Jesus loves your favorite game.
Jesus loves your favorite manga.
Jesus loves your favorite superhero.
No, really. I mean it.
Ok, so I can’t speak to Jesus’ specific taste in manga, but when I read the Gospels I see Him meeting the people where they are, sometimes hanging out by a tree or at wells, to name a few examples. If Jesus were to meet me similarly today, He would have to find me in the manga section of Barnes & Noble or the clearance aisle of Gamestop.
Jesus loves people where they are and talks to them in the jargon that they know best. And maybe that jargon today looks more like C++ or comes through a headset or is captured in 140 characters or less.
Why does Jesus go to these lengths to find us? Jesus does these things because Jesus loves us.
It’s because of Jesus’ love for creation and creatives that I believe God is calling the Church to be a place for nerds, manga lurkers, game sale hunters—maybe just like you and definitely just like me.
Starting back in 2016, I felt God place a call on my heart to be the church for the nerds.
Starting a new church from thin air is a real challenge. Like, I’m talking Level 99, 360 no-scope platinum medal kind of challenge. Some days it’s incredibly overwhelming in a good way, others it feels like a mounting tidal wave in the worst possible sense—the highs are high and the lows are low.
I have been serving the United Methodist Church (from volunteer-based to professional) for over a decade now, starting at the whippersnapper young age of fifteen through my most recent appointment to this plant at age twenty-six.On the contrary, I felt welcome amongst the nerds, geeks, and gamers outside the church.
I’ve taught children, I’ve walked alongside some incredible youth, I’ve led hundreds in incredible worship, I’ve dealt with frustrated parents, I’ve worked through trauma and pain and division. Every single appointment and scenario has had one thing in common: establishment.
I’ve always faced challenges that exist because of existence. People together have problems that rise up. We deal with them. We heal. We grow together or we grow apart. Either way, we are growing from our rooted history.With this start-up, there is no history to learn from or precedent to work with at all. The history and culture (and community) doesn’t yet exist. Instead of asking, “What next?,” the Church Planter has to ask, “What first?”
On one hand, this is a blessing. Creating from nothing is an awesome opportunity. However, churches and pastors can take for granted the work that goes into building that culture and community from nothing. Nevertheless, I keep pressing on. You see, I’m not doing this just because I want to; I’m taking on the final Dungeon Boss because I have to.
I had never been too shy about sharing my own personal nerdiness to those around me in my home church family, but I never really felt welcome. On the contrary, I felt welcome amongst the nerds, geeks, and gamers outside the church. Those kids. The ones that were considered off-limits to those of a certain social strata in the culture in which I grew up.
I was the one in the youth group that would endlessly beg the others for another round of Mario Kart or Smash. I wore the graphic tees from the Walmart with superhero insignias and kitschy phrases. I made connections with the Bible Lesson of the day and the latest RPG I was binging on the weekends.
This kind of behavior often made me the victim of a kind of nerdy tokenism within the group. Whenever a nerd-type new kid might come to the youth group, I was the poster child with which a connection would be attempted. Most didn’t really attempt to meet me where I was, but rather saw me as a specific other that would fit in with others like me.
On the other hand when I was with my buddies outside of the church, I was the nerd who would point out Biblical allusions and play TobyMac and NeedToBreathe songs in the background of my online gaming session. I would ask my gamer friends deep questions and offer to pray for them.
It was often that I would form great relationships with these peers. They would soften to the idea that some Christian kids could be friendly. I would move then into welcoming them into my Christian community by gentle invites.
I would invite them to Vacation Bible School and beach trips that were actually confirmation classes. Sometimes the connection would happen but, more often than not, my Christian friend group would keep a safe distance from my nerdy compatriots and the end result was null.
My heart broke every single time I would try to share my walk with Christ with any of my nerd family and see the divide grow deeper—they just couldn’t make peace with the church—and, frankly, I couldn’t blame them.
I can recall more than one occasion in which some of my Christian friends would poke fun or mock my friends that I would invite to church. This would further drive into their minds that I was the exception to the rule, rather than a cruel Christian being the true exception to the actual Christ-like model.
The feeling was mostly mutual in my church group. As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t often that my nerdiness got in the way of my Christian life, but there was always this slight hint of judgment behind my every external interest. Nerdiness was okay, but let’s not talk about that devil-worshipping Harry Potter. Playing video games was just fine, but let’s make sure you don’t get wrapped up in the dark magic of Dungeons & Dragons.
It was toleration of who God made me within a certain strict limit – y’know, the polar opposite of the whole ‘unconditional love’ thing. As Christians, we should be setting our sights on becoming as much like Christ as possible by loving others in the way that Christ showed love to us (John 15:12).
