Seminary’s VR “PRAy” Lab for Sermon Practice

Brian Klebig (Mankato, Minnesota, USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Brian Klebig served as an ELS parish pastor from 2008 to 2012. After his 2014 MA in Communication from the University of Central Florida and 2018 PhD in Communication at Michigan State University, he joined the faculty at Bethany Lutheran College and Theological Seminary. His work at MSU included helping to design and manage the state-of-the-art CARISMA virtual reality lab. He and his wife Dawn have two daughters.

The Presentation Rehearsal Ancillary Lab at Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary

When I was a vicar my bishop told me a story of a young pastor who was suffering terribly from anxiety related to the public speaking portion of his career. The head pastor of the congregation patted him gently on the back and reassured him, “Don’t worry. After the first year you stop throwing up before every sermon.” For some reason this story isn’t much comfort when I share it with the Seminarians.

The fact is that public speaking under any circumstances is pretty terrifying to begin with. It’s even more frightening when the subject matter is life and death, or in the case of Christian pastors: life, death, and resurrection. This is not a topic you want to fumble on! And yet, it is very difficult to train for various aspects of delivering a sermon.

Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary is taking a novel approach to addressing this issue. Let’s begin by considering the problems associated with training public speakers to master delivery, and then look at some of the measures the ELS Seminary has taken to help.

Challenges in Teaching Delivery for Public Speaking

Without question, the most critical aspect of a sermon is its fidelity to the Word of God and the accurate preaching of Law and Gospel. No computer is going to be particularly useful in measuring the degree to which Jesus Christ crucified for me was successfully communicated; humans are required and desirable for that. However, the manner in which this Word of Truth is delivered is likewise crucial. Our voices, speed, tone, and volume convey a range of emotions, compel hearers to listen, and lend appropriate weight to the message a pastor delivers. We want congregations to know that we are speaking to them, we want them to know that what is being said is meaningful, and we want them to take Scriptural truths to heart. This requires training in delivery, which includes everything from eye contact to dynamic energy. Traditionally, the delivery aspect of public speaking training is the most challenging part.

Arguably the foremost problem with training in public speaking is that rehearsal for delivery takes place only under the most intense circumstances. You can conduct a careful exegesis from the Greek or Hebrew text, write your sermon in advance, massage it until it flows just how you want, and commit the entire thing confidently to memory. All that preparation is great, of course, and well worth the effort. What that preparation does not include, however, is anything concerning the physical delivery of that sermon.

When practicing alone, the tendency is to focus on the words that are being said rather than how those words are being said. Attempting to get around this by speaking dynamically to an empty room takes a special kind of crazy that can be difficult to adopt and embarrassing when caught doing! Accordingly, there are a number of forces that tend to push toward rehearsing in a colder fashion. Seminary students are men who feel so strongly and passionately about the gospel that they have dedicated their lives to its proclamation, so having rehearsal options that push them toward a less dynamic presentation can be counter-productive.

The first chance a seminarian gets to preach the sermon in front of people is when those people are sitting there in the pews for church! Given the intensity of public speaking, this doesn’t constitute an ideal environment for learning to occur. After all, if mind-numbing terror was advantageous to learning outcomes we’d hold class in shark tanks. Needless to say, a situation in which students do not have a chance to truly rehearse in a reduced-anxiety scenario makes it far more difficult to train a future pastor to speak and speak well.

In seminary, you get to preach your sermon in public for the first time in front of your peers and professors. The chapel at Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary is absolutely lovely. However, it is a small space, and filling every pew are the people whose opinions matter most to you and can be the most devastating.

Amplifying the tension of the experience is the fact that they are all recording notes on your performance. They are evaluating the content, they’re critiquing your delivery, they’re judging the degree to which they felt convicted by the Law and forgiven by the gospel. The professors are friendly of course, nodding when they need to nod, smiling when a smile is called for, but let’s face it: these are guys you want to impress and in that moment this is a near impossible feat to accomplish. The first time you preach in that chapel is an experience you never forget. I even remember what tie I was wearing that day (light blue with a kind of rough weave… but we digress).

