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WEEK OF PRAYER:Virtual reality reaches lost through innovation

Justin and Michaela Knippers, IMB missionaries, use virtual reality as part of their ministry in Japan. The couple meet up with Japanese and others from around the world in VRChat and have gospel conversations that lead to “in real life”relationships with God. Japan is a hotspot for virtual reality. IMB Photo

EDITOR’S NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions in the Southern Baptist Convention is Dec. 3-10. Each year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions supplements Cooperative Program giving to support Southern Baptists international missionaries’ initiatives in sharing the Gospel. This year’s offering goal is $200 million. To find information and resources about the offering, go here.

Michaela Knippers grabs the bulky virtual reality goggles off the desk and tightens them onto her head. Her husband, Justin, is already strapped in and waving his hand in the air to scroll through different maps he sees through the goggles.

As new International Mission Board missionaries to Osaka, Japan, they’ve been studying Japanese all day, and their brains need a break. For these 20-somethings, that means jumping into the virtual world — a video game simulating reality that, for them, is both relaxing and their place of ministry.

Justin and Michaela Knippers eat in a park near their home in Osaka, Japan. The International Mission Board missionaries met neighbors and friends at this park where people hang out in the evenings. IMB Photo

The couple finds a spot to chill in a virtual backyard that resembles countless real ones — neon tiki lights, Texas-sized mosquitos buzzing around, potted plants and multi-colored flowers. In the back corner, Justin spies some friends around a fire pit and presses his controller forward to walk over. Within minutes, the missionary shares an insight from Scripture.

“Virtual reality evangelism isn’t really any different from regular evangelism,” Justin says, explaining how it works. “You find a common point, build a relationship and draw the conversation to the Gospel.”

Unlike most video games, VRChat is all about socializing. No one “wins.” The whole point is to connect and talk to people. Michaela adds most in the game are lonely and looking for a solution to their problems, just like she was years ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Virtual reality seemed like the perfect fit for her as an introvert. You can be anything you want online without ever leaving the house. Withdrawal, anxiety and reclusiveness is so common in Japan that there’s even a Japanese word for it — hikikomori.

Hanami parties are a tradition in Japan when the cherry blossoms bloom. Michaela and Justin Knippers picnic with some Japanese friends in Tennoji Park. The couple attended several Hanami parties to celebrate spring. IMB Photo

Justin was the first Christian Michaela met who spoke about Jesus in the virtual world. It didn’t take long to see the solution to her greatest problem — spiritual lostness — was the Gospel. The now-married couple teams up to be a steadfast missionary presence through digital innovations. They recognize their unique interests and skills in the gaming world means they might be the only ones to share the Gospel with those in the virtual world where they serve.

“Virtual reality is just one of many tools missionaries use to reach out to the lost around them,” Justin says. The missionary points out it is important to find someone “in real life” (IRL) to follow up and disciple the new believers. This is why they study Japanese — so they can relate at a heart level in the tech capital of the world.

Although virtual reality isn’t the real world, Michaela asks Southern Baptists to pray for the real people inside of it who need the Gospel.

Ask God to help the Knipperses learn Japanese so they may transition relationships from VR to IRL.

Pray for more missionaries who are willing to use the newest innovations and technologies to reach the world for Christ.