Will the metaverse end the megachurch?
Months before the coronavirus pandemic hit, many churches struggled to acknowledge that an increasing share of their audience had been migrating to online teachers and worship experiences.
When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, data from the Nashville-based LifeWay Research suggests that many churches were not prepared to take their services online.
At the time, just 22% of pastors livestreamed their entire service, and about 10% only livestreamed their sermon. Some 41% of pastors admitted they didn’t post any portion of their church service online, while about 52% said they posted the sermon online after the church service.
Less than two years after enduring the ravages of the pandemic, however, a lot has changed.
Data collected in a survey of nearly 2,000 decision-making church leaders for The 2021 State of Church Technology Report from Pushpay shows that most American churches now embrace technology as an important tool in achieving their mission and agree that the digital church is here to stay. The report finds that churches, more than ever, "are enthusiastic to adopt technology for the long haul" as the pandemic "erased any doubts regarding the viability of a digital Church."
Earlier this year, Pastor Touré Roberts of the Potter’s House of Denverannounced his congregation would sell their $12.2 million, 137,000-square-foot church in Arapahoe County, Colorado, and go completely virtual after COVID-19 wreaked havoc on their in-person attendance and donations.
Many other churches sold or shuttered their church buildings for good. Others have been trying more creative ways to survive outside of migrating online completely or merging with another church, as the pastors of Hope Church in High Point and Renaissance Church in Jamestown, North Carolina, did earlier this year.
While many churches are wrestling with the basics of the constantly evolving wave of online technologies impacting the way people live, major technology companies and a minority of churches are already getting ready for the future of the internet, what some are calling the metaverse.
Che’von Lewis, a representative of social media giant Facebook, whose parent company Meta Platforms Inc. is investing heavily in the development of the metaverse, described it to The Christian Post as “a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.”
“We see the metaverse as the next evolution in social technologies and the successor to the mobile internet,” Lewis said. “It will feel like a hybrid of today’s online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions, or projected into the physical world — and seamlessly stitched together so that you can easily jump from one thing to another.”
In the metaverse, Lewis said, people can work, play, learn, shop, create and hang out with their friends, among other things.
“The metaverse isn’t a single product one company can build alone,” Lewis said. “And it won’t be built overnight. Many of these products will only be fully realized in the next 10 to 15 years.”
Some have raised concerns that the metaverse isn’t safe for women and children, with reports of women being “groped” and asked if they watch porn. Children are particularly vulnerable, according to Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the United Kingdom. Burrows told The Times of London that one problem is that parents cannot see what their children are viewing.
Meta told women who have complained about harassment on the platform that they should have used an optional safety feature called “Safe Zone.” That feature disables other users’ ability to talk to or interact with the user.
In the view of Katherine Cross, who researches online harassment at the University of Washington, Meta’s response that the user is responsible for protecting themselves from the bad behavior of others is problematic. “When companies address online abuse, their solution is to outsource it to the user and say, ‘Here, we give you the power to take care of yourselves,’” she told MIT Technology Review.
Church in the metaverse
Last summer, during a virtual faith summit with several religious groups, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg highlighted the role Facebook played when communities of faith were unable to gather in person due to the pandemic. She said she was looking forward to the day when churches and other religious groups begin hosting services in virtual reality on the platform.
“I know that faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally, both are about connection,” Sandberg said. “This was true long before the pandemic. Back in 2017, we changed our mission to give people the power to build community around the world closer together.
“We envisioned a world where our platform could help people build community by connecting with others who shared their interests. … Our hope is that one day people will host religious services in virtual reality spaces as well or use augmented reality as an educational tool to teach their children the story of their faith.”
Bishop D.J. Soto, who began preaching in the metaverse in 2016, had initially planned to plant physical churches but now leads the VR Church, one of the few prominent congregations in the metaverse.
“VR Church is a spiritual community which exists entirely in the metaverse to celebrate God’s love for the world,” the church declares on its website. “We believe church can be anywhere at any time with anyone…even in the metaverse.”
Soto, who was previously involved with the ministry of a megachurch, believes that church in the metaverse, or the “MetaChurch,” as he calls it, is the successor to the megachurch.
“I was part of a megachurch, and in 2016, we left to go to what we thought would be physical church planting. So that’s what we set out to do. And it was about the same time Facebook bought Oculus, and we got into VR and entered into the metaverse, via Altspace, which is owned by Microsoft,” Soto told Carey Nieuwhof during a podcast interview earlier this year.
Nieuwhof is a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church in Ontario, Canada.
“When we got in there, I was like, wow, this is amazing. I just was blown away. I’ve never seen anything like it. You think you’ve seen everything. And I was only in there a couple of hours. It was a Friday; we were shifting our lives into this physical church plane, but I thought, man, what if we did a little experiment and had church in this metaverse? And so three days later, I had my first church service in VR, and I was so pumped because five people came to launch day,” Soto recalled.
And more than five years later, the VR Church continues to grow.
“When thinking about megachurch to MetaChurch, I just look back at our five years of our ministry in Virtual Reality Church and the experiences that we’ve had have been so compelling. And the spirit has just been alive in our community, and we’ve experienced God in our environment, within our relationships,” Soto said. “And so just experiencing that and just saying, ‘Wow, this is such a powerful tool.’ God’s here. He’s with us. He’s not just in the physical. He’s sharing His love with people all across the metaverse.”
