Steve Kyeongseop Eom
“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” (John 4:20-21)
Sociologists and futurists say that the changes the human race have had for the past 100 years, are equivalent to the changes in the ten thousand years before that. Furthermore, the changes we are about to face in 20 years will be greater than that of the past one hundred years (Choi 2013: 104-105). Because of the rapid changes happening, our future is hard to predict. Bill Gates mentioned that he is fascinated by this world that changes faster than he could imagine. Indeed the world is definitely changing faster than our imaginations.
As a missionary, I frequently ask myself “how can I effectively spread the gospel in the midst of a rapidly changing world?” I wonder what our world would look like in ten or twenty years. I also imagine what the church would be like after all the changes happening in the world. Considering its speed, I tried to illustrate the future church with my own imagination. I named the church I illustrated “vChurch” because the church I illustrated is a virtual reality church.
I think this virtual church is more than just imagination and that it will become a reality. When looking at the speed of technological development, a virtual church will definitely become a reality whether we want it or not. There will be of course, churches that retain its current form. However, those churches will have to compete and cooperate with the virtual church, which will in turn change the face of world missions.
As I am writing this article, I will attempt to explain the concept of the virtual church keeping in mind the Presbyterian churches founded on the reformed tradition which make up the mainline Korean churches. Although I am writing about the virtual reality church, this does not mean that I support the virtual church over the present church. However, I am certain that virtual churches will be introduced to us in the future, therefore I will discuss how we should accept this concept and the possible changes in the mission horizons
1. VIRTUAL WORSHIP (vWORSHIP) SCENARIO
With my lazy-almost ten year-old son John, I sit on a chair with a pair of vGlasses. After helping him put on the vGlasses, I put on my vGlasses. Upon pressing a button on my chest, we are immediately transported to the building of our church. In front of the church is a sign saying, “Grace Presbyterian Virtual Church”. The big blue sign on the wood panel and the church building makes me appreciate the beauty of the church. John and I hurry into the church and get on the elevator. We get off on the third floor, which is the location of John’s Sunday School. Children are singing worship songs with dance movements and John is greeted by his Sunday School teacher. I left John in Sunday School and got up to the seventh floor.
On the seventh floor, I am greeted by the welcoming team. Seeing that the door is closed, I am sure that the service has already started and the opening prayer is going on. After the prayer, the door opens and I look for a seat. Because today is communion day, the chapel is full of people. I discreetly make my way to the middle of the chapel and I apologetically nod to all the people that had to stand up as I make way to an empty seat in the middle of the row. As I sit down and bow my head in brief prayer I got the feeling that the seats have become more spacious and comfortable.
The choir is singing Handel’s Messiah number 51 “Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain”. Although the hymn itself is splendid, I am particularly impressed today by the excellent performance of our choir. I participated in choir practice on Thursday, but because of John’s tardiness I was not able to be with the choir today. As the choir finished it’s performance the pastor makes his way up on the podium and of course wearing his black traditional Presbyterian gown. The gowns heavy feature is suffocating and when thinking of the changing times I find it a little frustrating and I wonder when the pastor will stop wearing it.
Today’s sermon is about the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand. The ceiling of the chapel becomes a huge monitor, presenting the image of Jesus on the hillside with thousands of people. While this image is being played like a movie, I feel like I am with the thousands of people. As our pastor is preaching, Jesus holds up the bread and the fish and blesses it. His disciples take the bread and the fish and hand them out to the crowd. A disciple from the screen (who looks like Peter) comes to our seat and gives us part of the bread too. It tastes like unleavened bread, bland.
With the completion of the sermon, the communion followed. The pastor reads a bible passage according to the Presbyterian church’s tradition and calls the congregation to confess the sins we have made. I can hear someone trying to hold in her tears as I am praying. The organ is playing and the bread and wine is being served by the communion team. I take a sip of the wine which has a strong taste like wine that has aged for a long time and I can feel my face get warm.
Now it’s time to gather the tithes and offering. Although people can make their offering using the vCard earlier at home or place their vCard on the censor attached to their chairs, the offering team goes around with the card reader so people can make their offering in the old fashioned way. People really don’t like change. It would be less time consuming if everyone is willing to make their offering by just tapping their card on the censor. After I input the amount I want to offer on the card, I swipe my card on the card reader and pass it on to the next person.
