Back in 2016, when D.J. Soto strapped on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, he saw a new opportunity for preaching the Gospel and getting God’s Word to the people. According to a profile in Wired, Soto had recently quit his job as pastor of a megachurch in Pennsylvania because he was looking for a new way to reach people with the Gospel.
He wasn’t interested in “preaching to the choir.” He felt that a lot of the people he wanted to reach would never set foot in his megachurch building, so he and his family hit the road and started a series of pop-up churches in unusual places – places like gyms, campgrounds, and bars.
But strapping on that VR headset changed everything. The experience itself wasn’t great. He wandered around a brand new VR platform called AltSpaceVR, which was nearly empty and had little good content. But he saw the potential. If he could bring a good church experience to virtual reality, he could reach people who would never go to his megachurch.
So he started VR Church, a church that exists entirely in the metaverse. In the beginning, Soto preached to mostly empty rooms, where the few people in attendance were usually atheists who wanted to argue with him. But Soto felt God was calling him to this church so he kept at it. The metaverse has grown in popularity since then, especially since Mark Zuckerberg announced his vision for an immersive VR world. Today, VR Church has a congregation of around 200 people.
Alina Delp has a neurovascular condition that prevents her from leaving the home. “When you become chronically ill and you can no longer participate in what everybody else is doing, slowly but surely people fall away. So it’s been just myself, my husband, and our cats,” she told Euronews.
But VR Church not only allows her to attend church once again, but helps her feel empowered. “Suddenly you matter again. Suddenly you’re human again,” she said. “Suddenly it just feels like you could do anything in the world again where you were just told over and over and over again you couldn’t do anything.”
Why a metaverse church?
Recently the Associated Press interviewed Soto and a number of other leaders of VR churches in the metaverse. Bill Willenbrock, a Lutheran pastor and hospital chaplain, recently took the plunge into VR and leads Christian fellowship, worship, and counseling on a platform called VRChat.
One theme that kept coming up was that visiting a VR church feels safer to some than coming to a brick-and-mortar one. “I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve heard, ‘I’m considering suicide. … It’s helpful that we’re in VR,’” Willenbrock says.
One church member interviewed by the AP says that social phobia prevents him from going to a church in person, but he enjoys attending one in the metaverse, where he can be anonymous. Another cited the comfort of being able to attend while staying at home when the weather is bad. Another cited the type of immersive experience that VR can provide as being more engaging.
Those are some of the same reasons so many people enjoy attending church online, which became even more common during the pandemic. In fact, popular online church Life.Church had a sort of metaverse church way back in 2007 when they broadcast their sermons in the online game Second Life.
The future of the church?
“The future of the church is the metaverse,” Soto told the AP. “In the church of 2030, the main focus is going to be your metaverse campus.”
Others aren’t so sure. In fact, many people are skeptical that the metaverse will catch on. Zuckerberg himself says that the current version of the metaverse is in its infancy and the metaverse of his vision will be much different. But what exactly that will be is unclear. Are we talking about something like OASIS in Ready Player One? Or will it be more for everyday tasks like shopping and business meetings? How will people want to use the metaverse if they’ll use it at all?
There’s no shortage of articles from people predicting that the metaverse will be a massive failure. In a column for Bloomberg, Jason Schreier writes, “When tech executives like Zuckerberg preach the metaverse, they are promising visions that either already exist, are ill-defined, or that nobody actually wants.”
So will the metaverse be the next big thing or the next Google Glass? No one knows. And there are lots of intelligent people on both sides of the predictions. So what does that mean for the church?
As Christians, we need to go where the people are. Just as we used the printing press, radio, television, websites, and social media, we need to bring the Gospel to where people are. Some have moved into the metaverse space to reach the people who are there, and not just leaders of those virtual reality churches.
Recently Christianity Today wrote about a team that created an AI Gospel artist that is popular in the metaverse. The artist, J.C., was created with software that recognizes patterns in Gospel songs and uses that to create new ones. There are certainly lots of theological and ethical questions about artificial intelligence creating songs to worship God, but it’s an interesting idea for sure.
The biggest advantage of the metaverse is its reach. If you want to have a spiritual conversation with someone in an unreached area, where the person knows no followers of Jesus and has no access to a physical church, you can do so.
“If you have 30 minutes, if you have an hour, you can be doing evangelism from wherever you are and that’s so exciting. Evangelism in other areas can require gas mileage and effort, packing up and going somewhere, but you can do this all from your computer and any moment you have some extra time to share the love of God,” Pastor Willenbrock recently said at a conference.
Of course, you can do that without the metaverse. Willenbrock calls himself a “digital missionary” and he basically described the type of digital missions for which Indigitous has long advocated.
So should you buy a VR headset and start using the metaverse to share the Gospel? Maybe. If you feel God calling you to that, you should. If you feel God calling you to start WhatsApp groups or to share on Facebook pages or in Facebook groups, you should. Maybe you feel called to talk about your relationship with God on Instagram or share about the Bible on TikTok.
Wherever you feel yourself drawn, that’s where you should go and bring the Gospel message. If you don’t know where, we’d love to have that conversation in our Facebook Group.