Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Need someone to get to know them and really listen to them

Fantasy: Should Christians use violent video games to lure teens to church?

(ABP) -- What do warthogs, pelicans, energy swords and Spartan lasers have in common? And how do they relate to John 1:17?

They’re all part of a video game called Halo 3, the top-selling video game of 2007 that pre-sold more than 1 million copies two months before it even hit stores. In the first two weeks after its release, Halo 3 -- the third installment of Microsoft’s first-person shooter game -- made more than $300 million in sales.

The game is so popular many churches across the country are hosting Halo nights -- evenings filled with pizza, camaraderie and multiple-player games flashing across several television screens. Proponents say the nights aim to reach teenagers -- mostly boys -- on their own terms and show that churches can be relevant in a world filled with emerging technologies.

Indeed, national retail sales of video games, which includes portable and console hardware, software and accessories, generated revenues of nearly $12.5 billion last year, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm. Almost 60 percent of frequent game players play with friends, and 33 percent play with siblings, NPD reported.

But critics question the value of using shooting games to entice boys to attend church. They say games like Halo numb kids to violence and even teach them to kill. And the M-rating for Halo 3 gives young people access to something they can’t legally buy, since M-rated games must be purchased by someone 17 or older.

An October 2007 story in the New York Times brought such video games to the forefront of a dilemma youth leaders constantly face: how to be relevant to teenagers without necessarily condoning everything the world offers them. Such leaders and evangelists are trying to sort out how to be “in” the world but not “of” it.

Greg Stier, president and founder of Dare 2 Share ministries, spends his time giving teens tools to share their faith in the thick of pop culture. Among other outreach efforts, Dare 2 Share publishes guides that help teens do things like use troubled chanteuse Amy Winehouse’s latest CD or actor Owen Wilson’s recent suicide attempt to talk to their friends about Jesus.

Last October, the ministry published a tract dealing with Halo.

“Our big deal this year is that we think that on the subject [of video games and movies], sometimes it feels like youth leaders are so isolated when it comes to culture, they really don’t know what these kids are watching or playing,” Stier, who works in Arvada, Colo., said. “So we tell them you really need to understand what these kids are seeing. You need to get out there and see it and know exactly what it is they’re seeing. You need to be familiar with it.

“We’re not advocating that everybody goes out and buys [Halo], but we’re saying that you’ve got to be aware.”

Halo in particular has an intricate plot that most outsiders don’t know. Its first installment began an epic story of human soldiers trying to destroy an outer-space outpost called “Halo,” which turns out to be a weapon capable of destroying all life in the galaxy. The Halo is guarded by a mysterious alien race called the Covenant, and the aliens regard the Halo as a religious artifact. The star player is Master Chief, the last of a line of genetically enhanced Spartan warriors, who is humanity’s last hope for survival.

Halo 2 continues the story (multiple Halo installations are found to exist throughout the galaxy) as the aliens deploy to fight the soldiers. In Halo 3, the aliens try to activate the space weapons and later unleash monster-like creatures that may annihilate the entire galaxy. Although the end-game to the Halo story remains unclear, players find out in Halo’s third installment that Master Chief’s true name is John-117.

A crucial selling point is that players can play the game over the Internet with anyone worldwide. Using online handles like BlueFlappers or x2k1dynastyx, they ride around on warthogs or pelicans and shoot each other and alien zombies with all manner of firearms.

Game mode options include capture-the-flag challenges, traditional shoot-out battles and full-fledged strategic campaigns. Characters in the game sometimes use mild profanity, and player names sometimes border on vulgarity.

The game has some religious thematic elements, namely the good-versus-evil plot and the role of Master Chief. That’s why some say it can be a valuable tool in relating to non-Christians.

“The person in that role in Halo 3 is kind of a messianic figure.… That is an opportunity to talk about” Christianity, Stier said. “Personally, I don’t think that was an accident. I think that was some programmer who was trying to make a point.”

