“Church” as RPG (or is it MMORPG?)

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It threw me the first time I heard my sons arguing over their draft picks.

Their draft picks? These were both high school teenagers not even earning their own allowance much less a few million extra to own a football franchise. And who did they think they were — owners of the Rams? So treating me like I’d been in a coma for a couple of decades and greatly amused at my social illiteracy, they explained they were playing “fantasy football” and that literally thousands of guys were running their own (fantasy) teams all season long. These guys “owned” NFL teams and traded players back and forth will-nilly at whim. (I thought, “In your dreams, man…”) “RPG” comes from all these “pretenders” trying to be people they weren’t and simply playing roles— hence, “role playing games” (RPGs).

But fantasy football is only one of thousands of RPGs being played today. Wikipedia observes that these games aren’t just played online. In fact, they originated with players who kept detailed records of the ongoing plays with a pencil (known as a “pen-and-paper RPG”.) Some RPGs are really, really big (made up of thousands of players) and these are called MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games). After reading the basics on what made up RPGs, I had a sneaking suspicion that the biggest MMORPG in America today is called “church”.

Listen to the rules of what makes up an RPG and see what you think. In an RPG, players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Each game has an “arranger” (or a game master or GM) who is in charge of the rules, acts as referee over the other players/characters and maintains the all-important sense of “flow” in the game. Sometimes, to help the game along, the GM can create new role and characters and insert them into the game in strategic positions.

In an RPG, the players don’t view one another as players in a game but as the characters they’ve assumed. RPGs are different from real games like Monopoly, Texas Hold ‘Em or back-lot baseball in that instead of emphasizing competition, they encourage social interaction and collaboration. Many people who create RPGs consider them akin to storytelling. Not that they have a “plot” or “narrative” but that the players are actively involved in making the decisions and choosing actions that involve and affect others. Together, a group of “characters” work in partnership to create a “story”. And one of the Key Elements is called a shared “suspension of disbelief” amongst the RPGs participants.

One of the reasons I suspected “church” is an RPG is that for over three decades, I’ve served as Game Master in my own, local RPG in our small, mountain church.  So, based on my years of experience, let’s draw some parallels. First, consider the idea that people would even want to “play games” with one another. Any normal person would wrongly assume that people want to experience lives that are objectively real, but the very existence of tens of thousands of RPG players today (and “churches”) offers indisputable evidence that playing “make believe” is a very grown-up interest.

Next, consider the “roles” available in a local congregation. For example — there’s the “Bible authority”. This person is well-versed (yeah — that’s punny, alright) in the Bible. He or she is able to answer obscure questions about Scripture and win games of “Bible Trivia” at church potlucks. This is the person who is expected to teach Sunday School and maybe a “Bible study” in his or her home. By being the “Bible authority”, this person gains a degree of respect and admiration almost as great as that of the “Pastor”, but without the responsibility of administrating the church and cleaning toilets when the church’s cleaning lady fails to show up.

Then there’s another character, the “suffering wife”, whose husband won’t come to church, derides everything religious as crap and both smokes and drinks beer. (Though I’m not sure how he “smokes beer”, but he’s certainly a nasty, vulgar oaf. Poor Sister So-and-so…) She doesn’t rate as highly on the scale of respect, but instead receives lots of sympathy points and gets to play out her character dramatically with tears in an acceptable fashion. We also have the “teen leaders”. No, not the adult leaders, but the actual teenagers who are leaders amongst the young people. There are two primary characters available: the “spiritually mature for his/her age” teen leader and the “spiritually irresponsible and irrepressible” teen leader who adults assume is going to get the rest of the youth in trouble eventually. The first — the “spiritually mature for his/her age” teen leader — gets a level of respect and admiration from the adults, but the “spiritually irresponsible and irrepressible” teen leader is the one that actually gets admiration from the young people themselves.

Something makes me think that in many local congregations, what’s really happening is an RPG instead of an authentic spiritual experience. I think this primarily because of what happens with these “characters” behind closed doors. (I’ve been a local GM for three decades — I KNOW the kinds of things going on behind closed doors…) For example: there’s the “Pastor” who would lose some serious points if the other players (oops… I mean, “brethren”) were to see how he relates to his secretary when they’re alone in the church office or how the “Bible teacher” acts towards wife and children when no visitors are in their house, watching. And there’s the “spiritually mature for his/her age” teen leader who’s home alone the same weekend Mom and Dad go off to Vegas (where everything stays…) and manages to sneak in some petting time (and I don’t mean at the children’s zoo…)

When church goers’ behavior outside the church (or off the playing field, so to speak) is remarkably unlike the role they’re playing in front of their religious friends on Sunday, Wednesday or whenever, most likely they’re really just role-players in an extensive RPG. And like in any game, a player’s self-esteem doesn’t come from what they’re like inside in places hidden deep within, but on how many “points” they can score in front of their fellow gamers.

The idea that an RPG is a form of communal storytelling fits as well. Basically, the people who come together “for church” have in mind what is “supposed to happen at church”. What happens at “church” is not the natural and unavoidable product of an Omniscient and Omnipotent Being operating in and through the people’s lives, but merely the product of game rules developed over centuries just for “church” — guidelines carefully passed on from generation to generation.

Many people who truly come into an objectively personal, pietistic relationship with this Eternal Being, have come to realize that even if Jesus Christ Himself were to walk into the middle of many of these Sunday RPGs, He wouldn’t be welcome. This is, in fact, exactly what happened 2,000 years ago when He walked into the religious RPGs of the Jewish Pharisees and Priests in ancient Israel. Those religious professionals so resented the fact that He wouldn’t play their game according to their rules that they crucified Him. Faithful, dedicated and humorless RPG players today would solemnly crucify Him yet again if need be to protect current RPGs.

