I was speaking to my friend Duncan and he suggested a startling thought: we want our discipleship to be gamified.
On the face of it I could shrug it off, Duncan and I are millennials, gamification is a Gen Z problem. They’re the generation that sees progress in terms of levelling up. We’re the I’m amazing, I don’t have a problem generation.
By gamified we mean having clear achievements, progress meters and rewards for levelling up: life being like a video game, and one where I beat the game instead of the other players. When I last worked in the private sector I ran graduate programmes at Rolls-Royce, and it was touted as the next big thing to include in graduate programmes and development activities, there was a desire to gamify to ensure that young talent was kept motivated and engaged through their training. I would be surprised if they got that far, the engineering industry would itself be resistant, but it was thinking ahead of its time.
Then, in the early 2010s all of our graduates were Millennials, the ‘participation trophy’ generation. Now, all of their graduates would be Gen Z, the ‘level up’ generation.
I see this in my own life. I track what I read on a website called Goodreads. I found it helpful to keep a log of how much I read in a year, and to easily look back at what the books were. It both encouraged me that I read more than I think and gave me a tool to review a year’s reading to see if I want to make changes to what I read the following year.
I do wonder how much my reading output increased once I started logging it though. Things change when we observe them, that’s basic quantum physics, and basic human behaviour too. There’s something motivating about my annual target (I’ve pitched for a lower 52 books this year, but the homepage helpfully tells me that I’m ‘7 books ahead’). I stopped logging how far through a book I was because I wanted to mark down the next page number rather than read the book, I wonder if the reading challenge has a similar effect.
Have you ever found yourself wanting to finish a book to say you’ve finished it rather than to enjoy its pages? That’s gamification. When we remember that Goodreads is owned by Amazon, we might also see why they might desire me to finish more books.
Technology changes us in ways we might not expect. It’s difficult to throw useful tech away in monastic pique because it either is, or masquerades as being, useful. Telling the difference is harder than you might think, and your soul needs you to.
The dopamine dispensers we keep in our pockets change us, they alter our relationship to time, shape our expectations, and so neatly package the world into digestible chunks that we slowly forget how to chew. We don’t hurl them away because they’re useful, but we need to be so careful in how we allow them into our lives.
Even if you haven’t thought about it, if you’re roughly below 40 and so either a ‘Millennial’ or ‘Gen Z’ it’s likely that you want the world gamified and that there’s something deeply satisfying about things that behave in that way. For example, would you appreciate a progress meter to judge your private prayers and Bible reading? I reckon many of us would.
Duncan leads a church plant in Manchester that when we were talking about it had just had their venue cancel on them. He was sharing with how they felt God was calling the church to learn persistence in prayer but suggested how much easier it would be if we could just complete the targets and get the achievement. “Just pray for 20 hours collectively and unlock your new venue.”
If only discipleship was like that.
Except it would be awful.
Maybe you can’t see why it would be, but it sites discipleship in the wrong place, at the wrong speed and uses the wrong method.
Discipleship is not an individual pursuit. We do not follow the way of Jesus on our own, we are supposed to be a community of fellow-travellers helping each other find the way. Gamification is inherently individual. Your phone is making you into ever more of an individualist, which is ironic for a communication device. Fight back.
The primary place of discipleship is not your private nook for prayer and daily Bible reading. These are good things, but your primary place of discipleship is sitting with others to hear the read and preached word; singing with others in English and the Spirit; hearing one another’s contributions during worship; watching each other vow to follow the way and be born anew in baptism; and eating and drinking at God’s table. The secondary places of discipleship aren’t our private nooks either, but our tables and kitchens and living rooms as we rub up against each other in life.
If we think our discipleship is weak, it’s no wonder, we’ve sold our collective birthright for an individual mess of pottage. Why did you think Lockdown hurt so much?
Discipleship is slow. Gamification is all about quick wins and rewarding incremental progress. Discipleship, the lifelong obedience towards God that transforms us into the likeness of his son, is often incremental, but it’s never quick.
If anyone suggests a quick win for an issue of character or obedience, run away from them. When I suggest it, stop listening. To be like Jesus, to grow into the wisdom promised to Adam that he so quickly discarded, is a lifelong pursuit. It’s slow. It’s a journey to a destination beyond the veil of death. It will take all of your life, it is hard work, and you will reap the gains for effort now either in decades or in the age to come.
There are often spontaneous moments when the Spirit changes us dramatically, our life should have many of them, but they aren’t levelling up either: they aren’t earned. And the times in between are characterised by blisters, not achievement badges.
Discipleship is not like levelling up, it’s like farming. We prepare the soil, plant the seeds, water the ground, and we wait.
A gamified life breaks all of life down into simple actions. Read my Bible a chapter a day. Prayer for ten minutes. Confess my sin, hurriedly on the way out the door.
Discipleship is, Paul tells us in Romans 5, through trials. We are formed into disciples of Jesus by facing the test, like Adam did, like Jesus did, and by facing testing circumstances. We progress through suffering.
You cannot quantify the ache of my soul as I wrestle with human experience and the promises of God. You cannot quantify the ache of yours. Gag anyone who tries.
To follow Jesus is to walk his way. It’s in the company of brothers and sisters who don’t know what they’re doing much more than you do, but are guided by the munificent Spirit. It’s slow and steady, often falling and fumbling, but always arriving in time. It’s scarred, bandaged, learning lessons from the walking wounded. Discipleship isn’t clean or tidy, but it’s always good.