A few weeks ago, Facebook’s head of faith-based partnerships, Nona Jones, spoke to a group of church leaders at the Premier Digital Conference. She happened to mention “virtual baptisms” taking place at a virtual church. Most of us didn’t hear what she said next because, with eyebrows raised, all our brains were shouting “WHAT’S A VIRTUAL BAPTISM?”

This article summarises some of the current trends in churches that are being enabled by new technology, including virtual baptisms.

Cashless collections

I was shocked the other day when, on taking my daughter to the airport to start a new job in Sweden, it turned out she had no Swedish money at all (and no English money for that matter). “I can pay for everything with my phone” she responded happily.

In my church, as in yours, the plate is increasingly empty. Most people give using the infamous “direct debit”, but there are newer, seamless ways of giving that churches are adopting, including church-apps and text-to-give solutions. Church-apps in particular allow giving to be regular or spontaneous, and can manage all your church communications including rotas (with a reminder when it’s your turn to do tea and coffee!), church newsletter, pastor’s blog, prayer-chains, and sermon streaming, all in one app on your phone. A single touchpoint for everything the church does.

But do we lose something when our physical experience goes “online”?

In my church only 10 per cent of giving comes in via the plate, but we still pass this plate around (actually a velvet bag). This fascinates me because I can see everybody passing it along while the band plays a merry tune, and almost no-one putting anything in. But doesn’t the idea that you physically hand over your gift have value as well? Surely it’s about “giving” and not just about “money”? I think physically seeing a collection can remind us we are called to give – even if we set it up electronically months ago and forgot about it.

Evangelism chatbots

Robots have led hundreds of people to Christ.

That statement is intriguing wonderful and worrying all at the same time. Dr Peter Phillips of Durham University quotes this credible report of an evangelism experiment using artificial intelligence (AI). Briefly, they built a chatbot called ‘Who Is Jesus?’ and put it on the internet for a year. The bot was programmed to answer thousands of questions, such as: “Is Buddhism the same as Christianity?” and “why do bad things happen?” They then placed targeted ads on Facebook saying: “Hey do you want to talk about God?”

When people clicked the ad, they were connected in a chat window with ‘Who Is Jesus?’.  There were 2,500 meaningful conversations, 150 people came to know Christ, AND were connected to a local church.

Instinctively we don’t like the idea that something as relational as the Christian gospel could be communicated by a machine. But – as the authors say – not liking it is different to saying it doesn’t work.

And AI does work. It is great at storing thousands of answers to questions and pairing up questions people ask with well-documented answers. (You know that “Hi, I’m Kelly - can I help you?” window that pops up as you browse a website? It’s the same thing). The CofE Alexa app is one example of how the church has recognised the value of AI already.

Or, as Paul said: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9: 22-23).

Sermon-less services

A recent article in Christianity Magazine asked the question: do we still need sermons?

The thrust of the article was: why spend so much time preparing sermons when there is so much fantastic Christian teaching on the internet? Perhaps the preacher’s time would be better spent recommending the best Christian content on YouTube or the best discipleship app, rather than buried in a commentary on Micah (which just happens to be the last commentary I buried my head in).

We are unlikely to see the death of sermon-based services any time soon, but there is a huge increase in Christian content on the internet. Today, almost all Christians receive teaching outside of traditional church gatherings, and for an increasing number this is the majority of their teaching. Christian teaching on the internet can be wonderful and inspirational, but it can also be awful and plain wrong.  Anyone can publish anything on the web with no accountability to anyone. And please note, Google Search lists results according to their popularity, it does not list results according to their “right-ness”.

Churches must accept that people get most of their teaching elsewhere and should be asking themselves: How are we helping people to navigate this sea of content on the web?

Virtual baptisms

And back to the speaker from Facebook: What’s a virtual baptism? (And who needs one?).

Online churches are not new, I remember ten years ago “attending” a prayer meeting at an online church. Today’s online churches use Virtual Reality (VR) headsets to create a completely immersive experience of an online church community. VR church is one example.

Once you start using an immersive gaming-like experience as “church”, it’s not a big leap for someone to ask for a virtual baptism. One example I read about spoke of a young lady with a condition that prevented her leaving the house. She was “virtually baptised”,  via her headset, with no water, no physical experience, and without leaving the house.

But the idea of virtual church crosses a line for me. Other aspects of Christian online activity act as a pointer to an “embodied church” (ie a real, physical church). Most Christian online activity runs alongside embodied church and leads you to an embodied church. But virtual church is a thing in itself, a complete substitute. It doesn’t lead to anything physical. It is the end point. I am not convinced that we can look after each other as avatars. And I would like to think that the lady who was house-bound could be visited and ministered to by people “with hearts and hands and voices”.

The word becomes flesh

Jesus became a real person – touching, feeling, being, and all that that entails. We must be increasingly open to technology, but the heartbeat of a church is still its pastoral care, its regular service, its small groups and social events. A combination of traditional and tech platforms works really well, eg think of a real-world Bible study where together you explore a 3D model of the Ark of the Covenant – wonderful! But online experiences do not offer an authentic replacement of traditional, embodied experiences. I don’t know that they ever will - I do know there are those who disagree with me!

Enjoyed that? Get more articles covering news, culture, faith and apologetics in every print issue of Premier Christianity magazine. Subscribe now

Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed on our blog do not necessarily represent those of the publisher