My friend John was in the later stages of Motor neurons disease. Each Sunday he would come to church and each Friday to our home group. He’d had surgery on his throat and so was no longer able to speak. He relied on one of these voice synthesizers made famous by Stephen Hawking. Several of our church members have different levels of hearing loss. They overcome this with a clever bit of technology, a little electronic device inserted into the ear enables them to hear. I use those examples to show how all the time we are using technology to help us overcome barriers to gathering and communication.
At the moment, the church is having to make use of technology at an unprecedented level to enable us to gather, however much hard work there seems to be in doing this and however far short we fall from our preferred ideal.
Some have dismissed these activities as not proper “gatherings.” These are virtual events and therefore not church gatherings at all. It has been suggested that we don’t meet with each other because what we have on the screen are mere digitised representations of us.
It is important to remember that there are already pre-existing definitions of virtual reality. Take this example from Wikipedia
Virtual reality (VR) is a simulated experience that can be similar to or completely different from the real world. Applications of virtual reality can include entertainment (i.e. video games) and educational purposes (i.e. medical or military training). Other, distinct types of VR style technology include augmented reality and mixed reality.
Based on that definition, I want to suggest it is extremely unhelpful to talk about virtual church. What we are not doing is creating a simulated experience. This conjures up images in our minds of games like Sims and Second Life. In such games, you create virtual, imaginary worlds, cities, transport links. You create characters which may or may not bare some resemblance to your physical characteristics. Things happen in the virtual world that have no consequences in the physical world. I can start a relationship, qualify as a doctor, win an election or kill someone. Virtual worlds become places where people live out their fantasies in a safe way that will not change their actual life.
A virtual church would be one where we created representative characters and placed them in our online environment. Those characters would “preach” to each other and “pray” for each other. The bread and the wine would be created as images on your screen and your digital characters would be seen to share them. That would be playing at church and there is probably a level of offensiveness to that.
When we meet via zoom we don’t enter a virtual reality church. Rather, we connect directly with each other. I talk and you hear me, you wave, smile, frown, shake or nod your head and I see you. We share communion by eating real bread and drinking real wine not by passing emojis around. We pray real prayers for one another. As we face the challenges of life, we laugh with real joy and cry real tears of sadness and pain. It isn’t perfect but it is real.