• When a video game-playing pastor realized the strong communities that gamers were building online, he saw an untapped opportunity for ministry.
• CrossFire: faith + gaming utilizes a number of online platforms to host both religious and informal discussions to build community.
Video games and those who play them have changed a lot since the 1980s.
From the age of Pac-Man, arcades and sitting in a dingy basement in front of a glowing blue screen, video games have now carved out a prominent niche in modern-day society.
Games have improved in size, scope and quality to the point that they are discussed as being art. People can make careers out of playing video games, either competitively or in a streaming context. Entire gaming communities have emerged.
The possibilities for connection seem endless, which is why the Rev. David Petty and CrossFire: faith + gaming are exploring new territory in using video games to engage in ministry.
Petty, senior pastor at St Paul’s United Methodist Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, launched the ministry in 2017.
“As a kid, I loved playing games. As an adult, I was often told that games were a waste of time, but that so many other 'leisure' activities were not a waste of time,” he said. “I came to realize that it was all about perspective.”
This perspective led him to explore how people came together to form groups and bonds around common interests. It also led him to an unexpected insight: Churches could learn from gamers.
“I found many gaming communities with a stronger sense of community than some of the local churches I had known,” he said.
He began to consider whether there could be a church of gamers. He started with that idea and created a group of people to explore it. That group became the very church for gamers he had envisioned.
CrossFire is what Petty calls an affinity group, which exists in a number of digital spaces. The ministry utilizes several different avenues to reach those who need it, from community-building platforms like Facebook and Discord, to voice chat, to a live Twitch stream where they play games while engaging in conversation with anyone who drops by, as well as raising money for a charity of the month.
There’s even a podcast to gain a voice within both church and gaming spheres. On the podcast, Petty and co-host Russ Dornisch, whose wife is a United Methodist pastor, start conversations around topics like healthy gaming habits, parenting and social justice, and even included a Lenten devotional series this year.
Petty said that while their online engagements do initiate theological discussions, field prayer requests or lift each other up in difficult times, they also sometimes just talk about games or Marvel movies without any specific references to faith and spirituality. For Petty, this is intentional. He believes that relationships are more important than content.
“Church plants aren't successful because they have the most attractive logo or the most energetic preacher,” he said. “They are successful because they create real and authentic community around people who have a shared goal.
“I don't ever want to be a social media influencer. I just want to see people connect with one another around the shared interests of their faith and a love of gaming.”
Lonnie 'Styxx' White described Crossfire as “a place where I can discuss topics like the deeper themes of The Last of Us or Mass Effect, as well as how forgiveness is good for the soul and delve into what it means to be a Christian in today's digital age.”
“It has allowed me to find acceptance as a geek/gamer and Christian,” White said.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, physical spaces for ministry became impossible or difficult to access in many communities. Utilizing a digital space allowed CrossFire to expand and connect with those who really needed it.
“The long-standing debates about whether online church was ‘valid’ ended. For most of us, online church was the only safe way to do church,” Petty wrote in a commentary for Rethink Church, a seeker ministry of United Methodist Communications.
Petty can already highlight a number of success stories.
At one point, he was contacted by parents of a youth member of the group. They shared that making friends was incredibly challenging for their child due to the pandemic, but being a part of CrossFire had become an important way for their child to stay connected and part of a safe community.
Another story involves a woman stopping by the community Discord on a random Monday night. She was in distress and struggling with parts of her personal life, including her faith. CrossFire’s approach was to talk to her and ensure that she knew that there was a community that cared about her and was always available to help her and walk with her on her journey.
Petty often hears from people who are surprised that someone could be a Christian and still play video games. Despite the growth that video games have experienced over the past several decades, there is still a stigma surrounding gamers that CrossFire hopes to remove for both kids and adults who love God and love games as well.
“Gamers as a demographic are vastly misunderstood, which is to the detriment of the church’s ability to meet people where they are,” said group member Brian 'R3d Letter' Hughes. “Crossfire is one of the few online places to be in community with people who both share my love for God and gaming.”
Even as people return to meeting in person, he expects the ministry to continue growing. He said that CrossFire was a “viable ministry before the pandemic” and he doesn’t expect that to change as the world returns to some semblance of normality.
“We are constantly working on every area of CrossFire to make sure we can have a great community that provides opportunities for connection, mission and devotion,” Petty said. “This ministry is open to everyone. We can all find a home here.”
Cross is a freelance writer in Fargo, North Dakota.
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