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This year’s SquadCon, held in a rented venue over three days in August in Richmond, Virginia, where Souza is now based, offered a glimpse of such a church. At this second physical gathering of congregants from the cyberchurch, 75 in-person attendees, most of whom had never before met apart from a computer screen, took part in worship, heard sermons, and connected in small groups. With a nod toward the love of gaming that unites the community, attendees played on-site laser tag. The livestream broadcasts SquadCon events for the online audience. Seven were water baptized.
GodSquad Church sermons employ familiar game-related topics and illustrations that connect with viewers. A recent example is “You are not a Luigi,” with references to the unappreciated Super Mario Bros game sidekick. Sermons archived on the church’s YouTube channel, and Souza’s livestreams archived on his Twitch.tv channel, generate more views per week than the live services. Souza’s personal livestream brings in an average of 4,500 people a week.
Since the 2016 launch of GodSquad Church, now part of Potomac Ministry Network, 750 individuals have decided to follow Christ, yet Souza began to ask Am I building a crowd or building a community? His conclusion caused a shift in focus and approach.
“People were getting saved left and right, but then fell off the wagon” because of insufficient follow-up and discipleship, says Souza, 27, whose online name is PastorSouZy. Souza and his team still share the gospel daily on their personal livestreams on which they play games and interact with viewers. As the Twitch.tv platform has expanded to include other interests beyond gaming, Souza also livestreams weightlifting, nutrition, health, and fitness, reaching new audiences with the message of hope in Christ.
“My stream has entertainment, encouragement, prayer, normal conversation about life and video games,” he says, adding that 4,500 individuals visit his stream each week. “A lot of what I do has entertainment woven into it, but I am not an entertainer. I signed up to be a minister of the gospel. Our focus is growing people deeper in their faith. Discipleship is the key.”
The GodSquad team develops relationships with gamers in GodSquad Church’s chat rooms on Discord, a free voice and text chat app. These chat rooms serve as the cyber version of hanging out in the church foyer and fellowship hall with Souza and GodSquad’s volunteer team. Everyone is welcome, regardless of faith or lack of it, he says. The chat moderator is Souza’s wife, Amanda. She also leads 7:30 p.m. Saturday GodSquad worship that now has an average attendance of 140.
Even though most gamers self-identify as atheist, Souza says, the GodSquad outreach has received surprising favor. Twitch.tv named him a “partner,” an official endorsement the platform grants to “top-performing creators who are serious about broadcasting.” The endorsement — and the special seal by his name — has opened doors to ministry to fellow high-tiered gamers, especially at the annual TwitchCon gathering in San José, California, which he and Amanda will attend again in October. Top RuneScape players invited Souza to their own elite gathering last year in London, which opened more doors to building relationships and ministry.
God has used the outreach to inspire other Christian gamers to start sharing the gospel, he says.
“When I first started, I never stumbled across a streamer openly sharing the gospel, or streaming with the intent of sharing faith,” Souza says. Since he began, “I have run into people that, because of what we've started, have realized the potential,” he says. “God is building up an army of hundreds of Twitch streamers.”
“Zephyr Victorious,” the gaming name of a 23-year-old granddaughter of an AG pastor in Utah, learned of GodSquad Church from a former Southwestern Assemblies of God University classmate soon after its founding. She jumped into the online ministry while convalescing from a broken leg, becoming one of 17 GodSquad chat room moderators. She also found encouragement through the community. This summer she moved to Richmond to help the Souzas launch the GodSquad physical church plant, with a late 2019 projected opening.
“The people in that church really supported me and helped me through things I was going through,” she says. “They gave me godly counsel and gave me hope. GodSquad Church is reaching people that haven't been reached before.”
Eventually, Souza envisions a global network of GodSquad Church LAN centers that appeal to gamers. These churches might be something akin to the cowboy church movement for those drawn to rural and Western culture, through sermons that connect to congregants by using themes familiar to them.