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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