Last week I laid out why I would be against setting up a traditional church service in any of the current metaverses and how I strongly believe that the digital almost always naturally spills over into the physical because of how we as humans are wired. That’s not even just a church thing, I have numerous friends that I met in online groups wherein the friendships spilled over into in-person relationships.

That said, connection within virtual worlds are not entirely without merit or beyond the capacity for the average local church. Today I want to show you how you can leverage a kind of virtual world to facilitate connecting people to your church, particularly that seemingly impossible demographic of younger males… for free. That’s right, we are going to talk about using your annual Azure credit donation for gaming! 😱

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As nonprofits, churches are eligible for $3,500 USD worth of Azure credits. Azure provides what is known as (cue the word salad!) Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and complements/powers the Software as a Service (SaaS) Microsoft 365 products. That all just means you are borrowing Microsoft’s computers and software to run programs and store information.

So we are going to use some of your annual credit allotment to host a game server so your church can have a digital to physical connection path with people in your community.

Location

Now, while a server is often accessible to everybody around the world, most people want to play on servers with low latency (aka low “ping”), so low latency servers will often show up near the top of a server list by default. This means they have some location specific advantages and you have a better chance of connecting digitally with people that are geographically closer. Microsoft has datacenters globally so choose the one closest to your area. Include your town, region, or city in the server name as well because if someone is from Boise and sees a server with a relatively low ping for Nampa (the adjacent city), they’ll likely favor that server.

The game

Pick a game that’s relatively popular among your niche and provides a dedicated server install. A possible starting point due to ongoing popularity and ease to setup would be Minecraft (a favorite with the children’s and middle school ministries, but the average player is 24). That said, sometimes seemingly niche games can pull in players from your community. One caveat here: don’t assume that only teens play video games, the average age of a gamer is 37 years old!

Time

Should you run it 24/7 or only sometimes? You don’t just want an empty server burning credits or a server devolving into toxicity without anybody from your congregation moderating it, so find a few volunteers to moderate, play, and interact on your game server during peak hours for that game. This might be Friday nights, possibly Saturday mornings, or some other evening of the week. You can promote special events, theme nights, or modded play as well. Your volunteers are what will create a server devoid from the many potential toxic elements brought about by anonymity in gaming. Fortunately, Azure lets you automate scheduling your resources so you are running your server during your scheduled and moderated times.

Cost

You should have close to $300 USD in credits available each month if you plan to use your credits consistently throughout the year ($3,500/12 = $291.67). A game server will likely cost $30~150 of those credits depending on how much performance your game server requires. Often a volunteer or IT staff can manage a game server without difficulty, but if you need your virtual infrastructure managed by an IT service provider, expect the cost to be an additional $100 to $250 per month.

Discord

Setup a Discord to go along with your server and advertise it within the server description. People who frequent your server will often get to know each other deeper in Discord. You will want to have a few volunteers that can moderate Discord. I’ve seen plenty of non-Christian gaming Discord’s where people share really vulnerable things like telling the group about the sadness they feel over a friend’s recent suicide, or for a group to rally to help out a Discord member who shares that they lost their job with care packages. Frankly, I often don’t even see that level of close-knit community within churches… I wish every church were like that!

Taking things “IRL”

As I’ve said before, people naturally want to take things from digital to real life. If people have gotten to know some members of your church through your game server(s) and associated Discord, they’re going to want to see those people in real life. They’re going to be curious about your church as well so make it easy for them to visit and connect with the friendships they’ve formed online.

That’s where things get started when it comes to game servers being used by a church. There are more things to consider like making sure we represent Christ in how we interact and moderate when mediating arguments and trolling. Or how we deal with trash talking or denigration of female gamers. These are all things for a future article, for now, focus on finding out which games people in your church are currently playing and whether or not any of those games would be a good fit for your church to start hosting on a server.