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Can technology revolutionize the way Americans worship?

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Late on a school night this spring, 26-year-old University of California Santa Barbara student Yankoff got an idea. Yankoff, a graduate student studying software engineering, was trying to study and like many students stress was getting to him.

He wanted an outlet and he needed to talk to someone, but it was the wee hours of the morning — too late, he felt, even to reach out to friends on Facebook and risk waking them with a notification. That got Yankoff thinking.

“I went to a Christian high school and you could leave a prayer request and other people see it and support you. It made it easier to deal with whatever I was going through,” Yankoff said. “I started to think about how nice it would be if I could do that online.”

So Yankoff created Shep, a Facebook Messenger chat bot designed to manage prayer requests within Facebook’s messenger app. Users send Shep a message and enter commands to make prayer requests, see other requests and respond to them with messages and notifications that they’ve been prayed for. The requests are semi-anonymous, using the user’s first name and last initial, along with their profile photo and can be as detailed or as simple as the user likes.

User Pete N. asked fellow Shep users to pray for his family, while Radu I. simply asks for people to pray about Brexit.

Yankoff knows that Shep is coming at a time when Americans — many of them millennials, like him — are less connected to religion than they once were.

Pew Research Center found in 2012 that millennials are much more likely to be unaffiliated than their elders (32 percent of people under 30, Pew found, vs. 9 percent of those 65 or older). Another 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 23 percent of Americans say they are religiously unaffiliated, compared with 16 percent in 2007.

Yankoff hopes that technology like Shep will help reverse that trend, bringing faith communities and potential members together. He plans to integrate Shep individually for churches to use on their Facebook pages.

“A lot of churches have apps already but apps are not doing enough. They’re very passive, they’re not about connecting people,” Yankoff said. “As the platform improves, the power of this is the connectedness.”

Chat bots like Shep are just the beginning of how technology could change religious worship, which raises the question: As technology becomes a part of religion, what happens to belief?

To Florida pastor Christopher Benek, technology stands not only to change the way Christians worship, but how they understand God.

“God is showing us new possibilities for reality. With augmented reality, virtual reality and other alternate realities, we’re understanding a larger way of being,” the Rev. Benek said. “As a pastor, it makes me excited because it says, what are the other possibilities? And how are we going to grow into that image we were created in?”

Threat or opportunity?

While the Rev. Benek may be excited about how technology could change religion, others argue that technology could be to blame for religion's recent decline.

Olin College of Engineering computer science professor Allen Downey published a study in 2014 that analyzed demographic data from the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey. The survey found that between 1990 and 2010, 25 million Americans stopped identifying with any religion.

At the same time, Downey noted that by 2010, the survey found that 25 percent of Americans reported spending seven hours or more online a day. Downey believes the two trends are connected — that internet use leads to decreased religious affiliation — even though the study is not airtight proof.

“Have we really proven causation? Well, no, but it’s a strong argument,” Downey said.

Downey doesn’t think that internet use erodes people’s general belief in God. Rather, he thinks it can make people less likely to commit to specific church doctrine. Downey theorizes this accounts for the slide of affiliation, particularly among millennials, the first generation to grow up using the internet and technology.

“Someone growing up in a community that is religiously homogenous may not have contact with people of other religions or no religion, but now you can online,” Downey said. “Information about world religions and atheism is easily available now in a way it wasn’t before, even 20 or 25 years ago.”

While many corners of the internet question religion, South Carolina-based tech consultant Sam Harrelson said most churches need a stronger presence.

“For the most part, churches are still trying to figure out what (technology) is for in terms of outreach. Most that I’ve worked with want a website that’s more internally focused than about outreach,” Harrelson said. “One of the things I always try to get through to them is that a website or a social media presence is a front door to your church.”

Harrelson urges churches to adopt technology like messaging bots to greatly expand their reach into the community.

“Most churches have experience in a cultural context where you controlled your messaging about your church. It wasn’t two-way marketing. People couldn’t comment or like it or share it,” Harrelson said.

Downey knows this all seems a little gloom-and-doom for churches and believers, but he also allows that the same technology that contributes to secularization could also make faith communities stronger.

“If you’re trying to persuade people to adopt a religious dogma, that’s difficult to do in a marketplace of ideas because by definition you’re asking people to believe something on faith,” Downey said. “For churches, I suspect (technology) is a threat, but it’s also an opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity the Rev. Benek and Harrelson hope more churches will embrace.

Whether it’s an Oculus Rift or a pencil, these are tools we use to communicate and experience something,” Harrelson said. “It’s really about how you use it to make faith personal and authentic for each congregation.”

Searching for authenticity

While some are wary of technology becoming part of religion, the Rev. Benek sees it as a digital reformation, of sorts.

“God is using technology to help reform the church,” the Rev. Benek said. “People have different traditions, so we need the history of the church to be fused with technological innovation to show us what it means to be human right now. In a lot of ways, that’s a different experience than it was 500 years ago.”

The pastor is also chairman of the Christian Transhumanist Association, a group that believes in the “intentional use” of technology to become more aligned with God. The Rev. Benek believes that through technology, Christians have an opportunity to deepen their spiritual connection with God by working alongside him to create artificial intelligence.

“We’re technological beings. Technology will give us opportunities to develop new perception of who the God is that we worship,” the Rev. Benek said. “It’s not an accident that Jesus spoke his teachings in metaphor because they’re timeless across ages of development.”

While some experts worry about the possibility of artificial intelligence outsmarting mankind, the Rev. Benek sees it as a chance to behave more like God, passing Christian principles onto beings humans literally bring to life. When artificial intelligence is more advanced than humans, he believes that androids will choose whether or not to be Christian.

"This isn’t just about cellphones and V.R., it’s about being stewards of creation that is fundamentally technological,” the Rev. Benek said. “The biggest thing we should be concerned with is are we engaged in a practice that exudes what we’re about as Christians?”

That principle touches on what the Rev. Benek and Harrelson consider the key to religion making technology work for it: authenticity.

“I’ve had more authentic experiences watching a service on an iPad than in person at times,” Harrelson said. “It’s all about being able to have authentic connection. You can do that in person, in virtual reality or on a messaging app.”

Authenticity may come in many forms in the future, the Rev. Benek said. While he admits that virtual reality is “clunky” right now, it may become indistinguishable from our true surroundings, which stands to enhance worship. Imagine hearing a Sunday sermon from inside the Sistine Chapel or on the shores of the River Jordan in the Holy Land during church through virtual reality.

“We have to ask ourselves, what are the things that invoke God most clearly for us?” the Rev. Benek said. “It’s different for everybody, so why would we not do this?”

This may sound far-fetched now, but some churches, like Georgia’s North Point Community Church, already use hologram technology and so-called “video venues” to offer services to congregations far away. In 2008, Christian nonprofit group the Leadership Network estimated that about 2,500 American church congregations operated this way.

It makes no difference whether the pastor is a person, a robot or a hologram, the Rev. Benek argues, if the message reaches people.

“If you look at the early church, the focus was always community, not the brick-and-mortar church itself,” he said. “If technology can lead us to a better community, we should embrace that.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson