Last year when Victor Oliva came down with COVID-19, forcing him to spend 40 days in home quarantine, the Boca Raton, Florida, children’s pastor at Church of All Nations faced big problems: to keep himself from boredom, distract himself from just how badly he felt, and somehow continue ministry while sequestered for weeks on end in his home’s primary bedroom.
Two middle schoolers and a 10-year-old had pity on their pastor and encouraged him to play Fortnite with them, an online video game that Oliva’s son, 8, and daughter, 12, both enjoy. Those kids invited their friends, who told him about game streaming — gamers sharing their screens while playing live on the internet, which lets viewers watch and interact in real time with the streamer.
So he tried it. And liked it.
“This is a good tool to share the gospel,” says Oliva, 37, who became streaming gamer SinnersPraya. Today he has more than 1,000 YouTube subscribers and 600-plus on Twitch.TV. “I have the opportunity to share God’s Word while streaming, sharing my faith — not pushing it or forcing it — especially on this dark platform.”
This generation is all on electronics, “and a lot of times they’re watching junk,” he says. Some games — and streamers — are not family-friendly. Oliva, who creates video content as part of his pastoral work, came to regard streaming and creating a safe environment as something of a responsibility that could extend his reach far beyond his flock.
Before long, he discovered other Assemblies of God pastors also streaming. They’re part of a growing number of ministers aiming to share Christ with the world’s largest unreached people group: the more than 1.8 billion gamers.
The world’s first gamer congregation, the AG online GodSquad Church, launched six years ago. That cyberchurch hosts an annual SquadCon that pre-COVID-19 met in person over three days for worship, game-themed sermons, small groups, and playing games.
Michael S. Lenahan, 42, children’s pastor at Winston-Salem First, watched streaming gamers since its mid-2000s origins, but didn’t start streaming himself until right before the pandemic lockdown. In early 2020, when church went exclusively online for a season, he formed part of the national AG office’s relaunch team that helped churches connect to streaming sermons and other programming.
Meanwhile, Lenahan saw his own need to connect with families under his pastoral care and began streaming his video games under the name Suriwow. During the week he hosted online events such as family game nights where parents and kids would play “Family Feud” style against other families. The format allowed both live and prerecorded broadcasting that kept kids positively engaged through the church’s children’s program.
As the coronavirus waned, Lenahan continued streaming as part of his ministry. As a pastor, he had limited time around children.
“The rest of the world gets them for six days and 12 hours,” he says. “Streaming and creating content is a great way to bridge that gap.”
And, he found a larger audience beyond his young congregants for whom online streaming filled a need during the lockdown. That included older folks at high risk of COVID-19 who craved community. That’s how a 64-year-old grandma came to hang out online with Lenahan’s ministry and began playing Fortnite online. The lockdown is long over, but she’s still playing.
Lenahan launched SafeStreamers.com to help connect children, youth, college-aged student, and adults to Christian content creators vetted as safe — free from content that’s sexual, occult, encouraging drug and tobacco use, and other inappropriate subjects.
“Our hope is to get the site in front of youth pastors, children’s pastors,and the church as a whole to use it as a resource,” he says.
On the SafeStreamers list are Assemblies of God pastors with handles like PT Stress, and PastorDoostyn, the online presence assumed by Dustin S. Phillips, associate pastor/children’s pastor for 14 years at Cornerstone Church in Tyler, Texas. Phillips, a 35-year-old father of four, began streaming around four years ago with his wife Lawren’s encouragement, as it combined his love of ministry and sharing the gospel with his love of gaming and technology.
Gaming has long been part of his outreach; one of his former students is on Southwestern Assemblies of God University’s eSports team. Initially, his ministry online came from his house attic studio to the broader community that needed Jesus. Phillips found surprising receptivity to the message of Christ.
He’d share the positive interactions, including leading people to Jesus, with around 120 congregants Sunday mornings. After his attic air conditioner died one hot Texas summer day, with Cornerstone lead pastor Thomas Saali’s, Phillips moved his studio to the church. That’s where he now streams and creates video content. His office hours include streaming on his Twitch.tv and YouTube channels.
Additionally, Lenahan, Phillips, and other Christian streamers report that non-Christians frequent their channels, sometimes quietly “lurking,” but often asking questions. That’s how Lenahan met a female gamer who used the handle “Queen of the Damned.” On Christian livestream channels, when someone asks for prayer, “We stop playing and focus on their need and pray for them,” Lenahan says. “She was going around asking questions, and it led to her accepting Christ.” After that, “Queen of the Damned” changed her handle, he says.
Among those seekers are gamers in countries closed to the gospel where finding answers means risking persecution. Some ask one-off questions and disappear; others linger on Jesus-friendly channels for months, gingerly asking about matters of the Christian faith.
“There’s safety in asking in a channel where we don’t know their real name,” Lenahan says. “You can tell it’s based in fear.”
He notes that he and those in his circles pray daily for those who visit their online communities, even those who have come and gone.
“You may get that one opportunity with that person who came into your stream to share the gospel,” he says.
PHOTO: AG pastor Dustin Phillips has assumed an online presence as PastorDoostyn.