VR and Various Applications to the Gospel Ministry

Dominick Olson (Rochester, Minnesota USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Dominick Olson, a 2021 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, serves as a Discipleship Pastor for the people of Resurrection and Life Lutheran Church in Rochester, Minnesota. He and his wife Bethany have two daughters, Ella and Alanah. During his senior year at the seminary, for his Master of Divinity thesis he researched the potential for overlap between Gospel ministry and virtual reality.

To many people virtual reality may seem like something out of a science fiction fantasy. However the size of that group may be shrinking more and more every year. VR technology has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last decade, going from a complicated and expensive mess of wires and sensors to comparatively reasonably priced standalone headsets that allow users to have a full VR experience in the comfort of their own living rooms. Although there is still a bit of time and development to go before VR reaches a "smartphone level" rate of adoption across the world, perhaps now might be one of the best times for ministers of the gospel to consider how this technology can potentially benefit the ministry. In this presentation, I hope to facilitate some discussion on what applications of this technology might look like.

As one considers how to apply VR approaches to ministry, perhaps it would be best to break up our considerations into two methods of approaching this topic. Method one is a simpler approach with less of a "buy-in" obligation for the user. Smartphone technology is already in an excellent place for people to get a beginner's experience of VR. All that is required is a smartphone and a device to hold the phone. Sites such as YouTube can display content that has been recorded with 180 or 360-degree cameras. The phone's built-in gyroscopes can tilt the video around to look in whichever direction the viewer wishes, almost as if they are standing in the room in which the video was recorded.

Although method one is simpler to access, it is limited in its scope of application. A teacher can prepare 360-degree videos in certain locations or about certain subjects, and then assign the students to view these videos in a somewhat immersive format. The other promising application of this method is found in virtual worship. It wouldn't be difficult to record a church service with a special 360-degree camera and upload it to a social media website. The church could then invite virtual visitors to view worship services in this way, helping potential visitors to feel a little bit more comfortable with the worship space and increase their potential for visiting in person in the future.

Method two is probably what more people think of when they consider VR, the use of dedicated headsets that provide a fully immersive VR experience. Some headsets need to be attached to a computer ( HTC Vive, Valve Index, Oculus Rift, etc.); others are standalone ( Oculus GO, Quest, and Quest 2 ). Using dedicated headsets doesn't necessarily rule out the benefits and applications of method one, but it does add opportunities not attainable with smartphones. The main advantage of these headsets is access to well-known social applications across the VR ecosystem – platforms such as AltspaceVR, VRChat, and Rec Room — that allow users to "meet" in a virtual space and participate in simple activities.

Method two is more technologically involved and might require help from those who are proficient in designing areas in which users of these platforms can meet. Still it could be possible for a small group to meet virtually inside a designated space. People are already working to recreate virtual sites of Biblical significance, such as Nazareth, Capernaum, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem. With these sites teachers can lead their students into an interactive group experience, a virtual field trip to whatever destination is being visited.

This approach could make a "virtual church" a viable venture. If you are wondering what this could look like in reality, all it takes is a Google search for "VR church." The first result will yield the VR Church spearheaded by DJ Soto that has already created a substantial following of people from around the world who gather virtually around Soto's worship services and studies. It could also be the time for churches in our circles to start considering if virtual worship opportunities such as this would be useful tools in evangelism as we seek to reach out to those who may have reservations about the "traditional" in-person worship experience. Even these virtual services can be used by the powerful Holy Spirit to bring people to faith in their Savior.

These are some small general examples of applications in this evolving arena. We should consider ourselves blessed that, as we prayerfully consider how to move forward with the world's advancing technology, we have such wonderful models to look to in the past, individuals who have used media to benefit the Lord's church here on earth — whether it was Paul sending letters across Greece and Asia Minor, Martin Luther printing a previously unthinkable number of copies of his writings, or even the events of this past year as churches battled the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic by maintaining virtual worship services.

We have a lot of work before us if we wish to make VR a viable tool in our ministries, but our efforts could be very well rewarded. I pray that the Lord would continue to go with His people as we seek to use the tool of virtual reality in its many varied and interesting applications for the good of His church.

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Joe 2021-10-21 8:37:45am
Great insight provided. It is amazing how our gracious Lord continues to provide opportunities to share the Word. I am curious from a practical perspective the cost considerations, especially for Method One? Method two seems impractical unless used for a small group; obviously this also is limited by the number of headsets.

With regard to method two however imagine the possibilities of creating not just a VR experience but an interactive one as well with multiple individuals in the same VR world.
Dominick 2021-10-25 8:40:20pm
Joe, your comment hits at the exact "issue" with VR that is such a barrier at the current time. VR technology is still seen as an enthusiast luxury, even though you can get a headset for a cheaper price than a smartphone.