After the service, I say hi to familiar faces. Elder Paul Kim asked me to participate in the mission department meeting but I kindly declined his offer, as I had other things to do back home. On the third floor, I find my son waiting near the elevator. I press the button on his chest and as I watch him disappear I press the button on my chest to follow him home.
The story above is a virtual scenario of worship service in the future virtual church. People attend Sunday service with the vGlasses that use hologram and brain stimulus. The worship service in virtual church is the same as the worship service in a real church. People can interact, touch, make conversations and even eat in the virtual church. The only difference is, in the virtual church no one is “physically” present. As the virtual church seamlessly uses the available and developing virtual world technology, people will be able to experience a more realistic and dynamic service.
The virtual church I just illustrated is more than just a make-believe or imaginary church. Gatherings in virtual churches are as real as our present church gatherings. Present churches and virtual churches can cooperate and be connected. In the future, it would be meaningless to say which is real and which is imaginary.
2. THE APPEARANCE OF THE VIRTUAL CHURCH (vCHURCH)
In November 4th 2008 during America’s presidential election, Wolf Blitzer in CNN New York talks with the hologram of Jessica Yellin in CNN Chicago. They were making conversation as if they were physically together in the same place although they were more than 700 miles apart (CNN 2008: Web). Not even 10 years have passed and now we often see such similar scenes.
Hatsune Miku in Japan, is a digital avatar. She is a synthetic character created by Crypton Future Media. Hatsune Miku gained huge success through her concert where she was presented as a hologram. The crowd was crazy about her and thought of her as a part-human goddess (CBSNEWS 2012: Web). Virtual characters could be more popular than reality.
The Coachella Music Festival in California, USA, is famous. In April 2012, the crowd experienced the resurrection of Tupac Shakur, who is a hip pop artist who was shot and killed in 1996. Tupac Shakur was present as a hologram and performed on the stage with Snoop Dogg (New York Daily News 2012: Web). Such as this, holograms could connect us with someone who is far away, a virtual being, or even someone who died years ago.
On March 2014, Facebook made an announcement about taking over Oculus (computer gaming company) for two billion dollars. Oculus is a company which develops computer games based on virtual reality. Games created by Oculus are different from other computer games. In Oculus games, the game user puts on “Rift”, which is a headset that activates virtual reality, and allows the gamer to become a part of the game. Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook who took over Oculus said, “Imagine you could sit in the stadium and watch your favorite team’s game, students and teachers all around the world could sit together in the same classroom, see your doctor at home, just by putting on your virtual goggles” (Forbes 2014: Web). Zuckerberg realized that in the very near future, virtual reality will be part of our lives and he thought the technology that Oculus has is valuable and is the platform of the future.
Hologram technology is developing rapidly. So far holograms were just 3D imagery which could not be touched or sensed. However, the development of hologram technology has advanced to a point where we can actually feel a hologram water drop on our palm. It would be hard to determine whether something is reality or virtual when a virtual image can deliver the sense of touch (Choi 2013: 230). The hologram of Jessica Yellin of CNN couldn’t feel the atmosphere of the New York CNN studio. However, giving stimulation to human brain could take hologram technology to another level. Yoonsik Choi mentions something called ‘Deep brain stimulation’ which is technology that stimulates and controls the brain via electronic lines connected to a computer. This technology is called ‘Cyborg Technology’ and it is currently being used to treat Parkinson’s disease. 20,000 Parkinson’s disease patients have already been treated with cyborg technology and they have been able to walk, run and even dance after the treatment (Choi 2013: 253). Fit brain stimulation technology combines with hologram technology, a virtual world where we can actually sense and feel will become reality. A virtual word can be formed through the fusion of hologram and the matrix world.
