“Remember Baby McBabyface?”
I recently had the joy of reconnecting with several youth who took part in confirmation classes with me several years ago. Their pleasure in my presence was enthusiastically overshadowed by sharing favorite memories of learning about the sacraments. In full clerical garb the students had conducted an infant baptism of a nursery doll, dubbed “Baby McBabyface,” at the sanctuary font. “Baby” was replaced by a larger doll who took first communion from a middle school-aged “Bishop” in “swirly cape and pointy hat,” as the cope and miter were described.
Role play was not a part of my own catechism lessons those many years ago. Such actions would have been scandalous! Although my faith remained, my deep appreciation and understanding complex enough for discussion of the sacraments came much later in life, when I was allowed to take active part rather than observe and memorize vocabulary terms. These students are filled with joyous humor and playfulness, but their connection with the Holy Spirit is no less deep or lifegiving. I encountered these students at a seminary discernment retreat after lifechanging experiences in mission, outreach and leadership training. Memories of embodied experience remained with them years after the fact, as did a sense of personal connection to sacrament they are already exploring sharing with others.
The majority of early childhood educational models uplift role play as an important part of multi-sensory learning. Through a justice lens we can also recognize that representation matters. For a young person to confidently and openly discern a call to lay leadership or rostered ministry, they must first be able to envision themself as a church leader. Before young people become parents, they play house. Before young people hold their first job, they play restaurant or office. These are not only enactments of seen behavior; they are rehearsal of future behaviors where essential skills are practiced and perfected. Encouraging our young people to participate in worship with adults and engage in service and learning with intergenerational support are vital influences for future behavior. Role play also supports an experiential faith while encouraging groups of people underrepresented in church leadership to envision themselves as empowered and supported leaders.
Whether it’s small stoles and felt communion wafers with a mini altar in your preschool room, enacting baptism or communion with confirmation students, giving voice to oil anointers or Sunday School teachers as well as historical figures during elementary Godly Play, role play can be a vital part in leadership formation as well as faith formation. Create memories that engage multiple parts of the brain and several senses while encouraging confidence in leadership and young leaders can emerge.