the one on being in the moment. That was challenging because it was like I was writing into a mirror. I had to look at myself and say, how do I need to overcome this?

A close second was “Learning to Love Me: Playing in My Identity” because, for me, identity can be wrapped up in what I do and feeling productive in what I accomplish. which pushes against play because play doesn’t seem productive. That was a close second to say, no, my identity is in God, and I have an Abba father who wants me to play and enjoys when I play. In fact, I think of my own role as a dad. I love when my kids tell me they played.I don’t sit back and say, oh, you could have done this more. I love it when they play because as a dad I want them to enjoy life.

So, how much more our Abba Father must love when we play. Yet our identity is often not sometimes wrapped up in that, it’s wrapped up in other things.

What else do you want to tell Common Good readers?

God gives us permission to play. We’re the only creature that has the ability to laugh uniquely and creatively as image bearers of God. That says something that God made us with that capacity. He could have made us without the ability to laugh, but he made us with the ability to laugh. As much as play may be foreign topic, step into it and see this as not a human or worldly thing, but as something that God gives to us as a gift to enjoy today.


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. A Theology of Play is available June 25, 2024, from Kregel Publications.