A Presbyterian pastor in Miami is set to launch a fully immersive virtual reality worship service in a digital replica of Miami’s oldest organized congregation.
Christopher Benek, who pastors First Miami Presbyterian Church and is the CEO and pastor of the tech nonprofit CoCreators, believes a virtual reality service is an effective evangelistic tool to reach gamers and others with the Gospel.
"I think that it is important to understand that creation of CHVRCH+ (pronounced “Church Plus”) is not to displace the local congregation. That’s part of why we called it CHVRCH+ — because it is meant to be an additional complement to the existing physical church," Benek told The Christian Post in an interview Tuesday.
Benek loves his local congregation, which is located in the heart of Brickell community and has nearly doubled in membership in the past year.
"But we also realize that we, like the rest of the church universal, have a lot of work to do. We live in one of the highest population densities south of New York City, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified our understanding that we need to meet people’s needs both physically and digitally," he said.
Digital and virtual spaces are no less God’s territory than our physical spaces, he continued, and when Christ called His followers to “Make disciples of all nations” he was not excluding digital ones.
"'There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!'" Benek said, referencing the words of the Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper.
"Certainly this applies to digital spaces as well."
Creating virtual spaces is not a way to escape our present reality or ignore incarnational blessings, but rather a way to extend our understanding of reality and open our minds to the new possibilities that might exist in Jesus, the pastor elaborated.
"I think that it is the destructive flaw of many armchair theologians to assume that when faced with new ministry options that we can only experience God in one way. God is the Creator of the cosmos. Certainly, we are not so prideful as to assume that we know all of the ways that God might reveal God’s-self to us?" he said.
This is especially true given the public health crisis with COVID-19, he added, as it has disrupted our preconceived notions as to how the church must do ministry.
"It has also freed church leaders to experiment, fail fast, and live into their creative giftedness. Many churches have been doing ministry in ways that haven’t produced fruit now for decades. The present crisis is a digital wakeup call and I think that churches and congregants are eager to rise to the occasion."
Approximately 3.5 billion people are online today and the universal church has to have a sustainable long-term strategy, he stressed.
"We want churches to have new ways of engaging community online that pay homage to their current, sacred physical spaces while also allowing for the expression of the creativity that humanity has as creatures made in the image of the Creator God. As churches move into the exponentially advancing technological future we want them to have the tools to both acknowledge that they are standing on the shoulders of the saints who have gone before them, and they are building a digital legacy that the saints of the future will use to reach future generations for Christ," Benek said.
"Moreover, it is essential that churches take advantage of the current crisis in order to build sustainability plans. We know that COVID-19 will eventually pass. But when I speak around the world on artificial intelligence I remind people that the coming automation crisis will not have an end, he said, noting that 11% to 22% of the U.S. population is forecasted to lose their jobs by 2030 and that percentage only increases over time.
Thus, his new tech church provides a way for churches to start expanding their digital base, increase online giving, and meet the needs of people around the globe while they still have the time.
Asked how his congregation is responding to the idea of a VR church, Benek said they've been very enthusiastic.
"We are widely multiethnic, relatively young, and very entrepreneurial. Additionally, South Florida is also a hotspot for start-up culture. So our congregation generally understands and supports the ingenuity and creativeness of that culture."
When he preached during his Easter sermon last year he spoke of artificial intelligence and had a long line of people in the receiving line afterward who wanted to talk about emerging tech and theology. It was after that day when membership began growing.
"What that indicated to us is that people want the pastors to talk about tech more because it is impacting their greater sense of ultimate meaning. If there was ever a time for pastors to do so, it is right now," Benek said.