Interview with Innroads Ministries’ Mike Perna

For those new to Innroads Ministries what is it? What do you do?

The short version of InnRoads is that we work with church and neighborhood leaders to help create events, provide materials, and train leaders to help them use tabletop games to help build powerful, meaningful relationships that share the love of God in their communities. We basically help folks be intentional about play so they can see how it benefits all involved.

Who or What is the Game Store Prophets?

We’ve been doing the podcast for just short of six years now. It started out with myself and Luke Navarro talking about geeky stuff – mostly games, but it broke out to all manner of nerdy things back then. Over time Luke stepped down and we picked up new hosts. The podcast is now hosted by myself, Jeff Romo, and Daniel Fisher. It’s an hour long podcast that is half discussion of gaming news and what we’ve been playing, and half discussion about life, faith, and ministry based on some of the larger truths that come out of our experiences at the table.

I have really enjoyed watching your ministry grow throughout the years, Could you tell us how Innroads and GSP got it’s start, especially where the name ‘Innroads’ came from?

Game Store Prophets got started because I was a guest host on another podcast that Luke was hosting at the time. Afterwards, Luke asked if I’d be interested in combining our nerd power into a podcast about faith and geekery – a concept that the podcast world was only starting to scratch the surface of. At first I wanted nothing to do with it, because I was already very busy and couldn’t add another outlet to my life. But shortly after that recording I went to a local steampunk convention. A woman who knew that I was a youth pastor came up to me crying. She said that she felt like she was in two worlds, yet not able to fully exist in either. When surrounded by steampunk and cosplay – there were times when she felt like everyone was against her for her faith. Likewise, when she went to church, she would dye her hair – let alone bust out her steampunk gear – and she would get side glances and have people talk about her like she was anathema. She was home in both of those worlds, yet she was still the “other” when traveling in them. She felt completely alone. I knew that feeling, as I’d felt it myself. That night I emailed Luke and said we needed to make the podcast happen – because folks needed to know that they weren’t alone in the overlap. As we continued to do the podcast, receiving emails from all over the world – Luke and I both felt that God wanted to do something bigger with this than just getting on the mics every other week.

What kind of an impact can board games have when it comes to ministry? What makes them a good tool for evangelism?

A phrase that we use all the time is that tabletop games create a place of common history. I’ve always been one of those guys that can make friends instantly in any crowd you put me in, but not everybody is like that. I’m fairly certain we’re the minority. Tabletop games cut through the awkward small talk stage of things, the part where everyone stands on opposite sides of the room like they’re at a junior high dance. They don’t have to find a connection point, because the game provides one. It’s not about introducing yourself to a stranger, as much as it’s enjoying the fun moments that happen in the game. Cooperative games are especially useful for this, because no individual at the table has to worry about being good at the game. Whether they find success or failure, they are doing so together. As these shared moments pile up, you form a foundation on which other discussions can happen. You learn more about each other and draw closer together.

As far as the value of games in an evangelistic context – we have a number of people who come to our events that would otherwise never set foot in a church. Some of these folks not only don’t have church as a part of their daily life, but they come from places of profound hurt done to them by people who have claimed Christ. Those wounds are hard to heal, and coming down on a 3 point gospel presentation will do nothing but fester that pain. We don’t do evangelism in the common understanding of the word. We actually have a standing policy that folks will never hear a gospel presentation or Bible lesson at our events unless we clearly advertise it ahead of time. Instead, we just enter into the stuff that they love with them without agenda – because we love it too. We offer a place where people can begin to heal those old wounds. We don’t hide the fact that we’re a ministry. All our documentation says that we are about sharing the love of God at the table. But we also know that we don’t have to force God into that place. He’s there. If He’s really transformed our lives, He’ll show up in our interactions and mannerisms. We want people to think of our events as places where they can find people who care about them and will graciously answer any questions they have.

Is there a story that you can tell us about Innroads and its impact?

I’m glad Andy gave me permission to tell this story, because I can’t seem to shut up about it. Andy is a great guy out of Germany. He’s a game designer with a game under his belt that is considered one of the best two-player games out there, but that’s not how I got to know him. The first email I got from Andy said that he was one of those who felt like he couldn’t be a gamer and be in church. He felt like he didn’t have a home there, so he had pretty much left and not looked back. After hearing us talk about the overlap, and how God was working in the lives of gamers, he realized he could find a place in church. After a while of being there, he told me the story of how his brother’s friend started coming to game days at Andy’s house. After months of coming out, the guy told him “Your brother has been trying to get me to go to church since the day I met him, but I never even considered it. Every time I come here you ask me how I’m doing, how my family is doing, and how you can pray for me and help me. If you asked me to go to church with you, I’d go tomorrow.” We have a lot of cool stories of how folks have been affected by attending game days or running their own, but Andy’s ist still my favorite story to tell.

How can churches use board games as a ministry?

We get asked all the time to define what we do. I’ve sat down at my computer to write down a definitive “how to” on multiple occasions. While that will eventually happen, it’s hard to put it down in print, because it’s actually a really simple, people driven model that will look different based on who the church is trying to reach. However, there are some things that are consistent regardless of location, demographics, or intent of the gaming.

Like any other group, there needs to be consistency. Folks need to know that you’ll be there. They need to know that they can count on your game nights being a part of their experience. Consistent scheduling is helpful, but can’t always happen. So it’s important that you are communicating regularly.

There are a number of helpful things that a game-centered ministry can use. People who are comfortable teaching games, a decently sized and varied game library, and a nice location that is accessible to the needs of big table games. However, the biggest thing is that you need people who are passionate about the people who come to game. As this sort of ministry is often one of connection – you don’t even need to know how to play games to do this. In fact, being excited about learning another person’s favorite game will only provide more paths of connectivity. The only thing you need is to build a culture with your team that realizes the games are the springboard, not the actual ministry. They are the medium through which the relationship is forged. The real stuff happens long after the games are back on the shelf.

