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Teen's Online Church Draws Young People From Around The World
Tuesday June 12th, 2018
Like many teenagers, Daniel Herron, 16, of Tacoma, Washington, has a busy life. He’s a member of the Sea Scouts, the nautical branch of the Boy Scouts of America. He serves on the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation’s Youth Philanthropy Board, helping to award thousands of dollars to local organizations. He’s active in his high school’s Bible study group.
And he’s also the founder and pastor of an online church that has attracted more than 4,500 members. Not a “pretend” or “make-believe” church, but a real -- albeit virtual -- church where teenagers from across the country and around the world gather to worship, pray and connect with one another.
Known as The Robloxian Christians, or TRC, this nontraditional congregation has important lessons for those who lead traditional churches and church institutions, theologians and youth ministers say.
Not the least of which is simply the fact that a young person created it. Entirely on his own, asking no one for permission, Herron established a virtual church where young people connect in very real ways.
Although many traditional churchgoers might be puzzled by the notion of an online church, Abigail Rusert, an authority on youth ministry, says The Robloxian Christians is worth paying attention to.
“Instead of giving us pause, perhaps TRC should excite and awaken us to the things we can learn,” said Rusert, the director of the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. “When a young person takes this kind of initiative, we should come alongside them to nurture them, raise them up and even support their potential for ministry leadership.”
Are the children and youth in your church agents of ministry, or objects of ministry? What is the difference?
Virtual churches are not new or unique. The Methodist Church of Britain created an online church, Church of Fools, for a few months in 2004, which then continued for years as St. Pixels Church. And numerous virtual churches have been created on Second Life, a virtual reality platform.
The world of Roblox
But probably few have been created by teenagers -- or, in Herron’s case, preteens. Herron was 11 when he created TRC, not long after he began playing on Roblox, a popular online video game platform for children and teenagers.
Players on Roblox can create their own games and virtual worlds, and participate in other people’s as well. Socializing is a large part of the experience. Players can add people to two lists (Friends and Followers), create or join communities, and communicate by text with others on the site.
“The platform was really cool to me, because you can create anything you want,” Herron said. “If you can imagine it, you can create it.”
In 2011, Herron had been using Roblox for about six months when he realized that something was missing. The millions of games on Roblox featured a variety of “spaces,” from role-playing coffee shops to restaurants, castles, combat-type games and more, but he found few connected in any way to Christianity.
“There were other faith-based groups,” he said, “but they weren’t really interactive or community-based. They seemed to be saying, ‘Join us because we are Christians, and let’s not do anything about it.’”
So Herron created TRC as a community group, and it took off.
“It was like a fan club for Jesus that transformed into a church,” he said.
Soon, Herron was serving as pastor to a congregation of young people just like him, scattered across every state and inhabited continent. In addition to the group on Roblox, Daniel also created a TRC website and Facebook page.
Rooted in real-world faith
At the time, his parents, Anna and Tim Herron, didn’t know their son was starting an online church, but they weren’t completely surprised when they later learned about it. However virtual TRC might be, it is rooted in Daniel’s real-world faith.
Daniel’s family has a long history in pastoral ministry, with several clergy members in the family tree. In 1891, his great-great-great-grandfather, the Rev. Adrian F. Kirkpatrick, founded Tacoma’s Trinity Presbyterian Church, where the Herrons still worship. Daniel and his sister, Katie, are the sixth generation of the family to worship there.
His parents met in college through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and spent several summers volunteering in urban ministry before settling in a low-income urban neighborhood in Tacoma.
Two decades later, Anna is a teacher at a local school, while Tim runs Degrees of Change, a nonprofit that helps underrepresented students across the Pacific Northwest succeed in college and then return home to become leaders in their communities.
When Anna and Tim first heard about TRC, they assumed that Daniel had created some kind of “game” church. But they later realized it was much more than a game.
Anna first took it seriously about two years ago.
“I walked in and saw that Daniel had a list of names, and next to them things like ‘parents divorcing,’ ‘feeling lonely,’” she said. “It was a list of prayer requests from the church members. That was when I saw that this was real. I stumbled with getting my brain around it, but I trust Daniel’s faith a lot.”
What makes a church “real”? What are the essentials of church?
