Serious Play: An Invitation to Life and Work as Worship

by Adele Booysen on February 8, 2013

Before I jump into the post, please know that when I refer to work, I do not only mean paying jobs, but any role that keeps you occupied throughout the day.


I love my job. I even have a sticker declaring that very fact stuck to my laptop, just below the arrow keys. Not that I need a reminder. I really do love what I do.

I found the sticker in a tiny basement bookstore in Taiwan, a few years ago, while I was a preschool teacher in Taipei. Here’s an important thing to know about me: I am not a preschool teacher. But I had returned to Taipei to do research on theology of work, and getting that particular job was a great place to do my research, especially in light of the fact that teaching four-year-olds was not necessarily something I felt passionate about.

So, when I first bought the sticker, it really was to remind me that I needed to focus on that which I did love about my job: being in a position where I was able to unlock the world of reading and writing to a bunch of little ones, and to touch their lives through the way I interacted with them. That, I found very rewarding.

I won’t bore you with the details, but I had resigned from being a missionary in the boonies of Kenya for several reasons, one of which was to try and understand the challenges the majority of Christians face in the workplace. One visitor to Kenya (let’s call her Annie) once told me, “What you do [as a missionary] is meaningful, Adéle. What I do just pays the bills and helps me come on trips like these.”

I wanted desperately to help people like Annie understand that work didn’t simply have to be endured, and that all of us are called to serve God regardless of our job titles. I figured, though, that I couldn’t challenge others to embrace all of life and work as worship had I not recently worked in a “secular” environment. And so I left the village and moved back to Taipei (where I had worked at a media ministry for several years before), and ended up teaching preschoolers at a prestigious international school. The career shift was an eye-opener, to say the least. A year later, I took a similar assignment, this time in a Muslim context, in Jakarta.

Along the way, I learned about the concept of serious play from a former professor of mine, and once I tossed my preschool teacher hat, I ended up interviewing almost 30 people from various walks and seasons of life and from several countries who LOVED life and work, and called them serious players. I also found some people who didn’t love their jobs, and called them reluctant workers.

A serious player, I concluded, is someone who is able to say at the end of the week, “I enjoy life. I like what I do—at work and in life—a good eighty percent of the time? But life’s not only good for me, I get to make a difference in my community.”

Serious play is a lifestyle based upon the assumption that the majority of an individual’s time—both in the workplace and in life—is not only spent doing what you are naturally gifted to do (using your skills or aptitude) but also doing what you love to do (your passion or burden) so that work is enjoyable and thus becomes play. And if what you do has significance (it has purpose or is meaningful), it is considered serious.

You can also look at this as working with your mind and your strength, with your heart and with your soul.

When you’re able to do this, work becomes worship,
and you are able to say “I love my job,”
because you’re doing what God
had uniquely created and positioned you to do.

What’s more, you are able to use the talents God had given you in such a way that opens a door for you to “enter into the Master’s joy” (Mt. 25:21). What’s not to love about that?

Serious players, I had found, tend to have the following characteristics.

  1. They are energized and have an energizing effect on their environment.
  2. They are psychologically self-employed.
  3. Serious players have what they need—and perhaps a little more.
  4. They have high self-esteem.
  5. Serious players are able to, and choose to, swim upstream or go against the tide.
  6. They live in the reality of positive, self-fulfilling prophesies so that good things keep happening to them.
  7. They do not allow one area to completely drain them but instead, by living integrated lives, allow different areas to synergize each other.
  8. They are willing to take calculated risks.
  9. They are successful in various fields.
  10. For serious players, work is a natural, enjoyable expression of self.
  11. They take time to invest in relationships.

So, how about you: Are you a serious player? What is it that you love about what you do?
If you’re a reluctant worker, what changes would you need to make in order
for you to become a serious player and thus enter into the Master’s joy?


