August 7, 2018
By Carrie Brown McWhorter
The Alabama Baptist
Jimmy Dodson grew up a military kid, worked as a police officer and has volunteered in youth ministry for years. He is also a gamer.
“When my sons were younger, they both really wanted to stream,” Dodson said. That is, they wanted to livestream their game play and watch videos of other people playing video games. Dodson admits he didn’t get it. Why would anyone want to watch somebody else play video games?
Dodson, a member of Calvary Baptist Church, Clearwater, Florida, began watching and he didn’t like what he heard — profanity and hateful comments that players refer to as “toxic” language. But he also started playing and found an opportunity to connect with his kids and stay relevant with other high schoolers. As he saw it, the gaming world was a wide-open missions field.
So in April 2018, Dodson started
JFreak0989, a channel on Twitch.tv where he streams himself playing online games with his kids and friends. As he plays, he looks for ways to engage viewers by sharing Scripture, asking for prayer requests or just talking about Jesus.
His friend, Andy Hunter, a member of Westwood Baptist Church, Alexandria, in Calhoun Baptist Association, is helping with the channel. The two worked together in Anniston years ago and kept in touch through playing games on the Xbox.
After learning more about Twitch, a live-streaming platform affiliated with Amazon, they decided the site offered a great opportunity to engage people “from all walks of life and around the world and all kinds of ages” with the gospel.
“They get on Twitch because they’re interested in gaming,” Hunter said. “We start talking about the game we’re playing but we do what we can to steer the conversation toward Jesus.”
Hunter said he usually signs off by asking if there are any prayer requests. The goal is always to reach out to anyone who wants to talk and see where it goes from there.
“I’ve been on the missions field from the middle of Alabama to the Middle East, but of all the places I’ve been to share the gospel, my Xbox and a headset have given me the largest opportunity to engage people and share the love of Christ,” Hunter said.
Dodson said people from Poland, England and Asia have viewed and commented on the channel. He recently had the opportunity to talk with a young man whose friend was considering suicide. A viewer from Oregon asked Dodson to pray for his nephew who had just gotten out of prison.
The ability to relate to so many different people on this level would be difficult in the real world, Dodson said. But in Twitch the common interest in gaming combined with the anonymity of users allows a special kind of interaction.
Matt Souza, pastor of GodSquad Church, the first online church for gamers, says a lot of gamers play to cope with the stresses of life. That may sound odd to people who wrongly think of gamers as primarily teenagers.
Among the more than 150 million Americans who play video games, the average gamer is 34 years old. Most (75 percent) are 18 or older. And it’s not just men — women age 18 and older represent a greater portion of the video game-playing population (33 percent) than boys under age 18 (17 percent), according to statistics from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA).
Many keep their hobby a secret because of stereotypes that label gamers as nerds or immature, Souza said. But the immersive nature of the games, which usually involve sports, science fiction/fantasy or war, provides an escape.
“Life is super frustrating when you fail,” Souza told a group of students at the University of Valley Forge in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, in 2016. “In video games when you fail, you can simply just try again.”
The industry is a big business too. In 2016 the video game industry sold over 24.5 billion games and generated more than $30 billion in revenue, ESA reports.
Souza said many non-gamers think like Dodson in the beginning: Why watch someone else play a video game? He turns the question back: Why watch someone else play football?
Gamers are just ordinary people with unique personalities and talents who should be allowed to be themselves without fear of being teased or bullied, Souza said.
They also need the gospel because gaming is a harsh environment, said Kendrick Washington, also know as TheRealApok, team leader of NonToxic eSports, a competitive gaming team that requires members to adhere to a strict standard of clean language and play.
The idea for the team came out of Washington’s own experience of being on the receiving end of toxicity in his early livestreaming days. He was an adult playing for fun but another player yelled at him the entire time because he was a beginner.
Washington said it broke his heart to think of kids being exposed to that kind of bullying and shaming, so he started NonToxic eSports to create a safe and encouraging environment within gaming for kids to play without all the toxic language.
Most parents don’t want that toxicity for their kids, but too many parents don’t understand the gaming world and take a hands-off approach. That’s a mistake, Washington said.
“What’s really happening is that most kids who are into gaming are being raised, talked to and educated by the gamers, not by their parents,” he said. “When parents look at electronics and games they see something that’s foreign to them, but when they ignore it they allow YouTubers to raise their children.”
Washington wants gamers of all ages to know they can be competitive gamers without being toxic.
His community has begun to draw both casual and competitive players, and commentators have praised NonToxic eSports as some of the nicest guys in the gaming world, Washington said. But there are still thousands of games out there that don’t have non-toxic gamers playing and where toxicity is still rampant.
Believers could change that, Washington said.