Tim had a similar experience when he realized that “this was not a kid playing make-believe church.” One day, when Daniel was at his computer, Tim saw on the computer screen five or six avatars, or virtual characters, sitting around a conference table and asked Daniel what he was working on.
“He told me it was his leadership team, and they were working on a mission statement, including values and strategic goals for the next year,” Tim said. “I thought, ‘Whoa! This is the kind of stuff I do for my job.’ This was a 14-year-old and other young kids, organizing themselves and thinking in a complex way. It was really remarkable.”
TRC’s organizational structure
Today, Daniel has a team of about 15 young people who work in groups -- via email, text and in-game chat -- to oversee various ministries such as worship, prayer partnerships and outreach, much like the organizational structure behind a physical church. More than 140 volunteers work in teams, carrying out the ministries.
The church is intentionally nondenominational, a place of worship open to everyone, Daniel said. He considers it “a big mixing pot” that draws from his and other members’ denominational traditions.
How do “bricks and mortar” church experiences inform the practices of The Robloxian Christians?
Worship is held on Sundays at 5 p.m. Eastern time, an hour when most traditional churches aren’t in session, which allows both “real-world” churchgoers and nonchurchgoers to attend. The church also offers open prayer times, additional morning and evening services, and occasional classes.
To attend, worshippers have to register on the site and create avatars to represent themselves. The blocky, fixed-faced avatars resemble Lego minifigures or characters in the popular video game Minecraft (although Roblox has no connection to either). To move around the Roblox world, players use a mouse or keyboard taps.
TRC’s main sanctuary looks like a traditional church building, topped by a spire and set in a peaceful and green parklike area. Daniel originally created the elaborate, even beautiful, virtual world by himself, using building tools provided by Roblox.
Today, however, TRC’s environment and operations are supported by several tech-smart staff people whom Daniel has “hired,” including A.J. Steinhauser, 17, of Atlanta. Steinhauser was using Roblox to learn and practice coding when he came across TRC.
“I saw they were pretty low-tech, so I offered my services,” said Steinhauser, who attends an evangelical church with his family.
After he started helping at TRC, Steinhauser became an “associate pastor” and began working on more than computer issues.
“I did whatever needed to be done, including talking to people,” he said. “I’m sure getting a degree and being professionally trained [as a pastor] gives you insights, but kids teaching and helping kids in this way is so vibrantly different. And we have the technology to do it.”
Welcome to TRC
After entering the church, worshippers can sit in a pew, stand in the red-carpeted aisle, walk around or even jump up and down. They can also visit the front of the sanctuary, where a table is laid with bread and wine.
But they cannot climb the three steps that lead to the chancel, where the pulpit is located. Only Daniel and his staff members can enter that space; others are blocked.
“We built an invisible wall there to keep the trolls out,” Daniel said, referring to mischievous players who sometimes attend specifically to disrupt the service.
Daniel and his staff members can also mute people who are disruptive, but he’s reluctant to use that option.
“I support people saying amen and praying out loud,” he said. “The majority of our people are young folks who get distracted easily and will want to talk [to each other].”
In the Roblox world, “talking” means typing. When an avatar speaks, a text bubble appears over the character’s head. During a typical TRC service, Daniel or an associate pastor delivers a short sermon while congregation members pray or “shout” amen. With some worshippers running around the room or jumping up and down, it’s a lively service, sort of a massive group-texting conversation that can include up to 100 participants -- the maximum capacity for each service.
With its emphasis on texting, Roblox is clearly speaking the language of young people. A 2015 Pew Research study found that 88 percent of teens have access to a cellphone or smartphone, and 90 percent of those teens use texting. Overall, the average teen sends and receives 30 texts a day.
Although smartphone-wielding teens may appear silent and out-of-touch when on their devices, texting is a real and powerful form of connection for young people, said Andrew Zirschky, assistant professor of practical theology and youth ministry at Memphis Theological Seminary, academic director of the Center for Youth Ministry Training in Brentwood, Tennessee, and author of “Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected but Alone Generation.”
For teenagers, Zirschky said, texting and other social media are a means of “phatic communion,” a level of communication identified by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the 1920s that depends little on intellectual content. Even a brief, seemingly meaningless “phatic” exchange -- a smiling emoji, for example -- can have a profound effect by recognizing another’s presence and creating communion.
