Onward Christian Gamer

Video game designer answers higher call of duty in Lawrence

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Matt Cox

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. In the case of Matt Cox, it is also beset by Goombas, Octorocks, and alien Covenant.

Cox, you see, began his path as a video game reviewer (for lil’ old lawrence.com), but then leveled up to a dream job actually designing games. He and his wife, Emily, moved to Seattle in 2006 and each endeavored on successful careers in the Silicon Valley of the Pacific Northwest.

A lifelong and devout Christian, however, Cox wasn’t content to just design levels for button mashers. Following what some might consider an epiphany last August, he’s abandoning his gig as a gaming guru and returning to Lawrence to become a God guru. Along with his wife and a handful of others, he’s opening up the Lawrence chapter of East Lake Community Church this fall, with an informational community meeting this week. Matt Cox joined us to chat about his journey from “Halo” to halo.

lawrence.com: Describe the path that led you from lawrence.com video game reviewer to Seattle-based game designer and back to Lawrence to start a church. Were there super mushrooms involved?

Matt Cox: You make it sound like that’s an odd path—sounds pretty run of the mill to me. Once we were out in Seattle, we were looking for a church where the shame level was low but took God very seriously—where we could come as we are and feel like we didn’t have to be somebody we’re not.

Past Event

Organizing meeting: East Lake Community Church

  • Saturday, February 21, 2009, 11 a.m.
  • Alderson Auditorium, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence
  • All ages / Free

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My office manager at Cranky Pants invited us to his church, called East Lake. We decided to try it out and it was exactly what we were looking for. The pastor was hilarious, the people were real and nobody spoke this Christian-ese language. It was just a great place to be. One of our pastors at East Lake decided to go plant a church in his hometown in Wisconsin last August. The day he announced, the best way I can describe it was that something began clawing at me. I just really started wondering if the real reason we came out to Seattle was for my video game career or not. Emily and I decided that we have such a passion for Lawrence with tons of friends who live in Lawrence that don’t care about church—they actually hate church or have never really been. We were part of something at East Lake where people could come and kick the tires of Christianity, where they didn’t have to believe to come along. We realized we wanted to take that sort of atmosphere back to Lawrence, the town that we love.

I know how sort of illogical it sounds. Most people ask me, “Okay, what’s the real reason you’re coming back? Is somebody dying? Did you lose your job? Is your wife pregnant?”

Did you get season tickets for KU basketball?

Yeah, KU just won the Championship and two bowl games in the same year. This is ridiculous, why am I not there!

Had you been thinking about starting a church for a while, or was this a literal “Come to Jesus” moment? Or at least a “Come to Bill Self” moment?

The short answer to your question is, “definitely.” That’s kind of what it was when my pastor left—all of a sudden, there was this “Sixth Sense” sort of kicker. It all made sense.

You described it as “something clawing at you”—do you think this was God speaking to you, or was it maybe a burrito that was sitting wrong?

I can definitely say it was something God was doing in my life, because a bad burrito will go away after a couple of days—you can take some over the counter stuff for that—but I wrestled with this for a few weeks before I even told my wife what was going on in my heart. I tried to get rid of it, by the way. I tried to ignore it but I couldn’t.

What are the logistics of starting a church? How does one become a “Vocational Pastor”?

I’m still not used to hearing that. Yeah, I will essentially be the pastor. There are lots of logistics. We’re not starting this to be some small Bible study in somebody’s home, we’re going to be launching with a full band, with an auditorium, with coffee, with greeters, with a kids program—there is so much to actually getting started. You have to raise financial support, too. We have a couple of churches and some other organizations on board financially. There are so many details, from sound equipment to chairs—it runs the gamut.

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Matt Cox, foreground, a former Lawrence resident, performs at EastLake Community Church in Seattle. He and wife Emily, along with an eight-person team from Seattle, will begin a new EastLake church in Lawrence this fall.