Afterwards, everyone gets together over coffee and donuts and discusses how the speaker did. The only thing I remember from this part was the sound of my heart beating in my ears, but these reviews are always geared toward being positive and constructive. Despite this, criticism can be difficult to take, particularly from friends, peers, and admired professors. Dutiful notes are taken on the class’s feedback and you spend the rest of the day trying to mentally recover.

It feels like a mercy, therefore, that this only occurs once per year during Seminary, but that in itself can present a problem. The lack of an opportunity to practice regularly or at will in front of a large group makes improvement more difficult. Traditionally this challenge has been addressed by having seminarians fill in for area churches, and this is tremendously useful. But it does tend to allow for certain coping mechanisms to become habit, and feedback from these travels is limited and universally positive (and God bless you, area churches, for that).

In the end we have a situation where, if seminary students wish to improve their delivery, they have limited opportunities to improve, receive limited feedback, and are forced to practice in environments that are not conducive to learning. Although these challenges have never proven to be insurmountable, and the ELS has a proud tradition of engaging, thoughtful, and faithful pastors, the ability to use technological innovations to assist with the training of delivery is exceedingly valuable. It was with this in mind that BLTS established the Presentation Rehearsal Ancillary Lab (PRAy Lab).

The Presentation Rehearsal Ancillary Lab at Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary

The presentation lab at the ELS seminary employs virtual reality to simulate a nearly realistic speaking environment. When the student puts on the headset, he is conveyed into an auditorium populated with virtual avatars who watch and follow the speaker as he delivers his message. These avatars mirror typical audience behaviors: they can become distracted, look at their phones, get up and leave to use the restroom, cough, whisper to one another, etc. All of these variables can be programmed in advance by either the student or the homiletics professor. Audiences can be created with varying levels of formality, distractedness, attention span, level of interest, and hostility (a circumstance I hope our pastors do not encounter too frequently!).

The student stands behind a virtual pulpit to which their notes can be uploaded and used, and a screen for visual aid presentations can be included to the side. As the student speaks, the program listens and analyzes his vocal patterns to assess how interesting and engaging his delivery is. Inflection, volume modulation, vocal modulation, pitch, and speed are all recorded and assessed along a timeline. This way a student can identify areas of the sermon in which things may have either dragged or been too dynamic for too long.

Additionally, because the student is wearing a headset, eye contact with various areas of the audience can be measured, and a “heat map” produced showing where he looked too often or not often enough. Time spent looking down, looking away, or focusing on notes can be measured and assessed as well, allowing for free delivery to be taught and encouraged.

This computer feedback, recorded and delivered in private and without judgment, can be exceedingly useful for rehearsing, improving, and internalizing some of these public speaking fundamentals. Students have more frequent opportunities to rehearse in realistic environments that nevertheless do not carry the same level of tension as speaking before mentors and peers. Resources for improvement in particular areas are also immediately available, allowing students to focus their efforts on those areas that most require attention. Interestingly, this allows students to actually “see” their progress, as their improvement over time is noted in the scores the program assigns in its report.

Despite the tremendous utility of the program, it is, at the end of the day, still just a computer. This would be perfect if our congregations were made up of PCs and Macs (sheep and goats?), but we tend to fill our pews with the flesh, blood, and souls of living children of God. The computer can look at the markers that are generally indicative of interesting, engaging speech, but in the end it is always useful to have a real human put some context on the machine’s output. The speeches can be recorded and reviewed by the students or their professors, so the feedback provided by the program can have meaningful context.

Some tech-specs:

Our specialized hardware is an HTC VIVE Cosmos (mainly because it was put together during the pandemic and this was what was immediately in stock). Software is a program called Virtual Orator. We’ve converted a classroom to house the new lab, because it affords the space for larger functions as well. It's not technically a dedicated space, since there is a class that gets held there three days a week, but it's close.

The Seminary was able to build the entire thing out of pocket in conjunction with some other modernizing efforts to meet COVID challenges. The entire setup of Virtual Orator ($300), Vive Cosmos and powerful computer to run it all cost about $2250. I consider that good value for the money.

