By / Feb 13

Since 2020, I have sought to write about some of the top technology issues to be aware of and how we as Christians can address them in light of the Christian moral tradition rooted in the love of God and love of neighbor. There have been a couple prevailing themes over the years centered on the ways that technology is shaping us as people—namely our understanding of ourselves and those around us—and how we as a society are to think through the power it holds in our lives.

Already, it seems 2023 is going to be an interesting year as we deal with an onslaught of emerging technologies like advanced AI systems and virtual reality, as well as continue to navigate pressing challenges of digital privacy and the role of faith in the digital public square.

Artificial Intelligence and ChatGPT

Back in 2020, there was already social buzz about AI and how it was shaping our society. I published my first book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, with the goal of thinking about how some of these technologies might affect our understanding of human dignity and our common life together. As 2022 came to a close, there was a major release of a ChatGPT (chatbot) from OpenAI that caught the attention of our wider culture and confirmed that AI is (and will continue to be) a major part of our lives, especially in education and business. 

The introduction of advanced AI systems like these in recent years has fundamentally challenged much of what we have assumed about the uniqueness of humanity. These systems are now performing tasks that only humans could in past generations.

In an age like ours, we all need to be reminded that the value and dignity of humans isn’t rooted in what we do but who we are as those uniquely made in the image of our Creator.

AI systems like ChatGPT have deeply concerning elements but also afford the opportunity for educators and students to evaluate with fresh eyes the purpose and design of education. Education is not simply about information transfer but whole-person transformation. These types of tools require that administrators, professors, and students alike learn about how these systems work, their advantages and limitations, and how we might seek to prioritize the transformation of their students above a simple letter grade. 

Similar to the classroom, these tools may have limited use in local church ministry but must be thought through with the utmost care and wisdom. They may be used to aid one in research, writing reflection questions, or even rudimentary copy for church functions. However, one must keep in mind their limitations as well as be on guard for the temptation to simply pass off the output as their own work. 

Current limitations with these systems are myriad and must be taken into account as one thinks through the ethical ramifications of their use. They are limited by data sets and human supervision used in training the system; are widely known to falsify information, misapply concepts, or even alter their answers based on the political and social views of their creators; and rarely account for nuance and complexity, leading to, at best, the production of entry level and/or basic material. 

Privacy rights and children

A second issue we should be aware of is one that will inevitably be perennial. With the ubiquity of technology and our growing dependence on it, there is the vast and growing concern over personal privacy and how this data will be used by individuals, governments, and especially the technology industry.

We live in a data-saturated world, and there can be a lot of money made by harvesting troves of data and creating predictive products or optimizing our interactions with our daily technology use. Governments around the world are beginning to or have already regulated the flow of data and who has access to it, often focusing on a supposed right to privacy—a term that has competing definitions and proposed safeguards.

Christians, specifically, need to think deeply about what a right to privacy is and what it is not

In 2023, four American states—Colorado, Connecticut, Utah, and Virginia—will follow a similar pattern to California’s groundbreaking privacy law, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) which went into effect in January of 2020, and begin implementing new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on data collection and use. These new state laws share many of the same types of protections as the CCPA and GDPR of the European Union. 

This year, there will be increasing pressure across the board for federal legislation focused on privacy as it specifically relates to children, as is seen with the bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) and more broadly with other proposals. 

Regardless of where these policies end up, the framing of privacy soley in terms of moral autonomy and personal consent often makes it easy to overlook data privacy as such a central concern to Christian ethics.

Instead, Christians need to be the ones asking the hard questions about how we as a society want to protect and guard the rights of the individual but in ways that also promote the common good.

Virtual reality and augmented reality

One of the technologies that was discussed significantly in 2022 and will likely continue to be in 2023 is virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). In recent years, we have seen a surge of new VR devices and an increasing number of wearable devices such as smart glasses. As the devices become more commonplace in our society and societal norms continue to shift, it seems likely that they will grow in prominence in our lives.

Some of the pressing ethical questions about their use are not as straightforward as ethical issues in technology, but a host of new challenges will arise, especially in light of the new mediums and means of connection that VR has created. 

Aside from the more common concerns of data privacy, including the use of advanced biometric data such as eye-tracking and more, there are also novel challenges to long-standing understandings of free speech and religious freedom in these digital spaces. These developments are often spoken of in terms of the wisdom of VR churches and gatherings. However, I think the more pressing questions will be over how religious groups who may hold to culturally controversial beliefs—especially on topics like sexuality, gender—will be treated in these digital environments. 