How did (and does) Christ love us? By tolerating the other? Certainly not. Jesus dwelt with the other. Jesus loved and lived and ate with the other. I imagine there were times when the conversation drifted from theology and scriptural debates into other interests and hobbies of the people gathered.
Jesus didn’t expect his nerdiest disciple to go and dish about fishing with the fisherman. He went and met the people where they were at and I’m willing to bet Jesus loved hearing and sharing in their passions. He got what they were talking about and offered up wisdom to them in words that they would understand. In the theological world, we call these parables.
Jesus didn’t set conditions on who people are and what they like to talk about in order for them to get to know God. Jesus went in without condition or requirement and told them stories of pearls and sheep and fish. Christians today should be emulating this kind of love and meeting nerds where they are – video games, comic books, movies, etc. Jesus would be offering up parables of the lost game cartridge and the persistent YouTuber. Admittedly, Christians like myself are dropping the ball. Perhaps we are so concerned by Paul’s warning in Roman 12 to not be conformed to the world that we are also avoiding the transformation possible by meeting the other where they can be found.What if the Godhead and I both cry cathartic tears to every single Studio Ghibli film?
Both of my pseudo-families were at war with one another and I was the exception to the rule for each party. Even though both sides attempted to make me the Paul that might bridge the vast divide between the two, I couldn’t help but feel more like a Judas forced to ruin the fun for everyone. I was always being forced to play defense.
I would defend my good Christian friends against my fellow nerds who had been so badly hurt by some so-called followers of Christ. I would defend my honest and loving nerd friends from the judgmental faux concern for their soul from the wicked tricks of the Enemy. It was, and still is, a daily challenge to feel so divided.
But, here’s the thing – that’s exactly why this is so necessary.
A Church for the Nerds. Not just for nerds. The Gospel of Christ is always open for everyone. But the nerds have too long been pushed away, judged, and quietly discussed. It is painfully obvious to me that we nerds want so badly what the true Church is offering. Look at Con-life. Every state across the US has multiple conventions every year.
Nerds are longing for community. Nerds are longing for relationships. The Church has kept this fellowship to themselves and made it exclusive for those willing to shed off their passions.
You can follow Christ, but stop with the Pokémon stuff.
You can follow Christ, but stop watching anime.
A Church for the Nerds is one that stops saying ‘Yes, but first’ and instead cheers a hearty ‘Yes, and’ to the community who are the most passionate.I believe that God wants to know you—not in spite of who you are, but because of who you are.
Recall the example earlier of why it was that Jesus used parables during those years of ministry here on Earth. Jesus is the one who breaks down the barriers of ‘Yes, but first,’ and other such conditional constraints of lackluster love.
What if we take a moment and imagine that Christ meets us where we are not out of a sense of obligation, but instead because Jesus just loves us? The Godhead (The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) created humanity and, with exception given to things which do harm to God or others, I believe that that implies God created the creative person’s passion and art.
Instead of assuming that God only loves me when my nerdiness is taken away or held outside of reach, what if God becomes elated at the joy we experience from creation?
What if the Godhead and I both cry cathartic tears to every single Studio Ghibli film?
What if the Godhead and I both leap for joy whenever my Pokéball rolls the third time and clicks shut?
What if the Godhead and I both smile broadly when Tai and Matt go through the computer screen in The Digimon Movie?
These are all dramatic examples and might arguably be theological reaches, however I know that God loves me and made me who I am. I know that I experience all three of these feelings in the same way I get shivers down my spine during a powerful rendition of my favorite praise and worship songs. It’s hard to speak for God, but I can speak from how I understand God.
I believe that God loves you.
I believe that God wants to know you—not in spite of who you are, but because of who you are.
I believe God created us to create and enjoy creation.
Are there ways that our creations fall short? Sure. Does God love creations made out of our brokenness? I don’t think so. But does that justify throwing the entirety of nerd culture out, with its plethora of incredible stories, art, and creations? Absolutely not.
One final anecdote to seal up my argument: I have shared this calling of mine to dozens, perhaps hundred of mentors, leaders, pastors, and peers at this point in time. Nearly every single person, nerd or not, says the exact same thing. They look me square in the eyes and say, “Nathan, that would be exactly what would get my _______ to Jesus.”
Fill in the blank however you want: father, son, mother, daughter, brother, sister, cousin, best friend, co-worker, whatever. It is that sentence that keeps me going every day. Every roadblock, every challenge, every rebuttal – I press on.
Why? For that one person; for that one lonely soul that I know so well; for that one blessed nerd, geek or gamer that just needs to know that there is a place for them to belong. The search is over. Welcome to the family.