Oct 082007

The New York Times published a story this weekend about several evangelical churches that are using the new Halo 3 video game to bring youths and young adults into church.  Halo 3 is poised to be the top video game released this year, and possibly this decade.  It is also an incredibly violent first-person shooter, in which players can kill each other with all sorts of different weapons (from guns, to lasers, to swords, to their bare hands).  The Times article, therefore, focuses on the moral dilemma, some might call it hypocrisy, of using a violent video game to draw people into church.

My problems with this phenomenon, however, are more fundamental than that.  As a video game player all my life, I don’t have all that much of a problem with video game violence, at least in moderation, or the moral quandaries of teaching us to love each other in reality as we try to kill each other virtually.  My problem is more with the entire concept of using a completely secular activity as a lure to draw kids into church.

The Bible is very clear about how we should evangelize: we should evangelize by demonstrating God’s love towards us and our own love towards each other.  After all, that’s the true message of what Church is selling.  We’re not selling food, shelter, or entertainment; we’re selling love.  Of course, churches do, and ought to, be distributing those other things; they give out food, offer shelter, and even provide entertainment.  But in each and every case, those things should be primarily done out of the love that we have for each other and for God, and we should be doing them even if they don’t result in a single extra person coming to church.

But it seems to me that these churches are simply using Halo 3 to draw people into church.  They are providing them entertainment, and then hoping to teach them something about God in the meantime.  That seems like a bait-and-switch to me, however.  Moreover, it sends the message that love isn’t enough to keep butts in the pews (or the overstuffed chairs in the youth rec room).  God shouldn’t be the spinach that you suffer through only because it gives you access to the chocolate cake coming at the end of it all–and I find it more than a little disturbing that churches feel it necessary to treat Him that way.

Moreover, I’m worried about the long-term effects of any church-proved activity.  All too often, these churches are going to find that people won’t come to church to play video games, when they can just go to a friend’s house.  Instead, the people playing the church video games will be the same people who come to the church all the time.  At that point, those video games just start feeding into the more general problem that many megachurches and Christian youth organizations face: how do you encourage Christians to be active in the church, on the one hand, and yet to remain active in their communities?  I’ve seen all too many kids, both in high school and in college, who became so immersed in doing “Christian activities” that they stopped interacting with anyone who wasn’t Christian.  Church should be a place you go to worship God and to feel safe from the influences of the outside world.  But no one should wall themselves off from the world and live at Church.  At that point, you no longer have the ability to demonstrate anyone’s love to anybody.  And you can’t be an active member in the church community if you’re playing video games in the church basement with other Christians every night.

For those two reasons, I think that using video games as a recruiting tool is just a bad idea.  And those reasons hold whether the kids are playing Grand Theft Auto or Carebears Go To Happy Huggy Fun Land.

  7 Responses to “Selling God with Games”

  1. First, the Times is bunk. Most churches are OK with violence in a good cause, particularly self-defense, and Halo (thematically) is that. Their comments about the quasi-religion of the Covanent (evil aliens) being problematic is laughable. It’s Just Cause by a Legitimate Authority with Appropriate Means. What else could a good Just War theorist want?

    Mike, I think you’ve raised the more important point. Is it OK for a church to sponsor activities to get non-religious people to enter churches for non-religious reasons and then provide them spiritual fare that they may not necessarily care about? My gut response is that this is bad. In particular, I’m turned off by the marketing language, the “bait-and-switch” idea and the implication that Halo wouldn’t be played at church due to the violence and “M” rating of the game.

    But as I’ve thought about it, I have to reconsider. Am I throwing out church teams on the local park league and soup kitchens along with Halo? In particular, you’ll often find an inner city “mission” that provides food & shelter to the homeless, as long as they attend a worship service. I’ve been to one of those, and I’ve never seen a less enthusiastic congregation. But I don’t fault the Christian group for doing it. Those who come in know what they’re getting into, and aren’t coerced into converting. And the mission would keep doing its work, even if all those who turned up on one night happened to be Christian.

    That, I think, is the key. If the church thinks it’s important to have a Halo party even if no non-Christians show up, then I think it’s fine to do it. I agree that there’s a danger in a Christian community becoming a ghetto, but that doesn’t mean Christians should jettison all social activities that aren’t explicitly religious. Host the Halo night, preach something to build up the Christians in the group, avoid the ghetto mentality, and trust that a solid community will attract outsiders over time.

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