These spaces are not truly public because they are often hosted or even created by technology companies themselves. This represents a new angle on the continued debate over free speech, content moderation, and the nature of faith in the public square.

Overall, 2023 will be a year where Christians are continually pressed to think about how we will live out our faith in the public square amid an increasingly secular culture. One of the temptations when faced with complex or challenging ethical questions with technology is to rush to a position of full adoption or rejection. 

Wisdom, which is at the core of the Christian moral tradition, calls us to slow down and think deeply about the nature of these tools, and discern if their many uses can help us better love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.

By / May 13

“Virtual Reality and its related technologies are going to change our world. If Christians don’t drive the discussion about how this tech gets used . . . who will?” This is one of the many questions that compelled Darrell Bock and Jonathan Armstrong to co-author their latest book, Virtual Reality Church: (Or How to Think Biblically About Church in Your Pajamas, VR Baptisms, Jesus Avatars, and Whatever Else is Coming Next)

As virtual reality has emerged, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it changed the world, almost requiring that we reckon with VR and its family of technologies, these questions have entered the church’s calculus sooner than we may have imagined. So, the authors set out to help the church think biblically about the possibilities and pitfalls of integrating virtual reality and other technologies into the life of the church.

Bock, author of dozens of books, is the executive director of Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center, where he hosts the “Table Podcast,” and senior research professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. 

Armstrong is professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute, teaching in the areas of New Testament language and literature and church history. Additionally, Armstrong consults with Christian colleges and universities on the intersection of education and technology. 

Together, Bock and Armstrong have produced a resource in Virtual Reality Church that will undoubtedly compel churches and Christians to think critically about virtual reality’s place in Christian churches.

Technology and the church, past, present, and future

Though the book’s title suggests that Bock and Armstrong deal exclusively with virtual reality, a technology they describe that “allows users to be actors in a digitally created world by their motions and manipulations in the real world” (40), they in fact survey and interact with technology a bit more broadly. And they do so in service of the church. In the opening pages of Virtual Reality Church, the authors state that the two “core goals” of the book are: 

(1) to encourage educators and ministers to think about the history of the church’s use of tech and so to be disciplined and flexible in their approach to future use, and (2) to think critically about which processes in education and church life can be improved by increased use of virtual telecommunication and which processes should be kept on campus or conducted in person in the church building (15).

Rather than seeking to win readers with a particular argument or impose their own views, the authors have sought to encourage church men and women to think critically about the history of the church and the future of the church regarding its use of technology.

Though the most cantankerous among us may snub our nose at the growing ubiquity of technology in our sanctuaries, the church has a long history of integrating the up-and-coming technologies that have marked each era of history, from the invention of writing to the printing press to radio and television. Each successive generation of Christians has been in a position to think carefully about its society’s burgeoning technologies and consider if and how to integrate them into the life of the church and the mission of God. Bock and Armstrong argue that the advent of virtual reality is no different.

The questions that Bock and Armstrong pose are not necessarily if virtual reality should be integrated into the life of the church (though that is a valid question), but how and in what environments should ministers and church leaders consider implementing these inevitable technologies. Moreover, the above questions ought not be considered before more foundational questions are asked such as: what is the missional potential of VR and related technologies (53); what might be possible that was not possible before (17); and what do we gain and lose when we apply a new technology or process (17)? These and other questions scattered throughout the book help the reader think honestly about the role that virtual reality and other future technologies may play in the church moving forward.

Two things are certain: the church will not cease to exist, and technology will not cease to advance, and rapidly. The question that this leaves for the church is what use will we make of the advancements of technology for the sake of the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Thinking critically about the potential of technology and its pitfalls

Can a church exist in virtual reality? Virtual reality, after all, is not actual reality. This is the question that I skeptically imposed onto Virtual Reality Church before even cracking open the front cover. But that is not a question that the authors are preoccupied with, though they do address it in the book. The driving question, rather, is how an existing church can integrate technology, whether virtual reality or something else, into the life of the church for the sake of its mission. This is a question that churches and Christians in our society should be thinking about. 

While the authors are generally optimistic about the possibilities that come with introducing new technologies like virtual reality into the practice of the church, they also recognize that certain pitfalls loom. “Every new technology brings positive and problematic change for the communities who adopt them” (45), they rightly say. Though technology clearly offers great potential for the spread of the gospel and the building up of the global church, I am not sure we’ve yet thought critically enough about some of its pitfalls.

