Daniel Herron is the pastor of one of the largest and most diverse churches in the country. It boasts more than 14,000 members, has multiple campuses, represents several countries, and is growing bigger every week.
Rev. Herron just turned 18 years old. And the church is virtual.
Roblox, released in 2006, is an online “sandbox” gaming and social media platform with more than 64 million users. In the gaming portion, you build and play interactive games with a Minecraft-like functionality. One of the most popular Roblox games has your self-created avatar cruising around a city in assorted vehicles in order to solve crimes. In others, you must survive in the wilderness, or build a theme park, or play hide-and-seek. But that is only part of the Roblox experience. There are also any number of social media groups that you can form or join; think Facebook for young gamers.
When he was 11 years old, Daniel, like many his age, was on Roblox, making and playing games and getting to know others in various groups. Raised in a Christian household, Daniel looked for other believers in the user community. He found a faith-based group, but soon he began to think about how to expand the virtual space for the expression of faith. And thus “The Robloxian Christians” (“TRC”) was born.
Using the platform’s game-making tools, Daniel built a church within the Roblox to hold online bible studies and worship services. As time went on and the community grew, Daniel recruited volunteer leaders and, eventually, associate pastors – one from the Southeast U.S., one from the U.K. – and an elder board. It grew from one worship service to two because it became more and more a global church; probably about 40% of its members are from outside the U.S. and therefore a large number of TRC’s members are in bed or at school at any given time. To account for this geographical diversity, Daniel recently recruited an associate pastor from the East, a 15-year-old in Manila, which is perhaps slightly older than the average age for the church, Daniel tells me, though it is impossible to know because Roblox player ages are unknown unless self-reported.
There are game nights, Bible studies, and a prayer team. TRC created a virtual meditative space that a small group of “players” can visit in order to reflect or pray. They even bought a second campus from a smaller church using Robloxian currency (“robux”), though generating revenue through tithes is challenging given the age demographic. Sitting in front of his laptop perched on the kitchen table in his home, Daniel took me on a tour of this satellite campus, a modern-looking setup on an island with lots of places to explore, sit, or visit with other avatars; he stopped to fix a gap in the floors that he spotted. We stopped by Redemption Coffee Company, the church’s coffee bar, and he got me a caramel latte. A fun activity, Daniel explained, to open up a conversation between hosts (there is a hospitality team on site) and any visitor.
I asked Daniel why he thinks his church has grown so dramatically. He said that the Robloxian Christians are residents of the world to which students venture when they come home from school and want to relax or chat with friends. “We’re where people are at,” Daniel shrugs. “We’re present. We’ve been there a long time.”
The words of Rev. Herron suggest that he is merely doing good ministry – theologically grounded, contextually sensitive, and practically effective. Good ministry is incarnational; it instantiates the grace of God wherever you are.
When I visited him, before introducing me to his Robloxian community, Daniel walked me around his “irl” (an internet abbreve for “in real life”) Tacoma neighborhood. He pointed out houses and told me a bit about their residents, the history of the nearby elementary school, the reputations of area neighborhoods; we wandered over to his local church that he knew well, a congregation that has been there for well over 100 years, once pastored by Daniel’s great-something grandfather. It struck me that Daniel is far more invested in his particular locality than many his age – or any age, for that matter. And that goes for the totality of his locality.
“Missional” is a word that is used so often in Christian circles that it can mean any number of things. But, following here the ideas most widely popularized by Darrell Guder’s The Missional Church, to be a “missional” means to be people of God’s mission, the missio Dei, whoever and wherever we are. Principally, it is not the church that sends us on missions. It is God the Father who sent God the Son and God the Spirit to minister to us. And it is God who now sends us to be bearers of and witnesses to what God has done, is doing, and will do. We are people of God’s mission. As goes a well-known dictum of missional theology: churches do not have missions, but rather God’s mission has churches. Including people like Daniel Herron.
After college, Daniel’s parents moved into a struggling neighborhood of Tacoma in order to serve God and others there. It was within that neighborhood and mission that Daniel was born, grew up, and began playing games on his computer. Daniel has missional DNA. In the world of Roblox, it was only natural for him to ask how he might bear God’s mission within that neighborhood as well.
The question that may confront us is if that virtual world is a legitimate neighborhood for the gospel. I want to explore that question, and other questions evinced by virtual Christianity, in the weeks to come. But, briefly, I offer three responses. First, one of the historic problems of the church has been deeming certain people or places as unsuitable for the gospel. This has eventually proven to be an embarrassment at best, demonic at worst. Second, to ask if the virtual world is suitable for the gospel depends upon how we define the gospel, the church, the world, ourselves, and indeed “virtual.” Have we done the theological work to understand these things properly? Third, if Christians do not bear the gospel in the virtual world, then what sort of world do we expect it to be for those who are there? In a time when we are rightfully bemoaning the loss of people, particularly younger generations, from the Western church, will the church go to where they are?