‘I was kind of blown away’
Jaden Bullard, 16, of Olympia, Washington, first learned about TRC through a banner ad Daniel had bought on the Roblox website. Curious, Bullard clicked on the link and was inspired by what he saw.
“I was kind of blown away that there could be an actual church on a child’s game site,” he said.
It felt like an authentic worship experience.
“I went to one of the services and wanted to become a part of it,” Bullard said. “There are other Christian groups on [Roblox], but none of them identify as a legitimate church.”
What spiritual and faith formation needs of young people is TRC meeting that “real world” churches are not?
Daniel has always seen his church as real. “I definitely feel God is present there, and he is being transformative in the space and working through us to be a light even in an online platform.”
Although some adults might question whether TRC is truly a church, that’s not really the appropriate response, said Rod Nash, the director of outreach at Trinity Presbyterian, the Herrons’ congregation in Tacoma.
“If, as adults, our first reaction to TRC is, ‘I don’t know if that’s really church,’ then shame on us,” Nash said. “How about responding with, ‘How cool is it that a 16-year-old cares about pastoring other young people and is so dedicated to it?’”
However implausible it might seem to older outsiders, TRC is a faith community where young people are being shepherded and are connecting and finding God in their midst, Nash said.
“If we are not asking how we can learn from this,” he said, “then our churches may very well turn into museums.”
Being on the internet, TRC is accessible to anyone with a computer or smartphone. As a result, young people whose parents aren’t religious or who are otherwise unable to attend real-world church can experience church life.
Holy Chea, a program officer at the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, said Daniel views TRC through “an equity lens.”
“He sees youth who may not have access to these resources, and he gives them a safe space to ask questions and have dialogue,” Chea said. “He is a step ahead in his vision for making things accessible.”
How can your church provide a safe space for unchurched people to ask questions and have dialogue?
Teens ministering to teens?
Even so, isn’t it a problem that an untrained, unordained teenager is serving as pastor and minister to other young people, even if only in the virtual world?
Rusert, the director of the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, isn’t concerned.
“They already do this for their friends, in youth groups and in other settings,” she said. “We often treat them as if they don’t have the capacity for spiritual understanding, but young people have been handling difficult things on their own for eons.
“Can Daniel handle other teens’ prayer requests? Yes, of course. And we should expect that of our young people no matter what.”
At its core, Roblox has a distinct social component that makes it a perfect vehicle for Christian teens to find and connect with each other, said Zirschky, whose own son is an avid Roblox fan.
“I asked him why he likes it so much, and his response was that he finds people who are interested in what he is interested in,” Zirschky said. “He says they will listen to him and treat him like someone worth talking to. Age and appearance fall away, and the community brings everyone along together.”
The real appeal of The Robloxian Christians -- and the broader Roblox platform -- isn’t the technology, Zirschky said.
“Teens are not just drawn to technology; they aren’t just inherently attracted to things that plug in and light up,” he said. “We have an assumption about that attraction. In actuality, they are attracted to relationships where they are known deeply and have a sense of belonging that is not contingent on their value.”
Connection and relationship
Digital interactivity is not the same as relational interaction, where teens connect with other teens. Being truly present to each other is not the same as having a youth leader or pastor or a sermon theme “connect” with teens.
Deep connection and relationship is an issue for congregants of all ages, not just young people, said Julia Corbett, the director of children, youth and family ministry at Trinity Presbyterian, where Daniel attends youth group.
“How can we say connection through technology is inauthentic and face-to-face connection is more authentic?” she said.
In the “real world,” people tend to maintain a mask over their real personas -- even in church.
“Our churches boast authenticity, but everyone is checking themselves to some degree,” she said. “There are people who will never feel comfortable asking for help.”
The lesson of The Robloxian Christians is about the nature of community, Zirschky said.
“What teens are looking for is precisely what the church is called on to offer -- a relationality that is far deeper and more personally costly,” he said.
In his book, Zirschky contrasts the “face-forward” anonymity of most worship services with koinonia, the scriptural concept and Greek word for community, which can be translated as fellowship, sharing or communion in its most intimate sense.
“The answer,” Zirschky writes, “is not moving our interactions online, but instead recapturing the depth and meaning of gathering together as the body of Christ.”