This does not mean that virtual reality or any other technology, for that matter, should be resolutely shunned and evicted from our church buildings. But it does mean, as this book encourages and models, that church ministers and members alike should be actively engaged in an ongoing conversation about the place of technology in the local church. What is a church? What are its nonnegotiables regarding the weekend gathering, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism, for example (which the authors do address)? Where are technologies like virtual telecommunication and virtual reality welcome and unwelcome in the life of the church and its sacred practices? These are the conversations that Virtual Reality Church have kickstarted for us and that we should take back to our local churches for consideration. 

“Evangelicalism has existed at the crossroads of tradition and innovation from its inception” (55). The church of Jesus Christ has encountered and utilized technological advancements for the entirety of its history. Though today’s technology is new, the questions we must ask have been asked for millennia by our forebears. Like Bock and Armstrong have modeled for us, and others before them, we should continue to ask and answer today’s questions for the sake of the gospel and the building up of the church.

By / Jul 9

Jason Thacker: As churches haven’t been able to gather in many months and as some begin to gather again under various restrictions, what kinds of things do you think we miss about the gathered church that technology cannot replicate or replace?

Jay Kim: Embodied presence. Almost everyone I talk to expresses the same sadness and longing—that all of the digital online mediums at our disposal are helpful but ultimately unsatisfactory. Several months into sheltering-in-place now, as digital fatigue sets in, I think what we miss most is the ability to be near one another as we worship and commune—hearing voices sing together, listening, learning, leaning in together as we hear the Word preached, the shuffling of feet and the extending of hands as we take the bread and the cup together. We miss the conversation in the lobby or courtyard, before and after, all the stuff of human experience that digital connections try but fail to replicate. Technology is doing a fine job keeping us pseudo-connected in this time, but it’s shortcomings are also becoming abundantly clear.

Julie Masson: I miss the atmosphere of being in a room with voices worshipping together. You can’t replicate the sound of the person behind you singing slightly off-key or the visual of the girl in front who is raising her hands and swaying. All five senses seem to be irreplaceable in a virtual setting.

John Dyer: The first things that come to mind are all the little accidental things that happen with physical proximity—reading the face of someone you haven’t seen in a while and knowing you need to go up to them, feeling the room react to a point (or joke) in a sermon, hearing someone else’s baby who’s not on mute. At the same time, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are already elements of our in-person gathering that technology has replaced, but not replicated. An example of this is online giving, which is so helpful for churches in the summer months, but which also hides the spiritual practice of bringing money every week and the communal practice of seeing our brothers and sisters give together.

 I’m not that concerned that we use our technology too much, I am concerned that we use it with too little reflection on how its form shapes our message. – John Dyer

JT:What are some of the best practices you have seen in regards to technology and the church in this season?

JK: It feels a little archaic even saying it but using phones as a listening/talking technology has proven itself to be a beneficial practice during this season, at least in our context and community. Turning away from the lure of social and news media, even texting, and picking up the phone to call someone has become a way of focusing our energy on little things that go a long way. I’ve tried to call people in our church community several times a week throughout this time of sheltering-in-place.

Before the coronavirus, it was mostly emails and texts from me. But now, exhausted by the digital disconnect, being able to focus solely on a voice without the added element of video and text has become a respite. And for some in our community, phone calls are so rare these days that receiving one is almost akin to receiving a hand-written letter in the mailbox; there’s been something surprisingly pleasant about it. Aside from the phone calls, the chat feature during online gatherings has been a helpful tool in creating at least some form of interaction as we “gather” in online spaces.

JD: Churches that had previously built their Sunday gathering times around highly commodifiable elements—three fast songs at pitches only professionals can reach, four minutes of video announcements, two slow songs, a sermon, etc.—were probably most prepared to enable those to be consumed online. What is rarer are churches that have intentional times of silence and prayer, songs that people and families can sing, and interactive elements that bring people out of the “watching church” mode.

JT: In what ways can churches bear the burdens of those who are still unable to attend in-person gatherings for a while due to this virus?

JK: One of the most encouraging and inspiring things I’ve seen come from this season has been the way so many have given their time, energy, and resources to come alongside the most vulnerable and needy in our midst. From picking up and dropping groceries to gardening to delivering meals, I’ve seen people bearing one another’s burdens in very visceral, real-time, real-life ways; an analog leaning, if you will. In some ways, this is one of the simplest and most powerful ways for us to truly be the church.

On an ecclesiological level, one of the most encouraging things I’ve experienced is how this pandemic has unified church leaders. Every Tuesday I’m on a Zoom call with dozens of others serving and leading local churches in the Silicon Valley and greater Bay Area. We pray for one another, share best practices, express specific needs, etc. Much has come of this; specific, pragmatic help from one church to another, as well as constant prayer for each other, and a unified plan for reopening, even though the rollout of that plan will look different from church to church. 

