I never expected to be handed a Bible at a games show, especially one proclaiming "Jesus, for the win!" "A little book about a guy named Jesus, his Guild, and his ultimate quest to save a land known as Earth," it says. What the hell?
This is Gamechurch, and I walk past it - a stand at EGX - a couple of times before I really take it in. I see quirky merchandise - designs of Jesus as Ryu from Street Fighter - and smile because oh the things people make. But it isn't until someone plops that little book in my lap, the one with the slogan - the one with Jesus holding a game pad and wearing a headset - that I look again.
It isn't just silly slogans: inside there's Biblical scripture - this is an actual religious thing.
I'm not religious; I live in Brighton. I was raised with a deep mistrust of the Church and what it stands for. When I hear "Jesus loves you" I think "yeah, right"; I think of the irritating guy who used to spring out and shout "you're going to hell!" when I walked home. How did he know where I was off to? Point is, I've heard it all before.
So when I realised this book was for real, and that Gamechurch was here at the show, I wanted to stick a microphone under their collective noses and a camera in their faces and make fun of them - 'how weird is this?!'.
What I didn't expect was Mikee Bridges, founder of Gamechurch - a big guy covered in tattoos who looks more like he belongs to a gang than a religion. But he's a Christian, has been his whole life, and he bats away my 'you must want something!' cynicism more than once - and with annoying sincerity.
"We're here to tell you Jesus loves you, and give you free stuff. That's what it is. We go all around the world and do it."
"All I'm here to do is tell you Jesus loves you - give you a message of hope. No judgement. We don't want anything from anybody; we're not interested in that. We want to give away free things and tell them Jesus loves them, and that's it. There's nothing else to it."
"Most Christians want something from you. I don't. I really don't. I want to give you something; if you want it, great, if you don't want it, great - there's nothing you can do for it. You can't give me any money, you don't have to change anything. I don't care if you think you're a sinner or bad - I'm probably worse. We just have that really simple message with zero attached to it. Take it or leave it."
"I don't need anything. I'm doing what I think I'm supposed to be doing and that's the end of it."
Gamechurch is a Los Angeles thing. Think games cafe, lots of PCs and consoles, and then add Bible study. I only scratch the surface when I meet Mikee Bridges but there's more of his story online. A fateful chain of events - a "horrible" divorce, the death of a company director - put him in a position where he could redesign his workplace to add a gaming room.
As the little book explains: "It was just a building originally, a building with consoles, PCs and people, and a setting where they would occasionally talk about more than the games being played."
There was a Bible element to it, yet atheists came, "kids who, if you tried to talk to them about Jesus, would tell you to f*** off", Bridges told website Patheos a few years ago. "Somehow we got these kids coming to the Bible study and asking questions about the Bible and arguing with us."
Business boomed and Gamechurch outgrew its premises, eventually moving to a place called The Armory in Ventura, with loads of screens, a cafe, a theatre and more. If you weren't a member, you'd pay $4 instead of $2 an hour, $40 instead of $20 for a weekend. I use the past tense because, as I was surprised to discover this morning, that walk-in business seems to have closed - the website stating this happened 30th June. Mikee Bridges didn't say anything about it.
Nevertheless, now - and when the business was growing - the question was always, "How do we expand this ministry that is reaching people who would otherwise be opposed to Christianity without going and doing a bunch of gaming centres?"
The answer? "You're looking at it," says Bridges, towering above the merchandise-laden tables at the Gamechurch EGX stand.
But if Gamechurch didn't say things like,
"God could've stopped the stream of failure and come down like a Level 70 Prestige in Modern Warfare..."
"Jesus came to PWN the Devil and save the world for YOU."
"Jesus was not a six-foot tall white guy with a six pack: He looked like Sayid from Lost, and was built like a five-three Ben Linus."
Then would you stop and look? Mikee Bridges doesn't think so.
"It's funny," he says, "we like to poke fun at ourselves, to de-construct what people think when you say 'Christian' or 'Jesus'. They think 'judgement' and 'oh he hates video games' and 'he hates us' and 'Jesus doesn't love me' and all that stuff. We're trying to get rid of all that garbage.
"When I hear 'Christian' I cringe. If you're not a Christian it must make you cringe. We're trying to change that."
Such a message doesn't sit well with the established and conservative Church movements, however, nor the left-wing atheists. "They don't like us," he shrugs. "But everyone else in the middle..." they hoover up the free stuff. Have you ever been to a game show?
Read on to the end of the little "Jesus, for the win!" book and a truth reveals itself.
"Now, Just like Neo in The Matrix, you have a choice," it says. "You can keep living your life without applying what you have read, or you can make the ultimate decision: to believe in Jesus. Not just to believe that He existed or did these things, but to believe IN Him, that He can save you, and to accept His love. The Bible tells us that all who call upon the Name of the Lord will be saved.
"What will you choose?" it asks. "Will you make the choice to live in the Truth, to see the real world?"
I see the world just fine already, thank you, which is why that kind of underlying message rankles with me. But even with all my prejudices, I'm still not sure if Gamechurch is a bad thing. There are testimonials in the little book that tell of normal, gaming people finding a community, finding friends, finding support. How much does it matter that they found Jesus along the way? They could have found a lot worse.
Mikee Bridges seems like a guy who's lived his life, seen some things, done some stuff. That's his charm. So when he talks about going for a drink and talking deep, I'm tempted - not by the Church and its teachings but by him. "I'd love to sit down with anyone and have a conversation about where they're at in life," he says. "If I get that, great, if I don't, that's fine too. I have a story and it's probably different from people have heard when they hear 'Christian' or they hear 'Church'."
He's adapting a stuffy old institution for the people who need it today, the people who need a place to belong, need a friend. For all its globe-spanning connectivity, the internet can be a lonely place.
I'm given access to the closed Gamechurch City Facebook group - the online community part of all this - and I don't see a cult, I don't see something like Scientology. I see a group of people talking about Destiny, about Dota 2 and League of Legends. I see gamers talking game. And occasionally there's something religious in between.
I remember being reprimanded by a friend one Christmas Eve when I was drunk and reckless and wanted to crash Midnight Mass, ruin their party. "Why?" he challenged me. "Let them believe in something. They're not hurting you." His nan was there, he said - "leave them alone". Who was society's real enemy then?
Gamechurch comes from a different place to me and fundamentally we'll never see eye to eye. But I hear what Mikee Bridges says, and in some ways I applaud what he's trying to do. I had a goal when I approached him and it changed. But his didn't. "I hope you walk away from me right now and scratch your head a little bit and go, 'What was that?'"
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