Attend one of the massive videogame trade shows such as E3 or PAX and you are likely to meet Mikee Bridges. When you do, he will likely tell you, “Jesus loves you.” He might even offer you a coupon for a free cup of beer and give you a free Bible. More than 183 million Americans play videogames online for at least an hour a day. While key structures of our nation’s economy are in steady decline, the gaming industry continues to grow. These factors—along with a passion for Jesus, videogames, and people—inspired Mikee to start a ministry called Game Church.
I recently got a chance to talk to Mikee about the Gospel, the church’s awkward relationship to games, and some of Game Church’s slightly unorthodox ministry practices.
How did Game Church start?
After a horrible divorce, my wife left our family and I got full custody of our kids, I moved back home to Ventura in Southern California and took over the music department at Skate Street USA. When the director of Skate Street unexpectedly died in a car wreck, I got the opportunity to redesign the venue. I put this little room in it for videogames. It had 12 PCs in it, and I just thought people would come and game. That little gaming room became really popular. And that is really where Game Church started. We eventually expanded—I built another venue in the same town with a small theater, a coffee shop, and a gaming center with 30 PCs and a few consoles. We themed it out, and we are now just moving to a new and larger location in Ventura.
We had this Bible study that happened there, and we had these atheist kids, who if you tried to talk to them about Jesus would tell you to F-off. Somehow we got these kids coming to the Bible study and asking questions about the Bible and arguing with us. So we thought, how do we expand this ministry that is reaching people who would otherwise be opposed to Christianity without going and doing a bunch of gaming centers?
We met the guys from XXX Church at this conference up in Portland, and we were encouraged by what they were doing. So we went and saw what they did and we more or less told them we were going to take their model and do it with videogames. And 12,000 Bibles later and telling countless people at trade shows, “Jesus loves you,” and here we are.
Should the average Christian care about videogames? Why?
If you do a little research and look at Scripture in context, you will find that the cities Paul went to were so drastically different, like going from Los Angeles to Chicago to Las Vegas to New York. They all spoke a different cultural language, and Paul would speak their language. If the city was philosophical, he would be very philosophical. When he was speaking to different types of cultures, he would meet them where they were at—he wouldn’t try to speak to them in just one way.
If Christians don’t start getting involved in culture, it’s going to pass us by. There will be a gap, and we will never understand grace and forgiveness. These people we are ministering to will not go to your church. So the question for us is this: Are you going to forget about them or are you going to get involved with what they do?
This leads into the second [objection]: how can we condone these videogames many of which contain violence, etc.? My question to people who object to us on that level is, “How is your parenting?” Much of the Christian outcry against videogames could be answered with more involved parenting. I work in the videogame industry, and my children do not play those games. I monitor what they do. Do my children have computers in their rooms? No. Are they allowed to play Duke Nukem? No. Can I? Sure. Can the guy who is my age who has a problem with various things presented in those games? Maybe not, but that is for him to decide.
I was talking to some parents recently who were complaining that they cannot seem to engage their children, and I asked them, “Have you played any videogames with them? If you started playing videogames with them, can you imagine the dialogue you can have with them?” If I walk into my game center we have here and ask any kid there how to level up the game he is playing, he will light up and want to talk to you and tell you all about it, show you and help you. It’s a window to engage them, relate to them, and eventually talk to them about life.
Your Web site is primarily a videogame site—you post news, reviews, videos, and editorials primarily about games. How do you feel your game coverage serves Game Church as a ministry?
A lot of “Christian” gaming sites are morality police. I don’t want to read another Christian game review of a movie or a videogame. What gamers want to know is whether a game is good or not. We are big boys. We can take care of our accountability—what we should and shouldn’t be watching. On the Web site, we just write about videogames.
There are a lot of Christian Web sites out there with Christian guilds and teams. It’s like going to church, you meet other like-minded gamers. That is cool but that is not what we are trying to do.
If you want legitimate interviews, reviews, and news from gamers, that is us. We want to do something that is really good and if you really want to, you can talk about spiritual things. We have a doorway. There is a button on our site that says church. If you click on that link you will be directed to the spiritual side of our forum, and you can go on there and ask us any spiritual questions or even argue with us and tell us that we are full of crap. If you are a Christian and you want to share your testimony or do Christiany things, you can go over to this page and do that kind of stuff. But essentially the site is legit news and reviews for gamers by gamers. There is not much spiritual about it.
Oftentimes it seems like we are trying to mix two things that don’t mix anyway. I want Joe Blow atheist guy to come on my site, see some cool stuff, I want to speak his language. I want him to think, “Those guys are Christians but they aren’t trying to convert me or anything. They are actually being really cool.” And that is what we have been seeing a lot of all year—a lot of people who would never be introduced to Christianity by going to the average church. We had one atheist guy comment on a post and say that he is close to becoming a Christian because of our site. That is the sort of person we are trying to reach.
