Missions Week: Video Game Evangelism – Pros and Pitfalls

missions-week

I went to a new church the other day. I figured, “hey, if you went to something rather free-form, modern-culture focused, and decidedly evangelical, you may as well go to someplace else just to cleanse your palate a bit.” So did I wander into a traditional Reformed church that goes against all the leanings that I usually associate with church.

Did you ever engage in something called “the regulative principle of worship”? Heck, I didn’t know that people did such a thing, let alone that it exists. Reformed people remain quite serious about sola scriptura, and they take it to mean that even worship works under the same rubric. According to the Wikipedia article of the same name:

The substance of the doctrine regarding worship is that only those elements that are instituted or appointed by command or example or which can be deduced by good and necessary consequence from Scripture are permissible in worship, and that whatever is not commanded or cannot be deduced by good and necessary consequence from Scripture is prohibited.

“Good and necessary consequence” refers to the logical deduction of such a principle from Scripture. So, this would naturally exclude things such as modern worship music, rock and roll instrumentation, any instruments other than the organ (or maybe even a capella, depending), the use of accessible hymns and Psalms, and a rather traditional approach to worship that evokes reverence rather than unfettered excitement. I totally understand and appreciate this approach, seeing as it goes completely in the face of everything Christian that I know. Baptist leanings stay in my background, so this seemingly staid environment represents an alternate expression of devotion.

On the other hand, this does constitute what we would call the “evangelism” or missions problem. See, in a way, Christians must make a cultural appeal in order to convert people to the faith. I make this sound very utilitarian, but Paul did the same thing through his educational resources and the way that he turned his life into a missionary effort. After all, we read in 1 Corinthians 9:

19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.

As a sort of Christian ethnographer (or at least that’s how I felt walking into this place), I see these strange differences from modern culture and find them striking. A person who isn’t Christian, though, may not see this as something entirely different. It may be completely off-putting and strange, versus something similar to rock music plus Jesus. In either case, I imagine either Church will appeal to one person more than the other, but the “hip” Church, ultimately, will save many more people (if in word if not deed) than the more traditionally structured Church. But is that what we care about when we talk about the role of the Church in evangelizing efforts?

Heck, a church based around extreme Calvinist theology isn’t even going to bother opening up the doors; anybody who is truly part of the elect will just waltz right into the church because God sent them there. Missionary work strikes an entirely different tone than it does in a place focused on saving as many souls as possible before the End Times. Our theology and our beliefs regarding religion will, hopefully, affect our practice in some major ways, but the practice needs to fit into a holistic interpretation of Scripture. So do either of these?

I’m unsure, myself.

The Church encounters this same conflict with video gamers as well, I imagine. How, exactly, does this medium, frequently associated with violence and definitively offensive content, figure into their modern attempts? A more recent Sunday visit to a Baptist church, inevitably, produced our current answer: we reject them utterly. I imagine someone, somewhere, is mentioning Grand Theft Auto V as a negative influence on our children (who, due to the negligence of parents, got their hands on what is basically an extremely long R-rated film – nice job, parents!). Obviously, most conservative churches will reject video games out of hand, if not for the “game” part making it clear what these new-fangled things do to us as vehicles for sinful behavior.

On the other hand, we’ve got the people wholly and unerringly in support of video games as a vehicle for spiritual formation and development. You know, Journey remains a rather “spiritual” experience, for example, so we should attempt to change video games “for the better”. I understand this impulse too, and the need for Christians to shape culture should take a large amount of our time. If we don’t do it, who else will? So we take our particular conceptions of the Christian faith and apply them to video games. So, too, does this particular blog engage in that sort of behavior, although much less in terms of evangelistic endeavors and more the working of a theological system. Not a very good one!

In all these approaches, we do a bit of special pleading to integrate ourselves into alternate communities; this goes for most every kind of American subculture. Most of us doing this stuff were familiar already with their interests and concerns, making the leap none-too-difficult to making an evangelizing effort. We need to speak in gamer culture, but not actually become so absorbed in its workings that we lose sight of the big picture. It’s when that linkage feels hollow and disingenuous that communities reject it. In effect, you need to act like a person, a human being who holds genuine interest in a hobby. I think I can do that pretty convincingly!

But, of course, that’s how this should work. Like the Apostles, who actually could relate to these people, then relate to more people who could relate the wondrous message of the Cross to more people, we still desire the ripple effect. However, we should go into it without such intentions, I wager. If your sole goal equals checking a number off your list of “people I saved while on Earth”, that approach will not win you too many favors. Rather, interact and engage. Listen to their concerns and problems. Judgment certainly won’t help.

That’s where I find the Church has failed on this particular front: we make potshots from the outside looking into the games industry and culture. In a surprise to no one, this appears a direct attack on their way of life and their enjoyment, so what exactly would make it an effective method? You just erected a barrier between human beings, something which I’m sure Christ seeks to prevent. We know that we must give a good answer for our faith, but that faith isn’t shown by words, but by action. Even that may manifest as a form of suffering in our own lives, but that should not prevent us from making an account for our faith:

14 But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, 15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; 16 and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.

I can see why Nietzsche called the Christian faith one of weak men and vengeful people, but that’s not the intent in 1 Peter 3. We must know what we believe so we can share it with the communities to which we find ourselves a part. Paul was an educated Jew, so it shouldn’t surprise us that he and the early church first preached to that context. They expanded from there. Even the Gospels contain this same impulse (Matthew definitely arrived from a Jewish context, while Luke for the more educated, etc). There’s a middle ground between appealing to a culture and embodying the Word of God in equal measure, and it will look different for each individual case. 2 Timothy 4 looks a good rule of thumb, though!

1 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. 5 But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Do the work and fulfill your ministry, simple as that. If you find anything to add, please chime in with the comments below!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • While it wasn’t the thrust of your article, I liked the way you put the critics view “… things do to us as vehicles for sinful behavior.”

    I like the word vehicle. It evoked an image of being in the driving seat; control. The question becomes where are you going to drive?

    The critic believes ALL video game roads travel through sodom and gomorrah. Those of us who are more intimately knowledgeable with the art form, know that some never go that direction, they actually take us to the slopes of Mount Moriah.

    • Zachery Oliver

      This is an excellent analogy and I wish I had thought of it first!