Sacred Space: What's Wrong with Videogames in Church?

Every Friday in Sacred Space, Brad Williams explores the place of popular culture in the local church.

An article that Rich Clark recently linked in our Elsewhere sidebar has seized my attention. I think that Rich’s reaction to this, as well as some of the reactions in the comment section, indicate that we have lost a little bit of our grip on what is supposed to happening in the context of worship in our local church. I’m going to be careful how I put this for two reasons: 1) This is an important discussion that will reach beyond video games in the service and 2) Rich is my editor and I enjoy this gig here at Christ and Pop Culture.

In Rich’s commentary on the article concerning the use of the video game “Flower” in a church service, he expresses feeling torn about whether or not this is a good thing. I understand that reaction, and I think that many who love games may feel the same way. I also think that folks who have the knee-jerk reaction of “This is wrong!” do not have the clarity of thought to express why this sort of thing outrages them, except to say that this somehow demeans the corporate worship of the church. I want to put a finer point on the objection to this issue than that, but if I am going to do it, I feel beholden to talk about it in a way that helps give a better overall understanding of what is supposed to be happening in worship on Sunday.

For the record, I am pro-videogames. I love games. I love flash games and blockbuster games. I love shooters and RPG’s. I have an annoying addiction to Bejeweled Blitz. I have had great times of fellowship with friends in multi-player Halo games, even though I always lose terribly. I am one of those guys that thinks video games can give us a meaningful experience and that they can tell compelling stories through their own medium. So, I’m not taking the power of games lightly. My objection is not going to be that games are ‘trivial’. I even think it is a fun thing to play video games with the students at church during ‘hang out’ time. I’m not saying that video games, or any other good thing, should be abolished form the premises. I’m focusing on the use of such things during the corporate worship of the church.

My objection to video games in church boils down to what makes a church. A church is a place where the Word of God and the sacraments are rightly applied. The problem with using video games in worship, or Rembrandt for that matter, is that they require no catechism and no instruction to enjoy. A Jehovah’s Witness and a Southern Baptist and a Roman Catholic could sit down together on a Sunday morning and enjoy Flower together. They could experience the beauty of God-given human ingenuity and the simple pleasure of mutually enjoying something cool. But what happens when John 1 is preached? What happens when we sit at the Lord’s Table and the church we are in says, “This is what we are doing right now…” Someone’s going to leave, and someone’s going to stay. Video games are general and wide-open to interpretation. Through the Word and the Ordinances of the Church, Christ is presented. And we have to decide as He is presented what we believe about Him, and precisely how we can get to Him and how He comes to us. The corporate worship of the church isn’t supposed to be designed to give us glimpses of Christ; He is supposed to be presented to us in all of His glory.

So why are video games and Rembrandt out, but music is in? Because music meets the requirement of mediating the Word to us. Worship songs are like sermons, and the music helps us remember the lessons. Besides that, the Bible commands us to make music to the Lord, and He encourages our singing His praises to Him. We can’t sing any song we want in worship. I personally like The Mariner’s Revenge Song by The Decemberists. But it isn’t proper for worship just because it is music and awesome. It reveals things to us to be sure, and it is certainly well-done. But it doesn’t present Christ to the church as When I Survey the Wondrous Cross does.

Declaration of the Word of God and the administration of the sacraments are the unique elements of corporate worship precisely because those roads lead straight to the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. These sacred means of grace are given to us by God to especially reveal to us who we are before God and what He has done for us in Christ. It isn’t that video games are particularly shallow; it is that anything compared to these magnificent treasures of the church are doomed to seem trite by comparison. They will seem trite because when the Word is rightly preached and the ordinances properly done, we will come face to face with Christ, not vaguely as through a dark glass or in glimpses as we see in creation. We will be confronted by Christ Himself. Isn’t that what we really gather together for?

About Brad Williams

Brad is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. Besides the incredible fact that he managed to persuade his wife to marry him, he is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard's Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.

