Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Another "gem" from Larknews
Virtual Pastor Pleases Picky Church Goers
"LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Don Lawrence preaches three times a week to an appreciative congregation at Life Baptist church. His sermon tapes often sell out, and this year he is leading the people through a study of Matthew’s gospel.
But Lawrence is not a real person. He is a virtual, on-screen pastor whose sermon topics, personality, even mannerisms are chosen collectively by his congregation.
"We’ve never been happier," says head elder Louie Francesca. "We finally got the pastor we all want."
Virtual Pastor, a UK company, began pioneering the "virtual pastor model" in 2005, and has created a dozen lifelike, on-screen avatars which preach, joke and give personal anecdotes as if they were real people. All their sermons and personal stories are scavenged from the Internet.
When a church subscribes to Virtual Pastor, each person in a congregation helps "shape" their pastor by entering likes and dislikes into a response box during services. This live feedback is fed into the company’s servers and helps to change the pastor’s sermon topics, hair style and more in following weeks. The result is a pastor perfectly tailored to the will of the congregation.
"We unify churches and remove any reason for quarreling," says co-creator Gavin McReady, standing next to the servers in Scotland where all the virtual pastors reside. "It’s a monumental achievement."
It takes eighteen months for a congregation to fine tune their pastor so he becomes a perfect representation of what they want, he says. The shaping include gestures, physical appearance, personality, hobbies and sense of humor.
Different churches have produced widely differing results. A congregation in Huntington Beach, Calif., adopted the Virtual Pastor model last year. Within weeks their on-screen pastor stopped wearing suits and started wearing Hawaiian shirts, shorts and flip-flops.
"We loosened him up quite a bit," says one congregant with a laugh.
The pastor also stopped preaching expository sermons in favor of topical sermons like "How to Make Life Matter" and "Surfing through Paul’s Greatest Hits."
Some church-goers have been surprised by the results. A woman in Bangor, Maine, was alarmed to see her virtual pastor turn progressively more "British and tweedy." He began quoting C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, speaking in a British accent and wearing wool vests.
"My church was a bunch of Anglo-philes," she says. "You learn a lot about people by how the pastor gets shaped."
McReady and his programmers also like to throw random events into the pastor’s life, such as an unexpected crisis, decision or funny occurrence. A virtual pastor might walk on-screen one day and announce he is going on a diet to lose 35 pounds by Christmas. That theme plays out for the remainder of the year as he announces his progress week after week.
"People like surprises as long as it doesn’t impinge on their basic control of the pastor and his message," McReady says.
Churches with virtual pastors say troublemakers tend to quiet down or leave because they don’t have a real person to target with complaints.
"People can’t pin their problems on the pastor anymore," says an associate pastor who handles day-to-day matters at a Virtual Pastor church in Idaho. "He’s their creation. They can only blame themselves." •