By Ashley Perham
Baptist & Reflector intern
MEMPHIS — Level Up Church, Memphis, like many churches, was started to reach the unreached in a region. However, pastor Jacob McAnally had a vision for more than just the city of Memphis. He had a vision for gamers.
McAnally said God gave him the vision for the church while he was virtually attending BlizzCon, a convention held by Blizzard Entertainment to promote its gaming franchises. McAnally was impressed by how many people were attending the convention in person, between 20,000 and 30,000. Then, he realized that over eight million were tuning in online like he was.
“It just kind of hit me you know, they’re lost,” he said. “And it began to really weigh on me. Not only are these people lost, but most churches wouldn’t have the first idea about how to reach them.”
McAnally, associate pastor of Boulevard Baptist, Southaven, Miss. at the time, had already used his role as the host in an online game called World of Warcraft to pray for people and lead them to the Lord.
“I never really thought any more about it other than I’m a Christian. Everywhere I go, I take Jesus with me,” he said. “But as I began praying and I began asking God, it was just weighing on me. Lord who’s going to reach these people?”
The answer? “You can.”
Level Up started with six people. Now, the average attendance is around 20, McAnally said. One challenge the church faces is regular attenders who have not gotten over the “hump” to become members.
However, the church has seen growth in other ways. People who have given up on the church often find a home at Level Up.
“They haven’t necessarily given up on God, but they’ve given up on the church. And we’re just so strange and different, they just come show up sometimes,” McAnally said. “They’re not necessarily involved in this (gaming) community, they’re just glad to have something authentic and different and Christ-centered.”
McAnally said there has also been a softening in the gaming community toward the church. About a month ago, one convention in Memphis gave the church a free booth and four free passes to promote their ministry.
“I wish I could tell you that 100 people have been saved,” McAnally said. “But it’s a hard road because these people are so skeptical of the church, and they’ve been harmed, in many cases, so deeply by the church.
Along with the general skepticism toward church, Level Up also deals with other challenges of reaching gamers, specifically their social awkwardness.
“(Gamers) tend to be socially awkward, one of the reasons they get into whether it’s gaming or comic books or anime or cosplaying or whatever,” McAnally said.
“One of the reasons they do it is because they don’t fit in anywhere else,” he said.
McAnally said he would invite people to the church, and they would show up seven months later.
“But sometimes that’s how long it takes for them to get over their social anxiety to just give it a try,” he said.
Lewis McMullen, church planting specialist with the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, said that more and more affinity-based churches like Level Up are starting to start in Tennessee.
“We now have several cowboy churches. We have several biker churches,” McMullen said. “I actually have a church plant over in East Tennessee that focuses in on hunters and fishermen.”
McAnally said a church targeted so specifically at a subculture is both a challenge and an advantage.
“Immediately, certain people are turned off, like that’s not for me,” he said. “But on the other hand, you know exactly who you’re reaching and nobody else is doing it.”
McMullen pointed out that the outreach for affinity-based churches looks different than the outreach for churches focused on a region or neighborhood.
“Your outreach is going to be more word-of-mouth, more event-oriented, more relational. Growth is not going to be as quick as you think it’s going to be because it’s going to be that relational building of relationships with people,” he said.
McAnally has a vision to see more Level Up churches planted. The church has plans to possibly use an online ministry, although McAnally does not want people stuck in online membership indefinitely.
“It is our dream, and our vision, that this is the first Level Up Church, not the only one, and it is our dream to plant more Level Up churches in other cities,” McAnally said.
“And God willing, even worldwide.” B&R