According to Yoonsik Choi, we can expect to experience a separate dimension created by virtual reality technology. He calls this concept as ‘escape to virtual reality world.’ One day the virtual world accompanied by 3D imagery will dominate the real world and will establish virtual government, virtual company, virtual school and society, and these will perfectly synthesize with the real world (Choi 2013: 231). According to Choi, 3D intelligent ubiquitous environment will be established by 2010 and by 2022, and virtual reality will be generalized. After 2030, innovation of the 3-dimentional virtual reality technology will be fully developed and the line between virtual and reality will vanish, as individual’s memory and history will remain inside it’s avatar in the virtual world (Choi 2013: 236). If such is possible, by 2022 churches will experience the virtual version and the reality version synthesizing and cooperating with each other.
This virtual church is different with the cyber church which we already have online. It will allow people to go beyond just streaming a sermon online or get information through a church webpage. The future virtual church will allow people to meet each other in its virtual space and attend Sunday services and allow them to have fellowship. In the near future with more advanced hologram and brain stimulating technology, virtual church will become a reality.
3. WHAT CAUSED VIRTUAL CHURCH TO ARRIVE?
An era that is so rapidly changing could be one of the reasons why a virtual church would be present. If the developing technology allows us to have a virtual school and a virtual company, there is no doubt that we could also have a virtual church. There are already signs that churches are moving towards a virtual concept. For example, the birth of television provided sermon on air for people who physically cannot be in the church and it also helped other people become exposed to the gospel. There are many people who have their Sunday services at home via television. The number of online congregation is increasing. Many churches have an online webpage that provides sermons and church information to people. People can use online streaming to listen to the sermon that is being preached in the church at the same time. There are chatting windows next to the streaming screen so people can participate by chatting and commenting about the sermon. As we are seeing these changes, the arrival of the virtual church is inevitable in the near future.
Disappointment in the present churches could be another reason for a virtual church to take place. The growth of western and Korean churches is stagnating and the number of churchgoers are expected to decrease significantly. Taking the Korean church for example, according to research by Gallup Korea in 2004, from 1997 to 2004, 7.5 million people left the Protestant church. Although the percentage of people who identify with religion have increased from 46.9% to 53.5%, the number of Protestants have decreased. People who don’t have religion have the most favorable impression of Buddhist (37.4%) then Catholics (17%) and lastly Protestants (12.3%) (Gallup Korea 2005: Web). Korean churches are losing the trust of society. 10 years have passed and if we were to perform the same research, the result will be more devastating now. The future of Korean churches is depressing. With the loss of dynamics in the church and the changing Korean population and society, the church is losing it’s Sunday school population and will be filled with retired people. This in turn will decrease offerings and eventually a lot of churches will go through financial breakdown and they would have to close down.
Historically, after significant revivals, churches have been spending their money on building larger buildings. Mega churches and big churches competitively built their buildings to absorb more people from small churches that have closed down. Sometimes it was to show their grandness and power. As a result, church members had to bear the church’s financial burden and many have dedicated themselves in a lot of ways. However, some members will be disgusted by a church’s ambition to show off its grandness and they will think of a way to find a church that doesn’t need so much money to operate and at the same time keep their spiritual life active.
Furthermore, the efficiency of virtual space demands the arrival of the virtual church. Virtual church could fulfill the needs that present churches cannot. Virtual churches could expand its size without any expense and allow people to have meetings. Virtual churches are not limited by where people are. People all around the world could be involved in the same church. With the ability of developing technology, virtual churches will have more dynamic features.
4. DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE VIRTUAL CHURCH AND THE PRESENT CHURCH
The only difference between the virtual church and the present church is that in a virtual church people are not being gathered in a physical building and are not physically together. With that difference aside, everything else will be the same. For example, if someone is a Presbyterian, he will be guided by the Westminster Confession and memorize the Shorter Catechism. If he was asked “what is the chief end of man?” he will answer, “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Virtual church will retain the Presbyterian churches tradition and administrative structure. The service will continue to follow the Presbyterian tradition, taking place in a designated space and time. The Pastor will preach the gospel and the choir will sing worship songs and the offerings will be made. There will be Sunday schools, and men and women ministries. The only difference will be that the members need to wear equipment such as ‘vGlasses’ and everything will take place in virtual reality. However, this will not mean that people’s activity is limited to the virtual world. According to decisions made in the virtual space, people can physically meet each other in the real world; such as visiting sick families in the church or get involved with feeding ministry in the real world. Virtual world and present world will both have equal value and meaning and they will co-exist in the future.