“It’s time that Christians stop ignoring the biggest and most accessible missions field on the planet,” he said.
Online church first to reach out to estimated 1.8 billion gamers worldwide
By Carrie Brown McWhorter
The Alabama Baptist
Every Saturday night at 7:30 Eastern time, 100 or so gamers log on to GodSquad Church on Twitch.tv. Their gaming handles appear in the chat box. Fluffy2840, bengineer8, 8_bit_dad, PastorBos and others greet each other with words and emojis ranging from praying hands to excited “HYPE, HYPE!” emoticons.
In the first few minutes of the livestream, it’s clear GodSquad Church is very much a typical worship service and at the same time unlike any church service most people have ever attended.
There’s prayer, announcements about small groups and volunteer opportunities, an offering time and a sermon by pastor Matt Souza, or Pastor SouZy as he’s known in the gaming world. Every first Saturday of the month, there’s communion, with reminders ahead of time to have your juice and crackers ready.
There are also bright graphic backgrounds, folks wearing headsets, game play clips, electronic music interludes and occasionally a reminder in the chat room to keep the comments clean.
The entire service is energetic and exciting — just like the video games that led Souza to start GodSquad Church in the first place.
Largest ‘nation’ in the world
If the online gaming community were a nation, it would be the largest country in the world, ahead of China, India and the United States, Souza says.
An estimated 1.8 billion people worldwide consider themselves gamers — not just people who play the occasional game on their phones but those who actively and regularly play video games, often with others online.
Gamers are the kind of people who if they didn’t have a job would play video games all the time, Souza said. Their best friends are their online friends.
Gamers play 1.6 trillion hours every year or 30 billion hours each week — numbers that Souza said made him think.
The numbers represent real people who really need to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ but who are “spending so much time playing video games … they must not be spending too much time in their public restaurants, local libraries and they’re definitely not spending too much time in their local churches,” Souza said.
Souza began to wonder: “How do we get the gospel to people who don’t leave their homes?”
The answer was GodSquad Church, begun in 2016 with the mission of “leading gamers from virtual life to eternal life.”
The church’s name reflects the invitation in John 1:12 to become God’s children, part of “His squad,” Souza said.
“The strategic part of our name is that there is intentionally no space between God and Squad. This goes to show that sin had placed separation between God and His people but because of Christ’s death on the Cross, we have been forgiven and no longer separated from God. Once again, God and His Squad have been reunited,” Souza said.
The concept is working, Souza said.
GodSquad Church has brought the gospel to more than 300,000 individual gamers and more than 700 people have made decisions to follow Christ.
There are plenty more gamers to be reached though. Millions all over the world have never before heard the “amazing story” of how Christ died on the cross for our sins.
“They’ve never heard. This is how we can give them an opportunity. By going where they’re at and showing them the truth of God’s love,” Souza said.
Souza said he’s heard from people who say, “I don’t even believe what you’re saying but there’s something inside of me that wants to watch. The Holy Spirit is drawing them.”
And once they do believe, GodSquad Church is committed to growing disciples by helping members “level up.”
Focus on community
In the gaming world, to “level up” is to gain experience, perhaps enough to acquire new abilities or gain access to items needed to reach a higher score in the game.
GodSquad Church offers Experience Groups, small groups that meet once a week to dive further into the Bible, ask questions and enjoy time together.
The goal is for each participant to grow in their relationship with Christ. The result is that gamers all over the world are beginning to learn the truth of God’s Word, Souza said.
In Experience Groups, Bible study and GodSquad Church, the focus is always on community and that emphasis on relationships is one big reason gamers are attracted to GodSquad Church, Souza believes.
“Gamers are searching for a community to embrace them. c does that. We embrace gamers for who they are,” Souza said. “I really believe as Christians if we are going to obey the Lord and His command to go into all the world then I really believe we must also go into the virtual world.”
AHSAA sanctions eSports
Online gaming will be an official high school sport in Alabama this fall.
At its April board meeting, the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) Central Board of Control approved eSports competition for member schools. The two-year experiment will allow student teams to compete with each other on school-sanctioned teams. The program is being provided by National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSH) Network partner PlayVS.
According to an AHSAA factsheet:
• The same skills a team needs to succeed in traditional sports are required in eSports.
Teams need to work together as a unit, think strategically and put forth strong individual effort in order to win.
• Research suggests students who participate in structured eSports activities have positive education outcomes, such as increased interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), higher GPA and the formation of stronger bonds as a team.
Students will compete at school, bringing gaming to campus where students will be surrounded by teammates and supported by a live audience. The AHSAA will not limit team numbers for schools and teams will be co-ed.
PlayVS expects 15–20 states to be involved in the eSports initiative in 2018. (TAB)