It’s not the response I’d expect from a streamer or a Fortnite player, but this wasn’t exactly a regular stream. GodSquad is an online church, and the custom server was their version of a real-life church’s spaghetti dinner. GodSquad’s congregation plays games together a lot, but they also hang out on Discord or chat with each other during Souza’s near-daily personal stream. On weekends they have services, which take place on Twitch.

Over Discord voice call, Souza tells me, “I asked myself, if I’m a gamer, which I am, and I hardly ever leave my house, which I don’t, how am I gonna get the story of Jesus to people who don’t leave their house? And that’s when I found Twitch.”

Souza, 29, is the founder and lead pastor of GodSquad Church, which calls itself “the world’s first church for gamers.” The church’s values statementacknowledges issues that gamers tend to face, such as trolling and toxicity, as well as the mental health struggles or social isolation that can come from or drive people to game excessively. In my time observing the church, congregants seem to talk to each other as much about gaming as they do about religion. GodSquad has a Discord of about 2860 members, and while Souza and his wife Amanda Lee, the church’s executive and music director, are based in Virginia, the church’s other staff and congregants are scattered across the world. “The Discord is the church,” Souza says, since it’s the place “where people are doing life together,” but they also have services, streams, and occasional in-person meetups.

The Discord server is separated into different rooms where people coordinate playing video games together, discuss movies and books, and share memes, as well as make prayer requests or meet in private rooms or video chat for one-on-one prayer or pastoral counseling. I’ve spent a month observing the Discord on weeknights and after GodSquad’s services. It’s a lot more lively than your average physical church, with at least a handful of people around all the time. The server gets especially active after a service, when Souza or another worship leader invites regular viewers and newcomers to join them to chat or play games.

Services happen every Saturday evening on GodSquad’s Twitch channel, with a second service having just been added on Saturday afternoons. Besides the fact that no one’s in the same room, it’s a lot like any other church service. Amanda performs modern praise music with the lyrics shown on-screen. Prayer requests are offered up in chat or via the Discord. While it can be funny to hear people referred to by their Twitch handle, the prayers sound familiar to anyone who’s been to physical worship: jobs, relationships, health. Financial offerings are requested through Streamlabs, text, or via GodSquad’s website. The most incongruous parts of the GodSquad services I’ve attended involve giveaways, where staff members raffle off gaming swag and console shop gift cards via “Penguin points,” a personalized Twitch currency that subscribers accrue from watching Souza’s streams. There’s also a reel of top five gaming clips that the community can vote on, which is a way for congregants to share the best of their gaming moments with each other.

Music at a recent GodSquad service
Screenshot: Twitch

The sermons are usually rooted in gaming or other geeky metaphors. They’re delivered by Souza from his home office, with nerdy toys and art in the background, or from the home of one of the church’s other staff members. Sermons I’ve watched include using the idea of video game delays as a lesson in spiritual patience, completionism as a metaphor for the story of Easter, or how God’s promises relate to Avengers Endgame, complete with an assurance that there won’t be any spoilers. A recent series of talks uses the console wars as a jumping off point for discussing diversity. Souza skirted theological specifics but said “Jesus is calling you and I to deal with diversity, whether it’s racial, whether it’s political, whether it’s preferential, whether it’s philosophical, whether it’s simply Xbox versus PS4.” The sermon came down firmly on the side of diversity being a good thing, while drawing a distinction between “sin and holiness,” between ideological differences and what Souza believes God thinks is right, leaving the latter vague. I haven’t heard specific hot-button issues like homosexuality or abortion in GodSquad sermons, though a recent video stood in favor of women preaching, a progressive stance in some denominations. GodSquad seems more focused on the issues viewers face in their lives and how they relate to one’s personal relationship with God than ecclesiastical tensions that might arise in physical churches or those more firmly rooted in a specific denomination.

Sermons shift in topic between gaming and religion, surprisingly, without tipping over into cool youth pastor parody. Gaming is acknowledged as what brought people to GodSquad, but it’s never made overly important or more serious than other aspects of congregants’ lives. While the sound effects and graphics could feel a little hokey to me at times, in sermons gaming largely serves as a rhetorical anchor or a model of a bigger theological concept. Souza in particular shifts between gaming and God well, and he’s especially compelling as a preacher. He’s conversational and intellectually approachable, quick to laugh and to implicate himself in the struggles and spiritual pitfalls he explores. He comes across as warm and passionate about both the message and the people hearing it; even when I’ve been dubious about a certain message or suspicious of a turn of phrase, it’s hard not to hear him out.

