Editor’s note: A few days after this article was written for Facts&Trends, tragedy struck the video gaming community as two people were killed and others were wounded in a mass shooting that occurred at a Madden video game tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. The gunman, also a gamer, died after he turned his weapon on himself. See today’s related report.
NASHVILLE (BP) — For Drew Dixon, taking the Gospel to the nations involves traversing the Kingdom of Hyrule, visiting the Planet Gaia, and mingling with settlers of Catan.
For those who are not familiar with these locations, don’t bother trying to find them on Google Earth. Each of these lands acts as a virtual or imaginary setting for a popular video or tabletop game.
While such worlds may be made up, Dixon believes they exist as real mission fields for the church.
Engaging ‘nerd culture’
Dixon, who is the lead editor for LifeWay’s Explore the Bible Students curriculum, has a passion for reaching what he calls “nerd culture” with the message of the cross. He loosely defines the nerd population as consisting of video gamers, card and tabletop game enthusiasts, and fans of fantasy and sci-fi media.
It’s a segment of the population that continues to grow.
“More than 150 million Americans now play video games according to the Entertainment Software Association,” Dixon said. “And there are Comic Cons [conventions that celebrate nerd culture] everywhere. It’s no longer uncool to be considered a nerd.”
For this reason, Dixon is part of a team that runs “Love Thy Nerd,” a ministry dedicated to extending the love of Jesus and taking the message of the Gospel to nerd culture.
Video game mission trips
One way Love Thy Nerd seeks to engage gamers is to meet them on their own turf through mission trips to gaming conferences. On these mission trips, Dixon and others host interactive gaming events where they can have conversations with attendees.
Dixon and other mission team members tell attendees that Jesus loves them and invite them to engage in an online community where they can continue to build relationships with Christians who are gamers.
As these relationships develop, Love Thy Nerd strives to help gamers get plugged into local churches.
“We’re a seed-planting ministry,” Dixon said. “One of our goals is to partner with local churches in the cities we’re ministering in.”
Dixon has seen people come to faith and get connected with local churches as a result of such mission trips. He says many gamers are already accustomed to being in community.
“One misconception about gamers is that they’re all socially isolated and living in their parents’ basements,” he said. “But today’s games are very communal. People build lifelong friendships out of relationships that develop through games.”
Reaching the community through gaming
Dixon hopes local churches will replicate the type of outreach Love Thy Nerd models. Christians can do this, he said, by engaging with people at community game shops and tournaments and by using services like Meetup.com to plan gaming events at local coffee shops and libraries.
Given the popularity of gaming, it’s likely many churches already have people in their congregations who are drawn to aspects of nerd culture. Rather than making fun of such pastimes or dismissing them as a waste of time, churches should encourage members to invest in those interests for the sake of local outreach.
“Look for ways to go out and play games with people to build relationships,” Dixon said. “Be a part of your community.”
As relationship equity is formed, churches can open up their buildings to host events for popular games. They can also use their facilities as meet-up locations for events like International Tabletop Day (the next one occurs on April 27, 2019).
Just avoid doing a bait-and-switch.
“Don’t invite people to come play games at church and then stop halfway through the event to give a devotion and Gospel invitation,” Dixon said. “This kind of thing makes people feel like you tricked them.
“It’s super important we get to the Gospel with people,” Dixon said. “We’ve got to do that. But we also need to demonstrate we really care about people enough to build relationships with them first.”
Nerd culture is primed for the Gospel
Like some of the Athenians in Acts 17 who were prepped for Paul’s message because of their familiarity with religious themes, many fans of nerd culture are already positioned to receive and appreciate the Gospel. Dixon gives three reasons why.
Nerd culture often revolves around themes of redemption.
“Game worlds are usually ones that are broken — worlds in which the player gets to have a role in bringing restoration,” Dixon said. This mimics Jesus’ call for disciples to join in His mission by living out the Great Commission and by being the salt and light of the earth.
Nerd culture mythology also tends to revolve around heroic figures or saviors. This paves the way for Christians to share how Christ is the real-life hero of history’s story.
Games provide relational bridges for a divided culture.
The church in America exists within the context of a divided culture in which people tend to vilify those who think differently from them. Dixon believes games help people dislodge such biases.
“Tabletop games are naturally communal,” he said. “You sit around a table and agree to abide by the same rules. Everyone comes into these settings on equal footing.
“This provides opportunities to build relationships with people you might otherwise think you have nothing in common with,” he said. “You come to realize, ‘Oh, this guy I’m playing with is a human like me.'”
Nerd culture can help craft a theological imagination.
“There’s so much creativity, mystery and imagination in nerd culture,” Dixon said. “It’s so important for Christians to have a theological imagination also. If you can’t engage your imagination to fill in the gaps as you’re reading, say, Jesus feeding the 5,000, then your Bible-reading must be really boring.”
A healthy imagination also helps people envision the future restoration Scripture promises.
“The biblical accounts of the New Heavens and the New Earth call us to imagine a world free from sin — one that’s full of valuable and fulfilling work,” he noted.
“A responsible engagement in video games or nerd culture can give us the opportunity to imagine a better world and to long for something that trumps what we’re experiencing now.”
Meeting people where they are
Dixon also hosts a podcast called “Humans of Gaming” in which he interviews game developers about their spiritual beliefs. Many are atheists or agnostics, he said.
The podcast provides a platform for having open and honest conversations about two things many people today are afraid to talk about: God and their experience with religion.
Dixon also makes sure to occasionally have Christian game designers and developers on the podcast so the Gospel can be shared in those interviews.
He hopes churches will create similar ministries by encouraging members who already enjoy nerd culture to engage with people at local game shops and tournaments.
“We see Jesus constantly doing this kind of thing in the gospels,” Dixon said. “A big part of the incarnation is about Jesus meeting us where we’re at. Our faith is built on the foundation of a God who was willing to come be with us.”
In other words, modeling Jesus can sometimes be as simple as picking up a video game controller with a stranger.
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