By Eddie Pipkin

My stepdad loves a good sunrise at the beach, and he was in town for the 4th, so over we drove to start the day before anybody else had thought about rising.  It was a good one: vibrantly colored and soul-affirming.  It was on the way back to the parking lot, however, that we topped off those good vibes with a supplementary dose of whimsy.  There in the sand was a handcrafted open air storage box, filled with beach toys: shovels and buckets and assorted other tools for crafting sandcastles, free for the borrowing.  It made me smile.  Who takes the time out to think up such a clever way for spreading anonymous joy to total strangers?  What a world it would be if we all did that kind of thing just a little more often.

The beach toy box featured a colorful collection of pails, a few frisbees, and an assorted floaty or two.  Someone, infused with a  spirit of community, proud of their local shoreside spot, and energized by the happy aura of the beach, had taken the time to design, build, and paint this colorful bit of fun.  One presumes they also check it regularly, tidying it up and keeping it in good repair.  They probably have some help, because this kind of thing inspires other do-gooders to get involved, adding their own touches and keeping things orderly and organized.  Such public expressions of equal opportunity fun invite people to think of themselves as part of a community – people heading home leave behind a toy that others can share.  What delight to see a kid stumbling upon this unexpected trove of playful treasures or to walk this stretch of beach and see the sandcastles being crafted with these plastic engineering aids.

The beach toy box teaches inherent values to those who walk by – those who see it for a moment, and certainly to those who make use of it – values of community, sharing resources, taking care of common spaces, generosity, paying it forward, honesty, and simple, gentle kindness.

Churches can encourage this kind of fun and shared spirit of community togetherness.  It can be a feature of our church campuses, and it can be something that we encourage people to do in their own neighborhoods.  It’s inviting and neighborly, and how much easier is it to build neighborly bonds over something fun and casual than something more serious – in that sense, it’s a good entry point for relationships – let’s get people together for smiles and playful bonding before we move on to more serious work.

The beach toy box reminded me of two similar projects I have seen on a regular basis that spark the same kind of serendipitous localized joy: sidewalk chalk and Little Free Libraries:

  • Sidewalk Chalk: The pandemic brought a flurry of popularity to the old-fashioned art of sidewalk chalk.  Suddenly it was not uncommon to see a big chalk thank you on a driveway or in the street that warmed a person’s heart as they enjoyed their daily escape-from-lockdown walkabout.  Fun for the artists (usually wee ones) and uplifting for the audience.  I’ve seen great examples of this on church driveways, parking lots, sidewalks, and porticoes.  (Likewise, signs were a very popular option during the pandemic, and I’ve written about that in another blog space – it’s hopefully one of the things we retain from the era of COVID.)
  • Little Free Libraries: Are you blessed to see these cute architectural gems in your neighborhood?  They are colorful repositories of books for sharing that often look like giant birdhouses, tucked adjacent to sidewalks in front yards and public spaces.  (Churches can have these, too – they can even be a great alternative to the old, familiar spiritual growth library of yore.)  There are many creative versions of LFLs, including repurposing other structures/containers in unexpected ways.  They promote reading, sharing, and a sense of connection to one another (even if anonymous).

The word that immediately came to mind for me when I encountered the beach toy box was WHIMSICAL.  It’s the same feeling I have when I randomly encounter Little Free Libraries and sidewalk chalk art as I’m out for an evening walk.  But as I thought about that feeling, I struggled to define exactly what whimsical / whimsy meant, so I turned to my (highly recommended) friends at Word Hippo and found some synonyms that confirmed my initial reaction: fanciful, quirky, playful, quaint, offbeat, amusing, creative, imaginative, random, witty.  Exactly!  Think about our local church spaces.  Think about our programming, our communications, our presence in the community.  How often would people describe them as playful?  Or any of those other fun adjectives?  Fun, after all, is the general spirit we’re aiming for here.  People like to laugh.  People like to enjoy themselves and their interactions with each other.  People like to have fun.  For a religion that identifies one of its defining characteristics as joy, shouldn’t our reputation be as people who are clearly open to . . . FUN?

