Thanks for tuning in to this week’s unSeminary podcast. We’re talking with Dr. Jonathan Armstrong today, an educator who has also helped run the virtual reality (VR) lab at Moody Bible Institute.
Our perspective on what technology is and how it’s affecting our world keeps changing. In fact as younger generations have grown up with certain technologies, they don’t realize how much these things influence the world we live in today. However, technology is incredibly important to people’s lives and that means that pastoral care has to embrace it and learn to respond to it. Listen in as Jonathan shares the possibilities and pitfalls of using virtual reality in our churches in the future.
- What is VR? // Virtual Reality at its core is a type of internet technology – a way of interacting with data streams online. VR products, such as headsets and motion tracking, allow you to manipulate, interact with and experience data in real space. In a broad sense a virtual church is any way you convene as a community using online technology, such as watching a livestream of church or meeting as a small group over Zoom. But more narrowly, a virtual church could be one that meets entirely on a virtual reality platform like AltspaceVR or Facebook Horizon.
- More virtual gatherings. // Very few churches exclusively use an online VR platform for their services, but many more churches have some sort of virtual meeting space where church online is streamed. In the future, Jonathan believes that significant numbers of people will use VR as a way to congregate. While Zoom was the medium of choice for meeting in 2020, the next two to five years will likely show a transition to more VR as goggles and other products becomes more affordable and accessible. However VR will open the door to not just a local gathering online, but rather a global one with people from many different countries. It will be a totally new kind of church experience.
- Think outside the box. // Whereas Zoom does boardroom table discussions well, VR is a much more abstract form of media. While you could do a boardroom discussion in VR, you would be massively underutilizing it’s creative potential. So when it comes to VR church, don’t simply think about replicating the inside of your building, with people virtually sitting in pews, staring at the front of the room. Rather, think of VR as something that can communicate Christian truth in any way you want. Facebook perceives that this is the most powerful communication medium that humankind has ever invented. This technology can change human history as much as the printing press did in our past.
- Pitfalls and possibilities. // In considering VR, the first mistake we should avoid is the assumption that it will be a tool to translate everything we currently do in a church service effectively into another format. While VR could replicate our current productions, it doesn’t play to the medium’s strengths. We need to be creative theologians in this matter and we can’t be afraid to fail as we innovate and try new things. Some possibilities could include immersing ourselves in stories from the Bible, or pastors putting themselves in a “Paul” avatar while preaching from the book of Ephesians. There could be a “community theater” approach to the Bible as well where participants show up in VR “dressed up” as different characters and enact as a community a story from scripture. And the possibilities for Christmas or Easter are endless.
- Communicating the truth visually. // 65% percent of people are visual learners and VR challenges us to think more visually as we communicate truth. We are now living in a post-literate society. That doesn’t mean that people can’t read, but rather they can and choose not to. Our current forms of church are built for the highly literate person of the 1700s who reads and studies scripture, but we need to carry traditions of focusing on the Word into a world that has been influenced by radio, TV, and the internet. Using VR to communicate truth visually can become part of that new form of church.
- Virtual Reality Church. // Along with Darrell Bock, Jonathan wrote a book, Virtual Reality Church: Pitfalls and Possibilities (Or How to Think Biblically about Church in Your Pajamas, VR Baptisms, Jesus Avatars, and Whatever Else is Coming Next) to help church leaders and educators get their minds around what VR can and can’t do. It could be a great book for a leadership circle to explore and process together as you think about the future.
You can learn more about Jonathan and his work at Aqueduct Project.
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