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RPG Communities

Much of today’s culture is about isolation; we are more connected digitally, but less connected personally. We have more options than ever, but feel more paralyzed and less able to act. When I first brought tabletop role playing games (RPGs) into my youth and young adult ministries, I did not think of it as a way to confront some of these cultural issues. But over time, I came to realize that is exactly what we were doing.

The tabletop RPG community (also called the Spirit of Joy Communities), at St. Thomas, Nassau Bay, developed organically. Tabletop Roleplaying Games are cooperative storytelling activities where each person plays a specific ‘role’ in a world, plot, and theme developed by an individual known as ‘the Game Master’. First developed in the 70s, it has become more and more popular and mainstream in recent years. Some of the youth heard that I was into RPGs and they were interested and asked to play. At first, I made them wait until they had graduated out of youth group. I had started playing as a young adult and that is how I thought of it, an adult activity. But as I played, and included themes like the paradox of choice, corporatism and its dangers, spiritual warfare and self-sacrifice, I realized that the games could be used as a tool for teaching spiritual truths. I created an adapted version of the game for teens and eventually children. As the youth became more involved, they started inviting friends, until most of those involved in the games were no longer those who went to the church. Yet, I still didn’t think much of it.

Over time, this activity became a regular aspect of my ministry and it became apparent that something different and special was going on. The friendships that formed around the games seemed stronger and closer than some of the other friendships that formed in other aspects of the youth and young adult ministries I led. It became evident that the power to form community using these games was unique and I came to realize that their shared struggles and exploration of new ideas and beliefs was creating a truly deep and meaningful bond between them.

About two years ago, one of the people involved in our group was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma and after a nine-month battle, they passed away. During those nine months, the RPG community supported him, sharing in both joy and grief. Around the same time, Bishop Andy Doyle began encouraging the idea of missional communities in our diocese. Our rector, Mike Stone, looked at what we were doing and realized that what we had created was the very essence of what missional communities are all about. What’s more, the community itself became an important way in which many of our members coped with the passing of our friend and others who were facing similar struggles started to join. The healing power of being present together while creating a story of meaning, value, and truth cannot be overstated.

Rev. Mike suggested we apply for the Strategic Mission Grant offered by the Diocese of Texas; we were awarded a $60,000 grant to be paid over 3 years. That money will be used to offset the considerable time costs incurred by the leaders of the communities, who act as the game masters as well as spiritual advisors to those who play. We estimate that with paid dedicated time, we can almost double the size of our communities within a year. From there, we don’t know what the limit is. As far as we can tell, this activity is driven by God’s imagination, as much as our own.

The St. Thomas Tabletop RPG Communities gives people an opportunity to share in a common struggle while discovering ideas like grace, salvation, sacrifice, and honor. In my work as a youth and young adult minister, I have found few other ways to foster these kinds of relationships where personal interaction and connection is highly valued. Today we have several games of various duration (weekly, monthly, and one-offs) that include 25-30 people, all of whom rotate through various games. In these individual RPG communities, I see a glimpse of how the kingdom of God is at work in the world and I believe it is an example of the kinds of activities that will be the future of ministering to the next generation. For many of our members, it is not just a church activity; it is the only meaningful church they know.

Joshua “Josh” Orsak is the head of youth formation at St. Thomas the Apostle (Nassau Bay), Houston. He is a licensed youth minister with a Bible college degree in Christian Education and a certificate of theology from IONA School For Ministry, an Episcopal institution. More information about the RPG Community can be found here.

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