There are three spaces, geographically, where we can indulge the call to whimsy: public spaces (which are spaces that we don’t control – spaces in the community beyond our doors); border spaces (which are the places where our controlled spaces intersect with public spaces, such as the edges of our property); private spaces: our own property and facilities.  Each space has its own opportunities and challenges.  Projects of whimsy are perhaps most easily engaged in spaces over which we have total control, so we should be fully and regularly creative in bringing fun and wonder to those spaces.  Of course, the challenge is to bring the greater public to those spaces, and this is an interesting opportunity because we don’t really think of church spaces as private spaces (nor should they be), but they are generally quasi-public.  One of the great challenges for any local church in terms of its relationship to the community is whether that community thinks of the church space as public (welcoming and interested in the community beyond its doors) or as a private, insulated, exclusionary space.  Whimsy that invites people in can bridge this gap effectively.

The borderlands are a great place to invite people in (and there are definitely “town square” applications that can invite people onto the church property in very public ways: providing publicly accessible playgrounds, parks, and practice fields are examples we have written about in this space).  Whimsy at the very edge of the property can clearly invite people to visit our space and familiarize themselves with our campus.

Public spaces, of course, provide the clearest hurdles.  But they are a great opportunity for partnerships and well worth the extra work.  Collaborative whimsy projects in public spaces create an impetus for building relationships, and they give a whole new group of people exposure to who we are.  Thinking about public space also extends our influence as individuals on behalf of the congregation.  Individual families can undertake whimsical projects in their own neighborhoods.  We should actively encourage (perhaps even empower and resource) this kind of playful evangelism.

Here are some reminders of potential public projects:

  • Portable Parties: We can throw fun family parties in a variety of public spaces from parking lots to schools to parks to assisted living centers.  Cookouts and bounce houses and face painting and hula hoop dance-offs with no agenda other than spreading joy build enormous goodwill.  Some churches even sponsor “party trailers” with all the gear for a neighborhood blowout, and they loan those trailers out to congregation members for their own neighborhood gatherings.
  • Community Art: We can partner with a big interactive community art, project or we can invite community artists to display their work at our facilities.  Similarly, we could host a community arts festival off campus or at our facility, inviting in visual artists, musical groups, and theatrical groups to share their work.
  • Kites: A kite distribution at a local park or vacant field can be a ton of fun.  This could be an announced event or a random pop-up activity.
  • Bubble Fun: Same idea, but with bubbles, and obviously bubbles could be offered in a more confined space.  You could pitch the bubble fun idea or something similar to local retailers (no proselytizing at these events – just neighborhood partnership fun).  These public fun ideas are unlimited.  Imagine your church establishing a Fun Patrol, a ministry whose very job was to spread whimsy in the community, establishing your church as a jocular place where people love bringing joy to others.

Many of those are ideas are admittedly labor intensive.  I’ve been racking my brain to think of more fun passive ideas (like beach toy boxes and Little Free Libraries).  Those concepts involve sharing things, so I would love to hear from you if you have similar ideas that could be creatively implemented.  There are some churches that are doing excellent work with sharing centers that are not staffed, such as food pick-up lockers and a church I know of that hosts a “bus stop ministry”: they have a bus stop next to their sanctuary where they keep free bottled water and snacks for anybody to refresh themselves.

I can envision a gratitude station, which would be a public space where people could write down things they are thankful for – or perhaps a public prayer station that could work in the same way.  I have seen wonderful art installations which consisted of an old upright piano, whimsically decorated and left in a public area for people to just sit down at and play as they felt led – other musical options spring to mind.  Art walls and paintable sculptures allow people to add their own creative additions.

What are examples of whimsy that you’ve been uplifted and inspired by?  What ideas can you think of for local churches to enact (the simpler and more affordable the better)?  How should fun be a part of the work of the church?  Please share your ideas – we love to learn from you!