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The future of discipleship training made its debut this weekend.

It’s called Augmented Reality (AR). Its first major foray into the market is a phone app called Pokémon Go.

If you’d like to see the app in action, watch this brief video.

Pokémon Go is a silly little game that has become one of the most popular pastimes on planet earth in less than a week. I’m not all that excited about the game — but I am intrigued by the technology behind it, and its potential to train disciples.

First, you need to understand how different AR is from traditional entertainment.

* * *

For 100 years, movies created artificial worlds on a flat screen. The user sat and watched.

About 30 years ago video games allowed users to interact with the characters on the screen via a controller.

But augmented reality is different. It allows creators to overlay digital content onto the real world. The user physically interacts with the characters in time and space. Instead of simply watching the content, he becomes physically immersed in the story.

Eventually AR will move from iPhones to glasses. You’ll see the real world and the virtual world as one — without having to hold a device in your hand.

And that’s where it’s going to get very interesting – not only for entertainment, but also for training and education. And since the church is in the training and education business, AR has huge potential for Christianity.

* * *

Since the Reformation the church has relied primarily on words to train disciples. Sermons. Books. Lectures. Seminars. Bible Studies. Then, based on what they learn in these classroom environments believers are expected to go out and minister.

Most Christians never get around to the ministering part.

But what if there were a way to practice before we go out and practice our faith?

Augmented reality might be the answer. Just as a pilot spends hundreds of hours in a flight simulator before he’s allowed to touch the controls of a real airplane, AR could prepare disciples for a variety of challenges they may face in life and ministry.

Youth leaders could create realistic, immersive training situations that would help people grapple with ethical dilemmas in a controlled environment.

Example: A youth leader could call 12 young men together to play an AR game. He could assign them one hour to complete a mission, with pizza as a prize. But a few minutes into the game they discover a character bleeding on the side of the road. The character is wearing a turban and a heavy overcoat. He cries out for help. The boys have a decision to make: if they stop and help him they’ll probably run out of time and lose their pizza. They might also be attacked themselves. What if he’s a terrorist luring them into an ambush?

When the game is over the youth leader begins a conversation. They talk about helping others. Fear. Racism. The tension between achievement and compassion. Finally, the youth leader opens the Bible and reads the parable of the Good Samaritan. The boys learn what Jesus said about showing con to concern for society’s rejects — and the lesson sticks because they personally experienced it with their minds and bodies just minutes before.

You might say, “We don’t need AR – why not send kids into the city and let them do ministry?” I’m 100% behind this approach – but many parents are not. I know a youth minister who was fired after he gave a drunk man a ride in the church van after a youth event. My friend thought he was demonstrating compassion in front of his students – but the parents were furious that he had put their kids in danger.

So we schedule relatively safe, expensive experiences like mission trips to Mexico. Or we send them down to the soup kitchen to chop vegetables for the homeless. These are great experiences – but they do little to help young people develop the skills they will need to resist temptation and stay faithful as adults.

AR will allow youth leaders to immerse their kids into all sorts of difficult situations without the possibility of actual harm. Take your kids inside a prison or a seedy bar to show them just how exciting a life of sin really is. Put them with a group of “friends” who are trying to get them to do something illegal. Force them to soothe a screaming virtual toddler with colic. Or change their race and make them victims of taunts and slurs.

There are many other applications for AR. Preparing a mission team for Peru? Minimize culture shock with a virtual visit to the village you’ll be working in. Want to teach street evangelism? Create an AR street corner complete with tough-to-reach listeners.

Here’s one more reason I’m excited for AR discipleship training. Jesus used it.

That’s right. Jesus regularly set up situations that tested his disciples’ faith. Then he altered the physical universe to teach a spiritual truth. Withering a fig tree. Healing a paralytic. Walking on water. Raising a dead man.

New technology always upsets Christians. Billy Graham was widely denounced for putting his sermons and crusades on television in the 1950s. Critics feared that people would stop going to church if they could watch it on TV. But over the years Christians got used to seeing preachers on the screen. Today technology enables preachers to lead congregations without setting foot inside the building.

AR is an emerging technology that’s going to change the way we teach people to do things. It will never replace human interaction and personal ministry. But it can help us prepare disciples for the ethical dilemmas we all face. AR will allow teachers to put their disciples into very specific situations that teach a spiritual truth in a way that’s hard to forget. If Jesus did these sorts of things, why shouldn’t we?

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