My Confirmation Class in VR

Rob Guenther (New Ulm, Minnesota USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Pastor Guenther attended Calvary Lutheran School through 8th grade and then Evergreen Lutheran High School in Tacoma, Washington. He went to Martin Luther College, receiving his BA degree in 2000, and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, receiving his MDiv degree in 2004. Guenther spent six years at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, then eight years at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenai, Alaska. Now, back in New Ulm, Minnesota at St. John’s Lutheran Church, he is eager to serve!

In 2008 I was blessed to take a trip to Israel. A fellow pastor encouraged me to go saying, "It will change the way you look at your Bible. It will take it from a small 12" black and white TV to an 80" TV with high definition and surround sound!" Indeed, the week I spent in Israel did change the way I viewed the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. I now have pictures in my head of the locations that pop up in the texts that I preach. What a blessing that trip was to me and now to the people to whom I preach!

Wouldn't it be great if every Christian could go to Israel and spend a week there to have the same experience that I did? Wouldn't it be great if every student in our catechism classes could travel to Israel to see the sights and get a feel for the land where Jesus walked? Wouldn't they all get to see the Bible in a new light and watch the stories of our salvation in 3D HD surround sound the way that I got to?

That's what I thought. So I took all of my catechumens to Israel. And I did it in 2020 of all years! — even when travel was restricted and COVID was a threat. All of us went to see the sites of Jesus' birth, of his childhood, of his ministry, of his death, and of his resurrection.

Well... not really.

But what I did do is put a virtual reality headset on my catechumens and took them there virtually. They had the opportunity to look around and wander. Clicking this way and that, one by one they explored in a virtual world the sites of our Savior's most important work. The rest of us watched what they saw mirrored to a large smartboard in the front of the classroom. We went to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee. We went to Jerusalem and saw the temple mount, and the two traditional sites of the crucifixion and resurrection.

How did this all begin? A member of mine had purchased an Oculus Quest virtual reality headset. He thought the technology looked like a promising way to connect people, especially the elderly in assisted living centers. After playing with it for a while, he thought of other better ways that might be easier for the elderly to connect and, perhaps, less disorienting. As he explored those new avenues, rather than sell the Oculus Quest, he gave it to me on the one condition that I would not just play games with it but figure out how to use it for ministry purposes.

After playing Vader Immortal, Down the Rabbit Hole, and a number of other immersive games (and after almost falling over on the floor while riding a virtual roller coaster standing up 😁), I saw the incredible potential of taking this technology tool into the classroom and into the church. I brainstormed and talked with others and came up with a plan. My 8th grade catechism class students were going to be my guinea pigs. I was going to try to supplement my catechism class with VR.

Not everything went quite as smoothly as I initially thought, but in the end it worked. I first spent two class periods letting the students ride virtual roller coasters. It was something fun to help them first learn the ins and outs of the headset and controllers. I had only eight students, so two one-hour class periods allowed each student to wear the headset for 15 minutes at a time.

Since this was during the COVID pandemic, we had to spend a little time in between sessions wiping down the headset with sanitizing wipes and each student had to wear a face protector between the headset and their face. An additional challenge was that wearing a mask tended to make the headset fog up. I made an allowance and had all students mask up except the one wearing the headset. And the rest of us kept a six-foot distance from the headset wearer.

Catechumen Benjamin Price explores the Church of the Annunciation,
built where it is believed that the angel Gabriel appeared to the
Virgin Mary to announce that she would be the mother of our Savior.

(Included with parental permission.)

Another surprise to me was that one student wanted nothing to do with the headset. In talking with her she revealed a lot of apprehension that she would get dizzy and fall, that she couldn't see what other classmates were doing while she donned the headset, and that she would struggle with the controls. I let her sit on the sidelines and watch mirrored on the screen what the other students were seeing virtually. I think she still gained something from the experience.

In the end, the experiment went well. Most of my students got to see the Holy Land in an entirely new way. They could look around and explore. They could see from a fresh perspective. They could "experience" the places where Jesus walked. Was it the same as going to Israel? Certainly not. My students didn't get the geographical lay of the land. They didn't get the feel, the smell, the taste of the Holy Land. But did they get a better feel for the places where our Savior did his most important work? I believe so. More than watching a video, they got to "stand in the place" where Jesus stood. They got to "experience" the locations where our Savior did his most important work. And it is my prayer that they have a deeper appreciation for the work he has done for them.

