A church for gamers: Virginia pastor draws thousands to worship on Twitch
It's a Saturday night, and the Rev. Matt Souza begins his weekly sermon by pondering the pros and cons of a medieval fantasy-themed video game called Old School RuneScape.
Souza is sitting behind a spotless white desk in a white-walled room, wearing a white headset and speaking into a black microphone bigger than his head. He's facing a jungle of technical equipment - four black monitors, miniature cameras perched everywhere like inquisitive birds and long black cords that bristle like insect antennae. Inches from his fingertips sits a well-worn Bible.
Souza appears completely alone. But - via the live-streaming platform Twitch - he's talking to roughly 100 people scattered across the United States and around the world, most of them also sitting behind monitors. Souza, 27, is preaching to his congregation: members of GodSquad Church, what appears to be the world's first online-only church for video gamers.
He founded GodSquad, registered as a nonprofit under the evangelical Assemblies of God denomination, in 2016 with a mission - to bring God to the gaming community, a population he said skews atheistic and tends to dislike religion.
"It's a game that looks exactly like what it's called, Old School RuneScape," says Souza, known as "Pastor Souzy" to his thousands of followers. "The game is definitely not known for having great graphics - some of you are like, 'Dude, my unborn niece from inside the womb could create better graphics than this.'"
Souza belly-laughs, deep and rich. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, Souza says that the way gamers pre-judge Old School RuneScape - actually one of his favorite games - mirrors the way we pre-judge other humans and ourselves in offline life.
And yet the only standards that matter are God's standards, Souza says.
"Your life right now . . . it may not have the best graphics, you may not be the smartest, you may not be the most athletic," Souza says. "[But] we don't need to live by man's approval, which means that the standards that God set - that although I fall short all the time - the standard that God set about me is that I'm loved and I'm valued."
Souza gives his sermon at the same time each week: Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The traditional slot on Sunday won't do; some of his international viewers live in time zones that make that impossible. Also, Saturday night is "prime time for Twitch watchers," Souza explains.
It's just one of many peculiarities inherent in pastoring a virtual gamer church.
Souza spends most of his days at home near Richmond, Virgina, streaming from a gaming desk that doubles as his pulpit. He works for GodSquad Church full-time, living off viewers' voluntary donations. He forgoes the pastor's typical suit and tie, preaching exclusively in jeans and T-shirts bearing video game logos. He has never met the vast majority of his congregants. Some he knows only by their online usernames.
Souza says he's reaching people most other pastors don't know exist. Approximately 2.6 billion people worldwide play video games, according to the Entertainment Software Association, and nearly two-thirds of U.S. households do.
"It's definitely what I would consider to be an unreached people group," Souza said in an interview. "If we believe as Christians we have a command to go to all the world and share God's love with people, how do we share God's love with people who don't leave their house? Going in to the gaming community is how we do that."
- - -
For 23 of his 27 years, Souza said, he led a double life.
He always played. In high school, he'd come home and after spending an hour at the gym and finishing his homework, play video games for seven hours straight. Later, while studying at Northpoint Bible College in Massachusetts - where he earned a degree in biblical theology and met his wife, Amanda - he played as often as he could, locking himself in his dorm room. After he graduated in 2014 and began working as a pastor's assistant at Cornerstone Church, an Assemblies of God church in Oxford, Connecticut, Souza played in the evenings and on weekends.
But he never told anyone of his secret passion, he said. Of course, the people he lived with - first his parents, then his college roommates, then Amanda - figured it out to some extent. With careful words and closed doors, though, Souza managed to conceal the true scope of his gaming.
"I went through my life considering myself to be a closet gamer," Souza said. "I never wanted to attach that negative connotation to myself - the negative connotation that people think gamers are irresponsible, immature, going to live in their mom's basement until they're 35."
Sometime in early 2014, the deception matured into a full-blown identity crisis. Souza said he could no longer field the internal questions and doubts that plagued him. He'd arrive home from work, still wearing his "church suit," and wonder: What would his co-workers and friends think of him if they knew that every evening he morphed into a "huge nerd with a headset?"
There was no one moment of grace, but, gradually - in the heat of Souza's struggles - God stepped in, he said.
"God began to help me understand that he loved me the way that I am, like nerd and all, and that my identity is not found in the fact that I play games but in the fact that he created me and he loves me," Souza said.
So he embraced the nerd. His wife did, too.
"It didn't really bother me because, if I needed his help with anything, he would drop [the game] at a hat," Amanda, 26, said.
Still, personal peace brought new questions, he said: How many other gamers were suffering the same way Souza had? How many stood to benefit from God's love like he did?
At that point, Souza said, he knew he had to spread the word.
- - -
Soon after that epiphany, Souza said he had another.
He stumbled across Twitch, the popular live-streaming platform that allows video gamers to broadcast their play to strangers in real time. (Twitch is owned by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post.) The first Twitch user whose stream Souza clicked on had 25,000 viewers - and he was talking about sex. Souza was astonished. Twenty-five-thousand people?
"I was like, could you imagine if this guy was using his influence . . . to make a positive difference in people's lives?" Souza said. "I was thinking somebody's got to try this, somebody's got to go on what is normally known as a toxic website and start . . . sharing God's love with people."
He streamed for the first time from a corner of his bedroom on Dec. 19, 2014. Early on, it wasn't a church - just a guy playing games and talking about Jesus. He titled his streams things like, "A Pastor Playing Halo." Sometimes viewers caught sight of Amanda's feet in the background as she climbed into bed.