Are there resources available for those that want to start a gaming ministry?

We are constantly updating our site (innroadsministries.com) with information that we have gleaned from doing this ministry over the years. Every game night is going to look different, so our advice is broad spectrum and philosophical as much as it is “here are five steps to do this thing.” But we’re adding more of that as time goes on.

What are your goals for the future of Innroads ministries?

The short term goals involve just doing more of what we’re doing. We want to be able to get more consistent with our content, whether it be podcasts, blog posts, youtube videos, etc. Naturally we hope to get more churches involved – creating more gaming experiences and leader training opportunities locally. We also have some big ticket sort of goals that will only happen if God splits the heavens and makes them happen. Stuff like making this my full time ministry, having a central location where church leaders and groups can come to us instead of having us come out to them, and creating a multi-day gaming convention that will be cheap or even free to those who want to attend. But we are very far away from any of that happening.

How can people get involved with and support Innroads Ministries?

If you are ever in the area of one of our team members (I’ve got North Jersey, Shawn in South Jersey, and Daniel in East Tennessee), then you can join our meetup.com group and come out to our events (meetup.com/innroads-ministries). But as folks reading this are probably farther up North – I would definitely point people to our facebook group we call The Tavern (facebook.com/groups/gamestoreprophets). We have people from all corners of the world and all over the faith spectrum talking about games, getting online games started, seeking prayer, and generally being there for each other. Obviously we need prayer, as we are a unique sort of ministry, so starting the conversation with churches is always an interesting experience. If God isn’t with us, then this’ll never work. And if folks are willing and are able to support us with donations, we are a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization, and you can find out how to donate online or via mail on our site.

What’s next? Do you have anything in the works?

Right now I’m focused on getting this year’s fundraising event together. Tavern Con is a ten hour game day filled with open gaming, large group games, prizes, food, and guests. This will be the third year we’ve put this event on, and I’m hoping to make it the best one yet.

Let’s talk games for a bit now.

“Christian Games” aren’t typically that great. What are a few that readers should check into and play if they have a chance?

We actually have a list on our site of games that have been given the InnRoads Approved seal of excellence in biblical gaming. Our criteria basically being that a game needs to be both thematically appealing to the biblical narrative or the Christian experience, as well as fun whether the player brings any personal faith or biblical knowledge to the table. A lot of times Christian games fail because they are more worried about pushing message than enjoying the gaming experience, and these do it well. Without hesitation I will recommend Funhill Games’ Kings of Israel – a pandemic-like game where the players are prophets trying to share the messages of God to a people who constantly turn from Him. Commissioned from the folks at Chara Games is a great strategy game where players take on the roles of the disciples trying to spread the early church amidst persecution and trial. The third is our most controversial pick, due to the subject matter and language on some of the cards, but I will defend its right to be on the list. A Game For Good Christians is similar to the experience you’ll see in the ever-popular Cards Against Humanity, but with an important twist. The intention of CAH is to make the players be and feel terrible. That’s not even me putting that on the game. It’s their tag line. GFGC’s intention is to make people deal with verses and themes in Scripture that we otherwise don’t want to address. Each card has the Bible reference on it, and each card is taken from an intense study of the text in its original language (even if they take some license for the sake of humor). This one isn’t for everybody, and certainly not for young kids. But I’ve heard people say things like “I’ve opened up my Bible more in the last hour than I have in the last month” numerous times after a session.

If I am organizing a game night at my church in which there will be many people new to the hobby are there a couple games in particular I should have?

Different people will suggests different “gateway” games. Games that are a level of complexity and strategy that get people excited about games without being so intense to scare off new people. The most common games that appear on most lists include Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Sushi Go, and Forbidden Island. They are simple, yet still a ton of fun. They also provide the groundwork for a lot of other gaming – like area control, card drafting, tile laying, etc.

What are your current favourites right now?

My response to this will change depending on if you’re asking me personally or for the ministry. Personally, My top three are Blood Rage – a light/medium weight strategy game where players take control of viking clans looking for glorious death in Ragnarok, City of Remnants – where players try to build up their gang of refugees in a struggle to survive in a harsh environment in an unfamiliar world, and Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, a card and dice game where you play as one of the Phoenixborn in a Highlander-esque “there can be only one” battle to obtain more of the power of the fallen phoenix.

When it comes to my ministry favorites – I’m more interested in games that can get a bunch of people to the table while being easily accessible to everybody. I’d probably say my favorites at the moment are Codenames – a family style word game where players give one word clues to their team trying to get them to select the appropriate words on a grid, Dead Last – a game where you are trying to secretly convince the other players to eliminate the same person you are in a stand-off for loot, and Dragon and Flagon – a game where you are playing as fantasy heroes hanging out between adventures and trying to prove they are the best adventurer by moving 3D tables, chairs, mugs, etc on the board.

Lastly, how can people find you?

Obviously InnRoadsMinistries.com – where you can find links to all our stuff, as well as stuff for our friends at Saving the Game, another great gaming podcast. I’m all over social media – I’m @innroads on Twitter and Instagram. You can find our youtube channel if you search for InnRoads Ministries. You can find us on Facebook. If you want to reach me directly, you can email me at Mike@innroadsministries.com

Thank you so much for taking some time to answer some questions. I love what Innroads and Game Store Prophets have been doing. I pray that God continues to build your ministry and use it in awesome ways. On your podcast you guys end in a specific way, could you give us the send off to finish us off today?

Thanks for having me. We’ve been saying this every episode for almost six years. Always remember – God is the game master. No matter how the dice fall, the game plays on.

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