  • http://virtualstowaway.wordpress.com Jonah Stowe

    It’s nice to hear someone with a contrasting viewpoint on this; I’m perfectly happy to accept that there are plenty of people who don’t like Andy Robertson’s test of using Flower as part of the service at Exeter Cathedral. However, I think your argument still needs some work, particularly with respect to why music is okay but Rembrandt isn’t. For example, there are many pieces of music used in worship settings that are purely instrumental, but your argument suggests that a piece of music has to have lyrics to be admissible. If lyrics aren’t the issue, then we have to get into composer intention, which is a much more gray area. On the other hand, Rembrandt’s “Christ Preaching” (I think) does exactly the kind of work you argue is particular to corporate worship. The openness of interpretation that you attribute to video games can also be attributed to many of the traditional aspects of corporate worship (including music, and even the Bible itself). I perfectly agree that a church is “where the Word of God and the sacraments are rightly applied.” The issue, it seems to me, is on that last bit (rightly applied). Andy Robertson’s article about his experiment points out that certain aspects of corporate worship music that we accept today are relatively recent introductions; the church has a history of introducing new and unique ways of “rightly applying” the Word of God. And I think congregations should be free to do some exploring in these areas (even if they ultimately decide to change nothing).

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Jonah,

    Thanks for the feedback. For the record, I would not be keep on simple instrumentals without words, unless the tune was so familiar that the congregation would know them.

    Rembrandt’s “Christ Preaching” fails to do what you claim, I think, unless someone explains what the picture is, or at least gives the title. So without explanation from the Word regarding what “Christ Preaching” even means, it would utterly fail. Rembrandt’s painting, ironically, is dependent on the Bible to even convey the message he wishes it to convey.

  • http://www.gamepeople.co.uk Andy Robertson

    Interesting debate and I’m glad my experiment is sparking things like this. Having read through the post and the comments, I think there are a number of different issues on the table — probably too much to get into here.

    I think video-games are a good (better?) way to respond to the resources of faith (bible, holy spirit etc) as music because they are a natural way that we tell stories about the world around us. For me there is too many limits put on worship to be sung in a certain style in a certain place. Being able to see all of life as worship seems to be a good way to go, and having life/technology/family/friendships/mealtimes seep into corporate times of worship helps blur these boundaries.

    The church has always done this as far as I can tell, and will always continue to do so.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Andy,

    You are right that this discussion puts a number of issues on the table. It was difficult to wheedle this thing down to the proper length, but I have a good editor.

    I am travelling this weekend, so I regrettably will have little time for interaction. (Alas!) But I will say this. You and I, I think, are fundamentally disagreeing on what the corporate service is supposed to do.

    I do believe that life is worship, after all, Paul tells us to even eat and drink to the glory of God. But there are times and places for certain things. Like, the marriage bed is not for public consumption, but it is a God-glorifying event. Similarly, the corporate gathering of the church is for the Word and for the Ordinances. We have a tremendous amount of Biblical instruction and example for incorporating music into the process of teaching the Word.

    My biggest disagreement is this: I don’t want to blur the boundaries of life with the gathering of the church as you propose. If we do, we do not make family time better, we necessarily downgrade the gathering of the church. I believe corporate worship with the church is the greatest worship that there is, and all our activities throughout the week are done with the longing that we can gather again and celebrate together via the Word and the ordinances Christ left to the church.

    That’s quick and dirty, but I have to run to Chattanooga! Hopefully, some others will help carry a good discussion. Or everyone can show up to throw eggs at me. We’ll see!

  • Nelly

    “It isn’t that video games are particularly shallow; it is that anything compared to these magnificent treasures of the church are doomed to seem trite by comparison.” I wholeheartedly agree!

    Although I did post a “knee jerk reaction” to the original article, I followed up with a more thought out response, so your comment about some readers lacking “clarity of thought” was disappointing. My point was quite similar to yours actually: worshipping God is about wrapping our minds around His glory. The realization of what He’s done for us by His grace should result in such an overwhelming sense of gratitude and humlity that we are motivated to worship Christ with our lives during the week. The question is are video games capable of being a catalyst for this.