Adéle’s doctoral dissertation was devoted to the study of serious play, for which she interviewed serious players such as Kurt Warner, Mako Fujimaro and F.W. de Klerk  as well as stay-at-home moms, struggling small-business owners, and successful business people—all serious players. Adéle has written a book on serious play and her goal is to get it published in the not-too-distant future.

Adele Booysen, challenging college students in Asia with Compassion International

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  • Great concept Adele, hope a publisher takes notice!

    • Adele Booysen

      Thanks, Chris. I hope to get the manuscript to some publishers this year… Hope all is well in the land of my birth, btw. Where in SA are you? Did I read Cape Town somewhere? If so, you’re in my favorite city in the world!

      • All is well in SA. And yes, I am in Cape Town. It is a fantastic place to live and work.

  • Very interesting! There is a lot to chew on in what your research found, a lot of inspiration to understand how God designed you and live it out. I’ve heard people refer to following God’s plan for them in a fearful way, as if they dread having to do something they are sure to hate. But you have disproved that by pointing out that operating within the design leads to more satisfaction. I have argued that point but never been able to put it quite like you did, so a bookmark is in order. Can’t wait to read the book!

    • Adele Booysen

      Oh, Christie, there’s so much to be said for finding joy in operating according to God’s unique design for our lives. Matthew 25 is a great argument to begin with. We tend to miss out on the stewardship of personal talent in that passage, and how we can experience God’s joy when we use the talents/gifts/passions with which he had created us.

      Sadly, I’ve met several pastors and missionaries who “suffer for the Lord” and really don’t love what they do. While the church approaches calling within a framework of hierarchy (“professional Christians” such as pastors and missionaries at the top, then social services workers, then teachers, then business people somewhere at the bottom) many people who are passionate about their walk with God will continue to feel like they have to go into “full-time ministry.”

      Along with Paul, I argue passionately for ALL believers to embrace whatever they do as serving God wholeheartedly (Col. 3:23-24, Eph. 6:7, to begin with). I believe when we approach ALL of life and work as worship, we will start seeing far greater changes around us than when we live compartmentalized lives…

  • This is so true for me! Especially number 5. I don’t mind the hard work and road bumps because it comes with “the job.” Besides, falling is a part of learning to walk. And pressure make you stronger. As a missionary, I love finding how our God is so creative in His plans and uses even the things we love doing to do a work for Him. (Like baking cookies–several of my students have come over to make cookies with me, and they want to do it again. Talk about an open door!) Thank you for this post. It’ll remind me to see my work as worship. There really is joy in serving Jesus–no matter where you’re at!

    • Adele Booysen

      Atalie, there are three key ingredients
      in seeing work as worship: Working with excellence, integrity and with diligence. I’ll bet you do all three! :)

  • wow, great topic. You rock! I had a regular job before (the last three been doing missions work), but it was not a working class job. My sister took a job at Hobby Lobby in the US once just to try to help understand the perspective of those who pay their bills off that amount. I’ve thought about moving to Taiwan myself….

    • Lana, I wonder what it would be like if we don’t even distinguish between “regular” jobs and “missions,” if everyone simply embraced their call? I think that would be rather refreshing, don’t you?

    • Adele Booysen

      Lana, I wonder what it would be like if we don’t even distinguish
      between “regular” jobs and “missions,” if everyone simply embraced their
      call? I think that would be rather refreshing, don’t you?

      • YES!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Verdette

    I see myself as a serious player. I love my job as an early childhood teacher, to share love in abundance with eager 2 year olds is such fun!!!!! Creating opportunities to encourage parents to take time to have fun with their children. To be creative in finding ways to enhance learning while playing. To lead a team to focus on their strengths and develop their weaknesses. just a few of the things I love of my job

    • Adele Booysen

      Verdette, I hope you can inspire others down in New Zealand to embrace serious play as a lifestyle, too!

