In 2006 I started working as a trainer for The Salvation Army after a career as an English teacher in secondary schools when my new boss asked me if I had ever heard of Godly Play. I hadn’t, and I wasn’t particularly keen to find out more, but he insisted for there had been many inquiries about it. And so, I found myself on a three-day Core Training in Cambridge with Dr. Rebecca Nye and The Rev. Peter Privet. Although I enjoyed the course, I was not convinced that Godly Play would be readily accepted in The Salvation Army. Nevertheless, I thought I would give Godly Play a go with my own Sunday School class in the Anglican Church. It was then that I was converted! The children were engaged and thoughtful in a way that I had never seen before. Slowly I began offering Godly Play taster sessions on training days and the interest grew and developed. My job was becoming more about Godly Play than anything else. Rebecca started talking to me about the necessity of liturgical action stories for The Salvation Army: Communion, Baptism, and the Circle of the Church Year are not applicable in The Salvation Army, but there are traditions and practices that are key. For instance, each Salvation Army church will have its own flag used on special occasions and a Mercy Seat, which is a place of prayer.
In 2012 I travelled to the Netherlands for the Training for Trainers Course and on my return began work on stories in the style of Godly Play with Rebecca and a group of senior Salvation Army officers. Three stories emerged: one about belonging to God, based around The Salvation Army Flag; another about meeting God at the Mercy Seat, and finally one about the Social Action work of The Salvation Army.
Rebecca was the author and was clear that the stories would need extensive trials with children. From across the UK, at a summer camp for children from inner city Glasgow, a Belfast after-school-club, and an inner-city Sunday School we got feedback and revisions were made. Now, we are on the fourth version of the stories and revision is on-going. The presentations build from images, language, and action that children regularly doing Godly Play would encounter. They are very popular, however, with adult groups and have been a gateway through which people have discovered Godly Play, understanding from the outset that Godly Play is a powerful place of encounter for all ages in a wide variety of contexts.
Since 2013 there have been seventeen three- day courses and over two hundred people have been trained. The Salvation Army, both in the UK and overseas, provides funding for this training. Trained Salvationists across the world from Jamaica, Pakistan, Australia, Samoa, and Europe are recognizing that Godly Play has the gift of taking us to the child within us, as well as to God. It is proving to be a place for the beginning of healing for many whose broken and chaotic childhoods have shaped their adult beings. Now Rebecca has written a story about Catherine Booth, and another about William is being developed at present. Only people who have undertaken training in Godly Play can access the scripts and materials. We look at them on accredited Core Trainings that are organized for people primarily from The Salvation Army.
We have so many stories about the impact of Godly Play and The Salvation Army stories. Here is a taste of what is happening in our circles:
“The impact of the Godly Play training for me has gone far beyond simply doing Godly Play with a group. It has influenced my preaching, my approach to adult discipleship groups, and the way that I talk about bible stories with my own children. And I’ve been personally challenged every time I have heard a Godly Play story in ways that have really stuck with me amid everyday life. Using the Army stories has been a great way to talk about Army traditions both with people who are new to the Army but also people who have grown up with our symbols and stories but forgotten what they really mean. For example, using the Flag story on Commitment Sunday was incredibly moving as people brought their commitment to place on the flag and then generated meaningful conversation about mission afterwards.” -Naomi Clifton
“The SAFE Summer School is for people living with disabilities. The delegates range from adults with learning difficulties through adults with severe physical disabilities. The challenge for many years has been to create a bible study that will reach all of the delegates at their levels. Last year we used Godly Play instead of the traditional bible study. We had three sessions and used ‘The Great Family’, ‘Exodus’ and ‘the Ten Best Ways’. The response from the delegates was great and was the most involved and engaged I have seen many of them in bible study for years. One 60-year-old woman’s realization that her mother had been ‘Pharaoh’ when we did the Exodus story was incredibly moving. The Exodus story also resonated with many of the delegates when it came to the bit where the Hebrews had to do everything that Pharaoh said; the realization being that, for many of them, that is their reality – they are ‘slaves’ to their situation.” – Keith Turton
“I used the Holy Family with a small congregation. As I was setting up before the meeting the officer’s son, a little boy of 5, asked who the Risen Christ figure was. I got into wondering with this straight away – Yes, I wonder who it could be? He thought for a while and then said, ‘It’s my Grandad, he’s in heaven……..is it my grandad?’ (I was stunned into silence.) I said,’ Well, let’s have a look at some of the other pieces in the box too…’ and we set the Holy Family up together. He said no more about the figure but kept touching it. When it came to the time in the service when Godly Play was experienced, he sat silently until I lifted the Christ child to the risen Christ and his face lit up…’I thought it was my granddad, but it’s the real Jesus!’” -Liz Hall
“In all settings I have been amazed at the power of response. Every time I have doubted when introducing Godly Play in a different setting, e.g., with completely unchurched families, but God has been faithful, and His Spirit has worked in a powerful way. So many stories I could tell. An adult who brought themselves to the flag; the teenagers who were adamant that the people in Social Action be brought to Jesusbecause mission should be holistic and include social action and faith; the non-church child who suggested that a Mercy Seat could be in your heart so that it’s always available; the group of officers of all ages who laid on the floor playing with the desert bag; and the Ten Best Ways ‘debating’ how the stone tablets should be placed – whether they made a wall of protection around the people or whether that wall was preventing others from joining; the 8 year old boy who on the final evening of Junior camp, having spent the whole week experiencing and exploring the story of Joseph, exclaimed halfway through the Joseph story ‘I get it!’ And his face just lit up! And I have so many more stories to share!” -Debbie Eaton
“I remained a little skeptical about Godly Play all through the training course and right up to the time I first did it with children. I just couldn’t imagine that kids would sit still, quiet and attentive through the story, but they did, and they have done each time I have done it. Wow, I was surprised. I was also afraid I’d fluff my lines, as my memory isn’t great, but that hasn’t happened. That’s just as surprising. Over the last year or so I’ve done it at Sunday schools, midweek kids’ clubs, an intergenerational cell group, office prayers, officer’s retreat, a youth training event, and even a kids’ Christmas party. Leaders at all the churches have been shocked at how well the kids’ case of Messy have listened and been captivated by the story and how they have entered into the wondering and response. It’s been such a joy to lead Godly Play and provide a way for children (and adults) to encounter God.” -Adrian Kemp
I now have a job dedicated just to Godly Play – helping to promote, train and support delivery. This position is unique to any denomination in the UK. Working in a focused way with a single denomination has been exciting and liberating. We have been able to explore the huge potential of Godly Play in a variety of contexts: with children at camp; under 5s; care homes; older people’s groups; safe houses; chaplaincy and more!
To learn more about the great work being done with Godly Play in England and beyond please visit https://www.godlyplay.uk/