To your first curiosity, the benefit of method one is the fact that so many people already have smartphones, obviously, this isn't a blanket assumption for everyone, but the widespread nature of this tech makes that part a relatively negligible consideration. It also wouldn't be too hard to ask if anyone has an old smartphone they would be willing to donate if the church/school wants to "loan out" a phone and headset. The only other major part for the audience would be a headset that would hold the phone, such as a Google cardboard. These headsets can easily be in the range of $20-$30. For the church/school going down this route, they may need to find a 180/360-degree capable camera, but even that is not the worst cost in the world, ranging from $150-$500 depending on the brand and quality at the entry-level price point. This is absolutely something that will need to be considered as we meditate over how best to be good stewards of God's gifts to us!

To your second observation, I couldn't agree more. That interactivity is what makes VR stand out above all other media right now! I can't wait to see where it will take us as it becomes more widespread.
Judy Kuster 2021-10-24 5:02:08pm
I liked this presentation. It introduced ways that I can be involved in VR as a total neophyte. It showed me how I might get involved now in a basic way, encourages me to maybe step forward, and shares some ways that predicts what to expect in the future. How do you see this implemented in more churches?
Dominick 2021-10-25 8:48:16pm
Glad to offer some encouragement, Judy! I think for many churches this will need to be a slow and gradual adoption. I've always thought that an easy way to get into this tech is to simply take a 360-degree picture of a church's worship space (this can be done with a couple of apps like Google cardboard and Street View). Simply having this picture handy on the church's website with encouragement for those with a headset that holds a phone to "see" the space in VR may familiarize them more with the church than just looking at pictures on a computer screen. I think the other easy avenue of approach is to record worship services with a 180/360-degree camera. It's a small, relatively unobtrusive move to make that opens up tons of opportunities for churches and this tech.
Joe 2021-10-26 7:46:44am
Also as a neophyte, but intrigued from your comments to Judy, with regard to the 180/360 camera, if we are already streaming do you recommend this as the primary camera? In order to maximize the outreach, I like the idea of reaching both the non VR as well as the VR worlds at the same time.
Dominick 2021-11-09 3:57:49pm
Yeah, it would probably be a good idea to have both options available. The 360-degree camera might throw some people who may not realize they have to click and drag the display if they are watching on the browser. Perhaps having a link accessible to switch to a VR perspective would be a good way to handle it (it could even have the encouragement that non-VR users can still observe the VR perspective.
Rev. Luke Ulrich (Mt. Olive Lutheran, Mankato, MN ) 2021-11-03 7:36:46pm
I'm always excited to consider how new tech can be utilized for our purposes of sharing the Gospel--thanks for your insights! VR is super-cool stuff.

I'm interested in your thoughts on Rev. Bryan Wolfmueller's article (also found in this GOWM Online Conference)--that speaks against the viability of a "virtual church." I think he points out that the Sacraments especially, "the Lord's Supper and Baptism, always call us back to a particular place with particular people. There is no online communion or virtual baptism." He even hints at a connection between virtual church and aspects of Gnosticism (which I was hoping he would clarify and expand upon....)

I'm wrestling with the question of whether we can really consider "Virtual Church" legitimate if the marks of the church--Baptism and the Lord's Supper--are not able to be shared in this virtual place. As a pastor, seeking to care for my flock, it's been disheartening when people aren't attending in-person, even when they say how good we look on their big-screen TV, or how they are able to watch our service several times, or rewind to reconsider certain parts of the sermon, etc. It still doesn't feel right or comfortable for me say, "Good, you keep on doing that!" How would you respond to these things that we're wrestling with? Should we instead embrace it as the unstoppable future of the church?

Maybe this is really more of a question of what we mean by "Church" and how we are defining "Church"? The sharing of the Gospel--the encouragement and strengthening of faith can certainly happen through VR headsets. But without the tangible, earthly elements of the Sacraments can it really be the "Divine Service"? We certainly want people to have the Sacraments--this is the original "media" that God has given to create and strengthen people's faith that God has promised to work through.

Thanks for your input Pr. Olsen!
Dominick 2021-11-09 4:04:43pm
Certainly an interesting series of questions that so many have been wrestling with over the past years. I do have to say that I have thoughts that echo Rev Wolfmueller's concern. But I don't see that as an excuse not to continue in this endeavor. I see that as an excuse to switch the focus of how the church uses VR. I think it could serve well as an evangelism tool that I prayerfully hope would drive more people to seek fellowship and the Lord's sacraments in person (at least that would be my hope for a church's VR program). Naturally, there is a fine line to walk in all of this with so much more to consider. I think most of it starts with a solid "objective" established by whoever hosts this VR church. My encouragement would be that that objective focuses exactly on what you stated: sharing the Gospel. Perhaps a pastor serving in VR could act as a liaison between prospects and actual, in-person congregations.
Dan Buth (Martin Luther College) 2021-11-04 7:09:24pm
Pastor Olson,

I have always heard about VR and have been interested in it but have never actually used it at all. I have always viewed it with a bad stigma thinking about how weird it is to take yourself out of reality like that. I appreciated how informative your presentation was as it informed me of the many ways that VR can be helpful especially in outreach.

