My youngest son Nathanael has a playground radar. Ever since he was old enough to walk and talk, he could seemingly sense them from miles away. We would be driving down the highway at 60 mph, and he could spot a rusty old slide in the middle of an overgrown field. “Oh, a playground! Can we stop?” He is now almost 10, and his playground passion has yet to wane. He has been dragged along to countless meetings and presentations, forced to sit still while the adults drone on. The meetings are not for him. The playground is for him, and he knows it.

Of course, children are not the only ones who like a good playground. Most of us would rather be at our favorite leisure venue than in a meeting. There may not be slides and swings, but we adults have those places that seem to be built especially for us. What is it for you? The beach? A fishing boat? An art studio or woodworking shop? A golf course? The woods?

How many of you said “CHURCH”? …tumbleweed…

There is something seriously deficient in our piety if we think that playgrounds and churches are mutually exclusive.

You have all encountered this form of piety. Many of you experience it in your own churches. Some of you assume that this is the way church is supposed to be. Respectful. Reverent. Stoic. Children become distractions in this sort of environment. If they cry or bang a toy against something, the adults have trouble hearing the sermon or the prayers. Someone with mental or behavioral disorders is seen as even more distracting. Why do they even bother coming? Why don’t the parents wait until that child can sit still? Inevitably, someone gives the child (or the parents) an annoyed look. (Even in congregations that are the most welcoming to young children, there is always someone who gives the look.)

We can see this sort of piety throughout Jesus’ ministry. There was that time when he was giving a very serious and very adult-themed sermon on the sanctity of marriage and these annoying little kids came right up to him, distracting the adults from what he was trying to say. Remember Jesus’ response? (Matthew 19:14) Then there was that time when he was invited as the guest of honor to a formal dinner, and some random woman barged in, started crying all over his feet, and then wiped them with her hair. The host righteously tried to get rid of this annoyance. Remember Jesus’ response? (Luke 7:44-48) And then there was that time that Jesus had a very important place to go, and he had to hurry to arrive in time to save a little girl’s life. That is serious business! Remember what happened? Some desperate lady, bleeding all over (out of wherever), came and grabbed him from behind! This was a disaster, since it not only made him late but also made him ritually unclean. Remember Jesus’ response? (Mark 5:30-34)

There was a name for these uber-religious leaders from Jesus’ time that were overly focused on tradition and piety: Pharisees. Remember them? The Bible is not very understanding of their way of thinking.

In a desperate attempt to be respectful and proper, we have lost sight of the gospel, the treasure hidden in a field, which the faithful pursue with reckless abandon (Matthew 13:44). Some people seem more concerned with how the lawn looks than the treasure that lies within.

We are teaching people, especially children and those with different mental or physical abilities, that church is not for them. People are walking away from the church because they do not feel welcome. I hear about this disconnect all the time from young people at camp. They recognize that camp is designed with them in mind. Church, on the other hand, seems out of touch, only for adults, or overly fixated on the proper way to do things. Here are a few responses I have received when I asked campers to compare their camp experience with church:

From an Episcopal camper in Texas: “The teachings [at camp] are more easy to understand than at my church. They make it easier to understand, and they make it fun to learn about God.”

From a Methodist camper in California: “My friends at camp made me feel a lot better about church. You know, it’s not all a boring service.”

From a Presbyterian camper in Illinois: “Here at camp, when we have a Bible study, it makes sense. When we talk about it, we all share what we think about it. And at church, it’s just someone who talks about it, and we all have to try to bear with it or something.”

Finally, from a Lutheran camper in Wisconsin: “[At camp,] you get treated like a person rather than like a little kid.”

What if church could be a place of discovery and friendship? What if people felt free to share what they thought and felt respected, not talked down to? Maybe church would be a little more like camp. Maybe people of all ages would think of church as a place for them, a place where they longed to be.

Campers feel that way about camp. It is designed for them, as a playground is designed for children. But camp is not a collection of slides and swings (or even ziplines!). It is a sacred place where the gospel message is shared in an understandable way and young people are treated like people. It is a place of fun and discovery. It is a SACRED PLAYGROUND.

What if our churches could be sacred playgrounds, too? Maybe when we are driving past, our young passengers would say, “Oh, a church! Can we stop?”