Voices: Are virtual reality baptisms good for the church?

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I’ve noticed a trend among churches in the last few months.

More and more churches seem to be incorporating social media and video streaming into their services, with many beginning to “livestream” their services on Facebook.

I’ve enjoyed this trend. It’s allowed me to keep up with churches I’ve previously served at and watch sermons from friends who preach in other churches. I spend a good portion of my work-time on Mondays listening to services from other churches, and this time only seems to be growing as more churches begin incorporating this kind of technology into their services.

As the prominence of social media use and livestreaming grows, it seems to be a good time to consider how this kind of technology relates to the Christian witness.

An all-digital church?

Last week, Baptist News Global shared the story of Virtual Reality Church.

Founded by Baptist-Pentecostal minister D. J. Soto, VRC hosts services available through AltspaceVR, a free virtual reality software that connects to a variety of virtual reality headsets as well as smartphones and tablets.

With the proper equipment and connection, members of Virtual Reality Church can tune in weekly for a 3-D interactive church service. As Soto described it: “We want to create experiences. You don’t go to VR just to sit there. If we are talking about Moses and the Red Sea, then the church building goes away and the sea comes up around us. We can worship at Golgotha and the tomb. At Christmas, we had a full nativity and people could walk up and see Joseph and Mary. The next level is those experiences. You create an environment in VR. The possibilities are endless.”

Baptist News Global reports that Virtual Reality Church is hosting digital baptism services in the near future, likely “baptizing” the avatars of requesting members in virtual rivers, though Soto says the logistics of digital baptism are still under consideration.

What we’re already doing

I imagine most people reading this will express reservation at the idea of an all-digital church, and especially at the concept of a virtual baptism. I do as well.

That said, I see this occurring frequently among Texas Baptists already.

When I watch services and sermons on my Monday morning recaps, I see a stream of commenters throughout the service writing something such as “here” to indicate their presence. Very often, the same people week-to-week are tuning in to service livestreams from their homes, seemingly as an alternative to physically attending the church service.

We might not be willing to go so far as digitally baptizing someone, but more and more churches seem to be accepting virtual church membership.

Technology and theology

Social media and livestreaming, like any piece of technology, have the potential to further the church’s witness if used well.

It’s allowed me to “keep up” with other churches and hear friends preach. It allows homebound individuals to view services. In fact, the upcoming “digital baptism” service at Virtual Reality Church is happening at the request of a quadriplegic member who would likely have significant difficulty participating in a traditional immersion baptism.

It’s important that we ask ourselves, though, what message we’re sending by our use of technology. The way we structure our churches is, after all, a theological statement whether we realize it or not.

When we send the message to our congregants that virtual attendance is the same as physical attendance, we’re telling them that their actual, bodily presence at the service doesn’t make a difference; churchgoers become spectators at a performance rather than participators in an event.

I don’t think that’s a message we want to send.

Technology can certainly be a partner in ministry, just as it can be a hindrance. How it’s used is crucial.

Whether your church embraces the internet and social media or stays away from it, let’s make sure people remember how much we want them to be there — actually, physically there.

Jake Raabe is a student at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is also a co-founder of Patristica Press, a Waco-based publishing house.

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