What kind of response have you gotten from Christians and non-Christians?
A lot of Christians will come to our booth and say, “Hey can I have some more [gaming-themed] Bibles to take back to my youth group?” When they say that, I realize that they are not getting it. They want to take Bibles and give them to other Christians. What they should be doing is asking for Bibles and going and handing them out at local gaming centers or LAN parties.
The right-wing Christiany-Christians hate us. Its mostly just judgment from them. I had this one Christian guy come up to me and say, “I hate what you guys are doing and what you are about.” And he walked off and came back like 10 seconds later and said, “What are you doing?” I just said that we are here to tell you Jesus loves you, and he got this weird look on his face and took off. That is telling of a lot of Christians and a lot of the staunch atheist types. The staunch atheist types come in guns blazing. They will come up to you and say, “You guys are bigots and homophobes, and I hope you are not here next year, and I hope you guys can never print Bibles again.” The thing we have noticed about the far right-wing Christians: the shame-based ones are exactly the same as the far left-wing guys, the hardcore atheist types.
I have atheists that come up, and they spout the normal atheist thing which is “what do you think about homosexuality, what do you think about abortion,” and other hot-button issues. We talk to them about it and for the most part, the atheists do this thing where they say, “I don’t agree with the theology, I don’t agree that there is a God or anything, but these guys are polite and they think this [our ministry] is the way that Christians should be preaching the Gospel of Christ.”
Definitely. I don’t think it will take that long. It won’t take three years. With anything that is popular, the church will say it’s bad for a while and then turn around and jump on the bandwagon once we figure out that it isn’t actually sinful. Take music for example. There was a time when it was seemingly unacceptable for a Christian band to be playing mainstream music or to be signed to a secular label. Now there are lots of Christians playing for secular labels, and it’s more broadly accepted. With videogames we are seeing more student ministries embrace them. Churches are having videogame-themed youth nights. In fact, we had two churches come in last night to our gaming center and bring all their students to have a youth night. I don’t think it will be very long before the church catches on that if we don’t get into this vehicle, it’s going to leave without us.
I don’t think the youth of the church and the youth pastors are going to let it slide by. The rest of the church will come along but unfortunately they will come along after games have been widely accepted for a long time. Wait a few years, and there will be lots of Christians exploring the ministry opportunities that games provide.
How would you define the Gospel?
There is only one way to God—that is Christ. Accepting Him as Savior is it. That is how someone is saved. He is the gift of God by which we are able to enter the throne room.
There is one Gospel message but there are many ways of delivering that message. I have seen people come to Christ after hearing hellfire and brimstone type messages, and I have seen people come to Christ from a conversation in a bar. Here on the West Coast, the method people tend to use is becoming more relational but with challenge in it. It’s not like we think, “I am going to be this guy’s friend for a while and maybe in a few years he will ask me about Jesus.” We want to be friends with people and build relationships with them but we also want to be clear with them that we are Christians and that we want them to know Jesus because He is wonderful.
How did Jesus share the Gospel? He kept His culture in context. People don’t talk about Him being scandalous and using some pretty radical methods of engaging people. He wasn’t a keeper of the peace when it came to the religious, and He certainly wasn’t using the methods at the time that people used. He did some pretty crazy things.
In your ministry at trade shows you have said that your message is “Jesus loves you, take a Bible if you want one.” But there is more to the Gospel than “Jesus loves you,” isn’t there?
There certainly is more to the Gospel than “Jesus loves you.” But as far as my ministry goes, I feel I am not necessarily the guy who goes there—that is not my role. I am starting conversations with people and opening doors to the Gospel.
We are not trying to reduce the Gospel to “Jesus loves you.” We recognize that there is more to it than that but we literally have thousands and thousands of people walking past our booth and we want to give them some truth. I don’t sacrifice the “bad news” news of the Gospel so that people will be my friend. I talk to people about that, but generally not in the context of trying to get as many Bibles as we can into people’s hands at these trade shows. Telling people Jesus loves them is a way to take a step toward that longer more in-depth conversation that we need to have about the Gospel.
The great thing about the Gospel is that there is nothing you have to do to be saved. When you accept the gift of Christ—He will save you and He will change you.
The Spirit is powerful. We seldom give the Holy Spirit the credit He deserves. He is at work and doing some incredible things that we don’t see and don’t know. I get calls from kids sometimes three weeks after we were at a trade show, and they tell me that one of their friends gave them one of our Bibles and they are reading it and have questions about it. Or we get calls from atheists who pick up one of our Bibles, and they want to ask us about it. These things are happening all the time and that tells me that the Spirit is at work such that none of us can take credit for the fruit of our ministry. There is nothing special about me. All of the fruit of our ministry is credited to God.
