Virtual Preaching: A Digital Theology

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When the world experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, the church transitioned immediately to digital networks, virtual spaces, and hybrid or phygital (Physical + Digital) experience. Most of the churches accepted and practiced Facebook Live, YouTube streaming, and Zoom meetings as an alternative for meeting regularly especially for preaching purposes.

This article explores the history of virtual reality and its influence to modern-day preaching method. Furthermore, I contend for the future of virtual preaching in the coming years in the forms of hologram/ holoportation, virtual reality metaverse, and cyberspaces as necessary.

Roots of Virtual Reality (VR)

I trace the beginnings of VR in the early 1960s for this article.[1] Morton Heilig’s Sensorama was the earliest functioning VR. Heilig’s goal was that Sensorama “will become the first art form to reveal the new scientific world to the man in the full sensual vividness and dynamic vitality of his consciousness.”[2]

Joining Heilig’s revolutionary idea was Ivan Sutherland’s The Ultimate Display in 1965. Also, Thomas Zimmerman’s Data Glove, DataSuit, and EyePhone in 1985.[3] Nowadays, Oculus Rift and Quest are the prominent VR headsets competing with Sony PlayStation VR, etc.

To this thought, VR is not a new technology that sprouted out of nowhere. Personally, my first reading about VR, in 2016, is from a book written by John Vince entitled Virtual Reality Systems dated in 1995.

What is VR/AR?

VR is both immersive and interactive–psychological and physiological.[4] Carolina Cruz-Neira said, “Virtual reality refers to immersive, interactive, multi-sensory, viewer-centered, three-dimensional computer-generated environments and the combination of technologies required to build these environments.”[5]

Augmented Reality (AR) is a mixture of physical and virtual reality. It enhances or amplifies physical reality through sensations. The goal of VR/AR is to project a pseudo-reality not just the senses of hearing and sight but also feeling, taste, and smell.

This idea is no longer futuristic. The FifthSense also called “total sensory immersion” can be in the commercial anytime in the 2020s. Craig Weightman reasoned, “Perhaps, then, Ready Player One isn’t as fantastical as you may think. There is plenty of evidence to show that the realisation of this alternate, fully accessible, virtual world may be just a matter of time.”[6]

Televangelism, Radio Waves, and the Internet

Digital Theologian Pete Phillips echoed a Northern Irish Methodist Minister, who said, “we cannot go back to where we were!”[7] Comparing with Johannes Gutenberg’s Printing Press in the 15th century, the wave of digital technology has already influenced the methods of doing theology, preaching, ecclesiological practices, liturgies, evangelism, and discipleship. Even Jason Baker, in 1997, foresaw the coming of VR to churches; he said:

“How about a virtual-reality tour of Jerusalem, complete with an Israeli tour guide, or perhaps just an electronic walk through the new house that you are considering for purchase. How about indigenous pastors receiving complete seminary training through electronic distance learning from the leading seminaries in the world. Even more significant than these examples, I believe that the information superhighway, in some form or another, will become a seamless part of daily life.” [8]

Virtually speaking, it was not only during the presence of the Internet when churches used different methods in proclaiming the gospel. Radio stations–using radio frequencies, electromagnetic waves–were used and are still being done by many churches and Christian organizations. Also, there are television networks dedicated to preaching, playing worship songs, and ministerial projects.

Passive and Dynamic VR Preaching

When it comes to virtual preaching, there are two categories: passive and dynamic. Passive virtual preaching (PVP) is either pre-recording a sermon or a live simulation of the pastor’s preaching. PVP caters more to virtual congregations watching in front of a digital device–a monitor, television, or smartphone–from a YouTube channel, a Facebook page, or the official website of a church. Though in PVP, the partial-dynamism can still be done through live comments; however, it is not viable to provide sufficient interaction.

While dynamic virtual preaching can be done through Zoom, Google Meet, or other VR Spaces/ worlds. Zoom church meetings, small group discussions, Bible studies, and hybrid worship services have been prominently practiced since March 2020. Still, the virtual congregation has a sense of participation compared to passive VR preaching. This category is a real-time, real-experience kind of space.

Future of Virtual Preaching: Holograms

This section is somehow futuristic yet also currently happening. The coming of Holoportation as introduced by Microsoft Mesh and other pioneering authors will achieve a “really-real” immersive experience.[9] A Portl Epic, can now fully scan and project the entire human interaction simultaneously to any Portl cells or devices.[10] Even today, a gameshow called Alter Ego is using a similar algorithm, but with avatars, is now streaming.