Some, however, don’t see redeemable religious overtones in Halo 3 any more than they do in shoot-’em-up Western movies. It was the potential for vulgarity and isolation of gamers that led Mike Matlock and Kedrick Kenerly to create Christian Gamers Online, a nonprofit ministry that runs servers supporting Battlefield 2 and Call of Duty, both of which are first-person shooter games. The site also hosts weekly Bible studies that attract as many as 40 people simultaneously online.

Matlock, 45, said Christian Gamers Online is first and foremost a ministry that attracts non-Christian gamers and helps protect impressionable young minds. It was a deliberate decision to label the group as “Christian” first and “gamers” second, he said.

Now the senior administrator for the group, Matlock said video games reach an overlooked segment of the population, and hosting such games in church is a legitimate way to reach kids for Christ.

“Really, people can get legalistic -- you can take complete objections to everything,” Matlock said. “We try to be very careful and be true to the gospel when we’re using gaming as an outreach tool. We try not to compromise that. We just use it as an outreach tool just as you would if you had some live music … or if you were having some kind of athletic event.”

Lyle Dorsett, an evangelism professor at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, similarly compared some video games to sports. The competition and strategy in both have great appeal, and that can be an effective evangelism tactic, depending on the situation, he said.

What’s more, churches historically have used popular games or activities to reach young people, he said.

“To use things that young people do and are enthused about so you can bring them in and witness isn’t a bad thing per se,” said Dorsett, who lives in Birmingham, Ala. But he reiterated that the overwhelming message to teens must point to Christ, not culture.

“We can use all kinds of clever tricks to bring young people in or adults in. We can entertain them, we can give them better coffee, we can give them more comfortable seats,” he said. “They may love it, and they may stay for a year. But they will never become true disciples of Jesus Christ and be born again unless the Spirit changes their heart and somebody gives them Christ.”

Of course, it’s one thing to bring teens in to play basketball and something quite different to bring them in to play violent video games, Dorsett and others say.

Al Menconi is a leading expert on the influence of pop entertainment on the Christian family. Menconi says that while he doesn’t presume to judge anyone else’s youth ministry, he disagrees with those who permit violent video games in church.

“I wouldn’t do it because I think the games are constant killing,” said Menconi, who used to lead college classes at Scott Memorial Baptist Church near San Diego. “There is no redeeming factor. It’s just the adrenaline rush of killing. I really believe that I can validate scripturally that that’s not right.”

And when it comes to comparing sports and video games, Menconi doesn’t buy it for a second. First-person shooter video games are much different than something like paintball, where there are live consequences to getting hit, he said.

In paintball, “if you screw up, you get hit, you get hurt. It stings, and you’re out there and you’re in reality,” he said. But Halo is suitable even for military training, because it teaches recruits how to kill without hesitating -- and without real-world consequences.

Many experts agree that outreach using games with violence-based M-rating places undue pressure on parents, who may not allow M-rated games at home but have trouble explaining to their child why the games are allowed in church. Stier recommends youth ministers talk with parents and pastors before allowing any M-rated games at youth functions.

The general consensus among experts is that parenting makes a big difference in how such games affect kids.

Good parenting in general provides a barrier of reality for young gamers, some authorities pointed out. And it can make the difference between a child who uses a game to isolate themselves from the real world or who uses it to befriend others. That vital difference is something youth pastors must note, Dorsett said.

“The vast majority of teens today feel alienated.… These young people are hungry for love. They’re hungry to be listened to,” Dorsett said. “They need someone to get to know them and really listen to them. If you just bring a crowd of kids in and give them a show and entertain them and then give them a talk, you haven’t listened to them. You haven’t really listened to them to know what they like and care about.”

It’s a tough line to walk, Stier granted: “You’re torn. Youth leaders are torn. You want to reach kids, but you don’t want to compromise biblically.”

Of course, the Bible was no walk in the park either. Stier noted, “If the Old Testament were a video game, it would make Halo 3 blush.”

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