To participate in the VR Church experience, Soto and his team recommend that worshipers get a quality virtual reality headset, like the Oculus Quest 2, which retails for $299.
Facebook declined to share sales numbers for the headset, which it launched in October 2020, but said it was a popular holiday gift last Christmas and “remains a product in high demand.” Lewis said the Oculus app reached No. 1 in the App Store for the first time on Christmas Day in the U.S. in 2021.
Even though the VR Church exists in many metaverses like VRChat, RecRoom, AltspaceVR and Facebook Horizons, first-time visitors are asked to join through AltspaceVR, a social virtual reality platform.
“In my ministry, in our church, I am an avatar a hundred percent. And so it’s part of just coming in with a 3D representation of my physical self,” Soto said. “And when I put on the virtual reality headset, it mirrors my movement. So if I turn my head to the left, my avatar, his head would turn. If I raised my hands, it would do the same things. And so when I preach every Sunday, people are seeing that avatar, and I’m interacting with people all over the world.
“Sometimes, I do interviews in my avatar. … I think church leaders are trying to wrap their brain around that. But I think our church represents what church is going to look like in 2030, where it’s going to be very normal for you as a senior leader, senior pastor, teacher to preach in your avatar. I think that’s where we’re heading.”
The Craig Groeschel-led Life.Church, which spans some 40 campuses and owns the popular YouVersion Bible app, has been a leading voice for innovation among churches in America for a while now.
The church has hosted a booming online community for more than 10 years and tells CP that as far back as 2007, they were already experimenting with church in the metaverse. It was no surprise last December when the church added a campus in the metaverse.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve held services in the metaverse. In 2007, we held services in Second Life, which was a 3D virtual environment similar to what you see today in the metaverse, except you didn’t have the option to use VR to navigate it,” Life.Church pastor and innovative leader Bobby Gruenewald told CP in a statement. “As people spend more time in digital spaces and as the technology improves, it’s important to us that the Church has a presence so we can bring hope and encouragement.”
Gruenewald said that compared to building a physical campus, the cost to set up a campus in the metaverse using AltspaceVR was nominal.
“Initially, we didn’t create our own building there. We used a theater-style venue that was available as a template,” he said. “It was fairly quick and easy to set up and worked well for our first couple weeks. Recently, we modeled a venue to look like one of our physical locations in dimension, shape, color and experience. It took our team a couple weeks to build, but it was a nominal budget, certainly in comparison to one of our physical locations.
“We also began this effort with just a couple of team members giving their time to host services in the metaverse. Now, we are in the process of building a volunteer team to help support it.”
But not every Christian leader is excited about the church’s march toward evolving online technology.
G. Craige Lewis, EX Ministries founder and leader of Adamant Believers Council in North Richland Hills, Texas, believes the devil is “forcing everyone into the bottleneck of the internet, which may seem like a good idea for some now." But he contends that “it’s a setup.”
“Even the metaverse … it’s a setup,” Lewis told CP. “Once you’re in that space, he (the devil) holds the power of the club. And they can pull the plug. That’s already happened in other countries, other continents, especially China, where you can’t even mention Jesus Christ online,” he added.
“All they have to do is create a synthetic robot or whatever online to go through, and clean it up of every mention of Jesus Christ,” Lewis said. “The church is done if their only presence is online.”
Gruenewald, however, maintains that the presence of churches in the metaverse is valid.
“When someone doubts the validity of church in the metaverse, our response is similar to what we’ve said for years about church online. There are unique benefits to church in digital spaces. It’s a way to reach people who might never set foot in a physical church,” he said.
“Maybe they have health limitations, so they can’t leave their home, or they live in a part of the world that makes it difficult to meet in person,” he continued. “Others may be too intimidated to walk into a church building, but they’re comfortable exploring church in an online environment.
“We recently talked with a dad whose son has social anxiety. He wouldn’t walk into a physical church, but he felt comfortable coming to church in the metaverse. That’s why we’re passionate about leveraging technology to share the Gospel. We know that to reach people no one is reaching, we’ll have to do things no one is doing.”
Gruenewald noted that, in some ways, it’s easier to connect with people online than in the physical church setting.
“We’ve… found that people are often willing to be vulnerable more quickly when they’re online than when they are face-to-face with someone,” Gruenewald said. “People hide behind facades in both online and physical spaces. In person, people tend to put up emotional facades. They’re afraid of what might happen if they let someone in, so they build walls.
“Whereas the physical façade of an avatar gives people a sense of anonymity that helps them feel more comfortable letting their guard down. They’ll talk about their struggles with depression, difficulties in their marriage, and other intimate details of their life that people don’t usually talk about as quickly or easily in a physical setting.”
The Life.Church leader said he sees the relationship between church in the metaverse and physical services as complementary and doesn’t believe one will replace the other.
“At Life.Church, we will continue to take a hybrid approach,” he said. “We’re all-in on physical church and all-in on digital church. They’re both effective in different ways, and they’re both important. One doesn’t replace the need for the other. As new technologies have emerged throughout history, there have always [been] bold predictions about how things will change.”
“When the telephone was invented, there were those who worried no one would meet together or leave their house again. Those arguments have been around for decades, but they don’t hold up. If the isolation of the last couple of years has taught us anything, we know we have an inherent human desire to be together,” Gruenewald added. “At the same time, digital tools are now woven throughout people’s lives, and we don’t want the Church to miss out on digital opportunities.”