It almost sounds like you’re starting a small corporation. In this economy, do you think you’ll be facing the same difficulties as a business? Or do you think that, conversely, a down-turning economy actually brings more people to church?

In light of the economy, regardless if it’s business or spiritual, people are obviously reluctant to invest in anything. If you’re really serious about starting anything, you’ve got to provide a vision for something that people will really get behind before they consider volunteering either their time or their money. That’s one of the challenges we’re facing, but within a week of me telling people what we’re doing, we had financial support pledged out of the box.

Is it risky to start a church in Lawrence? After all, we kind of have a reputation of being Kansas’ version of Sodom, Gomorah, and Communist Moscow rolled into one.

I look at this way—more than 70% of people in Lawrence don’t care about church or have no desire to go. That’s the best place to be. I don’t want to start a church for the already convinced. My hope is that people come to find and follow Jesus through the church that we’re starting.

What will be different about East Lake as opposed to, say, Westboro Baptist Church?

Everything. It will be exactly opposite. We’re trying to appeal to the people who feel like church is a place where you have to put on a mask and not be yourself. We’re going to have loud rock music and a Disney-like atmosphere. We’re going to have a Wii and an XBox 360 for “Rock Band.” The biggest thing is that we want to create a culture where you can come and admit that we’re all screwed up. We’re all hypocrites and we’ve all done stuff that’s contrary to what we say we believe in. We can come and be screwed up people together and grow together.

Aside from, y’know, salvation, what do you hope to accomplish?

I would love for people to find and follow Jesus, but even more I want to spread the message that God loves you and has a tangible plan for you. No matter what you’ve done or where you are, you can find healing and hope.

Seriously, you can admit it—you’re only coming back to Lawrence so you can write video game reviews for lawrence.com again, aren’t you?

Okay, fine—you got me.

Finally, is Master Chief the digital Jesus?

I’ve actually browsed several blogs and forums over the years that, sadly, take this question too seriously. But sure, why not? He’s definitely a singular figure of hope for mankind. But Halo is one out of a million. There are a lot of stories in games, movies and books that echo the template of Jesus. Of course, I think there is a legitimate reason we all inherently gravitate to these “savior” types of stories, whether they’re big action heroes or local community heroes. I don’t say that to sound spiritual or anything, I just honestly believe that.

Comments

alm77 5 years, 1 month ago

jdw, it's been my experience that churches with deeply theological methodologies aren't as nurturing to relationships and are actually the more shallow groups. If your pastor is some untouchable professional (megachurches suck, sorry) then you don't know his true character. I think that's where most scandals come from. A man who know one really knows is free to live a secret life (while also giving the rest of us a bad reputation).

The ultimate goal would be to have members who are both well versed in their Faith as well as deeply connected personally to one another.

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matthewrc 5 years, 1 month ago

Actually, the whole Disney-like atmosphere and 360s were in reference to the Kids program, not the adult Sunday service. I will not be dressing up as Mickey on stage or anything. :)

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jdw200971 5 years, 1 month ago

I don't necessarily disagree with you... but it doesn't sound like there's much depth. I guess if people want youth group, though, this is a good place to go.

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alm77 5 years, 1 month ago

Last time I checked, Disney was fun and so are video games. And so is Jesus. Why separate them? The point of this philosophy is to blend life and Jesus, not just have one "Jesus Day" every week.

And as a "life long devout Christian" I think Matt has more theological education than you are giving him credit for. Having been a Bible college student, I can attest that the kids who grew up in church were way ahead of those of us who were late comers to the Faith. Besides, "Jesus loves you and died for your sins" is pretty much it, what's to screw up?

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jdw200971 5 years, 1 month ago

Great. So church has now become a Disney-like atmosphere with XBox 360s, led by a former game designer with no theological education.

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alm77 5 years, 2 months ago

Matt, I hope this goes as planned. Good luck, brother.

As a former church plant member, I can tell you, it's not going to be easy.

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