The Tale of Two Hats: Board Gaming & Ministry

a game about another guy who doesn't look good in hats...

I am not a hat guy.

Really – on some guys, hats make them look cool & sophisticated. (See, for example, Neil Caffrey on the TV show “White Collar” or Indiana Jones.) Hats make me look like Elmer Fudd on a bender.

With all that said, I’m a guy who wears many figurative hats:

  • I’m a husband (proudly married for 21 years)
  • I’m a father (I have two boys – ages 10 & 6)
  • I’m a gamer (with over 1000 games in my collection, I may well have crept into “obsessed gaming nerd” rather than the generic term “gamer”)
  • I’m a follower of Jesus Christ
  • and I’m a pastor (of a small Southern Baptist church in the Central Valley of California)

The question Dale (the Grand Poobah & Chief Bottle Washer for the Opinionated Gamers) asked me was essentially this:

“What’s the intersection of your hobby – board gaming – and your calling – being a pastor – look like?”

How I Use Gaming As A Pastor

I use boardgaming as a way to meet people and build relationships… both inside and outside the church. I’ve been running game groups for nearly 15 years – the last 6 years my regular Tuesday night group has actually met in the social hall of my church.

Gaming also enters into my sermon illustrations – for example:

  • I’ve used game translating as a metaphor for getting to know the Bible. In short: I can read a whole lot more German now than I could 15 years ago, even though I’d had 3 years of German classes in high school & college. Actually having to work with the German language for something I wanted – translating rules to games –  changed the way I approached the language, instead of just learning it for a grade.)
  • In the same vein, I’ve talked about the language of the gaming subculture (newbie, TGOO, SdJ, DSK, etc.) and compared it to the language of evangelical subculture (born again, walk the aisle, “fellowship”, etc.). Both sets of words have valid usage, but they don’t adequately speak to the world outside those subcultures. We (speaking both to gamers & Christians) need to use language that communicates truth, rather than using it to build walls that close others out.
  • John Ortberg has a wonderful book entitled It All Goes Back in the Box in which the metaphorical anchor for the book is a story about his grandmother teaching him how to play Monopoly. This excellent illustration on giving became the heart of one sermon & the inspiration for entire series of messages themed around board games:
  • Game On! – Monopoly: Rule #1 (Luke 12:16-21)
  • Game On! – Gin Rummy: How Do You Keep Score? (Philippians 2:5-11)
  • Game On! – Liar’s Dice: Play By The Rules (Matthew 5:1-30)
  • Game On! – Scrabble: Fill Each Square (Matthew 6:33, Romans 12:1-2)
  • Game On! – Risk: Roll the Dice (Hebrews 11)
  • Game On! – Pit: More Will Never Be Enough (Ecclesiastes (selected), Philippians 4:12)
  • Game On! – Chess: The King Has One More Move (1 Corinthians 15:55, John 11:25-26)

How Being a Pastor Affects My Gaming

No surprise – there’s a difference in how my profession affects my gaming hobby and how my personal commitment of my life to Jesus Christ affects my gaming hobby. I try very hard (not always successfully) to NOT choose my activities & actions solely based on my job as a “professional Christian.” Still, I’ve made the choice in the past not to play some games more out of a concern for church member’s opinions rather than my own personal convictions and tastes. Hopefully, I’m done with that, except where my gaming choices could cause a fellow believer to stumble in their faith. (I’m not getting to the exact details of this Romans 14 based practice in this article. Anyone interested can contact me personally.)

OTOH, my strongly held beliefs in Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible obviously play a role in my hobby. (If strongly held beliefs don’t play a role in your whole life, then they’re not strongly held beliefs.) There are certain games I choose not to play (Hellrail, Lunch Money, etc.) and other games I’m glad they re-themed (Twilight -> Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde) based on what I believe.

I’m a little bothered about how “I”-centered the last couple of paragraphs sound. They don’t fully indicate my conviction that moral choices are not subjective… but again, that’s a conversation for another day.

Gaming Groups & Churches

There’s a lot of ways to use games in a church ministry:

  • create opportunities for families to connect (Family Game Night)
  • open the doors of the church to people outside the church (regular game group)
  • use games as ways to break down walls & encourage communication in non-gaming events (small groups, Sunday School classes, youth groups)
  • and much, much more…

Some advice from a guy who’s “been there, done that, got the T-shirt & the free expansion”:

  1. The first thing is to remember your audience… while (as I mentioned above) I’m not bothered by certain games & themes, I realize that some folks in my congregation would have a hard time with them. So I choose not to bring those for our family game nights. (My guess is that some of your readers will want examples: I don’t bring Bang! or Family Business due to the violence… and I usually keep the heavily themed fantasy games to a minimum.)
  2. The second thing is to remember your audience. No, I’m not repeating myself. The vast majority of non-gamers are not ready to appreciate longer games, even those we would consider “light”. Here in Fresno, Tsuro, Smarty Party, Carabande, Abandon Ship, and Say Anything have all been very successful at our family game nights. So, choose games that fit the gaming “experience” of your crowd.
  3. The third thing is to remember what you want to accomplish. If the point of the evening (be it a club or a game night or whatever) is social interaction, choose games that will help that happen. If you’re appealing to a particular demographic, then pick games that fit their interests. (When I had the 4th-6th boys over for an afternoon of gaming, we played Battle Ball, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars: Epic Duels.)
  4. The fourth thing is to train others to lead & teach games… that way you don’t have to carry the whole load. We played a lot of games after our small group on Wednesday nights, and those folks were a great help at our game nights in teaching games. (Yes, I had to help make some rulings and correct a missed rule or two, but that’s par for the course.)
  5. Finally, don’t count on what you start in a church context to satisfy your gaming/gamer itch. At our last game night, I spent about 50% of my time teaching games & making sure folks got involved. But that’s OK – my purpose was not to play games non-stop, but to give people an enjoyable evening together. String a lot of those kind of evenings together, and it makes it much easier to create a loving church community.

