Why I Joined MDS (Bret's Story)

I’ve always been drawn to the seemingly magical opportunities afforded by technology. Some of my earliest and happiest memories were watching my dad play Space Invaders on an Atari console and being given time on the family’s first home computer to explore the capabilities of MS-DOS. I will forever remember the sound of the dial-up modem connecting us to the world. More than twenty years later I still exchange Christmas cards with the first friend I ever made online.

I’ve always been drawn to folks on the edges of things; I’ve known what it’s like to feel like an outsider. My parents were transplants to an insular Southern community and I never quite fit in. I was the scrawny suburban white kid playing pickup basketball in an urban, African American neighborhood every Friday afternoon. As an undergraduate student, fascination with stories of those different than me was at the heart of my InterVarsity experience; this was a normal and core part of following Jesus. Our chapter labored hard for racial and gender reconciliation both within our community and for the campus at large.

Almost immediately after I was hired as an InterVarsity campus staff over a decade ago, I went out and bought an Xbox and Halo 2. I proceeded to invite every student I met on campus to come over and play and talk. A few years later it was Halo 3 and I was playing regularly on Xbox Live. While playing online I got to know John (not his real name), a friend of a friend. I learned that John went to a nearby university, and he was in crisis because his roommates partied incessantly and there was not a single spiritual community on campus, let alone one that loved Jesus. John had grown up in church but was falling apart in his isolation. So I went to visit him, prayer-walked around campus with him, and a few weeks later found myself planting a new InterVarsity chapter on a few hours a week. All these years later, that chapter still has a dedicated staff worker and the students are thriving, all thanks to a relationship formed in a videogame.

In 2012 I enrolled in a fully online Master’s program, and my life was changed through my classmates and my professors. These were real relationships, real people who knew me and challenged me. While traveling to San Francisco a couple of years into the degree program, I had the chance to have lunch with one of my professors. This was the first and only time I’ve met offline with anyone from the program. When my professor walked into the restaurant, I just grinned. This wasn’t a stranger I was meeting for the first time; this was an old friend, a mentor, someone who had long inspired me and encouraged my work.

I’m pouring my energy into Ministry in Digital Spaces (MDS) because I’ve been living on the edge of this since I watched my dad unwrap that first AOL disc all those years ago. I have not been particularly skilled or even intentional for almost the entirety of this time, but the ministry possibilities have been there all along. In many ways I stumbled into this, unaware of the bigger design in play. Not just me, but many of our staff and students would say the same as they too have already been doing ministry in digital spaces: in videogames, hashtags, online courses, digital art, and so many more.

I keep finding myself returning to Jeremiah 29:4-14. There are interesting parallels to explore between Israel in exile and our society increasingly spending time in digital spaces rather than physical spaces. Regardless of how you feel about the exile (or the time in digital spaces), God’s command seems to be about investment, not condemnation: invest your life and future in these places of exile, for in the wholeness of that place you will find your own wholeness.

How will this play out as we invest in digital spaces? What will this mean as MDS is called to be a redeeming influence among the university’s people, ideas and structures? That’s the adventure we’re pursuing.