I especially was interested when you talked about virtual rooms where you can meet people. Do you think this aspect of VR will be used by the church in years to come? If so, how do you think it will be used?

Thank you for the time and effort in researching this topic. I understand the stigma about VR especially in a WELS context so I think it is important to inform and educate especially the next generation so that we can take advantage of this technology.
Dominick 2021-11-09 5:13:54pm
Thanks for your comments, Dan. I know you are not alone when it comes to being hesitant when considering VR, I still find myself questioning the good it can do every now and then too. But your question highlights the good that I really hope would be accomplished. I think that meeting strangers online with that "extra" sense of kinesthetically "being" there could potentially aid in relationship building, which is so imperative to evangelism efforts.
Jed Mittelstadt (MLC) 2021-11-05 3:06:18pm
Pastor Olson,

I have a great interest in all things technology and love to hear how it can be applied to the spreading of the gospel. The concept of using something as abstract as VR as a tool in evangelism is a great idea and one that I honestly have never considered. Thank you for all the research and work you have already done and God’s blessings on the work you still have ahead of you.

You mentioned the different options that churches can offer between a standalone headset and a sort of device to hold the phone. How long do you think it will be until this is something that churches will be comfortable pursuing as a viable option for outreach? Or will this remain a niche for a few tech enthusiasts that are members?

Thank you again for all of your hard work dedicated to this topic, and God’s blessings.
Dominick 2021-11-09 5:18:35pm
Hey Jed, your question is the other million-dollar question in the field right now. How soon will adoption be widespread enough for people to feel comfortable using this tech in this way? After looking at how quickly smartphone use spread a little over a decade ago, I'd say that possibly in the next 5-10 years we could see a sort of "boom" in the VR market as companies like Oculus and Apple put more time and resources into making their products more accessible.

How soon will churches feel comfortable using this stuff? Depends on the congregations really. I could see a congregation using some of the strategies I mentioned here and now, but it helps to have a larger part of the congregation on board as well, which will only come with more time as VR continues to develop.
Corey Deyo (Martin Luther College) 2021-11-05 5:08:15pm
Pastor Olson,

As a person who owns an Oculus Quest 2 VR Headset, I found this article to be very interesting. I have always been curious about the many different applications that VR could have for not only church, but also things like school, synod conventions, and other important meetings and events that happen within WELS and ELS. Thank you for putting so much effort to reach out with this new idea to people who may have never heard or thought of using VR as a tool. It is these types of articles and information that can really get people to understand these subjects.

Your article caused me to think through many crucial ideas and questions regarding the use of VR in a Christian setting. One of the most important and difficult ones regards application and the transition to the VR world. Lutheran congregations are often known for having difficulty implementing new ideas and tools into church services and schools. How do you plan on implementing VR into the WELS and ELS in a way that will still value the tradition that is so important to the synods? In a time where even implementing a new hymnal is seen as a big hurdle for most churches, I am curious to understand your plans to add an entirely new form of worship and media through VR. Even on a small scale, there could be many people in some churches who don’t understand virtual reality or even consider it a threat.

Thank you for this insightful and thought-provoking article. It was very interesting to see your viewpoint on this topic. I hope that God blesses you through all of your work.
Tom Kuster (Christ in Media Institute) 2021-11-06 3:47:01am
Corey, I'm sure you enjoy your Quest 2. Are there any others at MLC who have a VR headset? Would you be interested in gathering a few friends (they don't all have to be techies) and join the "XR Project and Festival" described in the presentation just above this one in the Conference? We've invited high school students to participate, but we'd really enjoy having a team from MLC address the question: "How can we use Extended Reality (VR and AR) technology to spread the Gospel?" If you or anyone you know are interested or have questions, contact me at tkuster@blc.edu
Dominick 2021-11-09 5:25:13pm
Hey Corey, thanks for your question. The thing I would stress as a church seeks to implement strategies that use VR is the same strategy that many of our congregations have taken with online worship over the past year: technology is a blessing to help us supplement, not replace. In the hour of need, when in-person worship was not a "viable" solution to shelter-in-place mandates, we needed to supplement with online worship. Now that we are "back" to in-person again, many no longer need that supplement, and in many cases, online worship has become a replacement. The hope would not be to replace standard worship practice with VR, and these endeavors should always be advertised as such. It should be "marketed" as a supplementary tool for reaching out to those who would otherwise not give the church and spiritual matters a second thought. It would be a huge task to undertake for any congregation. I pray that they would prayerfully consider how they can best serve God with VR and boldly move forward in whatever ways God has blessed them.