Godly Play and Preaching the Story

The Purpose of Preaching
We preach to help people “discover a presence at the edge of [their] being,” to use a phrase from Jerome Berryman, the creator of Godly Play.1 That makes a sermon difficult to prepare; it is not easy to speak about things at the edge of our being. If we preachers follow the advice of the famous stylist E.B. White and make our sermons clean, accurate, and brief, we risk being too definitive and overly propositional, losing in the process the God who is ineffable. Sermons that do not follow White’s advice are so often ponderous. And yet we preachers need to help people find themselves in the great stories. What to do? Limiting ordination only to gifted poets seems unrealistic; gleaning from Godly Play is more plausible.

What is Godly Play?
Godly Play is a Montessori-based approach to children’s christian formation based on the assumptions that each child already has a relationship with the Divine and that in order for that relationship to flourish the child needs to learn how to use religious language and symbols. In a typical Godly Play hour a storyteller uses his or her own calm, prayerful presence to carefully constructs a circle of children and then to tell a story of the faith from memory using beautifully prepared materials. For example,

  • In the story of the Exile, a heavy chain is dropped into a large box of sand, vividly showing the break the people had from Jerusalem and the Temple.
  • In the story of Abraham and Sarah, a small wooden body is pushed under the sand when Sarah dies.
  • Each parable from the Gospels is held in a golden box: a closed box that contains a mystery. It will be different each time it is opened. Sometimes it can not be opened. Sometimes it can be broken. The story is the same, but the meaning can always be different.

Four questions follow whatever story is told. I wonder what part of the story you liked best? I wonder what part of the story is most important? I wonder what part is about you? I wonder if there was anything we could have left out and still have all the story we need? There are not right answers to these questions, and sometimes they lead to uncomfortable spots. During a telling of the Parable of the Sower the children wondered what the sower, whom they had identified as God, could possibly have been doing while the plants were being choked by weeds or scorched by the sun. Is God like that? I wonder. Other times there is tenderness, like when a seven-year old told how she could relate to the man in the ditch on the road to Jericho. By engaging the children in these stories, Godly Play helps them become aware of how they too are creators of meaning. Children find themselves in the story and in so doing get to “play at the edge of their existence,”2 just where God is found.

Practical Preaching Application
I rarely teach Godly Play. But the assumptions of Godly Play inform my regular preaching through

  • Less definitive and propositional arguments about God and more “entering into the language or experience of God” because God reveals in story.3
  • More trust for those in the pew, leading to open-ended sermons which conclude with implicit wonder questions allowing the listener to become a creator, making “new frames for meaning that is broken.”4

And sometimes I set aside my regular preaching to tell a Godly Play story, leaving the pulpit to tell, for example, the story of baptism from memory at the altar using beautiful materials like a silver flagon, a heavy glass container of oil of chrism, and 15 taper candles. If I can be a calm, prayerful presence, the person in the pew is drawn deeply into the story.

A preacher who brings this wisdom of the storyteller to the pulpit is teaching a language. Preaching in this way gives the text to the people. These stories are what stand between them and God. So teaching them how to use the stories and learn the language gives them access to the Divine. To borrow some language from the poet Christian Wiman, preaching in this way gives the faithful a way to “praise the thing we could not name.”5 If the hearer takes up the task, then like Jacob at Penuel, she will leave with a blessing and a limp, grappling directly with God as the preacher fades in to the background.

1Jerome W. Berryman, Godly Play: An Imaginative Approach to Religious Education (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1991), 148.

2Berryman, Godly Play, 148.

3Berryman, Godly Play, 97.

4Berryman, Godly Play, 96.

5Christian Wiman, “Gazing into the Abyss,” The American Scholar (Summer 2007) Cited May 22, 2013. Online: http://theamericanscholar.org/gazing-into-the-abyss/#.UZ2N5ZXhBcw.