Souza gets a lot of public speaking practice since he streams seven hours a day most weekdays on his personal channel. He plays Fortnite and a lot of Old School Runescape. Sometimes the community raids other channels, often other Runescape streamers, filling their chat with messages of love and support. On Fridays, he hosts a segment called Real Talk where he invites viewers to ask him anything, whether that’s deep theological questions or advice about streaming. Christianity occasionally comes up in the chat, the day often begins with a prayer, and Souza falls naturally into talk of faith or Jesus from time to time. But other than that, Souza’s personal channel is a lot like any other streamer’s.

Souza has been streaming video games since 2014, but it wasn’t always as part of GodSquad. He and Amanda met while studying theology at a Pentecostal school in Massachusetts. Later, Souza worked in a brick-and-mortar Assemblies of God church in Oxford, Connecticut while gaming on the side.

At that time, Souza wasn’t public about his love of gaming, seeing it instead as an “almost secret lifestyle.” He’d played games since he was young, but as an adult, he felt it would be considered a shameful pastime, especially in contrast to his public role as a mature pastor. “I worked at a local church, suit and tie on Sunday mornings, I was Pastor Matt,” he explains. “It might sound silly, but it was almost a fear I had, if people found out I played video games… Are people going to think I’m going to be 35 and live in my mama’s basement without a job?”

In the summer of 2014, something happened that changed Souza’s mind. He was watching Twitch streamer Summit1g, not realizing at first what Twitch was, seeing it as “like a website where everyone can get together and, like, watch a YouTube video.” But then, he says, someone in chat asked a question, and Summit answered. “My mind was blown,” says Souza. “I was like, ‘He’s live, this is happening now?’” Summit’s stream in that moment had 25,000 people in it, and Souza couldn’t help but notice: “That is bigger than 99% of the churches in the world. I was like, it’s Tuesday morning!”

Souza was inspired. “I just had the thought: What if we were able to use this to influence people in a positive way, to teach them good principles about how video games and responsibilities do not need to be enemies, and also sharing with them what we have found to be life-changing, which is the power of Jesus, with other people who wanted to hear it?”

In the early days, Souza was more or less like any other new streamer. He got an Xbox, a “crappy” camera, and a “headset mic that was awful.” He made his Twitch title “A Pastor Playing Halo” and started streaming. He describes it as “literally while I’m shooting people in the face I’m telling them, ‘Hey man, God loves you.’” His early clips are incongruous—switching between talking about God’s love to cheering over a particularly good kill—but the casual chatter feels familiar, even if the subject matter might be unusual for Twitch. The channel started with three viewers, but more people started tuning in over the next year, with many of them accepting Jesus into their lives over stream.

A clip from an early stream

After over a year of streaming and gathering more viewers, Souza launched a GoFundMe to start turning GodSquad from a personal project into an actual organization. Due to various difficulties around becoming an officially-recognized church that didn’t have a physical location, GodSquad eventually came to operate under the umbrella of the church Souza had worked for in Connecticut. Souza’s home church was excited about the project—Souza tells me the response to GodSquad from the church world is “either one or the other extreme” between enthusiasm for their methods or disdain for “encouraging even more teenagers to waste their lives.” Luckily, his home church fell in the former camp rather than the latter. In March of 2016, GodSquad became a non-profit, “as real a church as any church you’ve ever walked into,” motivated by “the desire to reach people no one else was reaching, connecting with people no one else was connecting with:” gamers.

These days, when I watch, Souza’s personal streams have averaged between 70 and 100 viewers, with over 100 tuning in for GodSquad services. Souza tells me that his streams average about 7000 people every week, with about three-fourths of them being return viewers. The church has five core staff members: Souza; Amanda, who, in addition to music, manages the ins and outs of the church’s volunteers; media director Dylan “UnworthySeraph” Hoelz, who makes graphics and runs GodSquad’s website and social media; Community Care Pastor Raymond “Pastor Bos” Bosworth; and Joey “Pastor Joey” Simon, who leads the church’s small group studies under the title Level Up Pastor. Many of them stream from their own personal Twitch channels as well. Hoelz is a full-time paid staff member of the church, and Bosworth and Simon receive stipends. Souza and Amanda make money via Souza’s personal stream: “Technically my broadcast is how my wife and I make a living, and both of us just volunteer our time at the church,” Souza says. “Especially with the negative stigma of pastors and money and everything, we want to be above reproach in that area.”