It is a privilege for the ELS and its seminary to send forth workers into the harvest field, and we thank the Holy Spirit for the faithful ministers we produce. Bethany’s new Presentation Rehearsal Ancillary Lab is a strong new contributor to this honored tradition.

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Tom Kuster (Christ in Media Institute) 2020-10-21 1:50:37am
Well reported, Brian. Can you lure any of the student users to report here what the experience is like? How does it help them?
Caleb Helmen (Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary) 2020-10-21 7:30:46pm
Dr. Kuster,
I had a chance to try it out last spring. It was a helpful tool. It obviously cannot fully replicate the experience of giving a speech but there are some things it does well in terms of preparation. Maybe one of the more helpful things was the way the audience reacted. The fact that they would do certain things (like whisper to their neighbors, cross their arms, etc.) made me try to figure out if it meant I wasn't being engaging enough or loud enough. Since the reactions were somewhat ambiguous, it gave me practice in trying to adjust to feedback during the sermon while also not getting thrown off by the audience. The more quantitative reports, such as on vocal variety and eye contact were also cool to see. I think those can really help people discover certain blind spots they might have in delivery.
Judy Kuster (conference moderator) 2020-10-27 4:25:09am

Very interesting paper, Brian! I know that VR is being studied in my professional discipline, and see real potential value in stuttering therapy. I do have a few questions;-) When you talk of wishing congregations were made up of PCs and Macs (sheep and goats) - made be wonder which platform you consider "goats." I suspect there is much variation in students at the onset - some may be exceptional public speakers already. Others not so much. Are you able to individualize a program to meet the special challenges different students face? Can you develop a set of steps/goals for the student to work on? How often are individual seminarians using the lab for practice? Do you see any changes in their delivery when using the headset over time? Will a program like this ever become available for pastors to learn more about how they deliver sermons? Right now "The entire setup of Virtual Orator ($300), Vive Cosmos and powerful computer to run it all cost about $2250" is probably cost prohibitive.
Brian Klebig (Bethany Lutheran College) 2020-11-05 1:48:06am
Great questions, Judy! I will try and tackle them in order.
1) Sheep & Goats: I'd better decline to comment!
2) Individualize the program: Absolutely, particularly after the initial rounds of feedback are received. The program provides a running assessment of areas in which the student could improve, and individualized accounts for each student can be logged with the system to record their progress. Other issues, like anxiety and stage fright, can be addressed by modulating some of the audience variables (maybe even scaling back the audience size and gradually increasing it, or adjusting their behaviors/friendliness).
3) How frequently are students using the equipment? This being a COVID year, I think there's a LOT of precaution being taken with a communal device that is put on a person's face. There are cleaning protocols in place, but there have also been positive cases at Seminary so I would be surprised if it is seeing extensive use at present. Then there is the other bit to it, which is that Seminarians haven't actually started preaching this year's new batch of sermons yet! All together I'm optimistic that it will see extensive use, but thus far we don't have a great sample period to determine use.
4) Changes in delivery over time: Absolutely. Because this system is brand new at BLTS this year (although we trialed it last year, just not in a dedicated space) there hasn't been much time to build histories of improvement in Virtual Orator, however I designed a public speaking lab at Michigan State using this exact same program (albeit in a different setup) where progress was very easy to note. When you get scored on things like vocal modulation you start paying attention to it, and a lot of negative habits either never form or are counteracted. One big one that I saw disappear at MSU was the habit of delivering each sentence with similar inflection. Virtual Orator can call you out on that, and it makes a big difference.
5) $2250 is a hefty price tag, no doubt, but BLTS brought the number WAY down by pairing it with other improvements and mitigating the largest chunk of the cost, which is the purchase of a computer capable of running the system. Since they didn't need to worry about buying a new computer, the overall cost dropped to below $500 (although they splashed out a little to upgrade their headset). If a pastor has a computer that can run it they can also buy a personal edition of this software for a much lower price than it goes to organizations for.
Judy 2020-11-05 2:53:35pm
Sorry for so many questions! Next time I'll try to limit it to just one;-) Your answers were helpful and amazing. Thank you.
Mike 2020-11-03 4:10:29pm
Brian, This is really interesting. I can see the potential. The fact that business have created a tool specifically developed to help people with public speaking means that others believe this can help people in that area.
Reagan Moore (Martin Luther College ) 2020-11-05 3:20:59am
Pastor Klebig

