Reflections and Lessons Learned: The First Year and a Bit

My first significant encounter with Ministry in Digital Spaces was being invited to our Slack team by Bret in the Spring of 2016. At that point in time, we really didn’t have an interaction platform, and for the first few months of our presence on that Slack community, Ministry in Digital Spaces thrived. It was new, and we were new to it, and there was a lot of energy. Coming off of Urbana, membership swelled quickly, and we had a lot of people there who were really committed to this new and flourishing thing. Back then, we didn’t even have a gaming team, and Andrew and I hadn’t even really met.

Fast forward fifteen months, and we’re still going strong, though in different ways and not without our growing pains and hiccups. The energy of that first Slack group caused me and Andrew to put forward lots of ideas, and it was because people there were playing Overwatch that I got hooked on it myself. Those ideas, and that gaming together, would eventually spawn a desire for an MDS Discord, and that would become this space we see today – although it wouldn’t become official for a couple of months, and wouldn’t become well trafficked for a couple of months after that. Todays’ MDS is almost unrecognizable, and I can barely believe it’s so different than it was a year ago. The Slack is gone; KBMM has gone from inactive to thriving to waning back off, and this Discord now exists and is our most trafficked space – far more than the Basecamp which replaced our Slack. We’ve grown from a gaming team of two core members to include almost a dozen committed members and twenty to thirty more who are regularly active. In that time, I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons, and I think we have a lot to do moving forward. Here are some of my thoughts, as someone who’s witnessed the gaming team from its inception to where it’s at today.

For starters, we’ve learned that community is built in networks, and not in a vacuum. From the start, we had an idea that we wanted to build a strong, thriving community through outreach and evangelism, and while we’ve remained true to that vision, it looks a lot different than we were expecting. The first thing that we learned is that ministry happens at human speeds, not digital ones. We were expecting when we went into this that we would grow exponentially overnight, in much the manner of a Twitter movement or a Tumblr meme. None of us really had experience growing a digital movement, and we failed to realize that people are people, not numbers in a follower count. If we want to reach people, we have to interact with them as individuals, and not as a massive audience, and that takes time, effort, and commitment. We aren’t going viral, because that’s not how the church works. We’re going slow church, and we’re gradually gaining speed. It’s a more sustainable growth pattern, and it’s less prone to false starts like the one we had at the beginning of the gaming movement.

The second thing we’ve learned – and it ties in – is that people are reluctant to interact with strangers. We started out with a lot of quests aimed at targeting people we didn’t know – evangelizing to them and trying to make their lives more positive through our own impact. We were, in effect, going out into the digital space and trying to make connections and spread the gospel. That didn’t work, because people build relationships organically, not spontaneously. They interact with their friends, and then their friends’ friends, and so on, and you get networks forming and cliques developing and groups of people who know each other who join up with other groups of people who know each other and so on and so on and so on. It’s a movement, not a moment, and it’s acceleration, not constant velocity. The people you meet will introduce you to more people, and it all starts with your own network of friends. That’s why Andrew and I made the conscious decision to seek each other out and become friends even though we had never met in person. With that decision, we saw a sea change in the way we were doing ministry. Almost overnight, within weeks of that decision, we saw membership grow by a factor of three or four, and that gave us critical mass. What we had discovered was this: networks start at home. If you don’t have friends who you regularly game with, you’re going to be pressed to do gaming ministry. Like dorm-room ministry, and neighborhood ministry, it all starts with who you know, and sometimes, that means a conscious decision to get to know somebody who you don’t already know.

In terms of actually building those relationships, we’ve discovered a couple of things that have been really useful. The first is to simply stay in touch. Whether you’re gaming together, watching YouTube videos in synchronization so you can laugh at all the funny parts, or playing with the jukebox-bot in Discord, hanging out and shooting the breeze are important parts of a friendship. At a minimum, making conversation helps you get to know a person, and even just sharing a space can help to build camaraderie. More than that, it gives people a space that they can come to when they’re hurting, and that’s often when we see relationships deepen. If a person trusts you enough and has enough shared memories and inside jokes in common with you, they may eventually come to trust and respect you as a valued friend, and that can be the start of something really amazing for both of you.

The second thing we’ve learned is about how to do the first thing. About two or three months into questing we noticed that certain after-recap activities were helping us get to know each other better than others, and the key seems to be level of interaction. For instance, playing a fast-paced competitive shooter like Overwatch forces you to interact with the game, and there’s little time (or focus) for interacting with other people. There’s a time and a place for that, especially when you’re tired, or with friends who you already know well, but it’s not optimal for building and deepening relationships, especially if your group is uncomfortable enough with each other or quiet enough to run the risk of going completely silent in that kind of situation. What we’ve found to be more suited to this kind of relational building is slower, turn-based games, as well as party games that allow you to laugh and joke together. With the right player set, it can also be viable to play faster-paced games at lower difficulty levels, such as against a beginner or intermediate AI, especially if they can be played mindlessly or automatically at this difficulty.

Furthermore, we’ve observed particular success when someone comes prepared. If you have a designated person set to ask questions or prompt people for a response when things get slow, you can keep a conversation going, and even hit some really good discussion points. What comes to mind is a particular evening when we played Heroes of the Storm against intermediate AI, and someone – I forget now who it was – brought a list of icebreaker and discussion questions that really helped us get to know each other. I still remember details from that night, and I got a really good insight into my fellow gamers, even though I was partially distracted by the game. Any list of questions is acceptable, but philosophical or “deep” questions can go a long way towards getting to know people, as can discussions about their pasts and upbringings. Think of it like a dorm-room conversation – the kind that happens late at night, where everyone pays rapt attention and really wants to know what other people think and what makes them who they are. I have a really great group of philosophically and politically aware friends at school and it reminds me of conversations that I’ve had with them. That is, after all, how people my age get to know each other.

One final thing I’ve noticed, and which applies to me and other leaders in particular, is that you neither can do everything, nor need to. Oftentimes, we worry about things that will not happen if we’re not involved in them, and the reality is, sometimes they won’t; but sometimes, they actually will. If it’s strong enough, and if enough people are behind it, it’ll happen with or without you, and you might be able to jump in later and be even more effective. If you spread yourself thin between the kinds of things that won’t happen without you, chances are you’re trying to start more than one project at once, and that’s a recipe for failure. Getting a project off the ground requires a lot of time and energy investment, and it’s far from an instantaneous process. You have to be committed for the long haul, and that means not spreading yourself out between so many projects that you doom them all by starving them of resources. If it has to happen next week, or next month, or even next year, that’s better than it happening now and failing to get off the ground. If you do your projects right, chances are you’ll even find people to help you between now and then, as Andrew and I have discovered with MDS. We’ve wanted to expand our influence and our impact for some time, but only now, after we’ve finally gained some more core members, do we really have the resources to start firing up those extra projects. If we’d started them earlier, chances are we’d have failed to get them off the ground and hurt the growth of MDS in the process. Remember, ministry happens at human speeds, not digital speeds, and that also applies to you. Ministers are human too, and we have to remember that.

As we look at questing and its future, I think we can safely say that we’ve had an impact, and will continue to. What that impact is has changed from our initial expectations, but that’s a good thing – it means we’re doing ministry right. If you’re doing ministry and it’s exactly what you expected, that means you’re not being challenged, and that God isn’t changing you, and that can be a very bad and a very dangerous thing. The Lord wants to use ministry for your benefit, and not just the benefit of those around you, and that means teaching and growing you through the process. If you aren’t being changed by your own ministry, it means you’re not having maximal impact – and that’s something God can help you change.

Until next time, Recon, over and out.

–419

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