“As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them. You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.”
If I ever am ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, I will hear these words from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer from my bishop as she explains how I am to live the rest of my life. If you consider those words carefully, you will note a distinct two-way intention: taking the church to the world and bringing the world to the church. In a culture where religion in general, and the Christian church in particular has moved from the center of American culture to the edges, how can mobile technology be helpful in bridging the divide?
In a post-Christian America, the church must learn “how to engage culture from the edges instead of from the center.” The deacon’s ministry, as I understand it, becomes increasingly important in our age. The critical image for me is the stone threshold at the door of the church. I see my ministry as making the folks inside aware of how high a bar that entrance threshold is in reality. Most people, who might have passing “discovery” or “interest moments” as Melissa Finney of Flipboard called them, do not have an easy way to look inside at what is actually happening in the church. We insiders don’t consider how big a deal just getting someone to “come and see” what is actually going on inside our walls. Virtual reality, if we are open to it, may have some impact here.
Many intriguing commercial applications of virtual reality are being tested. Trying on clothes or going for a virtual test drive in a new car are currently possible. Presenting marketing content to educate consumers takes on a whole new dimension through use of this immersive technology. If so for business, why not for the church? Consider just some of the roles that VR might play in that conversation:
- Folks with physical limitations who wish to maintain contact with their religious communities
- People in remote locations who want to participate in worship
- Those who want to teach or learn more about religious practices
- “Spritual, but not religious” people who might want to join in organized meditations or prayers
- Activists who want to see how a church is providing relief of human suffering and advocacy of systemic change
Getting these folks through the doors of a church is problematic. Negative stereotypes surround anything remotely resembling a church. A pastor at the notoriously hip St. Lydia’s, an Episcopal “dinner church” in Brooklyn reports, ““I’ve definitely heard that [people who attend] find themselves censoring themselves when they talk with friends about going to church. … For some of them, posting about St. Lydia’s on Facebook for the first time was like a really big deal.” In a changed American culture where most people have never stepped inside of a church except, perhaps, for a wedding or a funeral, how do we who are inside the church share all the life-giving “churchy things” that are happening with the culture at large?
We need to create digital experiences that embody Saatchi and Saatchi’s MIST principles. These “keys to mobile marketing success” have served business well. Now it is time for the church to consider them as we examine virtual reality tools. Since the church is basically a “bricks and mortar” enterprise in our current incarnation, we need to take advantage of location technology to make the experience truly mobile. It is critical that create intimate experiences wherein we make church doors spring open and differentiate the experience from just sitting at home looking at websites on a laptop. We are “in business” in a sense to make connections with people at intimate moments that matter in their lives. We, at our best, are not judgmental and exclusive – but social in the sense of promoting human interactions and conversations. Church digital technology should always be aimed at facilitating personal “real-time” connections, not just remaining in virtual relationships. The change to the MIST model that I suggest would be in the final “T” – whereas it stands in the business world for “transactional,” in the church world, I’d suggest, we ought to be thinking “transformational.” How can a virtual reality experience play a part in changing peoples’ lives for the better?
Can virtual reality be the basis of a change in the global church? I believe this discussion is an important one for me as a potential deacon to engage in. Who knows? As they say, “the Spirit works in many mysterious ways.”
In its Social Principles, The United Methodist Church recognizes scientific technologies “as legitimate uses of God’s natural world,” with critical caveats that can help us ask key theological questions about VR:
“When such use enhances human life…”––What VR applications improve the quality of life? Does VR’s potential to entertain and educate outweigh, balance, or fall short of its potential to isolate users? Can interacting with others in a shared virtual setting enrich our relationships with them in the physical world?
“Enables all of God’s children to develop their God-given creative potential…”––What is built in VR that highlights human beings’ highest creative urges over our more destructive, selfish impulses? Is VR easily accessible to everyone, or do cost, technical know-how, and other factors create barriers?
“Without violating our ethical convictions about the relationship of humanity to the natural world…”––Are users spending more time in virtual worlds than the real one? Does using VR help us better appreciate and care for our physical environment?
The Social Principles encourage joint scientific and theological dialogue that will, “by God’s grace, increase the quality of our common lives together.” VR represents one area where such productive dialogue is urgently needed.
Sources (other than those linked above)
The Book of Common Prayer, and administration of the sacraments and other rites and ceremonies of the church, according to the use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. (1977). Church Pension Fund.
Eslinger, T. (2014). Mobile magic: The saatchi and saatchi guide to mobile marketing. Hoboken: Wiley.