New York Times wrote an article describing how a Church in Denver hosted a Halo 3 youth group event. The premise of the article was the idea of how can a church and the Bible communicate “thou shall not kill” when Halo 3, an apparent church activity, is all about killing? Although the youth pastor Gregg Barbour said, they (the students) will stay for his Christian message after the gaming session. Regardless if the students are staying for the message, I want to ask what message is Halo 3/video games sending to our students when they are imported into the church?
The state of student ministries in America is struggling. We are having a difficult time trying to get kids to come to church and our “cool” student events. As a youth pastor, I know I will try anything to get 3 or 4 more kids in the door. However I am a youth pastor that does not endorse the video gaming in the church/youth group setting. I argue that video gaming (violent or nonviolent), in the church context, is more of a disservice than a service for students.
Firstly, teenagers (13 – 19 years of age), on average, watch about 8 hours of TV a week, and about 6 hours playing video games. This average does not even include the amount of time spent on the internet. Youth group is for 2 hours once a week. My question is: why would we want to add to the number of hours teenagers are sitting in front of the TV, during Jesus time? Simply the student moves from the “home” control to the “church” control. Church youth group should not be a space that is similar to the home space. Home has its functionality, while church youth group has its functionality.
Secondly, facilitating video games for a youth group activity is merely an individual interaction, and not a communal interaction. Video games do not better the students’ spiritual development, except by fueling their competitive spirit, their laziness, and giving them sore thumbs. Video games allows for the student to not only go in isolation, but to disengage with the world that is going on around them. When a student is so engaged in his/her video game they tend to lose track of time of the real world. In a sense, they get entranced with the realities of the video game, and not with the realities of the actual world revolving around them. The problem is video games give students a sense of false reality. They get to kill, seek, and destroy whatever they want. They essentially have an opportunity to become something that they will never become in real life. They get to be the Jeti-master who gets to conquer all of the space worlds. They get to be the Super Bowl champion. Video games paint a false reality and identity that student deeply buy. Students do not need not a false reality, but a true reality. Students need community, conversation with youth leaders and peers, Biblical stories and truths, and experience the presences of Jesus so they can begin to wrestle with who they are as a person and in Christ. This task can only be facilitated in a communal setting that encourages the elements of: conversations, contemplation, questions, experience, safety, and comfort. Setting up a video game party that encourages blowing up people and buildings does not encourage these elements that are crucial and pivotal to the adolescent developmental process. Teenagers do not need to be the Halo 3 champion, but teenagers need people (both peers and leaders) to champion them to who they are as a person and to who they are in Christ. Youth ministry needs to be a family of families that engage and interact with each other. (Rom 8:15-17; Gal 3:26-4:7) This is why activities of video games which are individually focused, and not collectively focused, can be harmful.[i]
Thirdly, video games are divisive. Essentially there are winners and there are losers. The winners are the cool students, and the losers are the rejects. Video games endorse this idea of performance and competition. In many areas of the students’ life there is this ideology of performance. Some of the performance activities may include: sports, co-curricular activities, youth programs, peer relationships, and even in school. The idea of performance tells the student if you meet the standard and make it, then you are accepted and can participate. If you do not meet the expectation, then you are rejected and on your own to figure it out. For example, Tim wants to be on the varsity football team. Tim tries out for 2 weeks and after the two weeks the coaches make the decision if Tim meets the varsity football standard. Halo 3 is a competition to see who can get the most kills. For example, Suzie is the best player in the group. She is the winner and all of the losers dislike her because not only is she a female beating the males, but she is the ultimate champion at Halo 3. The problem with these apparently “great” activities is that they communicate the elements of building character and discipline, but these great activities teach them nothing other than arrogance, self-centeredness, and a performance ethic that is unhelpful for not only youth group, but to their adolescent cognitive development.[ii] Video games divide the participants that are playing them and fuel the competitive and performance spirit that is everywhere around them in their everyday life. Youth Ministry’s goal is not to create winners or losers, but to create and disciple authentic followers of Christ. It is about following, not winning or losing.
Yes student ministry is difficult. Yes it is a task getting students in the door. But, we as the youth pastor/leader need to become creative in how we orchestrate our youth meetings. We need to think out of the box on how to communicate what community looks like while being completely obedient to what the Holy Spirit and the Word of God might reveal.
It is unfortunate that the New York Times got hold of this situation in Denver. Again,
the press makes the Christian community look contradictory and not sure why we are doing the things we are doing. I am sure this youth pastor had the best of intentions. Halo 3 is new and students love it. He probably saw it as a wonderful opportunity to minister to the students while the New York Times saw it as leverage to negatively portray Christianity and the church. Video games are not of the devil. I argue that video games have their place and that is at home, not at church.
[i] Ray S. Anderson and Dennis B. Guernsey, On Being Family, page 159.
[ii] Chap Clark. Hurt, page 119.