Matt Batten writes:
Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018) is a love letter to 80’s pop culture - a theme inherited from Ernest Cline's original book with the same title. At its heart are questions about authentic relationships and our dependence on new technology. Themes that churches are grappling with today as more services go online
The story sees Wade Watts escape the harsh reality of his real life for a Virtual Reality (VR) multiplayer game/online platform known as the OASIS. When game creator James Halliday dies he challenges users to an elaborate treasure hunt to find an heir. The thrill of the hunt is addictive.
It’s a film steeped in big theological questions.
So what churches can learn from Ready Player One?
1. Nostalgia holds churches back
The 80’s was a great decade. Big hair, great music and summers that lasted forever. Good times!
But that's not quite the full picture. AIDS cast a shadow through much of the decade and mining communities were forced into poverty when Thatcher closed the pits. Perhaps not the Golden Age we’re led to believe.
The pandemic has made us all nostalgic for simpler times, including churches. Despite the fact that more and more people are discovering church through online services, we long to return to the safety of our buildings. Findings from the Coronavirus, Church & You Survey show that only 9% of clergy feel that lockdown has shown church buildings to be an unnecessary burden.
Online church is frequently seen as a stop-gap - something to fill the void until we return to our buildings.
But should we head back to nostalgia? Shouldn't we always go forward into God's new future? Certainly, it would be wrong to return without learning valuable lessons from lockdown.
Perhaps in God's new normal, we should have both onsite church and online church. Both expressions provide a huge opportunity to grow the Kingdom of God.
2. Relationships matter
In Ready Player One, the characters spend more and more time in the online world as they escape the drudgery of their real lives. Come to the OASIS and escape the limitations of your offline self.
OASIS can be viewed as an allegory of social media - a place where we can live a different identity, become a keyboard warrior, forget to be an authentic Christian. Yet used wisely, social media can increase interconnectivity. With so many people attending online services we have an opportunity to build relationships and show church as a welcoming community.
Churches can foster authentic relationships if they move away from a broadcast model of livestreaming a service and leaving it at that.
Every online event is an opportunity for discipleship. Live chats, Zoom coffee mornings, or simply a friendly online presence can show God’s presence at work in our online relationships.
3. Participation not voyeurism
In Ready Player One, people are more obsessed with playing an online game than they are participating in the real world. This reminded me of Maggi Dawn’s contribution to Missio Dei in a Digital Age, where she states,
“It is fundamental to the idea of gathered worship that every person is a participant, rather than an audience.”
Do we participate in online worship or do we simply watch - act like a voyeur? Well, you can if the online church experience is interactive. Livestream services on YouTube and Facebook allow people to participate as they would in person - the difference being you are typing your response.
Churches such as St Mark’s Cardiff work hard at encouraging engagement and the whole service is focused on participation rather than simply broadcasting. The viewer becomes involved in the service and hearing people’s comments being read out adds to the sense of community. Participation can draw us closer to one another and ultimately to God.
4. Content over showmanship
Question: What do you get if you cross director Steven Spielburg with an 80's themed sci fi blockbuster?
Answer: A CGI-laden audio and visual extravaganza.
Or, as some reviewers claim, all show and no content.
Not everyone enjoys the CGI heavy films that film studios churn out. Sometimes you just need simplicity. Just so, it’s tempting to covet the neighbouring church who perhaps have more bells and whistles than they do bells and smells. Does that matter?
The Gospel message is strong enough to live without tech. You don’t need a Hillsong experience to encounter God’s transformative love. All you need is a compelling story delivered passionately by someone who truly believes in the message. It should always be content over tech.
5. Church should add value to our lives
The world of Ready Player One is pure escapism. For the characters, they are escaping their real lives for something more fulfilling. For the audience, we’re escaping into a fantasy world of 80's nostalgia.
We have an opportunity to use tech in a way that helps people become closer to God and to live out Christ’s commandment to love one another. In a tech obsessed world, the church can be counter-culture - calling people to back to a relationship with God where authentic relationships matter and tech is used as a tool for discipleship.
Online church is mission. Spend time engaging with your online church community and make it a place where people feel welcomed, supported and loved. Let your interactions show God’s love at work in the online world.