Are Worshibots” Next?

Empty seats are a problem for any group with a mission to fill
them, and a baseball team in Korea is leading the way to an innovative
approach. Three rows of seats in the Hanwha Eagles’ stadium in Daejeon,
South Korea have been filled with fan robots – “fanbots.” Each fanbot can be
controlled over the Internet from a fan’s smart phone, tablet, or computer.
The fanbots can cheer, chant, do the wave, and display messages on an LED
screen bolted into the robot’s hands. The live fan – sitting at home in an
easy chair, in bed, or wherever – can watch the baseball game on TV or other
electronic device. Audible cheers or commentary can be sent to the fanbot’s
speakers to add to the stadium’s crowd noise. Preprogrammed messages such as
“Go, Eagles!” can scroll across the fanbot’s screen or the fan can text
original messages to display. Fanbots wear appropriate fan attire – Eagles’
jerseys and ball caps. The ticketed fan also can upload a selfie to show on
the screen in place of the fanbot’s face. One team executive told a BBC
reporter that giving more fans an opportunity to “attend” games was
important for the team. Something needed to be done to fill the seats. The
Hanwha Eagles have lost more than 400 games in the last 5 seasons! Team
management hopes that the fanbots’ cheering can inspire other fans in the
stands to become more enthusiastic about the games.

With widespread reports of declining attendance at worship
services of all kinds, can the Eagles’ solution be far from the narthex? How
long before worship robots – worshibots – may be packing your pew? Just
think of what a worshibot could do. People who don’t feel like cleaning up
and making the long drive to church could stay home, watch the worship
service on TV or their phone and have the worshibot fill in for them. If the
parishioner hears something stirring, he or she could text in an “Amen!” or
even “Hallelujah!” to scroll on the worshibot’s screen. From the comforts of
home, spoken greetings could be relayed to people at the welcome and
fellowship time in the service. Remember, the absent live member could
upload a photo so that people see their face on the worshibot’s facial
screen. If kneeling is part of the worship tradition, the worshibot could be
fitted with articulated lower limbs calibrated to lower it to the kneeling
rail and return it to the pew at just the right time. The worshibot’s arms
could pass the offering plate on by, but generous cyber-attendees could make
immediate electronic funds transfers for an offering or to pay fees for any
events mentioned during announcement time in the service. Worshibots could
be decked out in polo shirts and kakas or suits and dresses as appropriate
for the nature of the service. At least the seats in the worship center
would look full!

What’s wrong with this picture is known by every sports fan, and
should be known by any true worshipper of God. Watching from a remote
location via the best electronic gadgetry is no substitute for being in the
seats participating directly in the event. If “attending” electronically is
an adequate equivalent, why are ballgame ticket prices so astronomically
high? Of course, not everyone can get to the ballpark or worship sanctuary
in person. Illness, work schedules, and sometimes financial difficulties
keep some people from attending, and watching on TV or online can offer some
satisfaction. (I am very glad that my home church broadcasts worship
services live and via video streaming so that watchers may sense a spiritual
connection with worship that is happening as they see and hear it.) The
issue for worship of God is not that we must go to an “official” worship
center in order to meet with God, but that direct participation with the
worshipping community is God’s design for us to become part of knowing,
loving, and serving God and others together.

Scripture calls people of faith to join together in worship, not
to worship by proxy. The call to “let us .” is plural for a reason. God
invites us to draw closer to him, and in the process to come closer to one
another. Heed this call: “Come, let’s worship him and bow down. Let’s kneel
before the LORD who made us, {7} because he is our God and we are the people
he takes care of and the sheep that he tends. Today listen to what he
says..” (Psalm 95:6-7 NCV) An ancient worship litany calls for participants
to voice their praise of God in person, not through some surrogate. Phoning
it in or texting the words is not the same as speaking them with concerted
conviction in unison with other worshippers. This works far better in
person: O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: because his mercy
endureth for ever. {2} Let Israel now say, ‘His mercy endureth for ever.’
{3} Let the house of Aaron now say, ‘His mercy endureth for ever.’ {4} Let
them now that fear the LORD say, ‘His mercy endureth for ever.’” (Psalm
118:1-4 KJV) But from the time of David empty seats in worship have been a
problem David yearned for people of faith to gather physically and to share
spiritually in genuine worship of God: “I remember how it used to be: I
walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the
house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks– it was the sound of a
great celebration!” (Psalm 42:4 NLT) No worshibot or any other gimmick will
ever replace that design of worship.

New Testament writers stated the priority of personal attendance
in the worshipping community quite explicitly: “Let us think about each
other and help each other to show love and do good deeds. {25} You should
not stay away from the church meetings, as some are doing, but you should
meet together and encourage each other. Do this even more as you see the day
coming.” (Hebrews 10:24-25 NCV) Paul taught that followers of Jesus were
intended to function as a body in which Christ is present in the world
today. This cannot be achieved by separate “tissue cultures” remaining
detached in individual Petri dishes – or, to go back to the worshibot
metaphor – by phoning or texting in lukewarm commitment from some remote
location. The communal gathering necessity is easily inferred from Paul’s
consistent teaching: “Patience and encouragement come from God. And
I pray that God will help you all agree with each other the way Christ Jesus
wants. {6} Then you will all be joined together, and you will give glory to
God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:5b-6 NCV) “The whole
body depends on Christ, and all the parts of the body are joined and held
together. Each part does its own work to make the whole body grow and be
strong with love.” (Ephesians 4:16 NCV) We come together in worship so that
all of the parts of the body remain in vital contact with one another and
with the head of the body, Jesus. This happens often through direct
participation in worship.

I can almost guarantee that seats are open and available in your
favorite place of worship this week. No worshibot will be in your seat!
Don’t phone or text it in, go worship God with all your heart, body, mind,
and spirit!

- J. Edward Culpepper

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