5. PROS OF THE VIRTUAL CHURCH
Because virtual churches don’t need a physical building, they don’t need a budget for building and maintenance. Of course there will be some expense involved with computer programming and mapping, but it will be substantially less when compared to the budget of building and maintaining them physically. Virtual churches can also grow in size freely. Virtual churches will save time and energy for the people getting together. We won’t need to drive more than 30 minutes to attend Sunday services or church meetings. All we need to do is put on our vGlasses at the time we need to be at the church. Even when we are out of town for business or travel, we could still be present in our virtual church. Virtual church will be an easy solution to connect people. If someone wants pastoral visitation, they can set up the time and place and meet each other in virtual space.
It will also be possible to invite renowned preachers from all over the word to preach at a virtual church. Although you could always listen to their preaching by playing recorded videos, actually by inviting them to the virtual church the sermon will become more dynamic and personal. Sermons will also become more effective. For example, when the preacher is preaching about God’s creation, he can make creations to appear inside the chapel. There could be stars shining in the ceiling of the chapel and giraffes passing through the aisles.
Virtual church will be a convenient place for handicapped people. Since no one is physically being disturbed by anything in virtual spaces, there will be no problem for handicapped person to attend services. The deaf will be able to understand the sermon and blind will be able to see things virtually through advanced technology. Nothing will stop people from attending the church service. There are many more pros to the future virtual church.
6. IMPORTANT QUESTIONS ABOUT THE VIRTUAL CHURCH
Seung-Goo Lee mentioned that cyber or virtual church will distort the church’s original image. He claimed, “Cyber communities could be educated with God’s word and have fellowship based on the teachings, but unless there are offline meetings, there won’t be genuineness of baptism and communion.” He also mentioned “with the anonymous and unknown identity of web users, it seems impossible to acquire proper community. Therefore, cyber church or virtual church is inappropriate for the church’s original concept” (goodness 2005: Web). For reasons such as this, there will be a lot of questions and doubts about the virtual church. These questions could be theological questions or practical questions. Above all possible questions, we can assume that the two most critical questions would be one: “can virtual church be genuine?” and second: “is it going to be possible for people to have genuine fellowship?”
1) Can virtual church be genuine?
When we ask the question, “can virtual church be genuine?” we should ask ourselves “what is the definition of church?” Wayne Grudem defines church in his book “Systematic Theology” as this; “the church is the community of all true believers for all time” (Grudem 1994: 853). If this definition is true, a Christian community represented by the virtual church should also be considered as church. Virtual church has a different style or format of gathering, but they are the same Christian community,which serves Jesus Christ as Savior.
The marks that distinguish a true church from a false church as per the protestant church are as follows: the true preaching of the word of God, the right administration of the sacraments and the faithful exercise of discipline (Berkhof 1996: 577-578). Many churches are failing to keep up with these marks, resulting in a lack of spiritual dynamics. If we can answer the question of whether the virtual church could meet these marks, we can also answer whether the virtual church can be genuine.
I believe it will be possible for the virtual church to have truthful proclamation of the gospel and proper practice of justice just like the present churches. The question is whether or not the virtual church can have the right administration of the sacraments. If the water used in baptism and the bread and wine in communion is symbolic, and we believe that the Holy Spirit reigns upon us during these sacraments, it is not that hard to believe that the virtual church can have right administration of sacraments. Even though the water, bread and wine used in a virtual church is just a hologram, they have meaning as symbolic images and we cannot conclude that the spirit of Christ is absent.
2) Is it possible to have genuine fellowship?
As we talk about the virtual church, there will be much doubt about whether church members can have personal relationships with each other and have genuine fellowship. Although people meet in the form of a hologram in the virtual church, they can see and feel each other just like in the real world. As we can see in the movie Matrix, people can talk and eat in the virtual space. Our intellect is fully operating in virtual space. The only difference is that a person’s physical body is in the real world not the virtual world. We create relationships through SNS such as Facebook and Tweeter. We are already experiencing how people bond through the internet based platform.
