(RNS) — Last year, leaders at Tate Springs Baptist Church hid thousands of plastic Easter eggs on its back lawn in Arlington, Texas.
This year, they plan to do the same. Except the eggs won't be on the lawn.
Instead, they'll be in Minecraft.
Since it was announced in March, Tate Springs’ virtual Easter egg hunt, set for Sunday (April 12) afternoon, has grown into a national event, even catching the attention of the National Esports Association.
“It started out as a local event to reach our own people and also people in our community, and then people from all over the nation — churches and parents — just started jumping on, and then it just started going out from there,” said Jared Wellman, lead pastor at Tate Springs.
Hosting the Easter egg hunt on Minecraft — a popular video game that allows players to build and interact in blocky worlds populated with characters with names like “creepers” and “Steve” — was the brainchild of Curtis James, the family pastor at Tate Springs.
As stay-at-home orders took effect to slow the spread of the coronavirus, James said the church's family ministry team wanted to make sure young people at Tate Springs still had a place to connect.
That was easy for its teenagers, who already were connected via text messaging and social media.
The church was sharing resources with parents of younger children in a group chat online, he said, but that didn’t do much to allow the kids to interact with each other.
One place he realized many of those kids were interacting was in Minecraft, which is available on a number of different gaming systems. He had played the game with his own children and knew part of the appeal for players is showing friends the worlds they have built.
So James built a Tate Springs world on Minecraft — complete with a water park — and invited kids at the church to come to a Bible study in the game. He assured parents in a short video on the church website there was no “scary stuff,” just open, creative building.
The church was trying to think of a creative and socially distant way to keep kids engaged on Sunday mornings and to continue the church’s annual Easter egg hunt.
The Minecraft world “immediately played right into it,” James said.
Church leaders initially anticipated 60 to 80 kids joining the Easter egg hunt in the Tate Springs world in Minecraft, where they could hunt for boxy virtual eggs until they’d filled their inventory in the game, according to the family pastor.
But once the Baptist Press and the nearby Dallas Morning News ran articles about the virtual event, the church started getting interest from churches and families across the country wanting to participate.
In the last few days, lead pastor Wellman said, about 100 people have signed up each day.
At first, Tate Springs shared resources with churches so they could create their own virtual egg hunts. But, as Easter drew closer and staff recognized churches likely didn’t have time to start from scratch, it opened up its hunt as a national event.
That’s where the National Esports Association is helping the church.
NEA president Lori Bajorek heard about the event and reached out to the church, knowing the event would require a lot of server space and programming, she said.
The association also is hosting a similar Minecraft Eggstravaganza on Monday.
“It's a symbol of hope and it's also a symbol of how we're going to have to rebuild our world and we're going to have to look at what does it mean to be socially distanced but emotionally connected?” she said.
James said one of his goals for Tate Springs’ virtual Easter egg hunt was to give families an “encouraging, fun thing to do on Easter.”
And, since the event happens on the day when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, James said he also wanted to make sure participants heard that message.
But, he admitted, “In Minecraft, it's very difficult to share the gospel.”
The church plans to follow up with participating families afterward to help them connect with a church near them, according to the family pastor.
“There is a lot of bad news out there right now, and we have the good news," James said.
"That's what we want people to be able to see at Easter. No matter how bad things get, the good news is still great news, and we want people to see that nothing can change the good news that Jesus brings us.”