Moving forward I hope that I can get a grant to purchase a dozen headsets to help immerse my students in the virtual world in which their Savior walked. I hope to hire a digital artist to create a number of virtual Bible stories in which my students can stand in awe of the great things our Savior God has done for us. I hope to teach the truths of our God's great love for us in an immersive way that, through sight and sound, moves the mind, the heart, the emotions to connect with the truths of our faith that will last throughout this life and into the next.

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Jessica Gehrke (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2021-10-19 3:11:54pm
I enjoyed your presentation! I had a theology professor who has said that to the know the Bible is to know its geography. What a great way to get your students engaged!
Rob (St. John's Lutheran, New Ulm) 2021-10-20 12:29:48pm
Thanks, Jessica. I agree. Praying we can do more of this soon!
Petr Krakora (Czech Ev. Lutheran Church) 2021-10-22 11:07:32am
An interesting read indeed. I was wondering where the data for the VR projection came from. Is it some kind of public database? Can you download the whole "site data", or do you need to get them streamed to the headset device online. Also, does the projection include sounds? Are there people around you in the VR sightseeing tour? With blurred faces, like in the Google Streetview? You see, I am absolutely new to the VR area, so my questions may sound trivial. I appreciate your comments!
Rob (St. John's Lutheran, New Ulm) 2021-10-22 2:12:30pm
Thanks, Petr. I used an app called Wander (by Google) which is basically Google Streetview in VR. No sound. No movement. Just a 3D VR museum. But I have hopes that we will be able to tell Bible stories in VR that immersive in the very near future.
Judy Kuster 2021-10-24 4:23:06am
Pastor Guenther, You are brave and creative. I do wonder about the time spent in confirmation class with only 2 VR headset and 8 kids with 15 minutes each learning how VR works by spending time on things like roller coaster rides. Maybe a special time to learn in a class sometime else. Or use other technology that is more accessible concurrently on cell phones which they probably all have and can explore at the same time. (See Prof. Pfeifer's paper in this conference). In the future, kids will probably have access in schools and even their own VR equipment. Will that work with the system you are using?

What were three important “lessons learned” by you or challenges and how might problems be resolved in the future?
Rob (St. John's Lutheran, New Ulm) 2021-10-24 8:47:34pm
Our catechumens have had catechism classes in 5th, 6th, 7th, and 1st semester of 8th grade. That made me feel free to use some class time in getting used to controls. (I felt it was something like spending Day #1 on classroom rules. It made the rest of the lessons go much more smoothly.) But I understand the concern. We only have so many days to teach. How will we use them all well? Definitely a concern of mine too. I don't know that cell phones would have the same experience as a VR headset though. They're not the same. I've done both. And the headset is much more immersive than the cell phone in the Google cardboard. I'm hoping kids will have access to their own VR equipment in the very near future, much like they have access 1-to-1 with the Chromebooks now.

Important "lessons learned" were 1) this does take a lot of time. They have to figure out controls first, then use it for education. 2) Not all students were interested in trying it. That was a surprise to me. 3) The applications are limited, for now. There's not a lot out there yet. 4) The applications are limitless. The educational applications are as far as one can imagine. 5) This will be the way education is done in the not too distant future. I'm personally convinced that the VR headset will soon be as common as the smartphone is now. 6) Storytelling in VR is incredibly immersive. I believe VR will be the stained glass window of the next generation if we can get on the front end and use it for storytelling of the greatest story ever told. Thanks, Judy, to you and Tom, for encouraging me to be a part of this conference. Excited to see where the technology goes!
Rob (St. John's Lutheran, New Ulm) 2021-10-24 8:52:59pm
J. F. of Milwaukee asked me via email:

"I wanted to follow up with you and ask what headsets and applications you used. I have a number of VR headsets and I'd love to be able to replicate your "experiment" in other churches."

