Virtual Reality, A.I and the Church

Virtual Reality, A.I and the Church

Virtual Reality has seen people immersing their whole lives on online platforms. Even church. That’s right, ever wondered about church planting in virtual world?

Well the CEO of the Bible Society of New Zealand, Mark Brown did just that in the virtual reality software Second Life in 2007.

In Second Life’s Epiphany Island the first Anglican Cathedral was built. This medieval designed Cathedral, plays host to people from around the world logged in from the comfort of their homes, or anyway they are able to get internet access. The platform allows users avatars (customised user image) to attend church services and bible studies in the virtual world.

Doing church in VR was an exciting and new concept, in Second Life more spiritual communities were being digitally built (including Buddhist temples and Synagogues).  But as VR technology continues to advance, the intrigue of this program seemed to lag. Second Life users have declined in recent years and there is even reports of other churches closing down on the platform, mirroring the decline of church attendance in the real world. While the Cathedral is still running—founder Brown retired from the program in 2009—it begged the question, is this really the way forward?

Second Life is just one platform and as we look to the capabilities of artificial intelligence, augmented reality and VR, there are more ways to connect and share our faith beyond our physical location.

With VR, you could be sitting in the pews of a church thousands miles away or maybe the next continent over connecting beyond just rural or urban faith communities. Or imagine a preacher hologram giving a sermon at the next church service.

Faith formation at home has also evolved thanks to technology such as artificial intelligence. With the introduction of voice activated technology like Amazon’s Alexa, Siri and Google Home, we can access information with ease. It didn’t take long before people began asking these voice assist devices spiritual questions like, “Alexa, who is Jesus” “Siri, can you explain God” “Hey Google, should I become a Christian?”

The A.I responses caught the attention of social media and media outlets.

While Alexa and Siri had ‘trusty’ Wikipedia to draw from, Google Home was left stumped responding with, “Religion can be complicated, and I am still learning.” Yet Google Home was able to answer questions about the Buddha and Mohammad. The backlash meant Google Home disabled responses to questions about all religious figures.

The whole debacle further showed the disconnect between technology and religion, in the sense that people are searching digital spaces to explore, learn and deepen their spiritual understanding, and whether churches are willing to share the Good News in these digital spaces.

The second rise of the VR Church

If Second Life’s Anglican Cathedral paved the way, then Pastor D.J. Soto’s VR Church is the second wave.

Pastor D.J. Soto founded his VR Church in 2016 and is hosted on the AltSpaceVR virtual reality social platform.  The church’s mission is to “explore and communicate God through virtual reality, augmented reality and next generation technologies.”

Using VR headsets including the Oculus Rift, users are immersed into this platform where people around the globe are able to connect by playing interactive games and attending live events.

Pastor Soto was trained in the Baptist Pensacola Christian College but branched out on his own as he told Wired in search of a “radically inclusive church” which slowly morphed into the VR Church.

His sermons and services attract believers but also atheists. With the online platform, the VR Church becomes a space that people can enter from their own homes without the judgement they may perceive from walking into a church building on Sunday.

More VR companies are tapping into this spiritual side. The Oculus Go VR Headset, provides an app called the VR Church Bible. The app offers its users to “experience the bible in virtual reality” and provides devotionals explored through natural environments including the gardens of Esperanza.

Then there is the question of sacraments. In 2016 the Church of Scotland floated the idea of online baptisms however following the backlash from their faith community they abruptly binned the idea. As for the Catholic Church, they stated in 2002 that there would officially be no online or virtual sacraments.

A recurring critique of these tech advancements is remembering the importance of IRL (In real life) interactions. Where the ease to connect, call, send message, scroll endlessly through feeds can also be a mode of escapism that could have more adverse effects on not only our mental health but our spiritual life.

Christian Theology of Ethics Professor at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University,   Roger E. Olson, in the Christian Post warned:

“Virtual reality replaces bodily and physical reality. Or the two are confused — as if the difference does not really matter. Can a pastor really ‘pastor’ (shepherd) a congregation if he or she never is among them? Is there really total commensurability — spiritually — between seeing and hearing a local pastor preach, pray and teach bodily, physically, and seeing and hearing a speaker via satellite feed or internet connection?”

Gaming Spirituality

Uniting Minister Rev. Will Nicholas, has himself participated in ceremonies inside churches on VR platforms. Rev. Nicholas also uses Twitch, a platform that live streams video, to record himself working through a video-game while giving commentary that includes theological concepts (You can watch his videos here).

While an active user of these technologies Rev. Nicholas is also aware of these very real concerns of isolation that can be furthered by technology. This is why his digital ministry not only looks to connect with people in these virtual worlds but then to bring them together offline.

“There is something about networking and having a shared experience together in a game that really creates a strong sense of belonging,” said Rev. Nicholas.

“But I have also noticed that while it does create a sense of belonging that it also can create a strong sense of isolation. So people can become quite separate as they sit in their own spaces and play a game together and actually don’t simply interact in the same space.”

“So really step one for me, is getting involved with people who are playing games and play those games with them but then to encourage them to take the next step and move beyond playing those games individually and coming together like we used to do (as kids) connecting the computers together and doing that in the same space.”

Rev. Nicholas sees the benefit in both table-top board games and digital games in exploring spirituality and Christianity.

He explains that theological study and conversation as well as bible study can be sometimes feel like a chore or task and games can enable a different type engagement that encourages lifelong learning.

“There is this aspect of playfulness that allows us to do more than we could imagine because we forget that it is a task and we engage in a game. And I think that is probably the core for me of my learning in digital ministry.”

Think Godly Play and Messy Church, programs Uniting Church congregations use to encourage intergenerational faith formation through arts, and crafts and bible stories for families. Rev. Nicholas there is need for more of this gamification catered to adults in this space.

As for how video-games can enable theological comment, Rev. Nicholas and as the Insights video game reviews point out, (check out our review of Red Dead Redemption 2 here) there are many secular and specifically Christian video games that carry spiritual narratives.

Image: Screenshot of Rev. Will Nicholas (inset) working through the video game Jesus Christ RPG on Twitch.

“The theme of religion and spirituality is fascinating to the people who are engaging with these games and game designers know that so they incorporate those narratives,” said Rev. Nicholas who is currently working his way through a Bitmap RPG game called Jesus Christ RPG Trilogy.

So we’ve got video games, VR Head Sets, A.I and Augmented Reality. Where to next? Keeping in mind the importance of still connecting IRL, Rev. Nicholas stopped short of saying the rise of VR Church is the future of Church.

“I think it’s certainly a future. I’m very careful about stating something that is the future but if there is a missing field, an opportunity to be present and to make Christ present in a place then we certainly do [have to consider] that.”

“So when we want to have a ministry to motor cycling enthusiasts we form the ‘God Squad’ and we work with the people who are in that space and time. So virtual spaces are just another space and zone.”

I’m still holding out for those holograms.

You can keep up with Rev. Will Nicholas through his YouTube channel Never Odd or Even or Facebook or Twitch.

Melissa Stewart

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