We handed out 12,000 Bibles in four shows this year. That is God’s Word getting into the hands of 12,000 people. I can’t imagine what kind of affect that is having. Also, there are youth pastors who come to these shows, pick up some of our Bibles, and start ministries of their own that are reaching people we will never be able to reach. There is no way we can see and grasp everything that God is doing through our ministry. We just want to get the Word out to people and let God do the rest.
I have noticed that you guys seek to promote a relationship with Jesus over and against commitment to a particular church. How important is involvement in a local church to Game Church as a ministry?
It’s weird because a lot of people would find us militant on the internal workings of our ministry. To be a part of our team, we require [involvement in a local church]. I think we can often feel polarized about the church. Sometimes we think “the church will do no good for the Gospel message.” But we know that the church will because you have to get trained. You have to learn something. When I go to church, I always learn something new.
I think there is a lot to be had in that community if it’s a healthy community. I honestly think that everybody should find a place to have that kind of community more and more with people who are more mature. In fact, I push the guys in my ministry to have a couple of mentors who are at least 15 years older spiritually and physically. I do this so that when life is overwhelming they can go to one of these guys and say, “I don’t know what to do with this. Spiritually speaking, I don’t even know where to go with this.” That way they have someone they can go to help guide them.
Of course, there are a lot of really crappy churches out there—like some of the ones with a rock star leading it. There are a lot of crazy people out there.
Why do we need an organization to bring the Gospel to gamers? Couldn’t we do this simply by being individually involved with the industry without the spectacle?
Because no one is doing it. In 2010 when we started going to all the shows there was no one doing it. Why don’t we do both? Why don’t churches have LAN parties and Halo tournaments?
We are doing both. We will go up to the shows, and we will do that but also at home, I am looking at 31 PCs, 5 Xbox 360s, 3 Playstation 3s in this building, crazy cool architecture and one by one these kids come in and we game with them. We do it every day, seven days a week, so why not do both.
What would you say to Christians who feel like you guys are not being critical enough of the social dangers of videogames? Or Christians who feel like you are trying too hard to fit into the gaming community?
We are gamers. We were gamers before we started this ministry, and we will be gamers after it. We play videogames. We do it every day in our LAN center. So we are not trying to be something that we are not. We don’t have to try too hard, we like games so we play them and we talk about them.
The one thing that we do try to do, and I don’t think we are going overboard, is try to do well with our imagery. I want you to walk into our building or up to our both and go, “What are you doing? What is this?” People flip out when they see the Jesus with the game controller. That is a dialogue starter—people immediately want to know what we are doing. And we tell them “Jesus loves you.” They often ask, “What game are you selling?” “We aren’t selling any games.” “Do you have a subscription site?” “No, we don’t. We have Bibles, you want one of those?”
Your Web site and your booths at trade shows depict Jesus wearing a headset and wielding an Xbox 360 controller. What would you say to those who feel that is an irreverent depiction of Jesus?
My first response is, “Do you really think this looks like Jesus? Do you not think we have already bastardized Jesus by making Him look American?” Most pictures of Jesus look like a rock star from a ’70s band. That is not Jesus. Jesus looked like Sayid from Lost. We have already been irreverent by making Him into this weird, tall, six-pack abs man—that is not Him. Contextually, if you look at where Jesus grew up and what people in His culture looked like we have already blown it.
Second, do you really think Jesus cares? [In the depiction], He isn’t doing anything bad—He has a controller in His hand. What makes you think it’s irreverent? I think it deconstructs what we think when we say “Jesus” or “Christian.”
I recently read on The Escapist that you guys gave out free beer coupons at the Penny Arcade Expo. Obviously some Christians would take issue with that and some nonbelievers might say you guys are trying too hard to be relevant. What would you say to them?
No one is getting drunk. We gave out coupons for a small cup of beer. No one has to take them or use them. More people took Bibles and wanted to have a conversation with us when we did that than any other time when we just had the booth up. People got a little tiny cup of beer and many of them were just like, “What are you doing here? What is this?” That is such a perfect opportunity to go, “Jesus loves you, man!”
People forget about Jesus’ first miracle. It was part of His culture, He drank wine. Honestly, I probably have better conversations over a glass of wine or a beer than I do in passing with someone or even playing a videogame.
There are people at these trade shows and at my gaming center who would never come to our church and I want them in here. And of course we hope that as they come, at some point they will stop doing some of the things they are doing. But our churches aren’t reaching these people—we want to.