Is It Possible for The Church to Meaningfully Engage People in Virtual Environments?
At the behest of coworkers, I recently agreed to boldly go where not many have gone before—to church, in the metaverse. Since then, I’ve learned that the metaverse is a ministry frontier, with a peculiar set of opportunities, hazards, and challenges. Like other frontiers—space travel, for example—it’s mostly the domain of the privileged few. But its emergence portends a major shift in American culture. For the church to thrive in the 21st-century, we’re going to have to learn how to anticipate those changes.
Navigating the Metaverse
“I don’t know how this works, but I think it’s gonna be fun.”
That was my general approach when I agreed to try out doing church in the metaverse, but only because I had a reputation as an early adopter of technology to protect. The truth is, when I first heard of churches experimenting with virtual reality (VR) as a platform for ministry, my instinct was skepticism. After all, I know that newer-and-shinier isn’t always better. And even though I still regularly engage in a variety of tech platforms for both work and pleasure, I don’t get the same rush that I used to get from learning new things. At this stage of my mid-40s existence, the joy I get from discovering new things is tempered—and at times, overshadowed—by the effort of learning how they work.
So before I could figure out how to go to church in the metaverse, I first had to figure out, well, what it is.
Not that I don’t understand virtual environments. Even before the pandemic, I was making video calls on the regular, and I’ve been playing immersive video games for decades. I’ve seen augmented reality games like Pokemon Go, where your gameplay options are tied to physical locations where you must physically congregate (like, for example, in churches). And I’ve experimented with game platforms like the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox Kinect, where video games require players to move not just fingers on a controller but arms, legs, and sometime the whole body.
But the metaverse is like all of those things rolled into one.
In general usage, “the metaverse” describes a subset of the internet where users navigate virtual three-dimensional spaces while wearing VR headsets. It’s been a conceptual staple of science fiction circles for decades, but the idea of the metaverse became more prominent after Facebook publicly pivoted into virtual reality after a decade of behind-the-scenes research and development. After acquiring VR headset maker Oculus, Facebook changed its name to Meta Platforms, and the Oculus Quest line of headsets has been renamed to the Meta Quest.
So my journey into the metaverse started with unboxing a Meta Quest 2 headset, putting it on, and going through the initial setup process, which for me included linking it to my existing Facebook account. The Meta Quest 2 actually consists of three items—a headset and two wireless controllers, one held in each hand. The headset is fitted with computer screens connected to optical lenses that, along with spatial audio sound effects, simulate a real, three-dimensional experience. The controllers help give you tools to orient and navigate those spaces, allowing you to open or close menus or move from place to place without having to physically stand or walk.
This technology, when I first experienced it, was—and I cannot stress this enough—completely mindblowing.
I hadn’t been this impressed with a piece of internet technology since I was a high school freshman eagerly trading witty barbs in online chatrooms. Literally, I have a memory of sitting in my high school computer lab with the other nerdy first-year students, all of us in complete silence, typing messages to each other on monochrome screens, and nervously giggling in glee. If painted as a still life, the scene would’ve been titled “Geeks in Paradise.” Yeah, some of it was teenage hormones, but it was also the exuberance of learning game-changing tech. Over time, we got used to it, and using email and electronic bulletin board systems (yes, that’s what we called them back in the ’90s) became normal. But before that? It was pretty amazing.
Decades later, as soon as I strapped on that VR headset, a similar set of feelings came back. Even before you download your first app onto the platform, the interface itself is stunning. You feel like you’re somewhere else. I kept having to take the headset off every five minute or so to remind myself that I was still in my own home.
And once you have this experience, you can understand why Facebook spent all those billions of dollars in R&D. Over the last two decades, the internet has transformed every facet of society, from applications and internet browsers on desktop computers to social media and streaming video on tablets and mobile devices. Now, Zuckerberg and company are betting big that it will happen again. Their vision is for the metaverse to be a platform for any and every kind of social gathering online. And given the long tradition of evangelicals embracing technology to spread the faith, it seems only natural that there would be pastors and churches staking their claim on what they view as a new ministry frontier.
So on a recent Sunday, I met up with Erik Anderson, director of Covenant Events, to check out various church experiences on the Microsoft app AltspaceVR. While our initial experiences were underwhelming, we both saw enough promise to want to return.
Church #1 was the most spartan-feeling of the three. As I approached the gleaming white building, I saw the name of the church in a large font, a logo, and nothing else. Standing by the door appeared to be a greeter, who gave me a perfunctory welcome and immediately walked into the church before waiting to hear my reply. After walking through the lobby area and reading an aggressively evangelistic tagline, Erik and I walked into what looked like a typical megachurch auditorium with a giant screen showing the live feed of the in-person live service. It kinda felt like sitting in a movie theater, except the movie was church. Erik and I, along with the greeter, were the only people there. The worship band felt very lively, but the virtual environment was very…not. The form of the metaverse setting was at odds with its function. We were trying to have a communal spiritual experience in a cavernous empty room. It wasn’t really working, so we bounced out, and tried another.