I recently got to try out VR for the first time at a VR entertainment center that opened up close to me. I thought it was a very cool and fun experience. It is interesting now to see some of the practical uses that this kind of equipment can have. As someone in the pastor track at MLC I am hoping that I might get to use a program like this in my future.

I am wondering what the future looks like for VR pricing wise. You said that the system you have at Bethany was very expensive so I'm curious if this is expected to change. Will they become cheaper as competition grows and they are more readily available or will they become more expensive as the technology gets even better?

Thanks again for providing us with your input on the subject. It is exciting to see the positive ways that technology is being used in the world today.
Brian Klebig (Bethany Lutheran College) 2020-11-13 5:27:54am
The Silicon Valley mantra is "Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper." It's the direction that tech inevitably moves in. The rather large total included the purchase of a killer PC that was capable of running everything, and that the Sem was going to purchase regardless. Less expensive rigs can be built for extremely specific applications already, and the hardware itself is not terribly pricey ($299 for a VIVE if you catch a decent sale). As the minimum system requirements for VR become increasingly mainstream, people will decreasingly set out to buy a rig for the express purpose of VR. You'll have your computer and it will be VR capable without you having to have made it deliberately so. Since the computer is the biggest cost consideration by a country mile, that will bring VR (and its ilk, like MR) much more into the mainstream. Or at least, that's what seems likely!
Kirsten Sayles (Martin Luther College) 2020-11-05 5:36:07pm
Pastor Klebig:

The use of VR to train people for different situations is something I have an interest in. Seeing it done in a way that can directly benefit the ministry and the training of future pastors for the ministry is inspiring and exciting.

The avatars can do specific things to distract the speaker or let the speaker know that the audience is not engaged. A comment mentioned that the program could be individualized to certain speakers and their progress. This is all to prepare for a future in ministry but also to prepare for the sermon at BLTS. For that reason, would it be possible and practical to have the avatars representing specific people with the PRAy Lab? If specific professors or peers could be the virtual audience, it may make a student even more comfortable with the situation.

Thank you for the very informative article and your ongoing work in developing programs to further ministerial training.
Brian Klebig (Bethany Lutheran College) 2020-11-13 5:26:00am
Making custom avatars for people you know and uploading them to the program is DOABLE, but definitely not practical. You'd have to do some mesh adjustments to the characters, although rather nicely you wouldn't have to reanimate anything (just drop them on top of the existing animated skeleton). Honestly, if I could change my own face into a stranger's face in the chapel then I would do so! The objective is that they would be ready to preach to congregations, not professors. Although, now that I think of it, with COVID maybe I could just come to the chapel in disguise and achieve that effect! Heh, I think your suggestion is fun, and if you were thus motivated you could make it happen, but it would be pretty effortful.
Amanda Quist (Bethany Lutheran College) 2020-11-10 9:22:04pm
Great article, Brian. Thank you for including an image from the speaker's POV! I shouldn't admit that I'm sometimes skeptical about VR applications of this nature, but when my brother-in-law told me about this experience I wasn't totally convinced of its merits (they're simply not *real* people). But your writing took me back to a time in which I was a much less-practiced speaker. I remember going to speak at a Rotary event. I thought it would be similar to other events in which I delivered the same content, but when I arrived I was totally caught off guard by the number of people in attendance and the unforeseen formality of the event. I was nervous and my delivery reflected it. I believe seeing a similar presenting space in VR beforehand would have taken the edge off and improved my performance. Of course public speaking requires practice. It's awesome that seminarians are able to use this tool to do so...and in some cases make the inevitable blunders without the embarrassment of speaking to actual people(!)