Erika Bergh, pastor of Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church in Anchorage, Alaska, has found a new way to worship during the COVID-19 pandemic—through a Nintendo Switch. Bergh and her spouse, Ollie, are hosting live worship through the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, launched on Nintendo Switch in mid-March.
“It’s a game about being a neighbor,” said Bergh, explaining how the live-simulation game works. Each player has an island to develop by gathering and crafting items, planting crops, catching fish and building structures such as roads and bridges. People visit each other’s islands and build relationships too.
Bergh said she didn’t start the game intending to build a church but spontaneously put up a little chapel on the beach. Just as spontaneously, she decided to have a short worship service and sent out a link on an app called Discord, which lets players type messages and talk over a desktop browser or phone app in real time.
Once Bergh posted the link on Discord, the people came. The first worship had just four people, but after a month, the attendance has grown. People have joined from around Alaska, plus Hawaii, Oklahoma, Minnesota and the Carolinas. Animal Crossing church has been a way to connect with those who don’t typically attend in-person worship, Bergh said, adding that she’s connected with old friends, others in Anchorage and young-adult children of parishioners through the game and worship.
“It’s been really fun. It’s been life-giving,” she said.
The weekly 20-minute worship service includes a Scripture, prayer, a short homily and blessing. The other characters can react during the worship and even participate virtually, such as playing an instrument during the service. The worship time has been flexible and varies slightly to accommodate schedules.
“It’s a cool, different way to do church when we can’t meet in person.”
Daniel Frerichs, a high school music teacher in Tulsa, Okla., has enjoyed worshiping in Animal Crossing. He met Bergh years ago at a camp called Lutheran Summer Music Academy and Festival, and they reconnected while playing Animal Crossing. Frerichs, who isn’t currently connected to an ELCA congregation, said of the video game worship: “It’s a cool, different way to do church when we can’t meet in person.”
Bergh said she’s been amazed to watch friendships in the video game flow out of the worship experience. Worshipers are “visiting” each other’s islands and sharing prayer concerns (from real life) in a subsection on the Discord app. Gamers are giving back, too, Bergh said. “People are unexpectedly generous,” she said, noting that worshipers have been paying in the game to help build infrastructure on Bergh’s island, such as roads and bridges.
Bergh and her spouse are open to continuing Animal Crossing worship as long as there is interest, perhaps long after the pandemic passes. “People are loving it,” she said.
For more information or to get an invite to Animal Crossing church, contact Pastor Erika Bergh at email@example.com.