First the percussive sounds of sniper fire and the thrill of the kill. Then the gospel of peace.
Across the country, hundreds of ministers and pastors desperate to reach young congregants have drawn concern and criticism through their use of an unusual recruiting tool: the immersive and violent video game Halo.
The latest iteration of the immensely popular space epic, Halo 3, was released nearly two weeks ago by Microsoft and has already passed $300 million in sales.
Those buying it must be 17 years old, given it is rated M for mature audiences. But that has not prevented leaders at churches and youth centers across Protestant denominations, including evangelical churches that have cautioned against violent entertainment, from holding heavily attended Halo nights and stocking their centers with multiple game consoles so dozens of teenagers can flock around big-screen televisions and shoot it out.
The alliance of popular culture and evangelism is challenging churches much as bingo games did in the 1960s. And the question fits into a rich debate about how far churches should go to reach young people.
Far from being defensive, church leaders who support Halo — despite its “thou shalt kill” credo — celebrate it as a modern and sometimes singularly effective tool. It is crucial, they say, to reach the elusive audience of boys and young men.
Witness the basement on a recent Sunday at the Colorado Community Church in the Englewood area of Denver, where Tim Foster, 12, and Chris Graham, 14, sat in front of three TVs, locked in violent virtual combat as they navigated on-screen characters through lethal gun bursts. Tim explained the game’s allure: “It’s just fun blowing people up.”
Once they come for the games, Gregg Barbour, the youth minister of the church said, they will stay for his Christian message. “We want to make it hard for teenagers to go to hell,” Mr. Barbour wrote in a letter to parents at the church.
But the question arises: What price to appear relevant? Some parents, religious ethicists and pastors say that Halo may succeed at attracting youths, but that it could have a corroding influence. In providing Halo, churches are permitting access to adult-themed material that young people cannot buy on their own.
“If you want to connect with young teenage boys and drag them into church, free alcohol and pornographic movies would do it,” said James Tonkowich, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a nonprofit group that assesses denominational policies. “My own take is you can do better than that.”
Daniel R. Heimbach, a professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, believes that churches should reject Halo, in part because it associates thrill and arousal with killing.
“To justify whatever killing is involved by saying that it’s just pixels involved is an illusion,” he said.
Focus on the Family, a large evangelical organization, said it was trying to balance the game’s violent nature with its popularity and the fact that churches are using it anyway. “Internally, we’re still trying to figure out what is our official view on it,” said Lisa Anderson, a spokeswoman for the group.
There is little doubting Halo’s cultural relevance. Even as video games have grown in popularity, the Halo series stands out. The first Halo and Halo 2 sold nearly 15 million copies combined. Microsoft says that Halo 3 “is on track to become the No. 1 gaming title of all time.”
Hundreds of churches use Halo games to connect with young people, said Lane Palmer, the youth ministry specialist at the Dare 2 Share Ministry, a nonprofit organization in Arvada, Colo., that helps churches on youth issues.
“It’s very pervasive,” Mr. Palmer said, more widespread on the coasts, less so in the South, where the Southern Baptist denomination takes a more cautious approach. The organization recently sent e-mail messages to 50,000 young people about how to share their faith using Halo 3. Among the tips: use the game’s themes as the basis for a discussion about good and evil.
At Sweetwater Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., Austin Brown, 16, said, “We play Halo, take a break and have something to eat, and have a lesson,” explaining that the pastor tried to draw parallels “between God and the devil.”
Players of Halo 3 control the fate of Master Chief, a tough marine armed to the teeth who battles opponents with missiles, lasers, guns that fire spikes, energy blasters and other fantastical weapons. They can also play in teams, something the churches say allows communication and fellowship opportunities.
Complicating the debate over the appropriateness of the game as a church recruiting tool are the plot’s apocalyptic and religious overtones. The hero’s chief antagonists belong to the Covenant, a fervent religious group that welcomes the destruction of Earth as the path to their ascension.
Microsoft said Halo 3 was a “space epic” that was not intended to make specific religious references or be more broadly allegorical. Advocates of using the game as a church recruiting tool say the religious overtones are sufficiently cartoonish and largely overlooked by players.
Martial images in literature or movies popular with religious people are not new. The popular “Left Behind” series of books — it also spawned a video game — dealt with the conflict preceding the second coming of Christ. Playing Halo is “no different than going on a camping trip,” said Kedrick Kenerly, founder of Christian Gamers Online, an Internet site whose central themes are video games and religion. “It’s a way to fellowship.”
Mr. Kenerly said the idea that Halo is inappropriately violent too strictly interpreted the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” “I’m not walking up to someone with a pistol and shooting them,” he said. “I’m shooting pixels on a screen.”
Mr. Kenerly’s brother, Ken Kenerly, 43, is a pastor who recently started a church in Atlanta and previously started the Family Church in Albuquerque, N.M., where quarterly Halo nights were such a big social event that he had to rent additional big-screen TVs.
Ken Kenerly said he believed that the game could be useful in connecting to young people he once might have reached in more traditional ways, like playing sports. “There aren’t as many kids outdoors as indoors,” he said. “With gamers, how else can you get into their lives?”
John Robison, the current associate pastor at the 300-member Albuquerque church, said parents approached him and were concerned about the Halo games’ M rating. “We explain we’re using it as a tool to be relatable and relevant,” he said, “and most people get over it pretty quick.”
David Drexler, youth director at the 200-member nondenominational Country Bible Church in Ashby, Minn., said using Halo to recruit was “the most effective thing we’ve done.”
In rural Minnesota, Mr. Drexler said, the church needs something powerful to compete against the lure of less healthy behaviors. “We have to find something that these kids are interested in doing that doesn’t involve drugs or alcohol or premarital sex.” His congregation plans to double to eight its number of TVs, which would allow 32 players to compete at one time.
Among parents at the Colorado Community Church, Doug Graham, a pediatric oncologist with a 12-year-old son, said that he was not aware of the game’s M rating and that it gave him pause. He said he felt that parents should be actively involved in deciding whether minors play an M-rated game. “Every family should have a conversation about it,” he said.
Mr. Barbour, the youth pastor at the church, said the game had led to a number of internal discussions prompted by elders who complained about its violent content. Mr. Barbour recently met for several hours with the church’s pastor and successfully made his case that the game was a crucial recruiting tool.
In one letter to parents, Mr. Barbour wrote that God calls ministers to be “fishers of men.”
“Teens are our ‘fish,” he wrote. “So we’ve become creative in baiting our hooks.”