How to connect with children who don't come near church
I’m sure the Minecraft revolution has not passed you by – every day millions of kids (and older children) go on to their consoles, smartphones and tablets to play a game where they build – and destroy – a world of their own. This is just the latest of a number of games that have held the attention and action of our children.
When we at Scripture Union set out to ask ourselves how to connect with all those children who don’t come near a church, we found ourselves asking the question: What if Bible engagement were a videogame – what would it look like?
What is Guardians of Ancora?
Nearly five years after those early discussions, the first release of Guardians of Ancora, Scripture Union’s digital game for children, has been launched and is opening up the Bible in a new exciting and interactive way for kids throughout the world.
So what is it, and why are we doing it?
Scripture Union’s mission
As Scripture Union approaches its 150th anniversary, we are asking ourselves lots of questions about who we are and what we are called to do. It’s always been an integral part of our mission to reach out to children who haven’t heard the good news of Jesus, and that has adapted as times have changed: from the first beach activity in North Wales in 1867, through our travelling caravan missions and on to today where our fastest growing residential holiday is The Voice, where participants sing and record pop songs.
As we looked at the statistics of the lack of children in churches and the low level of Bible literacy, we were compelled to respond. For the majority of families the once-familiar Bible stories that spoke of God’s salvation for His people are completely unknown, and even the Christmas and Easter stories have faded away in many schools.
Our response was first to look at the places where we could connect with children or young people, and then to consider how to deliver the Bible and the good news of Jesus in an exciting and contemporary way.
A key element of getting the right product for children that would make a real impact was to spend some time and money to understand how modern day children saw faith, Christianity, the Bible and their own responses.
This major work, undertaken by specialists Christian Research, provides a fascinating insight into children today. In conversations we found that, although parents felt that they had little or no part to play in teaching their children about faith and the Bible, the children themselves were open to prayer and spirituality.
Their view of the Bible, though, is that it is could only be understood by ‘religious, scholarly, or older people’.
Maggie Barfield, Scripture Union’s lead on content for Guardians of Ancora said the study has identified a real disconnect between parents’ attitudes to faith formation and the child’s willingness to learn. This extends into the Bible, as for many children the Bible is not a part of their life.
Maggie concluded that the research showed clearly,
"There is a need for parents not only to be inspired that the Word of God is more than simply a rule book, but also equipped to teach their children."
What did we do?
As we talked and considered our approach we quickly decided that online engagement was key. Children were increasingly seeing online as the primary place for information and entertainment, replacing books, TVs and so on. Kids love playing games and they always have, so a Bible-focused game delivered online gave us the chance to reach beyond the church into networks and communities that enjoyed games and being online.
When we started, we gave ourselves four key goals:
- This wouldn’t be a product just for ‘church’ children. Our passion was to reach those children who had never seen or read the Bible, who had no idea of Jesus or of God’s love.
- In order for the game to be played repeatedly, it had to embody many of the features of the most successful secular games for children. The graphics had to be great, the game play interesting and compelling, and the storytelling strong.
- We also had to remove as many barriers to playing as possible. For that reason we took the early decision that it would be free: free to download and free to play. Putting a price on the game would restrict the market.
- This should be about more than simple story retelling. We want children to come to a relationship with Jesus and we will support the child’s faith formation within the game.
With those principles established we set out to research the games market, and also how children and their families see and interact with the Bible and where faith and spirituality sit in their lives.
We started working with one of the UK’s top children’s games designers, Dubit in Leeds. We enlisted the support of some world-class experts: a graphic design consultant in Los Angeles working with Pixar and Disney and Animation Studios in America working with the Family Guy producers. We enlisted the help of a dear friend Bob Hartman, known as one of the top children’s storytellers in the world.
We looked for partners and ways to fund the mission. We were blessed that, with only an idea on paper and nothing to see, some people got it, saw how powerful it could be and supported us.
So what is Guardians of Ancora?
Guardians of Ancora is a compelling interactive experience that children of all ages will be excited to play. At the heart of the experience is exploring stories of the Bible by running, jumping and solving challenges. The game players are encouraged to reflect on those experiences in ways that support their own personal faith formation.
It is a digital game, available for the main tablet computer platforms of Apple iPad, Google’s Android and Amazon’s Kindle Fire, and can be downloaded for free from the relevant download sites.
