There are lots of models of ‘what the Church is’ including a Body, a family, a bride, a kingdom, and so on. A new one popped into my head this morning: an adventuring party.
Now, I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons through high school and university, but at the same time I recognize that a lot of Christians, especially older adults, are probably not too familiar with this game or others of its genre, so this isn’t an idea that would be terribly helpful for most people. It’s mainly an interesting idea for me to toy with in the back of my mind to see how well it applies or doesn’t apply.
This potential analogy works on a number of levels. I guess I’ll start at the top and work my way down and see how it goes: the game creator, the rulebook(s), the campaign setting, the DM, and the party.
God is the Creator of the Game
As much as I think it’d be awesome to have a bumper sticker “God is my DM,” (that’s Dungeon Master), God actually deserves a bigger role in this analogy. God is the creator of the entire game. He wrote the rulebooks, he designed the system of how characters are made, how combat works… everything.
The main shortcoming of this part of the analogy is that the only interaction between the game’s creators and the players is through the rulebooks, when in the Church we actually have fellowship & communion with our God and Creator.
The Bible is the Player’s Handbook
There are lots of rulebooks available to enable people to play D&D, but at the heart of it only the PHB (Player’s HandBook) is absolutely necessary. It gives the basics of how to create a character, how to play the game, and most of the technical stuff players would ever need to know about combat, magic, equipment, and such.
Not every Christian would agree, but I would go so far as to say that the DMG (Dungeon Master’s Guide) and the Monster Manual are akin to Sacred Tradition. They’re important and useful books that are designed in tandem with the PHB, but are not necessary for all players to own, have, know, or reference. They are necessary for the game to be run well, though. Obviously, this is my Catholic side showing through.
Beyond those three books (the core rulebooks) are many other books with supplementary information, extra rules, extra cool stuff, and so on. These are not required or necessary. They can be a lot of fun, though some people feel overwhelmed by the amount of additional optional material. These are kind of like different traditions within the Church, like different editions of the Book of Common Prayer, or various settings of the Mass or the Office. The “best” ones are the ones that don’t change the material in the core rules and integrate smoothly with them, creating a more fun game rather than a more complicated set. Sometimes, certain gamers particularly latch on to particular extra books – for example I especially enjoyed the Planar Handbook. This is akin to how different denominations gravitate toward certain confessions like the Westminster Confession or the Book of Concord or the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. Ideally, these ‘extras’ ought to be faithful representations of the core rules, but at the end of the day they really are ‘extras’ in terms of their authority over the rules of the game.
The culture around us is our campaign setting
This is a somewhat weak analogy, admittedly. In D&D there are a few different “worlds” in which the game could take place. This can result in an editing of some of the basic rules, or adding supplemental ‘extras’ into the ‘core rules.’ What this roughly translates to, I think, is the different cultures across history and geography in which the Church finds herself. The Church in the Roman Empire in the year 325 was in a very safe situation where they could focus on strengthening its unity, whereas the Church in the USA in 2012 is in a very different situation where the focus needs to be on evangelism (or re-evangelism). So the core identity and purpose of the Church hasn’t changed, but the local focus and emphasis shifts along with the needs around us.
This is also a tricky analogy because D&D players can choose a campaign setting or even create their own, and that does not translate over to the Church at all, except in the vague sense that Christians can become missionaries and go to a new culture to support the Church there.
the pastor is the DM
Oftentimes people make a distinction between the DM (Dungeon Master) and the players, but that’s a misnomer: the DM is playing D&D too! This is very similar to the pastor/clergy issue: these shepherds are also sheep in God’s flock too. But just as the DM is a player with a special role, so is the pastor a special kind of sheep.
The roles of the DM and the Pastor are very analogous. They’re both subject to the rules and authority set out by the Core Rule Books/the Bible, but yet have a special relationship with those rules and that authority such that they help create a space for the game/the Church to happen. The DM has to know the rules of the game particularly well in order to host a game of D&D, and enforce the rules throughout the game for the players. If the players know the rules very well, then the DM’s role can be much easier because he doesn’t have to explain everything every step of the way. Then again, players who know the rules well can also be real hecklers.
In much the same way, Pastors (priests, clergy, whatever title you want to use) provide guidance within the local church, helping people to carry out their vocations, realize their spiritual gifts, and live the Christian lives they’re called to lead according to Scripture, the Spirit, and the Church. Pastors who are expected to do all the work are in a bad situation, rather like the DM who’s dragging the others players along through the quest. The game is no fun at that point, and nobody benefits. Similarly, the Church suffers when the relationship between Pastor and Parishioner is unhealthy.
the laity are the adventuring party
According to most perspectives, this is where the action really happens. You can’t have a D&D game without the players. The Church can’t minister without her members. Everything described above really just sets the stage for what happens at this level.
In D&D there’s this ideal of the “balanced party.” There are different classes of character that people can play, and in general (depending on the specific campaign or quest) it’s wise to have a balance between the different abilities that different character classes bring to the table. You want a front-line fighter, a mage, a healer, a stealth specialist, someone with communication skills. There are many ways this balance could be achieved, and oftentimes two or more of these specialties might be combined into one character. This can be both useful and vulnerable – you get more skills covered this way, but if you lose that multi-talented character then it’s a huge hit to the party.
The Church is very similar – there are many different spiritual gifts, supporting the many facets of ministry and the Christian mission. The DM can encourage players to pick characters that will balance out the party well, but in the end he can’t really force them. In the same way, Pastors can’t control what the strengths or weakness of a congregation will be, but rather has to guide the flock according to the gifts God has given them, all the while on the lookout for how they can grow, be stretched, and mature.
This helps to illustrate a common misconception from outsiders. Oftentimes the DM is seen as the center of the D&D game. In a way he is, but the heart of the action is in the other players; he’s just facilitating, or hosting, the gameplay. Pastors are exactly the same: they are often viewed as the heart of the Church’s activity and ministry, and they certainly are at the heart of it, but in the end they’re really just facilitating, or hosting, the spiritual life of the congregation.