For most of this year I have been consistently playing one video game. This game has kept me engaged for the better part of eight months, despite being a single player only experience. This game is No Man’s Sky by Hello Games. No Man’s Sky is a procedurally generated space exploration game. It takes the concept of an open world game and makes it an open galaxy. No Man’s Sky is a unique game that is wholly unlike anything else. At this point, No Man’s Sky has become one of the highest grossing original intellectual properties in video games and it has generated one of the most dedicated fan followings in digital media. However, this has not always been the case which has led video game media outlets to label No Man’s Sky the comeback story of a generation. I think the church as a whole can learn a valuable lesson from the parable of No Man’s Sky.
Hello Games made a big splash with No Man’s Sky in 2014, when Sony featured the game at a major PlayStation press conference. This presentation went extremely well and hype for the game began to build. No Man’s Sky was pitched as an open-world game with so much to explore and discover that it would have virtually unlimited game play. The expectation created is that No Man’s Sky would have an open world experience similar to much loved games like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim, only on a galactic sized scale.
When the game finally shipped, it did not live up to the hype. The game did not even live up to the stated promises. In terms of both game play and graphical quality it looked nothing like the demos and images that had been shown previously. The consumer reaction was fast and brutal. The reviews were largely negative, sales immediately plummeted, and the game became a cautionary tale of marketing hype getting out of control. In the months after its release No Man’s Sky was considered the epitome of a game that over promised and under delivered.
Unfortunately, I think this is where the similarities between the game and the American church begin. For a lot of people church has over promised and under delivered. We have promised unconditional acceptance but instead delivered self-righteous judgement. We have promised freedom from sin only to deliver legalistic guilt. We have promised membership into the family of God but delivered cults of personality and cliques built around political ideology. We promised the people the good news of the gospel but far too often delivered them membership to a country club church.
While there are plenty of exemplary exceptions, on a whole American Christianity is guilty of over promising and under delivering. The evidence of this is all around. American churches have been posting net losses for years, trust in clergy has reached an all-time low, and people who claim no religious affiliation has reached an all-time high. For far too many people the cross is no longer a symbol of hope and forgiveness but it is a symbol of broken dreams, broken relationships, and broken hearts. No Man’s Sky has had its fans from day one, just like there are plenty of people who have positive experiences in churches. However, if we are taking an honest assessment then we have to admit that for many people our religious institutions have over promised and tragically under delivered.
The real lesson the church can learn though, is how the development team responded to the overly negative reception of their game. They listened to the criticism and they sought to make things right. Over the past three years they have released several massive updates to the games. Each update has sought to address the areas where the game had not yet delivered on the initial promises, and each update sought to meet the concerns expressed by the player base. The development team did not charge for these updates but gave them away for free as a way to support what they already released. Each update got the game closer to what they initially told the consumers they would get. There will be some people who will never come back to the fold, but by and large the strategy worked. Three years later No Man’s Sky is selling well and is arguably more popular than ever. It took three years of work, commitment, and improvement but No Man’s Sky is now delivering what it promised.
This is the lesson that churches can learn. By continuing to improve and re-create their product, Hello Games acknowledged they initially missed the mark and set to make it right. There are a couple of good religious words that define the process the development team went through: confession and repentance. They acknowledged they fell short and then they did the hard work of making it right. They did not blame the consumers, demand the consumers meet them half way, or charge more to fix their broken game. They took it upon themselves to make the necessary changes.
This is what churches need to do. For far too many people we have over promised and under delivered. But we can still make it right. We still can be places of unconditional acceptance. We can still be the family of God. We can still give hope to the hopeless, freedom to the oppressed, and deliver the good news of Jesus Christ to those who need it the most. It is possible for churches to once again be places associated with restoration instead of brokenness. However, that can only happen if we collectively confess that we have failed to be an obedient church. It can only happen if we do the hard work of repentance. It can only happen if we do the actual work of making things right. I suppose how this can be done is up for debate, but I suggest a good starting point is for communities of faith to commit to personal and social holiness. In personal holiness we seek to live an authentic life that reflects Jesus in all things. Through a commitment to social holiness we meet the real needs of the communities around us without judgement.
Three years ago No Man’s Sky was considered an irredeemable mess of a video game, but now it is the comeback story of a generation. The church in America faces many hurdles to overcome, but we worship a savior who is making all things new. A church that confesses its short comings, repents, and commits itself to holiness is a church that is poised to make a truly remarkable comeback.