By Andrew Humphries
Over a decade ago, Swedish developer Markus Persson created what has become the best-selling video game of all time.
His creation, Minecraft, has sold over 238 million copies and has nearly 140 million monthly active users.
Among them are members of the Banyule Network of Uniting Churches, thanks to an idea hatched in part by Minister Rev Sandy Brodine last year.
As Victoria has gone in and out of lockdown over the past 18 months, Banyule members have come to embrace Minecraft as a fun and exciting form of online connection and worship.
While Sandy isn’t much of a player, she has seen first-hand what Minecraft can bring to the table as a means of exploring faith and engaging with stories from the Bible.
“It’s kind of a crazy idea, isn’t it,” Sandy admits when asked how Minecraft came to be such an important part of how congregation members connect with each other.
“It was sort of an accidental thing, the start of it all.
“Early in lockdown last year I was having a Zoom play date with Mandie, one of our Messy Church mums, and our daughters were playing Minecraft in the background and Mandy said to me, ‘why don’t we have a Minecraft play date with the Messy Church families’ and I thought ‘wow, that’s not a bad idea’.”
And while their first attempt wasn’t a raging success, Sandy knew it still held plenty of potential.
“Our first attempt was a bit of a disaster because we got all the kids together on Zoom and tried to play and we didn’t know what we were doing, so it didn’t really work,” Sandy says.
“But we carried on and another member, Mel, who works for Scripture Union, had heard that people in Canberra were doing something similar with Minecraft, so we got in contact with them and talked about what they were doing and then looked at how it could fit in with what we were doing around intergenerational ministry and ministry for people of all ages.
“So what we have created is a hybrid between Minecraft and Messy Church, which we call Messy Miners.
“We ran it once a month for about six months in lockdown last year and then, when summer came, we had a break before starting again in May this year.
“My expectation was that we would finish in September this year but we were still in lockdown and so it has continued (on a monthly basis).”
While it is, above all, a fun way for children and adults to connect and be entertained, Sandy says Minecraft also plays an important role in enriching an understanding of faith for some of the Banyule Network’s youngest members.
“We started with a couple of experienced kids building a Bible study and then having a go at praying together and, over time, the children have become a lot more expert at building in Minecraft,” she says.
“What we do now is that I send them out a script for a Bible story and I introduce it in term of scenes so, for example, the story of Jonah and the whale has four scenes and we use Zoom and Minecraft together to explore those scenes.
“The Miners are in four breakout groups and they spend about 45 minutes in Minecraft building the scene and then we get back together and tell the story and talk about it.
“So they can ask all sorts of questions about the story because they have already walked around inside it in Minecraft.
“What’s happened is that we have had our own Messy Church kids plus some from other churches and friends of our church kids hearing these stories for the first time and they are really interested in them.”
Sandy says the beauty of Minecraft is that it allows the players to take control, and she is more than happy to take a back seat.
“The really exciting thing is that it flips the power base, so I’m the Minister but in this scenario I’m the one who doesn’t know what she is doing, so the kids have complete power over how they create the story and what they do with it, and I have none,” she says.
“I just love that power shift and it has allowed us to continue to build relationships over 18 months of lockdown, where we might otherwise have lost Messy Church all together.”
As well as the monthly get-together, younger congregation members also enjoy online Minecraft play dates every Friday, further cementing its importance as a means of connection.
“It’s always a problem to get them off about 6.30pm when we say it’s time for dinner,” Sandy says.
“(In lockdown) this is how kids have been able to keep connected with their friends.
“I hate to think what the last 18 months would have been like if that hadn’t been able to happen.
“It would have been really, really tough and something like Minecraft is such a huge help in terms of connection.
“It has been lovely to have messages from other parents saying thanks for the way it has engaged the children.”