In September 2015, as Souza began accruing more regular viewers, he weighed founding an online church. In March 2016, he did it.
Since then, GodSquad Church has taken off. As of July 2018, it boasts 1,800 committed members and Souza's streams draw roughly 4,000 total viewers each week, according to Twitch analytics. Souza estimates around 10 new congregants join every seven days.
Souza streams for hours every day in addition to his weekly sermon, letting viewers watch as he plays games in his now-professional-quality gaming room (funded by Twitch donations). Throughout, he fields questions about Jesus and Christianity. With his physical Bible always nearby, he'll pull up biblical verses on his screen "countless times" in any given gaming session.
He teaches congregants how to be good Samaritan gamers: Don't get too "salty" when you die in a game. In multiplayer games, always thank your teammates for their efforts. Don't curse. Don't play Grand Theft Auto - too much sex and needless murder. By Souza's doctrine, games like Call of Duty or Fortnite are okay because the violence is more "innocent," inflicted in a fun and competitive spirit or in the name of self-defense.
Souza has devoted his life to GodSquad - and so has his wife. She quit her day job at a real-life church and now spends most of her time moderating GodSquad's chat rooms, run on the communications server Discord. On Discord - which Souza calls his church's "virtual hallways" - users gab while gaming together, ping Souza to discuss a personal problem or join specific channels to request that someone pray for them. The channels are filled and manned at all hours; GodSquad Church benefits from the services of roughly 50 volunteer leaders, who help the church function by praying for congregants and helping Amanda moderate the chats.
"In the beginning, it was kind of hard for me to wrap my mind around. . . . I was like, 'Okay, [so] you're just going to tell people about Jesus while you're shooting them in the face?' And he was like, 'Exactly,' " Amanda said. "Now I get it."
The medium may be unorthodox - Amanda always struggles to explain her husband's profession to disbelieving strangers - but Souza is spreading the word of God, she said.
"[Jesus] always went to where the people were at," Souza said. "One of the huge [mediums] of how to meet people today is through video games - and I believe 100 percent that . . . if Jesus were here walking on the earth, he'd be gaming with people because he knows that's where the people are at."
Would Jesus be on Twitch? Souza pauses, then belly-laughs.
"He'd be on Twitch 100 percent - and he'd be the greatest streamer of all time!"
- - -
Valerie Lennert, a 44-year-old self-described "hard-core gamer" who lives in Houston, discovered GodSquad Church a few weeks before her mother - her best friend - died of breast cancer.
So when she came home from her mother's funeral to discover someone had stolen all of her gaming equipment, the first person she texted was Souza.
He'd already supported her through her mother's treatments, chatting with Lennert while she waited for hours in the Intensive Care Unit. Souza knew Lennert - who was not a practicing Christian at the time - well by this point. He knew that gaming was the way she dealt with the world, and that the twin losses, coming on the same day, would be devastating.
"Gaming was my coping skill for stress, so my thing is, I finished her funeral and I wanted to come home, turn on my X-box and blow [s-] up," Lennert said in an interview. "And Souzy prayed for me and said, 'You know, God is in control, and for whatever reason, this is the battle that you're in and we're going to support you through it.' "
Souza proved as good as his word. He and his wife, as well as other friends of Lennert's, bought her a new set of gaming equipment. Lennert estimates the replacement in total cost around $5,000. She was flabbergasted.
But Souza provided less tangible help, too. Lennert was depressed and suicidal for years after the funeral, wanting to die so she could join her mother. Though she never explicitly mentioned her suicidal thoughts to him, Souza's constant, warm friendship and guidance saved her life. Somewhere along the way, Lennert decided to become a Christian.
"He led me to the God that saved me and he changed my life and I would be dead right now if it weren't for Pastor Souzy's willingness to reach out to people who are hurting," Lennert said. "I owe him my life. There is a very deep part of my heart that he's touched."
Lennert and Amanda both said the 44-year-old Texan is just one of hundreds of gamers Souza is helping. Some congregants - like Lennert - are suicidal or depressed; some are addicted to drugs; some are dealing with a porn addiction. Some have a stranger obsession: They can't stop "trolling," making rude or controversial comments online in an effort to provoke. Trolls constantly enter the GodSquad Discord chat - some lose interest and leave, but many end up staying and converting.
Church, Souza said, should be about the people.
"We just do not believe that church is meant to be like a service you attend, it's meant to be like life that you're doing with other people," Souza said.
Still, there are some parts of life you just can't do online. Souza knows that - and he's looking for ways to meet his virtual congregants in-person. He's currently fundraising to rent and refurbish a church-slash-gaming-center in Richmond, where congregants could game and where he'd preach, and he hopes to eventually build more around the country. This fall, Souza will travel to officiate his first wedding for two congregants in North Carolina. At the couple's request, he will live-stream the ceremony on Twitch.
And next month, he will water baptize Lennert when she travels to Virginia to participate in the second-ever SquadCon, a yearly convention Souza holds for members of GodSquad.
Lennert was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she was fired from her job as a probation officer in June. She's not sure what her future holds. But she refuses to despair. Buoyed by support from Souza and his wife and the rest of the congregation, she says she knows she is in God's hands.
"I'm telling you, God is in this," Lennert said. "I don't really know why, because I wouldn't think God knows video games. But he does."
This article was written by Hannah Natanson, a reporter for The Washington Post.