If someone insists that personal fellowship requires physical encounter, it would be impossible for us to meet Jesus personally. Although Jesus went up to heaven, we are still engaging with him without physical encounter. Even though we can’t see his face, we can have personal encounter with him through the Holy Spirit. What about our spiritual ancestors? Their souls are waiting for the resurrection of their bodies while enjoying personal fellowship with God in heaven. Therefore, demanding physical encounter for personal relationship would be an unreasonable requirement.
The validity of services in virtual church could be explained by looking at John 4:20, where the Samaritan woman meets Jesus. She says, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” And Jesus answers, “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father” (John 4:21). He says it is not important where we worship. If our worship is being made in spirit and truth, God will accept it as a true worship (John 4:23-24). Because God is a spirit.
If we are to distinguish spirituality, the spirituality of virtual church could be stated as “vSpirituality.” I don’t think vSpirituality is fake or inferior compared to the spirituality in real world. Members of the virtual church are able to confess their true belief, give whole hearted worship and live according to their spiritual belief in both the virtual world and the real world.
7. VIRTUAL CHURCH AND MISSIONS
When I began wondering about how missions would change in the future, I was faced with the idea of the virtual church. That is because the future of missions and the future of the church are intimately connected. If the virtual church becomes established, the paradigm of missions will definitely change. In the future, the cross over to other cultures to spread the gospel will not be as complicated or cumbersome as it is now. Additionally, as the current state of missions is not suitable for the virtual world, the existing mission model, structure, and paradigm will either change, disappear, or be replaced by something new.
Through the virtual church, we will be able to experience to an extent what it was like during Pentecost and what it will be like in the end of days. Which is the experience of seeing all nation and tongues worship God. In a virtual world, the future people of all nations will be able to gather in one place and worship God without the barrier of differing languages. There are no restrictions of location in the virtual world. Anyone who desires to participate in the service can do so from where they physically are. Also, as there are no limitations in the size of the space, everyone in the whole world can, in theory worship in the same space.
When the virtual church becomes established there will be no problems with communication across different languages. There will be an automatic translator so that everyone will understand each other regardless of the language. In Korea a mobile translator that can instantaneously translate Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese has recently been released. In 2015 a company called Sekee iTech released a mobile translation device called Barotalk. Barotalk was produced through partnership with SYSTRAN international, which is the world’s leader in the development of language translation technologies. Barotalk is an intensive production that includes automatic speech recognition, spoken language translation, text-to-speech synthesis, and bi-directional automatic translation technology. By using natural language processing technology, Barotalk has raised the accuracy of translation (MK News 2015: Web, Korean Times 2016: Web). Now the 1.4 billion people using Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese can communicate without learning the languages.
Google Translate has been advancing at an incredible rate. In 2015 Google Translate had the capabilities to translate in 90 languages in text, 37 via photo, and 32 via voice (New York Daily News 2015: Web). At the start of 2016 Google announced that it now translates 103 languages which covers 99% of the online population. In 2006 Google started with machine learning-based translations between English and Arabic, Chinese and Russian, and in just almost 10 years it has advanced this far (Google Translate Blog 2016: Web). If in the future Google Translate combines with virtual reality technology, people of differing languages will be able to communicate freely in the virtual world. The members of the Kale Heywet Church in Ethiopia, the members of the Assembly of God in Brazil, the members of the Church of Christ in Thailand, and even those that are members of Muslim and Buddhist communities who are interested in attending a virtual church service where a Korean pastor is preaching can do so without the barriers of language.
Meanwhile, the virtual church will be capable of providing an environment where their members from other countries can worship in their own languages. For example, a virtual church somewhere in Seoul, South Korea can provide a separate chapel for Vietnamese, Mongolians and Myanmarese and have pastors from their country preach. These pastors would not have to physically leave their countries to preach. And of course as each country develops its virtual technology, there will no longer be any need for them to have the help of the virtual church in Seoul to establish a virtual church for their own nationals.
