Halo as bait

Instead of a video game that shoots up a church, some evangelical churches are using a violent first person shooter video game in attempt to 'hook' teenage males into the Gospel message.

The New York Times reported yesterday how some congregations set up marathon sessions that allow groups of teens to play Halo 3, the mega-best-selling X-Box game that features the main character known only as the Master Chief who is armed to the teeth with all kinds of exotic weapons as he shoots up aliens in a mythical war. The game combines elements of a story-telling video game and a classic first-person shooter.

[In] the basement on a recent Sunday at the Colorado Community Church in the Englewood area of Denver, where Tim Foster, 12, and Chris Graham, 14, sat in front of three TVs, locked in violent virtual combat as they navigated on-screen characters through lethal gun bursts. Tim explained the game’s allure: “It’s just fun blowing people up.”

Once they come for the games, Gregg Barbour, the youth minister of the church said, they will stay for his Christian message. “We want to make it hard for teenagers to go to hell,” Mr. Barbour wrote in a letter to parents at the church.

Evangelical churches have been adept at experimenting with marrying popular secular culture with a gospel message, but this has many evangelical leaders unhappy. For one thing, the game is rated "M," which means that in theory the game should not be bought by those under 17 years of age. Some parents wonder at the wisdom of a church supplying and sanctioning a game that they would not allow in their own homes.

A more basic question is whether the theme and game play of relentless violence can be appropriately connected with the Christian Gospel.

But the question arises: What price to appear relevant? Some parents, religious ethicists and pastors say that Halo may succeed at attracting youths, but that it could have a corroding influence. In providing Halo, churches are permitting access to adult-themed material that young people cannot buy on their own.

“If you want to connect with young teenage boys and drag them into church, free alcohol and pornographic movies would do it,” said James Tonkowich, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a nonprofit group that assesses denominational policies. “My own take is you can do better than that.”

Daniel R. Heimbach, a professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, believes that churches should reject Halo, in part because it associates thrill and arousal with killing.

“To justify whatever killing is involved by saying that it’s just pixels involved is an illusion,” he said.

On the other hand,

Hundreds of churches use Halo games to connect with young people, said Lane Palmer, the youth ministry specialist at the Dare 2 Share Ministry, a nonprofit organization in Arvada, Colo., that helps churches on youth issues.

“It’s very pervasive,” Mr. Palmer said, more widespread on the coasts, less so in the South, where the Southern Baptist denomination takes a more cautious approach. The organization recently sent e-mail messages to 50,000 young people about how to share their faith using Halo 3. Among the tips: use the game’s themes as the basis for a discussion about good and evil.

At Sweetwater Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., Austin Brown, 16, said, “We play Halo, take a break and have something to eat, and have a lesson,” explaining that the pastor tried to draw parallels “between God and the devil.”

Gregg Barbour, youth pastor at the Colorado Community Church wrote in a letter to parents, tthat God calls ministers to be “fishers of men.”

“Teens are our ‘fish,” he wrote. “So we’ve become creative in baiting our hooks.”

Read: Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except in a Popular Video Game at Church

Comments (3)

Yes, Halo is indeed violent. However, there is a compelling story-line behind the Halo universe regarding both the violent war between Humans and the Covenant and the nature of warfare in general along with some incisive commentary about war-mongering fundamentalists.

Using Halo to draw parallels between GOd and the devil strikes me as silly, but there could be some excellent discussions on violence, war and religion as they are played out in the Halo story-line.

I think the most telling comment was in this quote in the NY Times article:

In rural Minnesota, Mr. Drexler said, the church needs something powerful to compete against the lure of less healthy behaviors. "We have to find something that these kids are interested in doing that doesn’t involve drugs or alcohol or premarital sex."

I think we can all agree that kids engaged in (or glorifying) drugs, alcohol and premarital sex is a bad thing -- but how it is that "violence" somehow is a lesser evil than those other three boggles the mind. Jesus didn't speak at all about drugs and alcohol and hardly about premarital sex, but he had a lot to say about the motivations for violence.

Derek Baker

A boy in our church is very fond of Halo 1 and 2 and wishes he had Halo 3. He tells me about the game often.

I don't understand the game at all, but the language of Halo includes some interesting scriptural language. Logan is surprised when I read him stories from the Bible about the Flood and the Covenant or the Prophets -- he didn't realize that they were more than elements of the game.

So Halo has been a conversation starter for us. Logan knows I will listen to his stories about Halo if he listens to the one I want to tell from the Bible!

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