How a Simple Thing All Gamers Know Can Help Save The Church

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Copyright: acidgrey / 123RF Stock Photo

There’s a strange and very unbiblical thing in us playing a big role in slowly destroying the Church.

And it is all too human.

The good news is that this “thing” that is in us can be somewhat deprogrammed out of us. That is, we can unlearn it.

And, more than that, we can use it to improve our lives and, through that, we can improve our churches.

The surprising reality is that it may very well be the best way we can unlearn this “strange and very unbiblical thing” is by playing video games.

I know, it’s weird, but stick with me, here.

Last week, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the opening of San Francisco Theological Seminary‘s Center for Innovation in Ministry. The keynote speaker was, of all people, a video game designer, Jane McGonigal.

Don’t just think “successful gamer” here.

We’re talking about a woman with a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, who has consulted with and developed workshops for more than a dozen Fortune 500 and Global 500 Companies, including Intel, Nike, Disney, Microsoft, and Nintendo. She’s even taught game theory at UC Berkeley.

We are talking the real deal here folks. To describe her as a Futurist (which many people do) actually understates her vision, education, and ability to inspire us all to become our better selves and to create a better world.

As you will see in the TED talk video below, Dr. McGonigal’s research and study have led her to discover that when playing games, many of us become the best versions of ourselves. We are inspired to collaborate and cooperate. When we are in game worlds we are, as Dr. McGonigal says:

“the most likely to help at a moments notice, the most likely to stick with a problem as long as it takes, to get up after failure and try again. And in real life when we face failure, when we confront obstacles, we often don’t feel that way. We feel overcome, we feel overwhelmed, we feel anxious, maybe depressed, frustrated, or cynical. We never have those feelings when we are playing games.”

All of those life skills are important and they all can play important roles in making us healthier as people and healthier as the Church.

But I’d like to share some thoughts very briefly about one specific piece of what the above quote talks about: failure.

More specifically: the fear of failure.

Having worked in five different churches over the last couple of decades, my observation has been that stagnation is one of the key elements stunting the growth and attributing to the shrinking of Church.

Put simply, stagnation is stagnating the Church.

We are stuck. We are afraid to move forward. And we’re afraid to move forward because we are afraid to try new things. You’ve heard it a million times if you are currently involved in a church community, “we’ve never done it that way before.” Somehow, oddly, that seems to be the “end-all-be-all” in church discussion. Once it is said, the discussion is over.

Why are we, the Church, so afraid of trying something new?

The fear of failure.

As always, there are exceptions to the rule. But my experience serving in churches in the South has taught me that a strong belief in the providence of God, that is, how much we believe God actively participates in making things happen in our lives, can lead to a very unhealthy reluctance to take reasonable risk or risk failure.

There seems to be an under-riding assumption that if the Church takes an action, it needs to be certain the action is blessed by God. That alone isn’t a wholly unhealthy perspective. If anything, I agree. Yes, let’s try to do the things that God would have us do.

How we measure whether or not the action actually is “blessed by God” is sometimes less helpful. Frequently, we allow the success or failure of an action to point to whether or not it was “God’s will.”

This perspective not only forgets the historical reality of how often the Church has failed and ultimately made better choices coming out of the failure, it also supports a belief in the providence of a very heavy-handed and less than loving God. It can also lead to adopting the all-too-easy out that says, “God works in mysterious ways.” Neither of those work for me.

Let’s go back to the gamers.

As Dr. McGonigal pointed out to us in her keynote address, gamers are willing to fail 80% of the time. No fear of failure there.

As a sometimes gamer myself, I’d go as far as saying that gamers sometimes want to fail. Well not exactly want to fail but become willing to fail.

Why? Because that’s how we learn.

Theologically, I’d put it this way, failure isn’t a judgment of whether or not an action is blessed by God, failure is a blessing of more knowledge from God.

When we fail, we have the opportunity to gather information, try again, possibly fail again and then gather more information so we can keep retrying until we succeed. From a macrocosmic point of view – that’s still success. So, maybe failure ultimately fits just fine with a providence of God that sees God as being intimately involved in influencing the outcome of our every move.

It’s time for the Church to embrace failure or to be forced to reluctantly embrace its continued failure to connect with younger generations, in part because it fears failure.

Surprisingly, a really good place to start unlearning our fear of failure is something that many in the Church pass a certain amount of judgment over – the very video games that the generations we’d love to learn to connect with are already playing.

Now, tell me God doesn’t have a delightfully wicked and ironic sense of humor.

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