I own 1 Oculus Quest. But the Oculus Quest 2 is faster and lighter, with better graphics, more memory, and a longer battery life, all for a greatly reduced price. (The Quest was something like $900 when it first came out. The Quest 2 has bounced from $300 to $500 during COVID depending on supply lines chains.) Ideally, I'd get one for each student and use some software I've found to control what the kids see when they see it (cf. My grant proposal that I'm working on is seeking funds for 10 Quest 2's, a case to lock, carry, and charge them, and the software to download, install, manage, and control the apps on all 10. Let me know if you want to talk more. Eager to collaborate.
Paul Grubbs (Martin Luther College) 2021-11-01 7:47:53pm

Thanks for your piece detailing how and why you went about incorporating virtual reality field trips to the Holy Land in your Catechism courses. I especially appreciated the way this experience might help students think about Bible locations as genuine physical spaces and inspire interest and investment in related future travel (even beyond the Oculus :) )

After reading about how you prepared your students for VR immersion and negotiated the sharing of limited hardware with a group class, I had one follow-up question. What type of concluding step might help teachers doing similar work invite their students to reflect on the value of these unique experiences in terms of their spiritual education? I have no doubt that there would be a wide range of potential benefits in this regard, but I wondered if your first-time process already included a reflection conversation or essay or if you thought there might be value in that type of wrap-up item. I’m guessing students would identify blessings resulting from their participation in your project above and beyond what might immediately occur to their teachers. Written reflection pieces might also provide some useful “data” to include in grant requests justifying the funds required for broader use.

Thanks again for your piece and the sense of humor that accompanied your presentation. I feel certain this is among the particular class moments your students will remember in the future and visit about at class reunions! :)
Rob Guenther (St. John's Lutheran, New Ulm) 2021-11-04 6:55:53pm
No. I didn't have any follow up assignment. I guess I wanted to make it supplemental to my class and make it a fun event and not turn it into a homework "chore." But in hindsight, that would have been a good thing to do, perhaps just in discussion. I'll reconsider doing something like that when I try it with this year's class next semester. Thanks for the great idea! :)
Lukas LaGalo (MLC) 2021-11-01 8:27:01pm

I have always wanted to visit Israel, but COVID happened. I’m so glad that you could defeat the obstacles in your way to help kids view what couldn’t be seen at the time. You opened my eye to a whole new world of just not learning but viewing! With your VR movement, nothing is impossible when it comes to viewing anything.

I love the idea of your goal and plan, but my question is, how can we achieve this goal? We both know this mission of yours will not happen overnight, but what is your timeline? Also, how can congregations all over the world help you achieve this goal? I genuinely believe you have a great mindset and goal in mind, so let’s make this happen.

Thank you for putting so much dedication and time into the VR to have another way of learning. God’s blessings on your future with this mission!
Rob Guenther (St. John's Lutheran, New Ulm) 2021-11-04 7:01:13pm
Lukas, my plan is to try to get 10 Oculus Quest 2's that are linked to the software that I can control and then host a VR camp next summer (of 2022) for a few 10th to 12th graders. (Or maybe for some MLC students.) I'd invite MLC and BLC professors and MVL teachers to come for a day (or more if they'd like), as my real goal is to get this into the hands of educators and those training our future educators. Step one: Show them the potential of what this could be. I'd be happy to share my proposal with you if you're interested. Or, seeing that you're just up the hill from St. John's, maybe you want to pop in sometime and we can chat. If you haven't worn a headset before, I'll gladly let you try it out. Just let me know when/where works best for you. If you come to St. John's for worship sometime, introduce yourself. We'll talk more! :)
Eli Slangor (Martin Luther College) 2021-11-04 11:49:18pm
Pastor Guenther,

A friend of mine also has one of these Oculus Quests. They are really amazing pieces of technology. When I have gone to his house he has let me use it multiple times, but we only use it to play games. I never thought of using it as a way to help us understand the Bible better. Another connection I made to your presentation involved the idea of showing the students the Promised Land. My school was going to take a handful of guys including myself to take a tour of the Holy Land. It got canceled because of the virus but I’m sure it was an interesting and beneficial experience for your students to get a view into this setting.