Church #2 was more promising. It still looked like a megachurch building but had a colorful design scheme that looked festive and fun without being too gaudy. There was an open courtyard with some helpful signage introducing the virtual pastors and the lead pastor of the church, and a place to stand if you wanted to engage in a Q&A afterward. There were also two entryways, a more traditional foyer with a few greeters, and then a back stairwell that went up to the second floor balcony. After my previous greeter experience, I quickly opted for the stairs. The balcony was tastefully decorated and felt a little like a movie theater lobby or a midscale hotel entryway. Along the wall were a few of what appeared to be full-size video game cabinets, with Bible verses onscreen instead of eight-bit graphics. Again, we faced an auditorium with a big screen.
We’d missed the opening worship music, but were listening to a pastor preach about grace. The overall presentation was more polished than the first church, but the same problems persisted. Mostly empty room, no meaningful interactions except for the side conversation that Erik and I were having. By this point, I’d figured out how to use the emote feature, so there were a few times where I made some floating prayer hands as a way of saying “amen,” but that was my most meaningful contribution to the service. I could see how if there were more people, this could end up being a good experience, but still… it didn’t feel particularly real. It still felt like a church simulation. So we bounced outta there as well, hoping for something different.
Church #3 struck me as different right from the jump. It had a long walkway along a virtual path with trees, rocks, and other elements of natural beauty, and as we walked in, butterflies were cheerfully flitting alongside us. Even though the graphics were not lifelike enough to feel like the real thing, it was still pleasant, and walking for a bit of time gave Erik and me a chance to talk about our expectations and to prepare for what we would encounter. As we got closer to a wide, one-story building, I could hear what I assumed to be the pastor, talking about some concerns they had about an upcoming mission trip overseas. But when we arrived at the building, I was surprised to find that the voice was from one of the fifteen or so virtual attendees, all huddled around a large table.
As I listened further, I heard not the polished rhetoric of a professional orator, but the heartfelt thoughts and prayers of a regular person. When he stopped, a moderator stepped in to acknowledge the two of us by our usernames. Then she invited another person to speak. He might’ve been identified as a pastor, I can’t remember, but he responded to the first person’s story by talking about his own worries and struggles, and then talked about how Jesus’s death and resurrection covers not just his sins in the past, but also the sins he may commit in the future. Erik leaned over to me and said (in our private voice channel), “I think this dude is preaching the gospel right now!”
The longer we were there, the more it was clear that this was a community of people who gathered in that virtual space to talk through their faith journey. Eventually, the group moderators played a long clip of a preacher giving a sermon for the purpose of generating more discussion. The church was not happening on a big flat screen, but rather, in and among the people in virtual attendance. Because of time constraints, I had to leave, but I left wanting to return again.
Church in Progress
The good thing about being an early adopter is you get to experience things before others do; the downside is that you rarely get to experience a polished, finished product. In this case, while the metaverse hardware is impressive in its own right, the metaverse experience depends greatly on the people involved and the intentionality with which they plan and execute their gatherings.
This is especially true for churches. Right now, we’re in a moment where the metaverse has a cachet of coolness because it’s still new. I spent money on the headset and rearranged several things on my schedule to have the experience because I’d never done it before. But while the novelty might get people to try church in the metaverse, they won’t stay unless they experience meaningful engagement with others.
Which is why it’s a mistake to assume that people in the metaverse who are hungry for a spiritual encounter will be drawn to an exact facsimile of a brick-and-mortar church experience. Maybe some might crave the familiarity of a church building when they’re in the metaverse, but many people won’t. Some will be so scarred by previous church experiences that they’ll want nothing of the sort.
And even for those who do, you can’t assume that they will adopt all of the habits and cultural practices of church in meatspace (a popular synonym for real life physical environments). After all, it takes time and hassle—and some brazenness—to physically grab your coat or jacket and leave during the middle of a service, especially if you have to walk past people who are already seated. The potential embarrassment is part of what prevents disconnected people from leaving.
But in the metaverse, none of that is an issue. You can leave with the click of a button.
Not only that, but the synthetic nature of the interface means you’re not constrained by forces like weather or geography, so you can create experiences that differ from real life. Therefore, it’s going to take ongoing experimentation, feedback, and discernment to figure out the best ways to engage people in virtual environments, and then—and this is probably the most important—we need scores of committed people who are passionate enough about Jesus and dedicated enough to the mission of the church to learn these environments and become fluent in the cultures they spawn.
The most obvious truth is this: Church in the metaverse is a work in progress. Some churches are doing it well, some are doing it poorly, and most have yet to even consider it. But if all churches do is create a new page on their website and spend money on a shiny, virtual environment that stays empty—then they’ll be wasting their time and money.
The good news, of course, is that we know Jesus took a random, motley crew of rejects, misfits, and outsiders, poured into their lives, walked in the miraculous, and trusted his Father with the results.
And those results literally changed the world.
Who’s to say he couldn’t do it again—in virtual 3D?