One of the worst elements of RPGs is the one mentioned above about a shared “suspension of disbelief” amongst the RPG’s participants. If the game being played is “medieval village”, then people who are by day battling on the fields of office politics or high school academics, by “night” (or whenever they get to play) instead are “battling” on bloody fields of medieval Europe, surrounded by knights in shining armor and the deafening clash of swords against shields. In their minds, each participant cultivates a strong sense that when they encounter “Sir Kay”, it’s a knight with whom they engage — not merely Sydney Snide who wastes time every day at the office water cooler maliciously gossiping about “those damn bosses”. Each player deliberately “suspends” a natural sense of reality in order to take people at face value as to how they present themselves while playing the RPG.

So in a congregation, you have a local businessman who cheats his customers when he gets the chance by giving them less then bargained for, lies to Uncle Sam about wages actually paid to his workers under the table in order to avoid taxes, and pays lawyers to draw up phony contractual agreements that “cleverly” avoid unpleasant regulations like paying into his employees’ workman’s comp (thus leaving his employees uninsured in case of on-the-job accidents.) But on Sunday, this local businessman not only goes to church with the very employees he crushes during the week, but he also stays after to serve on the church trustee board, helping make decisions affecting the lives of the rest of the parishioners physically, financially and spiritually. And the other board members, knowing how this man conducts business during the week, choose to disregard the reality of who he is and how he cheats, lies and deceives during the week and instead of knowing that reality, they manfully replace it with the role that he’s chosen to play of “good, solid Christian man in our community”. (“Isn’t it a blessing to have a man of his stature helping to oversee the spiritual work of the House of God?”)

There’s an even more sinister twist to this game element of “suspending belief” and that’s in the massive, underground swell of “church myths” that sweep through local congregations like a viral pandemic. So many times I’ve heard people speaking up in front of a church or even in a simple conversation start to say something, pause and add, “This is a true story”, and continue on with an anecdote that has no actual foundation in any legitimate source. The preacher laughs, shouts and declares in a voice brimming with confidence hope and “faith”, “I had a friend email me from Switzerland just yesterday…” He pauses and adds, “This is a true story — I know him too well to think he’d make any of this up. We can count on it.” Then continues, “They had a young boy in their congregation who’d been born without any arms or legs, and in the meeting they held last month, his parents took him up in front of the congregation for the elders to lay hands on him, and his arms and legs began growing out immediately.” Everyone in the church shouts and claps, whistles and stomps just like Babe Ruth had been Raised from the Dead to hit his 10,000th home run right there. Wild excitement! Notice though — there are no pictures of the boy before and after the growth of the four appendages. There are no copies of the latest medical examination by doctors containing their complete befuddlement. There are no emailed copies of the newspaper accounts written from the boy’s local news rag (and what newspaper would ignore that story?) All such “evidence” could have easily accompanied the email, but didn’t. So — lacking any confirming evidence — why did the Pastor, and why did his people swallow the story at face value?

Because that suspension of credibility (called, “have faith, Brother”) is one of the rules of the religious RPG they’re playing. The deepest hole in the world is sunk near Finland — over seven miles deep — and when drilling is stopped, several of the well-drillers lean close, putting their ears to the hole where they can faintly hear the voices of thousands screaming in unending agony. (“OMG! We’ve broken through to Hell!”) That was reported in one of the cutting-edge news sources that you can buy on the way out through the check-out line. So why do religious RPGamers buy into that story but not “Bat-Faced Boy, Son of Dead Alien”? Simple: The gamers are happily willing to suspend any normal sense of reality for the purpose of forging ahead with their MMORPG, but “Bat-Boy” doesn’t help their Collective Narrative. “Hell” is in, “Bat-Boy” is out (and maybe the face of Mother Mary in a shriveled tortilla is in, too, depending on how your GM reads the rules.)

This demonstrates a twist on normal game playing theory observed by an RPG specialist in Finland. Called the “Turku School” of RPG theory, its founder, Mike Pohiola, suggests that RPG players drop their artificial divisions of gameplay in the three categories of Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist in exchange for what he calls “live action role-playing” (or “immersion”.) Pohiola insists that an RPG is simply that which naturally comes into existence via the interaction between players or between players and the Game Master within a specified narrative framework. He defines role-playing in ways that encompasses many different forms and the widest diversity, and shuns normative choices about what the “right” or “best” forms are. This attitude, of course, is not acceptable in typical religious RPGs and MMORPGs whose rules and forms are more heavily safeguarded and constrained than any other.

I’d have to say, if we were defining the true Church, the actual, factual Body of Christ, as an RPG, we’d best swing over towards the Turku School of RPG theory, restrict the power of the GM and empower each player to respond instead to the real Game Master — that Eternal GM. That GM is more interested in His players building and strengthening the lives of others through Love than in accumulating points for their own ego-satisfaction.

When you get right down to it, the problem with “church as usual” today isn’t that people are “playing games” as much as the Game they play, they play badly. The Church that Jesus promised 2,000 years ago to “build” (that would ultimately prevail over the very Gates of Hell itself), this Church is an RPG that can only bring the Love and power of God into the lives of people in our communities if we pay attention to the EGM (Eternal Game Master!) and allow Him to define the roles we play and equip us with the Power Gifts that make us able to effectively care for the needs of others beyond what any RPG novice could accomplish on their own.

BTW — what does God call His “RPG”? Last time I googled it, He’s calling it, “Kingdom of God”.

 

 

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