Embracing Abstract Play

Guest Writer:
The Rev. Rebekah McLeod Hutto

Associate Minister for Christian Education and Discipleship, The Brick Presbyterian Church in the City of New York & MM Cohort Member, New York, New York




A developmental milestone for many toddlers is the ability to creatively play with objects beyond their obvious intent. The goal is that pretend play becomes more abstract and an object can be used to represent something else — a block can become a phone, a large box can become a car. This milestone shows creativity, imagination, and the ability to learn new skills and adapt to new environments. Children move forward with these imaginative skills, taking risks, and literally thinking “outside of the box.”

Because play is often not a daily part of our lives as adults, we can lose this skill of abstract play; as adults we can fail to imagine an object, an event, or a community in a way other than how we have always experienced it. Particularly when a lot of change has occurred, abstract play seems like constant change to our routines. Moreover, when fear and doubt creep in, abstract imagination can seem too uncertain to risk.

My church is currently going through massive transition—retirements of senior staff, significant deaths of long time members, and construction led by an extensive capital campaign. In a time of transition, embracing abstract imagination is crucial to growth. I hope we’re asking ourselves: how can we use our existing resources in new ways that can sustain our community and meet the needs of our people? How can we rethink current ministries, focusing on their mission, rather than their regularity?

Led by our mentor J.C. Austin, our NYC cohort began exploring ideas of risk taking in ministry. In certain business models, risk provides an opportunity for newness and growth. New ideas emerge and we see existing objects in new ways. In this model a new product emerges, or doesn’t, folks evaluate the outcomes, learn, and pivot again with even more creativity. The challenge, though, to these risk taking models is a fear of failure. When we are afraid that something we try or initiate will fail, we cease to be innovative as a result.

My prayer for my church, and any of yours going through transition, is to face change with a playful heart, knowing that developing an abstract imagination is a tool that many of us left behind when we “grew up.” But it might just be the necessary tool for growth and spiritual maturity.

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