  • Janelle

    Beautiful thoughts and article. Do you think it’s possible though that most people can even achieve “Serious Play”? So many jobs are thankless and so many jobs are forced upon people, either deliberately (bonded laborers in South Asia, child brides forced to be stay at home mothers) or because of societal forces and lack of choice (prostitutes, garbage pickers, etc.).

    • Adele Booysen

      Thanks, Janelle. I do not believe that some of the positions you mention could be serious play since it would lack one or more of the critical elements of serious play, whether skill, passion, purpose. But there are also other factors that can either contribute to these three components, or chip away at them. These factors, I found, are level of independence, community, opportunity, attitude, willingness to risk, working to your strengths, creativity, courage, perseverance and exposure.

      For example, while my job in Kenya was perfect for my skill set, I was passionate about it, and it definitely was purposeful, the fact that I lacked community completely took the rug out from under me for a season.

      On the other hand, while I was a preschool teacher for a season, I might not have lacked in some of the skills of early education, but my attitude more than made of for that.

      While you can have a good attitude about ANY work, I believe that embracing work as serious play actually is a luxury. To challenge some of my friends in various parts of Africa to take the risk and change to a job that would involve more serious play might be downright irresponsible when you’re in an environment where a person is merely trying to survive.

      Despite that, even someone who works hard to put food on the table might still be able to find moments of joy in their work merely because they’re doing it “as for the LORD,” (Col 3:22-24, which, ironically, addresses slaves.)

  • Love this topic and the way you addressed it! I love the idea of working within your passions and gifts . . . do you think that this is a goal/value for the more affluent in the world? I think of the uneducated rice farmer and I guess they don’t have the “option” of serious play? Thoughts?

    Hope this becomes a book . . . Thanks for this!

    • Adele Booysen

      Laura, I got to share on the topic at house church last night, and one couple who were visiting from China was saying how their gardener is a serious player, through and through. I’ve seen market vendors whom I’d categorize as serious players, and a slew of other blue-collared workers I’ve encountered around the world across the years. And I’ve met very wealthy people who are reluctant workers…

      Not everyone has an option about what they do for a living, but many still choose to love it. I had a neighbor in Kenya who used to be a prostitute (NOT serious play!), but came to know Christ and was using her HIV+ status as her “gift” with which to serve the Lord as she taught on the importance of knowing your status and living a life honoring God. Betty, despite living in abject poverty and having AIDS, was a serious player till the day she died.

      Also see my comments below to Janelle. I would never have challenged my neighbors who were merely trying to survive to take a risk and find a job they’d enjoy, but there it would more be a matter of simply finding the joy in what you do.

      • I so appreciate this comment, Adele. I have a friend involved in member care and seems like the idea of working within your area of gifting and interest is an important part to avoiding “burnout,” for all – but particularly for those who work in higher stress jobs like international workers. yet i also hear people using it as an excuse, if that makes sense.

        and like laura mentioned, how does some well intentioned idea that we are all more effective in our areas of motivation and gifting address really the bulk of the world, those who don’t have an option to find a job they love and pursue, but then are rather “condemned” to a less meaningful life because they have to exist and provide for their family? paul states, (my paraphrase) “i have learned to be content in whatsoever state i am in…” i know i’ve had seasons where i have really NOT liked what i was doing at all (temp employee – telemarketing for a time after i’d lost my job) but i could still choose to look for ways to minister and choose to find and give joy while in that job…

        • tupela_damon

          Yes! I read “In the Face of Deep Disappointment” and then “Serious Play” and realized that both truths come in conflict with one another in my life. Sure would like someone to tell me if my discouragement is because I’m not a serious player, and I should do something about it…OR if I just need to remember that this “job” is not about me and continue to look for joy and contentment where I’m at.

  • Justin Schneider

    I’m ready for my serious play gig! I’ve struggled with a job that was too serious (I had the skills but hated it) before. Now I’m hoping to get that play part in it. All for the worship of something greater than me.

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