There are also about 75 volunteers. Some moderate the Discord and Twitch chat. Others lead “ministry” guilds in games like World of Warcraft, where they attract other players through their behavior and high level of play and then introduce faith. If these players aren’t interested in learning more, Souza explains, they can just keep playing with the church’s guild. Volunteers must be members of the church for at least three months, and they’re interviewed over video before being accepted.

One volunteer moderator, Chris, tells me over Discord message, “I help cultivate a family friendly atmosphere for the server and Twitch chat and help resolve any conflict that might emerge within members of our server and Twitch chat. As a moderator I am expected to be available at certain times throughout the week, but there are many times where I help out even when I am not expected to, to make sure the community is being looked after.”

Chris came to GodSquad via Souza’s channel. He tells me he grew up Southern Baptist but felt alienated from the church and from God. “I hated churches, because when I showed up to church in ripped jeans and a T-shirt with a heavy metal band on it, I never felt welcomed. A pastor at one church told me to call him if I ever needed anything but wouldn’t answer the phone if I called. I felt like everyone thought that they were better than myself because they went to church every Sunday. It felt like I was surrounded by hypocrites.”

After turning away from religion, Chris says he struggled with depression, turning to “nicotine, alcohol, and women.” In September of 2017, he came across Souza’s channel while on lunch break at work. Souza was streaming a newly-launched game, and Chris stuck around. “To be honest, I thought the guy was a fake pastor that was just using a clever name to get viewers on Twitch,” Chris says. “God knew what He was doing that day. He knew how bad I needed a positive influence in my life. I became a member of GodSquad Church that day, and looking back, I’m so glad that I didn’t leave that stream and that I decided to stay.” After a year of membership, he became a volunteer because he “wanted to help people the way this community helped me.”

People don’t always have the same positive reaction to GodSquad as Chris. Some viewers just leave once they realize the stream can be religious; I’ve seen people enter chat, say, “Oh this is about God, bye” and exit. Others stick around to troll. In a service in February, Souza acknowledged the challenge of trolls coming into the community, saying, “People can come in at any time from anywhere in the world and say anything they want, literally 24/7.” The most aggressive trolling I’ve seen was a viewer dramatically overreacting to the telling of the Easter story, but I’d certainly believe there’s worse.

Unlike other Twitch channels or Discord communities, GodSquad is hesitant to ban people. Souza tells me that on Twitch they’ll often issue people 10-minute timeouts, after which many trolls will just leave. Those who get repeated timeouts, he says, will sometimes get curious and stick around or, he claimed in February, even join the church. Dealing with trolls can be trickier on Discord, where the challenges of time zones can mean that when trolling or hateful messages are left “at 4:30 in the morning, those messages stay there until someone wakes up.”

In our conversation, Souza shares a sentiment common in some denominations that people today are hostile to Christians. He chalks this up in part to what he sees as judgmental Christians misrepresenting the faith. In a recent video, he said, “Twitch is not a God-loving website, it’s a website where people are far from God… It breaks my heart to think that people hate God, but I’d be a fool not to acknowledge that truth.” Whether the people trolling are doing so out of a distaste for religion specifically or just trolling for the sake of trolling, GodSquad faces a conflict of wanting to invite everyone in and then dealing with the consequences of that openness. The ease with which people can enter the church from their own homes means it’s easy for anyone to give church a shot, a strength GodSquad capitalizes on in its messaging. But it also means it’s easy for trolls to cause trouble, a situation most physical churches rarely face.

Recently, Souza has come to suspect the outward trappings of religiosity, especially on his personal channel, might hurt more than they help. He wants to reach people who aren’t Christians—one of GodSquad’s most prominent slogans is “You don’t need to believe to belong”—but most non-trolls willing to enter or stick around a stream titled “Pastor” are likely to be Christian already, or at least curious about religion. In our conversation, he makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be seen as a Christian streamer just looking for other Christians to hang out with. To further clarify this image, recently he changed the name of his Twitch channel and other social media and gaming handles from PastorSouzy to SouzyLive.

“I can’t share God’s love with people who refuse to enter my stream,” he said in a video describing the reasons behind the name changes. He compared his old Twitch name to starting a conversation with a friend by bringing up something they hate: “If I want to build common ground with people, it’s unwise for me to say, ‘Hey my name is Pastor Souzy and I love the thing you hate, let’s be friends.’” Whether people who pop into his streams unawares will be more likely to stick around, or whether the change will inadvertently invite more trolls, remains to be seen.