I’m hopeful that the church can and will continue to leverage technology. But as we do, we must never forget that the information must always point toward an invitation into embodied realities. – Jay Kim

JM: Overcommunication is key. Our church leaders have done a great job of sending weekly email updates to members, and they keep emphasizing how people can connect with the pastors, what is and isn’t happening in the church, and encouraging people to reach out to their small group members. This same information is repeated in different formats on social media. Overcommunication will help people feel like they know who to reach out to for help and how to be connected to the church while remaining at home. 

JD: I see congregations doing all kinds of wonderful work through activities like grocery shopping for those who can’t go out, sharing favorite local restaurants, supporting healthcare workers at nearby hospitals, and holding outdoor gatherings. On a more personal level, I’ve also found that returning to phone calls has been particularly meaningful. One incredible tool is which allows friends and family of those quarantined in the hospital to record a soundtrack of messages to give patients hope and connection.

JT: Help us understand some of the dangers of technology in the church and what we might do to avoid abusing these tools or relying upon them too much.

JK: Digital technology often values speed, choice, and individualism. Everything is always getting faster (speed), the options are vast and endless (choice), and our entire experience is customized to our personal preferences and personalities (individualism). When we’re not careful, these values can turn in on themselves and become not only counterproductive but also quite dangerous. Speed can make us impatient, choice can make us shallow, and individualism can make us isolated. 

When we find ourselves relying on these tools too much, and our reliance goes unchecked for too long, these values inevitably form us into an increasingly impatient, shallow, isolated people—and the danger here for followers of Jesus is that discipleship is actually a patient, deep, communal work. Awareness of the subtle, subversive, and dangerous ways our use of these technologies is forming us is step one. Implementing defined limits and parameters for use is step two.

JD: I think we need to relentlessly challenge a way of thinking that’s deeply wired into the circuitry of evangelical thinking on technology: “the methods may change, but the message stays the same.” On the surface, this seems right because the gospel seed can grow in the soil of any culture. But this way of thinking also seems to say that form doesn’t matter, that our faith is simply content that can be delivered in any medium, and that beauty, truth, and goodness are separate things. So I’m not that concerned that we use our technology too much, I am concerned that we use it with too little reflection on how its form shapes our message. Instead of using whatever shiny thing we see on Twitter, we have to think intentionally about using form and content together to shape our bodies, souls, messages, and communities.

JT: How might God use technology to further the mission of the church in the coming years?

JM: It reminds me of how people used to believe that ebooks would end up destroying the print book. They were ultimately wrong because ebooks, while convenient, have primarily served to increase the desire for physical books. I agree with others about a similar parallel with online church services driving a greater desire for in-person church gatherings. I hope that more churches will keep an eye toward accessibility, and perhaps, those who were not streaming their services will start so that shut-ins or those who are sick can still partake in a part of the service, even if virtually. 

JD: In the opening chapters of Genesis, God says that our creativity is part of our image-bearing and part of our call to have dominion over, cultivate, and care for his creation. In the center of the story is Jesus, who is a second Adam, both by perfectly following the Law and by being a tektōn, a carpenter, who cultivated the Garden and the Temple, and who died on a hideous machine made from the very tools with which he worked. And at the end of the story, we see a resurrected Jesus bringing down from heaven a new city, a holy city, full of all of the things humans make—swords beaten into plowshares, roads paved with gold, trumpets filled with music, and gates in all directions. I think this means that technology and human creativity are not just a means for telling the story, but they are part of the story. I enjoy my work building things like Bible software for closed countries, online education platforms for seminaries, and other tools.

JK: A helpful differentiating line between digital and analog realities has been the divide between information and transformation. Digital technologies offer us incredible opportunities to inform people. And information is undoubtedly an important element to sharing the gospel. But ultimately, the mission of the church does not stop at information but rather, transformation—to be remade day by day into the image of the risen Christ. The work of transformation, I believe, is always an embodied, incarnational work. It’s communal too, in the sense that we cannot do it alone. 

We are not saved as individuals headed for a far off place called heaven. We are saved into a family, called to embody heaven’s reality, the rule and reign of Christ as King, here and now, as we look forward together toward the day when Christ shall return and right every wrong. I’m hopeful that the church can and will continue to leverage technology to inform the world of kingdom possibilities in compelling ways. But as we do, we must never forget that the information must always point toward an invitation into embodied realities, where we gather together as the people of God to be transformed in real ways, in real time, and in real space.

By / Jun 19

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.