About Mark "Fluff Daddy" Jackson

follower of Jesus, husband, father, pastor, boardgamer, writer, Legomaniac, Disneyphile, voted most likely to have the same Christmas wish list at age 57 as he did at age 7
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6 Responses to The Tale of Two Hats: Board Gaming & Ministry

  1. Matt J Carlson says:

    Interesting stuff.. I’m the volunteer Youth Pastor of my local church, and bring in some group games from time to time. One of the volunteers is also a big boardgamer and has done some cool things with games as well. (We have a nice collection when we go on retreats, overnights, etc…) He was very successful with a game of Pit for about 20 or so kids… (they did it in teams with envelopes…)

    In addition, I’ve used my church connections to be able to base our boardgaming group in the chruch’s coffeehouse so we have a nice, handy place to play on Monday evenings…

  2. Jason says:

    Great article – I really appreciate the insight. I’ve only played “party” games with members of my church because there aren’t many that would get into more strategy games. However, I have the same conundrum regarding themed games when playing with my kids. We play Red November, which involves grog drinking – but at least that’s bad in the game cause you can pass out and die if you drink too much, so moral lesson to the kids. :-)

    Now, in Bang! where beer heals you, hmmm…?! Ha! It is still on my wishlist, though. As for the fantasy themes, I will not buy any games too dark. The main example would be Chaos in the Old World – a game with a board made to look like its on stretched, human skin just seems to heavy for me and my kids…!

  3. Thanks for the comments, Matt & Jason.

    Jason, I’ve written other places about fantasy games & faith – perhaps I’ll dig through that stuff and post it here in the coming weeks (during the pre-Essen lull).

    I think our tendency as evangelicals is to be offended too quickly – and then, many times in the name of “evangelism”, to over-compensate in the other direction & be unwilling to graciously say “no” to a game. (BTW, I agree with you heartily on Chaos in the Old World.)

  4. Garry R says:

    Enjoyed your post Mark. I’ve worked with the junior high youth at our church the past 12 years or so and have tried to make my games available to them when we go on retreats or have lock ins and such. I’ve found that interest in games varies greatly from year to year as the new kids come in and the older kids move on up…and in general the interest and general knowledge of games has decreased over that time. Each group is different but the past few years I’ve had groups that didn’t even know how to play any of the standard American fair (Scrabble, Pass the pigs, Parchesi, Sorry, etc…We tried an event where we divided the kids into 2 teams, formed a square within a square with about 12 games set up between them. They’d play for a few minutes at the game in front of them and then we’d blow a whistle and both groups would rotate (on would rotate CW, the other CCW so you were playing different people). We thought it was a great idea, but the kids struggled with it as they didn’t know the rules to most of the games, and perhaps more importantly, most of them didn’t care (it was rather disheartening to look at the “words” in the Scrabble game).

    We also tried the group Pit game, and again, I was shocked that maybe 20% of the kids even knew what the game of Pit was…it went a little better, but I suspect there was a fair amount of “cheating” with different cards being exchanged.

    At the same time, I’ve found games to be a rewarding and wonderful way to get to know kids in smaller groups. I continue to bring a tub of games to our annual retreat, and always wind up playing a fair amount of games with the kids over the course of the weekend…this past year, I can’t even count the number of times Jungle Speed was played:)

    I definitely use my beliefs as a filter for what I purchase (i.e. Chaos would likewise be out for me as well), although I do enjoy a well done fantasy themed game, although as you said, one needs to know the group when bringing a game to play.

  5. Henderickx Stefaan says:

    I guess I am the first European to react on this topic. I always find it striking that in the USA a lot of the gamers are Christians and even people with a job in their faith. In Europe this link is not existing, so thanks for giving us a glimpse inside your world. I would call myself educated with catholic values and I still respect these but the “organised church” does not speak to me at all. I must say I really find it strange when I hear things like “we do not play Bang because of the violence and the drinking” or the fact that only in the USA “Risk evolution” will be called “Risk the legacy”. I guess we solve a lot of things by saying “hey, it’s only a game.”

  6. Thanks for the nice article. I am an assistant pastor and can definitely relate. We use a lot of games during our two weeks of church camp each year. While we may have some be careful about some of the games, I think it’s a lot easier than having to select appropriate video games!

    I also agree that board games can really bridge some big gaps. I’ve met lots more unbelievers than I would have otherwise through gaming–and have had some great opportunities to answer questions and talk about my faith. Keep up the good work!

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