GodSquad faces other challenges unique to being an online-only church. During Saturday services I’ve watched, moderators have had to turn the chat away from games and back to the sermon more than once, like a digital version of hushing the kids in the back pews. During Runescape and Fortnitestreams on Souza’s personal channel, viewers will hit him with complicated theological questions or personal issues when he’s trying to focus on gaming. Sometimes he’ll ask them to come back for Real Talk or head to the Discord. Other times, I’ve seen someone fill the chat with the story of an intense personal struggle—a heart attack, a miscarriage—and look for pastoral care a gaming-focused stream can’t necessarily provide. I’ve watched the chat fumble to respond to a person’s repeated requests for help while moderators direct them to one-on-one conversations or the Discord.

The church, in one form or another, is available to everyone all the time, which means people expect Souza to be available, too. Many streamers try to keep their viewers away from their personal lives, but Souza, by virtue of his job and unique community, has to invite it all in. Most streamers don’t go from entertaining viewers with a Fortnite stream to counseling people through their marriage or rallying the community to record a video for a congregant who’s just woken up from surgery.

Souza says, “Our church offers something that I don’t think I can say any other church on the entire planet does, which is that if you want, you can spend all day, every day, with your pastor.” The result sometimes looks to me like the internet version of The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders calling Reverend Lovejoy too often. Souza says, “No one’s going to knock on their pastor’s door at three o’clock in the morning, but people will definitely send us a Discord message at three o’clock in the morning and expect us to answer.”

The work can be “difficult and exhausting,” says Souza. “I’m definitely a small streamer, but I think I carry a weight that most streamers don’t carry.” When GodSquad was first taking off, he tried to respond to all his messages himself, but that quickly got out of hand, with people waiting too long for a response. “They’re reaching out, looking for help, and two months later their problem is over,” he laughs. “They’re no longer in need of care. I’ve made all these promises—we want to be there for you, we love you—but then they’ve waited over two months for a response.”

It’s a struggle too, Souza says, because he wants to keep his personal Twitch channel and the church separate. “To me, when you’re watching my stream, you’re hanging out with Matt. I’m not preaching a sermon, you’re just hanging out with me and who I am. In those moments when I’m talking about faith or praying for people, I’m not doing those because I’m a pastor, I’m doing those because that’s who I am.”

Souza streaming Fortnite
Screenshot: Twitch

But even making that separation clear, by trying to keep his personal streams focused on gaming or changing his name on Twitch, can’t undo the fact that people are still hanging out with their pastor. They want his attention, like any fan might, but they bring their personal and faith issues with them. Souza plays a greater role in their lives than just an entertainer, regardless of the focus of a day’s stream. “It can be difficult at times to try to live up to the expectations that everyone has,” he says. “I think people can put pastors on a pedestal and think that we are perfect and all-knowing and all-mighty, and the reality is that I’m not… Everyone has bad days, streamers have bad days. On the days you feel like you need encouragement, you’re still the one responsible to be giving out encouragement.”

Souza has methods for balancing life with streaming and with the business side of GodSquad, much of which has to be conducted in the evenings after he streams. He and Amanda have a date night on Wednesdays, and they don’t work on Sundays. “It doesn’t mean there’s not work to be done, we just don’t do it.” He hangs out with friends. He makes sure to pray, read the Bible, and keep his own faith life strong—“If I don’t truly love God it’s not going to be coming out of a place of passion, it’s going to be coming out of a place of obligation.” It’s the usual streamer stuff, as well as the usual ministry stuff, rolled into one. “That’s just leadership,” Souza says, “learning to deal with the pressures and unrealistic expectations. It’s never going to change. It’s not going to get better, it’s only going to get worse… The reality is that this is what I’ve signed up for and this is what I believe that God has called me to do.”

The pressures, as well as the opportunities, are made possible by the unique nature of Twitch. Even so, GodSquad is looking to move beyond the internet and into the physical world. This summer, they’ll have their second SquadCon, an in-person gathering at a church in Richmond, Virginia. They’ve also recently moved forward on a dream Souza has had since before they even started GodSquad: to build a LAN center. It won’t be an explicitly Christian LAN center, but it will nonetheless be a place to establish outreach for people who aren’t in the church and a place for members of the church to gather.

Through fundraising, GodSquad has raised $26,000 for the LAN center—specifically, that money is to put a down payment on some land and clear the trees off it, though they’re still closing on the property itself. The process has been difficult, with GodSquad’s current lack of a physical meeting place making it hard to secure loans as a church. In a sermon about the LAN center in April, Souza spun these challenges into a lesson in patience he could share with congregants. He has dreams of having these LAN centers around the country, “a vision and a plan I hope will outlive me,” but that dream is a long way off.