    I agree that worship music has the ability to contain a deep, powerful message that can minister to the individual. Perhaps a video game will someday/somehow be designed to attempt this, but I checked out “Flower” on youtube and while it seems like a cool game, I don’t think it comes close to achieving the intent of true worship: “presenting Christ in all His glory”.

    One awesome and mind-blowing thing to remember is that we will spend all of eternity worshipping God. So a true worship experience is a little glimpse of heaven.

  • Alan Noble

    The question should be: What’s wrong with video games? Or better, what’s NOT wrong with video games.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Alan stop trolling.

  • http://virtualstowaway.wordpress.com Jonah Stowe

    Good discussion on this, I think. One other thought on Brad’s characterization of worship is that it seems to promise too much. If “the corporate worship of the church isn’t supposed to be designed to give us glimpses of Christ; He is supposed to be presented to us in all of His glory,” then I think we have a problem with 1 Corinthians 13:12 where Paul famously proclaims, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” I’m not sure about the notion that the service is even capable of presenting Christ “in all of His glory,” while we still live in a broken world. (And perhaps some of the differences we’re seeing are denominational differences on what the primary purposes of the worship service are.) I think that human cultural endeavors have great potential to play important roles in the way we commune with God. Brad is concerned about a lack of mediation, but I would argue that the service itself functions as a mediating frame through which congregants can rightly understand the role of a creative act within the context of worship. As such, the possibility for certain video games to offer a window into (in this case) the beauty of creation and redemption/renewal can be quite powerful.

  • Scott G.

    Can I add another term that may be more in keeping with the original article?

    I think a problem with video games in church is that they are (in our current cultural context) “edgy,” and that they call attention to the form (rather than content) of a liturgical service. Their time has not yet come.

    Or, to put my point simply, their use offends old people.

    I have developed a deep respect for the fact that the simplest teaching and music can attract the most questioning audience; I think the church service (in as far as it acts as a church service) perhaps should be slow to innovate in its presentation. This is because the church is a place to bring together a section of the universal church, not a place to target a specific niche within it. I think there is much more danger of becoming a church of a specific culture than there is of appealing irrelevant.

  • Scott G.

    Brad,

    How far are you willing to push this binary? I grew up in a church that often used quiet “long pictures” of both religious subject matter and nature as backgrounds to songs. They did this in a way that didn’t offend anyone, and added subtly to the worship. Should they purge the non-explicitly religious images from the service because they can be appreciated from a more wide array of perspectives?

  • http://www.quixoticiconoclast.blogspot.com Chris Todd

    One of the main problems in most of our Church services is that we serve too much milk and not enough meat. My fear is that playing video games in Church will do exactly what Mom says it will do -distract. This isn’t just an issue for video games, it applies to other things that are supposed to grab our attention -remember the famous incident of the youth Pastor who rode a motorcycle into the service and crashed? How much serious attention was given to the Gospel on that night?

    People should not come away from a Church service thinking that it was fun and cool. The world will always do fun and cool better than the Church. No matter how well I preach, and what awesome illustrations I use, my sermon will never be as fun and cool as The Avengers. “Puny god” is the best Hulk line ever! Not even Brad Williams himself can preach a sermon that is cooler and more fun than seeing Black Widow play Loki for a fool.

    But what was the climax of the movie? Iron Man flew the nuclear bomb through the portal and blew up the enemy ship, thereby saving the world at the cost of his own life. But wait, he’s not really dead? That’s a great story, but…

    Here’s something the world can never do as well as the Church. We can preach, as Paul said, “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” The incredible story of Jesus suffering our punishment, dying on the cross to save us from our sins, and defeating death to give us eternal life is far better than any Marvel clip.

    Our worship should not be a pale imitation of the world’s truth, it should be a place the world looks for inspiration and hope when their truth fails. People should come away from a Church service inspired, convicted, hopeful, shaken, healed, broken -fun and cool fall short of our calling.


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