It feels fair to say that a form of ministry becomes settled into a normative place in culture when it gets featured by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. Recently, a podcast was recorded highlighting a friend of mine, Bubba Stallcup of Love Thy Nerd–a nerd culture outreach ministry. They practice outreach in many forums, including conventions, podcasts, and Twitch.
If Twitch churches and ministries have reached the level of household fame that they are getting the attention of such mainline institutions, then it’s clear they are around to stay.
But what are they? What’s going on with churches on Twitch?
What is Twitch?
First off - what even is Twitch?
It’s a live-streaming platform with a recent count of 31 million daily active users. But it’s a bit different than other live-streaming services out there. You can learn about the full history of its evolution, from its start as Justin.tv to its current iteration of Twitch on streamersplaybook.com, but the key factor is that Twitch found itself as the preferred streaming platform for video game players and has since grown to many niche interests and hobbies.
Unlike its competitor Facebook, Twitch is not mainly focused on the social media element. It is mostly divided into the ‘streamer’ and the ‘viewer.’ The streamer will go live throughout the week, and viewers will watch and engage with a chatbox, the streamer, and their fellow viewers.
Twitch is also notably different from another competitor, YouTube, in that it isn’t built out as a search engine and prides itself instead as a creator-focused platform with fairly low barriers of entry for monetization.
What is it about Twitch that is drawing ministries to it? I can speak for Checkpoint Church, the church plant I pastor that is heavily present on the platform.
Put simply: it’s where people are.
For Checkpoint, we see Twitch as serving the same role as the coffee shop in traditional church planting. Just like the pastor going to meet new people at the local hot spot, Twitch is where the Internet-based pastor ventures to meet new people.
There was a notable shift in the dynamic of how churches were reaching new people with the pandemic. Many of those with a focus on younger and more tech-interested people found Twitch to be a valuable meeting spot.
It’s All About Engagement
Another notable perk of Twitch are the community features.
Much of the excitement of Twitch isn’t found in the streamer themselves, but in the way that the viewers are able to interact with the stream. Nearly every stream has a host of custom emoticons that allow the viewer to have a unique experience.
There are also points awarded for time watched on each stream. And often viewer-focused streams will have redeemable rewards that enhance the experience. For instance, we have a reward at Checkpoint that allows a viewer to open a mystery capsule from our Gashapon capsule machine and another that requires me to remove my glasses for five minutes while playing a complex game.
There are even games that are custom-built for Twitch’s interface that allow the viewers to modify the gameplay experience live. The viewers can compete against each other in marble races or punish the player with onslaughts of enemies in a modded version of The Legend of Zelda.
Sharing is Caring
A final perk of Twitch is the culture that has been established in the space. While there are millions of streamers active on the site, there is a sense of camaraderie that even our connectional United Methodist Church should covet.
One way this is exhibited most profoundly is in the ‘Raid’ feature built into the platform. Whenever a streamer decides to end their live-stream, they are able to select another streamer who is currently live and then they can send their viewers digitally to that stream to support them.
At Checkpoint, we use this feature to send a cavalcade of viewers bearing our motto, “You Matter!” to the chatbox of other streamers to encourage them, even if they’re not Christians. This kind of community-sharing is normative and almost expected of those that participate in the culture of Twitch.
The elephant in the room from the above information is likely this question: but how is this church? What is the ecclesiology of any of this? I’ll list below just a few of the varieties that I have become acquainted with over the years.
Ecclesiology: the study of doctrine pertaining to the Church itself as a community or organic entity, and of how the Church understands itself.
Some, like the aforementioned Love Thy Nerd, don’t make the claim to be a church but instead view themselves as a kind of missionary-centered outreach ministry with the express goal of augmenting faith, not substituting for a worship experience.
There are many that aren’t organizations at all but are instead individual streamers, like JateLIVE, who often define themselves as digital missionaries with the express goal of reaching unbelievers and providing a safe haven online.
Still others, like Checkpoint Church, use the platform as our form of evangelism, pointing those that we meet at our ‘coffee shop’ to a community-building platform like Discord for further opportunities for worship, discipleship, and community.
Some, like Methodist Gaming, use Twitch as an auxiliary outreach for their physical church presence, Discovery United Methodist Church in Virginia. Or another in our Methodist connection Crossfire: Faith + Gaming, who are hoping to create an inclusive and faith-based community online.
Recently, a new ministry started called SavePoint that hopes to serve as a connecting point between the physical churches and those gathering online. Their goal is that those finding faith online will get connected with physical church communities for continued and perhaps deeper discipleship.
As one can tell, there is no shortage of iterations of an ecclesiological structure in Twitch ministry. After three years in this space, I could recount dozens of other fascinating forms of ministry I’ve seen online. I’m fascinated to see how the Spirit continues to work through these technocentric ministries.
Nathan Webb is a major nerd in just about every way. He loves video games, anime, cartoons, comic books, tech, and his fellow nerds. Hoping to provide a spiritual community for people with similar interests, he founded Checkpoint Church--"the church for nerds, geeks and gamers." Nathan can be found lurking on some visual novel subreddit, reading the latest shōnen entry, or playing the newest Farm Sim. Nathan is an ordained provisional elder in the United Methodist Church in the Western North Carolina Conference. He hosts a weekly newsletter podcast: To The Point.