I think the idea of using the headsets to show bible stories for people is fantastic. This would give people a real inside look into some of our favorite or also the not as well known Bible stories. My question is how this would look. Would it be more of a movie that the person in the headset is watching? Or would it be more of an interactive experience where students can interact with the setting and with the different elements and characters? I think it would be interesting if students could go up to Biblical characters and could just receive a different phrase or piece of information from them.

Thank you for this very interesting presentation which brought to my attention how it is even possible for virtual reality to be a great benefit to helping people understand God’s Word.
Rob Guenther (St. John's Lutheran, New Ulm) 2021-11-05 7:40:02pm
I envision both. Story telling without (or with limited) interaction would obviously be much less expensive to produce and could still tell the story in an incredible way. Cf. here for a good example:

But for more interaction, I'd direct you to Vader Immortal to see what the potential could be:
(Of course, a YouTube video doesn't do it justice. You need to wear a headset to see what it would really be like.)

Here's someone's attempt at making an immersive Bible scene...

For more ideas and applications, check out (like and follow) a Facebook page I put together (and I do apologize to my ELS brothers and sisters -- it was an oversight to call it WELS VR in Ministry. It should be WELS/ELS):

Katie Kutz (Martin Luther College) 2021-11-05 9:17:17pm
Pastor Guenther,
Thank you for all your thoughts and time you put into this experiment, as well as this description. I love how detailed you went, which really helped me picture exactly how you used the technology.

I do have one question, however. You said you wanted to purchase a dozen of these headsets to help immerse your students into the world in which our Savior lived. In what other ways, besides getting to look at the buildings and land that Jesus went in and walked through, would you hope to use this technology. Do you have any goals for using this outside of just your students? Maybe other uses that the whole congregation could benefit from?

Thank you again for all your enthusiasm and excitement towards this project. This really helped me get excited about the technology we have and how we can use it to strengthen our faith in ways we never thought were possible.
Rob Guenther (St. John's Lutheran, New Ulm) 2021-11-08 1:40:23pm
Well, there are lots of applications. If I can find (or perhaps make) some well done Bible stories in VR I could take that to an adult Bible Class at church. For the school I've found apps that can virtually dissect a frog, create models with virtual clay (which can then be printed on one of our 3D printers), and a number of Phy Ed activities. (All worked in to my proposal for VR camp to showcase the possibilities.) And that's just what's out there right now. More is sure to be coming as the price drops and the tech improves and more companies get in on the action. I've also recorded a service with a 3D camera and could see home-bound members using a headset to "sit in church." Lots of applications. The fun is in learning what they all are. :)
Jon Bailey (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2021-11-08 4:48:01am
Pastor Guenther,

When I reflect on my experience learning about the Bible in my WELS grade school and high school, the one thing I struggled with is putting a mental image to what I was reading. It is very difficult for kids first reading about the Bible to be thinking about such a different landscape, living conditions, and cultural climate. Using VR headsets is something I wish I could have done back then. Well done!
I believe that there are going to be plenty of good things that come out of COVID and one of them is better using the technology that is now at our disposal. VR has been a tool that has been available for us for a few years now but has rarely been used, at least in my experience, until I have seen your work. I think this will inspire a lot more people to begin doing the same for their students post-COVID.
One last side note for anyone else looking for a similar experience for their students, there are cheaper options than the Oculus. The Oculus is a top tier headset that is used often for high speed gaming. For people looking for cheaper options, Google Cardboard is a much cheaper option. It is a cardboard headset that you can put your smartphone in. Just simply download a VR app on your phone and you should be set. These range anywhere from $10-$30 a piece. It does not have the controllers and all the bells and whistles but it can still get the job done.
Rob Guenther (St. John's Lutheran, New Ulm) 2021-11-08 7:56:29pm
Thanks for the encouraging words! Our school has used the Google Cardboard for a few years now. But there's a huge difference between the smartphone holder where you just "look around" and the headset with controllers that lets you "walk around." Plus, I hope to use it for a number of other applications at the school where the controls are critical (cf. my previous response with art, science, even phys ed applications). Thanks again for the encouragement!