Although people who doubt the virtual church criticizes its anonymity, it is the virtual church’s anonymity that can be a huge help to missions. Through the virtual church’s anonymity, people who are in countries where there is no religious freedom can freely go to church. If virtual space technology develops further, no matter how oppressive the government is, it will not be easy for governments to entirely ban worship services within a virtual space. There are call centers and chatting rooms operating 24 hours a day for Christian counseling and questions. They are run by volunteers who take turns looking at the computer screen or wait for calls to engage with people around the world. People who call are from various countries and are of different races, religion, gender, age and occupation; but all have interest in Christianity. When the virtual world is opened, people around the world will be able to talk freely about spiritual matters by facing each other in the virtual space.
Virtual churches will have an easier ability to be a missional church than the present churches. There will be a need for professional virtual missionaries (vMissionaries) for virtual evangelism (vEvangelism), however all members of the virtual church can participate in missions. With the technology of automatic language translating system it will not be necessary for them to learn the language. It will not be necessary for them to take a plane to reach the local people in the mission field. The virtual church can make spaces where they can invite the people in the mission field from all over the world and teach the gospel.
Going to missions by traveling back and forth doesn’t mean much in virtual missions. Missional work will not be limited to certain people in the church, but it will become everyone’s job. Every nation on earth will have their opportunities to hear the gospel in their own language. Certainly, virtual world will bring us an optimal opportunity for world mission.
If you go inside Samsung Gear VR in the official website of Samsung’s Galaxy, there is a quote that says, “You’re there in the moment. A super AMOLED display, wide field of view, precise head-tracking and low latency brings reality to the virtual…Anything is possible when you’re inside Gear VR. Whether it’s battling the undead or riding a flying carpet, you won’t run out of adventures with an ever-expanding vault of games” (Samsung: Web). The Samsung Gear VR will take us instantaneously into the virtual world from the real world, and make everything a possibility. Samsung is introducing its Gear VR in cooperation with Oculus, a company that Facebook took over.
Along with the virtual world, virtual church will also be introduced to us. Our future will be an era where virtual and reality will cooperate and synthesize. When the virtual church is introduced, existing churches will be in shock and there will be much controversy. Some people may support the idea of virtual church, but most of the people will worry and fear the concept of a virtual church. In looking ahead for its arrival , I think it is proper for the present churches and virtual churches to co-exist in order to minimize the conflict and shock that the present church will experience. Present churches should remain as it is, but virtual churches will support young generations and people who feel uncomfortable with the present church. Additionally, to alleviate the possible doubts about the virtual church’s spirituality, sacraments and interpersonal relationships, the present church should be connected to the virtual church. For example, churches can set up a rule that sacrament should only take place in the church in the real world in order to minimize dispute against the virtual church.
Christianity is a religion of incarnation and translation. If Christianity isn’t being translated and incarnated to a new era and culture, Christianity will deteriorate. Andrew Walls wrote, “The Christian story is a story of advance and recession” (Walls 2007:12, 15). The stagnation of Western and Korean churches were inevitable as Christianity wasn’t being continuously translated and incarnated to the new era and culture (Walls 2007: 13). The generation that experienced the huge revival of Christianity is stubbornly clinging on to their old experience, rather than trying to translate the gospel for the new generation. If churches are not capable of translating the gospel for the new generation without distorting its essence, the future of the church cannot be guaranteed. If churches ignore the concept of virtual space despite it’s generalization in the future, the church will become a lone island. Therefore, churches should accept the concept of future virtual space and not hesitate to plan a future reconstruction of the church.
Also, virtual space could be a huge breakthrough for world mission. It is because the virtual world is not limited by location or language differences. In the virtual world, anyone can easily meet without the restriction of location or language barrier. Despite an individual’s religion, language, culture and background, the virtual church will be able to provide the gospel. Therefore, churches need to develop their mission paradigm, structure, model and program that is suitable for the virtual world and also acquire professionals who are experts in virtual technology.
“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)
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Dr. Steve K. Eom was sent to Ethiopia by GMS and involved in church planting with SIM for three terms. Steve is now serving at East-West Center for Missions Research and Development (EWC/mrd) and Asia Missions Association (AMA) as the General Secretary while ministering for SIM Asian Churches Mobilization in the US.