Ahead of the holidays, nostalgia, tradition, and family pleas can move even agnostics and atheists to consider attending a church service. But this year’s unholy trinity—omicron, delta, and the seasonal flu—is likely to have millions seeking online services. They might consider the metaverse.
While this is our second pandemic Christmas, it’s the first since the idea of the “metaverse” gained traction, thanks in part to covid itself, and to Facebook’s rebrand as Meta. Ever since CEO Mark Zuckerberg made awkward videos revealing his company’s plans to of develop a still-embryonic virtual world—where people will one day supposedly live, work, and shop as avatars—major brands have been moving quickly to plant a flag there. So, too, have churches and religious organizations. Here’s how to join in.
Those uninterested in contributing to Zuckerberg’s colonization of our digital future might begin by donning a preferred VR headset and searching for “church” among the event listings on platforms like AltspaceVR, a Microsoft property, or YouTube VR. Both host churches that either moved their conventional real-world weekly service online or were built from the ground up—sometimes like a role-playing fantasy game—within the metaverse.
A pioneer in that latter category is VR Church, whose five-year history makes it probably the oldest church in virtual reality. Founder D.J. Soto, a Virginia-based pastor and former preacher for a mega-church in Pennsylvania, says the pandemic, plus growing metaverse awareness, have raised his church’s profile, and convinced some early naysayers of virtual churches’ potential. Today, Soto regularly assists other churches in creating their own metaverse congregations, promising he can get people set up in just three days.
VR Church itself runs three Sunday services at the same time every week, each in a different metaverse city, and scheduled for two time zones: Europe and the Americas. On a typical Sunday, more than 250 congregants show up, including many regulars, and members can also find each other in weekly virtual meetings and sign up for volunteer jobs.
Like most metaverse churches, VR Church belongs to the broad evangelical Christian tradition, but Soto notes that it’s “decentralized,” meaning pastors and members don’t need to subscribe to a single set of values. Among the other churches he helps to plant across the metaverse, some pastors are liberal, pointedly reaching out to the LGBTQ+ population; others are more conservative. Soto, who says his first visitor in VR was an atheist from Denmark, believes range is the reason the metaverse is particularly well-suited to religion. The environment is not yoked to the dogma of the physical world, and virtual churches attract exceptionally diverse crowds—in exceptionally diverse garb—from across faiths and around the globe.
This Christmas weekend, VR Church attendees will enter Soto’s virtual event to find themselves in a dark field under a starry sky. There will be sleds for seating and a large screen playing Christmas classics. Soto will lead a service by reading and interpreting the Biblical Christmas story, as members walk the road to Bethlehem—as avatars, of course. “It’s this whole experience that we’re going through,” he says, “We’re not just reading [the story] and imagining it, we’re actually literally experiencing the essence of it.”
Not every metaverse event is quite so immersive. In some cases, people come together as avatars in a virtual environment only to watch the same two-dimensional livestream others are viewing on a website. In other gatherings—as with VR Church—the event is led by an avatar pastor who can mill about the congregation (usually floating leglessly, like most VR avatars) before taking to the pulpit. People without headsets can watch either type of event from outside the virtual space, too.
Oculus users with a Quest 2 headset will want to look for church services by searching the listings on Horizon Venues, Facebook’s platform for live events. Here you’ll likely stumble upon a promotion for a Christmas Eve observance by Sun Valley Community Church, based in Arizona, one of a handful of congregations that moved onto Horizon Venues this year.
Sun Valley is still finding its metaverse legs: The church launched its weekly services on Horizon one month ago, says Mika Casey, digital strategies director, after he contacted Facebook seeking assistance. (Casey was already streaming services with Facebook Live.)
About 50 people are currently attending Sun Valley’s Sunday services in VR, a tiny audience compared with the 5,000 people who watch online and the 10,000 or so members who attend at one of its Arizona locations. But Casey says early feedback on the VR gatherings has been positive.
“The first week I joined the platform, just knowing I was in the room with other people experiencing it with me, there’s a different type of energy,” he says. “People of faith will tell you that’s the holy spirit, but even for someone who’s not a believer, there is just something different about experiencing something with other people.”
Curious avatars have wandered into Sun Valley’s service speaking various languages, he says. One visitor semi-shouted that it was “dope” to see a female pastor, before adding something like, “Oh yeah, I’m in church, so I should pipe down.”
“Two weeks ago, someone mentioned it was their first time ever stepping foot in a church,” virtual or not, Casey says. “It’s a lot less intimidating to just jump in there, in your avatar form, versus pulling up to the parking lot and walking in.”
He also expected a few trolls, but they haven’t materialized yet.
Predictably, reactions to religious services in the metaverse vary by and within faith groups. The invitation to go virtual raises age-old questions about how religion should deal with new technology, commercialization, and security. It also raises unique questions about the legitimacy of a VR experience, and what moral and spiritual hazards await when communities aren’t meeting in the flesh. During Catholic masses, for example, the eucharist “bread” that parishioners consume during communion is thought to literally become the body of Christ. Watching a livestream of a mass or attending one in VR might make that sacrament merely symbolic.
Another example of a sticking point: The Catholic faith’s “fundamental disposition toward the physical world is that it is precious and meaningful,” writes Jim McDermott, an American Jesuit priest. Many churches are deeply grounded in local communities and their specific needs.
Meta isn’t waiting for a philosophical consensus. For months, the company has been reaching out to religious organizations to establish faith-based community groups that might run VR events, or use Facebook’s marketing and monetization tools. For Meta, this is just smart business—another source of growth and additional access to detailed user data. For religious organizations intent on connecting with and adding new followers, the opportunity to leverage Facebook’s roughly 2.9 billion monthly active users may be unparalleled.