Another massively popular Halo video game is out, which means another controversial opportunity for churches to outreach to youth.
Already passed $300 million in sales, Halo 3 is being picked up by some churches to draw youth, causing some Christians to shake their heads.
"If you want to connect with young teenage boys and drag them into church, free alcohol and pornographic movies would do it," said James Tonkowich, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a nonprofit group that assesses denominational policies, according to The New York Times. "My own take is you can do better than that."
In the final installment of the Halo trilogy, superhero Master Chief is back on 26th Century Earth to save the galaxy from the religious alien forces of the Covenant. The Covenant believes the key to activating a network of "halos" – massive ring worlds floating in space – is in Northern Africa somewhere. And these halos are seen as a path to their ascension and salvation. But turning them on would destroy all life in the galaxy.
Five years after Halo 2 was released, Halo 3 gives loyal gamers answers to what happens in the end with all those angry aliens and to the game's mysterious, armor-clad protagonist.
Microsoft Corp. announced last week that Halo 3 has become a global phenomenon and the game is one of the most successful entertainment properties in history.
Given that, hundreds churches are utilizing Halo as an effective tool for outreach.
"We play Halo, take a break and have something to eat, and have a lesson," said Austin Brown, 16, of Sweetwater Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., explaining that the pastor tried to draw parallels "between God and the devil."
Youth ministries specialist Lane Palmer of the ministry Dare 2 Share says the game speaks to the very real spiritual war going on today.
"According to the Bible, after Satan was dishonorably discharged from his duties in heaven, he took a mighty army of fallen angels with him and declared war on the objects of God's grace and love: human beings – and especially those who are in the Lord's army as Christians," wrote Palmer in column.
"Make no mistake, the dark forces of the spiritual world have marked you for destruction, and no amount of quick moves, strategy, or teamwork will win this fight," he added.
Dare 2 Share encourages youth to use Halo 3 as conversation starters to witness to their friends.
"What role are you being called to play in the battle for your friends' souls?" asks an e-mail the organization sent to 50,000 young people about how to share their faith using Halo 3.
Studies have shown the negative influence of media, including video games, on young people. A recent Barna Group poll revealed that American children will have seen countless murders among the more than 30,000 acts of violence that they are exposed to through television, movies and video games.
But youth workers say churches need to be up-to-date on the latest cultural trends especially something that young people are inevitably going to participate in.
"Video games are a living and breathing part of our culture and will only continue to grow," said Tim Schmoyer, pastor of student ministries at Evangelical Covenant Church of Alexandria, Minn. "We need to be aware of the messages and values kids are unconsciously swallowing and teach them to consciously filter it all through Scripture."
An Ellison Research study found that churchgoers and pastors are not very familiar with video and computer games. Half of lay people are not informed and more than 70 percent of clergy are disengaged from that area of culture.
"Pastors need to be informed about what's out there in order to understand how the culture is influencing the people they are trying to reach," said Ellison Research President Ron Sellers.
But how relevant is too relevant especially when it involves killing?
Halo 3, for example, is rated "M" for mature audiences.
"To justify whatever killing is involved by saying that it's just pixels involved is an illusion," said Daniel R. Heimbach, a professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, according to The New York Times.
Still, Christian gamers online say "it's a way to fellowship."
And others call it a fishing hook.
"Teens are our fish," Gregg Barbour, youth minister of Colorado Community Church in the Englewood area of Denver, told the Times. "So we've become creative in baiting our hooks."
Since the Sept. 25 launch of Halo 3, more than 2.7 million people have logged on to Microsoft's online service, Xbox Live, to collectively play 40 million hours of "Halo 3" with other gamers, Microsoft reported.
In the game's first 24 hours on sale in the United States, sales hit $170 million, the company added.