How should we think about the virtual reality church?

June 19, 2019

Heading to a church gathering can be a bit overwhelming for some. Maybe you have young kids, and getting out the door is next to impossible. Or maybe you or your loved one has a medical condition that precludes you from leaving home. Or you might feel that you wouldn’t be welcomed in a church community because of your lifestyle, beliefs, or doubts.

For those seeking spiritual community in the 21st century, some are beginning to turn to a new concept of virtual reality (VR) church, where you are transported from your living room or even your bed to another world full of avatars, anime characters, and church gatherings on the interwebs.

I know that it sounds odd to many because we think of VR as a video game experience, but there are people across the world that rely on this technology to connect with others and foster community as they seek something that will fulfill their deepest longing for love, companionship, and spirituality.

Proponents of this technology, including VR Church pastor D.J. Soto, argue that this is an emerging method of reaching people with the hope of the gospel who would otherwise never step foot in a traditional church gathering down the street. They argue that it allows for missional work across physical boundaries, even recently allowing a young woman to experience “water” baptism in VR.

What is virtual reality?

As I have written previously, VR is a concept that has been around for many years but wasn’t available to the masses until recently. To enter VR, you can purchase a full-fledged headset from popular brands like Oculus, HTC, and Sony. Or you can use your smartphone placed inside of a cardboard headset like Google Cardboard. Once you power on your headset, you can be transported to other continents or other-worldly places full of video game-like characters. In these virtual worlds, you might even walk past a gathering of people in a digital sanctuary who are learning from the Bible.

How should we think about VR churches?

With the rate that technology changes in our society, it can be overwhelming to keep up with the flood of innovation and new opportunities. Church leaders, especially, can feel a unique burden to stay aware of these changes because of their calling to minister to their communities and share the love of Jesus. When we approach VR church, we must consider a few things in mind before rushing to make a judgement.

First, it is important to understand the appeal of VR for many people in our communities. As pastor D.J. Soto has said, there are many who seek out this kind of online community because of physical limitations, fear, and feeling as though they would not be accepted in a flesh-and-blood church gathering. VR church can have a real and lasting impact on people as they are exposed to the teachings of Scripture. They have the ability to anonymously attend these gatherings, ask questions, and do so in the relative safety of their own home.

While there are major missiological uses for this technology as a way to share the love of Christ, VR church could become the end of the journey for some rather than the model of the sacrificial body of Christ that we see in the New Testament. Once one trusts in Christ for salvation, he or she is joined to his physical body (Acts 2:42-45), the church, and is a part of her mission to share this message of hope with the entire world (Matt 28:18-20). There can be no substitute for the local church gathering physically together to worship our risen Lord.

Second, there is a reason that we prioritize the physical nature of the church gathering and worship experience, and it isn’t because of tradition. One of the biggest issues to reappear in this digital age is an old heresy called Gnosticism, which prioritizes our spirit over the physical body. While the body has some value, gnostics believe, it pales in comparison to who we really are as spirits. The body is simply a temporary container for our self rather than an inseparable part of who we really are.

Modern technology, like VR, can give us the impression that our bodies and the physical world are not important because our minds and spirits are truly who we are. This belief extends past VR to the rise of advanced robotic and artificial intelligence. Some think we will be able to upload our minds to digital or robotic bodies as we transcend the physical limitations of the flesh.

Christians must remember that our minds and bodies are not separate elements but integral to being a human. We must not give in to the lie that our bodies are somehow evil and disposable. Yet, we must also recognize that they are indeed broken by the fall. We worship a God who is spirit, but who was also, in the Son, physically nailed to a tree (John 20:18), physically raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20), is physically is reigning right now on the throne in heaven (Rev. 20:11), and will physically come again in the flesh to redeem his people and the world (Rev. 21:3-4). Furthermore, Christians will live in physical, resurrected bodies for eternity (Isa. 26:19; Acts 24:15). The body, therefore, has immense value. And we should prioritize the full experience of humanity in mind and body because we worship a resurrected King who took on flesh to rescue us.

Called to community

While VR church might have a great impact in reaching people in the 21st century, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are called by God to be his body in this world. We weren’t saved to live in isolation or digital communion with one another. We were bought with a price to live in community with one another and to live as a people transformed by the body that was broken for us and the blood that Christ shed.

As these tools are continually developed and used by those around us, we must do the hard work of connecting with the communities that God has placed each of us in. We must not forget about those who are physically unable to join a traditional church gathering due to illness or medical issues. This is one of the great callings that deacons have in our digital age. Deacons are set apart by the church to care for the physical needs of our people (Acts 6). While the elders and pastors of our church are primarily called to serve the people in Word and prayer, deacons have a calling to step into difficult situations and serve people in the name of Christ.

May the rise of VR spur each of us on to love and serve our communities, not only in Word but also in deed. As we use the tools that God has given us to share the love of Christ across the world, let’s prioritize establishing physical churches. Let’s move forward together in the mission that God has entrusted each of his people with to make disciples of all nations and to point people the physical community that God established by the physical body of his Son (1 Cor 12:27)—a community that doesn’t fear the unknown or stepping into the communities we have been placed among.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24