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story.lead_photo.caption The Washington Post/JULIA RENDLEMAN Matt Souza prepares for his weekly online sermon, which he broadcasts on Twitch from his home studio in suburban Richmond, Va.

It's a Saturday night, and the Rev. Matt Souza begins his weekly sermon by pondering the pros and cons of a medieval fantasy-theme video game called Old School RuneScape.

Souza is sitting behind a spotless white desk in a white-walled room, wearing a white headset and speaking into a black microphone bigger than his head. He's facing a jungle of equipment -- four black monitors, miniature cameras perched everywhere like inquisitive birds and long black cords that bristle like insect antennae. Inches from his fingertips sits a well-worn Bible.

Souza appears completely alone. But -- via the live-streaming platform Twitch -- he's talking to roughly 100 people scattered across the United States and around the world, most of them also sitting behind monitors. Souza, 27, is preaching to his congregation: members of GodSquad Church, what appears to be the world's first online-only church for video gamers.

He founded GodSquad, registered as a nonprofit under the evangelical Assemblies of God denomination, in 2016 with a mission to take God to the gaming community, a population he said skews atheistic and tends to dislike religion.

"It's a game that looks exactly like what it's called, Old School RuneScape," says Souza, known as "Pastor Souzy" to his thousands of followers. "The game is definitely not known for having great graphics -- some of you are like, 'Dude, my unborn niece from inside the womb could create better graphics than this.'"

Souza belly-laughs, deep and rich. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, Souza says that the way gamers prejudge Old School RuneScape -- actually one of his favorite games -- mirrors the way we prejudge other humans and ourselves in offline life.

And yet the only standards that matter are God's standards, Souza says.

"Your life right now ... it may not have the best graphics, you may not be the smartest, you may not be the most athletic," Souza says. "[But] we don't need to live by man's approval, which means that the standards that God set -- that although I fall short all the time -- the standard that God set about me is that I'm loved and I'm valued."

Souza gives his sermon at the same time each week: Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. (EDT). The traditional slot on Sunday won't do; some of his international viewers live in time zones that make that impossible. Also, Saturday night is "prime time for Twitch watchers," he explains.

Souza spends most of his days at home near Richmond, Va., streaming from a gaming desk that doubles as his pulpit. He works for GodSquad Church full time, living off viewers' voluntary donations. He forgos the pastor's typical suit and tie, preaches exclusively in jeans and T-shirts bearing video game logos. He has never met the vast majority of his congregants. Some he knows only by their online user names.

Souza says he's reaching people most other pastors don't know exist.

"It's definitely what I would consider to be an unreached people group," Souza said of gamers. "If we believe as Christians we have a command to go to all the world and share God's love with people, how do we share God's love with people who don't leave their house? Going in to the gaming community is how we do that."

For 23 of his 27 years, Souza said, he led a double life.

He always played. In high school, he'd come home and after spending an hour at the gym and finishing his homework, play video games for seven hours straight. Later, while studying at Northpoint Bible College in Massachusetts -- where he earned a degree in biblical theology and met his wife, Amanda -- he played as often as he could, locking himself in his dorm room. After he graduated in 2014 and began working as a pastor's assistant at Cornerstone Church, an Assemblies of God church in Oxford, Conn., Souza played in the evenings and on weekends.

"I went through my life considering myself to be a closet gamer," Souza said.

There was no one moment of grace, but, gradually -- in the heat of Souza's struggles -- God stepped in, he said.

He embraced the nerd. His wife did too.

"It didn't really bother me because, if I needed his help with anything, he would drop [the game] at a hat," Amanda, 26, said.

Still, personal peace brought new questions, he said: How many other gamers were suffering the same way Souza had? How many stood to benefit from God's love as he did?

Souza streamed for the first time from a corner of his bedroom on Dec. 19, 2014. Early on, it wasn't a church -- just a guy playing games and talking about Jesus. He titled his streams things like, "A Pastor Playing Halo."

In September 2015, as Souza began accruing more regular viewers, he weighed founding an online church. In March 2016, he did it.

Since then, GodSquad Church has taken off. As of July 2018, it has 1,800 committed members and Souza's streams draw roughly 4,000 total viewers each week, according to Twitch analytics. Souza estimates some 10 new congregants join every seven days.

Souza streams for hours every day in addition to his weekly sermon, letting viewers watch as he plays games in his now-professional-quality gaming room (funded by Twitch donations). Throughout, he fields questions about Jesus and Christianity. With his physical Bible always nearby, he'll pull up biblical verses on his screen "countless times" in any given gaming session.

Souza has devoted his life to GodSquad, and so has his wife. She quit her day job at a real-life church and now spends most of her time moderating GodSquad's chat rooms, run on the communications server Discord.

"In the beginning, it was kind of hard for me to wrap my mind around... . I was like, 'OK, [so] you're just going to tell people about Jesus while you're shooting them in the face?' And he was like, 'Exactly,'" Amanda said. "Now I get it."

The medium may be unorthodox -- Amanda always struggles to explain her husband's profession to disbelieving strangers -- but Souza is spreading the word of God, she said.

"[Jesus] always went to where the people were at," Souza said. "One of the huge [mediums] of how to meet people today is through video games -- and I believe 100 percent that ... if Jesus were here walking on the earth, he'd be gaming with people because he knows that's where the people are at."

Religion on 09/08/2018

Print Headline: Gaming preacher reaching souls via Twitch streaming

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