For the benefit of visual learners, I am attaching these three video clips:

Portl Epic
Microsoft Mesh
Fox’s Alter Ego

With these virtual technologies, the future of preaching to remote places, unreached people for Christ, and being invited as a guest preacher can be done functionally. The best sample of virtual preaching taken place in a VR world is David J. Soto’s VR MMO Church.

A Digital Theology of Preaching

The question for the churches: what now? David Murray said that “Sound digital theology is the answer to digital technology; the oldest truths are the best rebuttal to the newest challenges.”[11] Echoing this statement, the future of virtual preaching is clear and the church must not abhor this reality, instead, redeem it for Christ.

Albert Borgmann urged Christians to “neither try to demolish technology nor run away from it; instead, it is better to restrain and redeem it.”[12] Even Jean-Bazin and Jerome Cottin, who coined the term “Virtual Christianity”, said that “The Internet [cyberspace] if it is thought about properly and used well, can be a tremendous benefit to churches in their difficult mission of the 21st century.”[13] Furthermore, in my chapter contribution for Technology and Theology, I argued for VR against Gnostic claims (Arceno 2020, 161):

“Gnosticism is often employed as an analogy in the argument against the virtual church. Baptist theologian Roger Olson warned churches that online church streaming leads to “partial Gnosticism” where “[v]irtual reality replaces bodily and physical reality”. I disagree with the idea that virtual reality church is Gnosticism. First, the virtual church is not a replacement for physical gatherings. Rather, it is a viable alternative that is instrumental in moments of pandemic challenges, supports virtual congregations, and caters to immobilized people. Second, and unlike Gnosticism, the virtual church does not view the physical world as evil. Rather, it complements and gives solutions for communal progress. Third, the virtual church still preaches the incarnated Christ. Fourth, virtual religious activities do not disincarnate the church, congregants, ordinances, and Christ. This is where many people, mostly unaware of information technology, think that virtual space is an escape from the incarnated body. Virtual reality must be perceived as part of the incarnational life of humanity. “Being there” in a virtual world is still being present physically. Just as sending a letter through physical mail is the same as sending it via email; the message is still received by the recipient. Saving a word file in the hard drive is “real and present” and just the same as when you hold a printed copy of that file. Whether online and offline, virtual and physical or cloud-computing, they are all part of this embodied life in the physical world. It is not a realm outside the physical world. Virtual reality is “in and being there” physically in the world.”

Another Filipino Digital Theologian Rei Crizaldo noted, “The virtual is an experience of reality mediated by technology—digital extensions of ourselves reaching out to others in bytes and pixels. Arguments can be made that this is no different to how Apostle Paul himself pioneered a form of virtual presence by circulating ‘epistles’ across the Mediterranean—only that the good apostle relied on ink and parchment instead of Wifi and video shoots.”[14]

Biblically speaking, Christians are called to proclaim the gospel of Christ in any circumstances (2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Tim. 4:13; Matt 28:19-20; Mk 16:15) “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:1-4) “with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31). Like the apostle Paul who preached Christ daily (1 Thess. 2:9), even during his imprisonment (Phil 1:12-18).

Should Christians neglect this techno-cultural reality? How will these people hear the gospel without a preacher who will preach the good news (Romans 10:14-15)? Today’s ancient Romans’ Road (due to Pax Romana) is the virtual network. Same as how Paul with other missionaries journeyed Macedonia, Ephesus, Corinth, and other cities via the up-to-date road technology, Christians must take heed with this opportunity.

Andrew Careaga said that “[v]irtual connections is the ‘Romans Road’ network of this era, connecting the body of Christ in ways never before possible.”[15] “The techno-fields are “ripe for harvest”, but the “workers are few. Ask the Lord of the Harvest for ‘techies’.” (Paraphrase combination of John 4:35 and Matt. 9:37-38, Arceno 2020, 159).

As stated in one of my recent blogs: “We are called to ‘go’ where the people are. Jesus did not say ‘come and make disciples,’ instead, he said, ‘go and make disciples…and teach them’ (Matthew 28:19-20).” WeAreSocial surveyed, “There are 4.80 billion internet users around the world today, equating to almost 61 percent of the world’s total population.”[16]

Faithful preaching is going to where the people are–indeed, they are online. Are we just going to be offline? As my Indigitous colleagues would say: “The harvest is plentiful… and online, but the workers are few… and offline.”

I take part with the goal of Global Network for Digital Theology making this kind of topic–digital theology–accessible to the digital world. As what renowned theologian Darell Bock and Jonathan Armstrong said about writing Virtual Reality Church. They said, “We would not have chosen to write a book about VR if we did not believe that VR possesses potential to reshape our culture in profound ways in the coming years.”[17] Likewise, I do believe that faithful preaching of the gospel through digital tech in virtual spaces is ought to set out.