The setting for the game is the virtual city of Ancora, a place where light leads to goodness, well-being and peace. The problem is that this light has been taken away from the people, and the only way to restore it is to rediscover the sagas of old, the stories at the heart of the community – Bible stories.
Children play as Guardians alongside the other Guardians of the city. Those Guardians include the Guild Master, the chief Guardian of the city; Fabula, who looks after the stories; and Swift who is there to help and assist.
The children playing the game as Guardians have the important task of discovering the truth of the saga stories and bringing that truth back to Ancora where they will be rewarded with firebugs.
These firebugs will be used to light the central light in Ancora – the Spire, the light of the world.
Discovering the truth of these Bible stories is where most of the game play happens, as the Guardians have to search for Jesus, or the crowds or the next conversation so they understand the story. To move they run, jump, climb ladders, bounce off trampolines and slide down zipwires. They solve puzzles and challenges and see where they can they take part in the story, for instance helping to distribute the loaves and fishes in feeding the 5,000. As they play through the game they become aware of the story: of Jesus, his power and authority and the impact that Jesus has on the people around him.
One of the key principles of Scripture Union is the undeniable truth of the Bible, and we have invested a great deal of time to ensure that the Bible settings are accurate; that the story is retold and experienced in a way that is fun and interactive but cannot alter the story in any way.
Storytelling or faith formation
We understood early on in the project that the retelling of the stories by themselves would be unlikely to bring children to a real relationship with God; playing them on tablets can be a solitary experience. We recognise the value of the church, support networks, crucial friends and, for many children, their families in bringing people to Christ.
It was always important that, alongside the storytelling and game play, we offer a safe place for children to explore their own faith and reflect on the impact of the stories, and how that may affect them outside of the game. We encourage children to write their own prayers, to be creative designing pictures using stickers and familiar paint tools which they can share with those people known to them.
So how do we use it?
In Guardians of Ancora there is huge potential for major evangelistic mission by churches committed to bringing Jesus alive to today’s young people.
As a starting point, get as many children as possible in your church and extended networks to download and play the game. It’s free, so there shouldn’t be any barriers. And once they have the game and have played it, get them to talk to their friends about the fabulous images and the compelling game play. It can be difficult to get kids to talk about their faith, but through Guardians of Ancora it’s much easier to say, ‘Play this game. It’s fabulous, and it’s free!’
It’s not just children that should be gearing up in the evangelism. Reaching those who have no experience of church or the development of their faith was the main driver for Scripture Union in developing and launching the game. We are investing significant sums of money in online advertising, especially into networks of children who play games, to encourage them to download and play the full game.
Within all the communities your church serves there will be children whose first introduction to Jesus will be through Guardians of Ancora. As a church, is your presence one that would encourage an unchurched game player to have conversations with you?
As the reach of Guardians of Ancora grows since its launch, we hope that as churches you can take advantage, going into local schools and talking about this great new game, running events linked to Ancora. Some churches are planning to have the game downloaded on to a tablet and to take it to their local communities’ summer fairs and celebrations. This year’s holiday club from Scripture Union will be Guardians of Ancora themed, giving your church a great excuse to bring children into the church on the back of a free game and the recognition of the brand, even among the unchurched kids.
There are many opportunities to engage with children using Guardians of Ancora as the starting point of a conversation. Our Christmas Bible comic used the Ancora theme, a great opportunity for churches to buy a set, give them out at their local schools, encourage them to play the game, and start relationships with new children, exploring their faith.
For the 95% of children not in church
Our prayer for Guardians of Ancora is that it will be main global mission tool for evangelism to children, especially those aged 8–11. Our commitment to get Ancora to launch, however big a job that was, is dwarfed by our passion to bring children to a relationship with our Saviour.
What to do now!
Get it – You can download Guardians of Ancora from the Apple iTunes App Store, the Google Play Store and the Kindle Fire store.
Talk about it – In church, to friends, at the youth club or school, talk about the game and encourage children to play it and churches to consider how they can use it in mission.
Donate to it – Delivering a game of this standard has not been a small venture; indeed it is Scripture Union’s largest ever project. If you feel inspired and want to help us to achieve all our plans, please consider donating to the project.
- Guardians of Ancora