Ending this article post with Walter Wilson’s note:

“God is doing something big, and we had best be clearheaded about what is going on around us. The church is in the information technology to communicate His word to the entire world Christians again must travel the network, only this time it is electronic.”[18]

What do you think? Reason with me.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Written by John Paul Arceno, ThM.
September 22, 2021 | 1:00 AM (EDT)


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REFERENCES

* Citations are mainly from Arceno’s “Utopian Virtual Reality in Ready Player One: Responding with Real Hope and the Christian Teleos,” in Film, Philosophy and Religion ed. William Anderson (Wilmington, Delaware: Vernon Press, August 2021), 69-88; and “Is Virtual Baptism a ‘Real’ Baptism?” in Technology and Theology ed. William Anderson (Wilmington, DE: Vernon Press, August 2020), 149-167.

[1] Although, the concept of VR can also be likened to a panoramic painting which can be dated during the Renaissance era.

[2] Morton Heilig, “The Cinema of Future (1955).” Cf. Jon Turi, “The Sights and Scents of the Sensorama Simulator,” Engadget (2014): https://www.engadget.com/2014-02-16-morton-heiligs-sensorama-simulator.html.

[3] Ivan Sutherland, “The Ultimate Display” “The Ultimate Display”, Proceedings of IFIP
Congress 2
(1965): 506-08. Cf. Henry E. Lowood, “Virtual Reality,” in Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/technology/virtual-reality.

[4] John Vince, Virtual Reality Systems (Boston: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1995), vii.

[5] Carolina Cruz-Neira, “Virtual Reality Overview”, Special Interest Group on Computer
Graphics and Interactive Techniques
93.23 (1993): 1.

[6] Gareth May, “Fifth Sense: The Next Stage of VR is Total Sensory Immersion,” Wareable 17th May 2017: https://www.wareable.com/vr/senses-touch-taste-smell-immersion-7776. Cf. Anne Corning, “Creating Full Sensory Experiences: The Future of AR/VR/MR/XR,” Radiant Vision System, July 27, 2020, https://www.radiantvisionsystems.com/blog/creating-full-sensory-experiences-future-ar/vr/mr/xr.

[7] Pete Phillips, “The Hybrid Church,” Premier, April 28, 2021, https://www.premierdigital.info/post/the-hybrid-church/.

[8] Jason Baker, ed., Christian Cyberspace Companion: A Guide to the Internet and Christian Online Resources (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 163-64.

[9] Sergio Orts-Escolano, et. al, “Holoportation: Virtual 3D Teleportation in Real-time,” https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/2984511.2984517; “Overview,” Microsoft Holoportation, https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/project/holoportation-3/; Sai Balasubramanian, “Microsoft Mesh: A New ‘Holoportation’ & Mixed Reality Platform That May Disrupt Healthcare,” Forbes, March 7, 2021.

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[10] Portl Official Website: https://www.portlhologram.com/. Cf. Roberto Saracco, “Holoportation is -almost-here!,” IEEE Future Directions, February 21, 2020, https://cmte.ieee.org/futuredirections/2020/02/21/holoportation-is-almost-here/.

[11] David Murray, “Digital Theology”, Tabletalk Magazine, October 1, 2016: https://tabletalkmagazine.com/article/2016/10/digital-theology/.

[12] Albert Borgmann, Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology (Grand
Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), 8.

[13] Jean-Nicolas Bazin and Jerome Cottin, Virtual Christianity: Potential and Challenge for the Churches (Grand-Saconnex: WCC Publications, 2004), 96-97.

[14] Rei Lemuel Crizaldo, “How Real is the Virtual Church,” Everyday Theology, February 3, 2021, https://everydaytheology.online/2020/10/13/how-real-is-the-virtual-church/. Cf. Arceno 2021, 83.

[15] Andrew Careaga, eMinistry: Connecting with the Net Generation (Grand Rapids: Kregel
Publications, 2001), 15.

[16] “Digital 2021 July Global Statshot Report,” We Are Social, https://wearesocial.com/us
/blog/2021/07/digital-audiences-swell-but-there-may-be-trouble-ahead

[17] Darrell L. Bock and Jonathan Armstrong, Virtual Reality Church: Pitfalls and Possibilities (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2021), 30.

[18] Walter D. Wilson, The Internet Church (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), xiii-xiv.

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Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Published by JP Arceno

A Mere Christian, no other religion, but Christian church, call me a Catholic Christian ~ Richard Baxter

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