EDMOND, Okla. — Even as COVID restrictions relax, many houses of worship have found it difficult to attract returning parishioners at their pre-pandemic attendance levels. The resulting physical and financial drop-off further complicates the worrying trend of church closures outpacing new ones to replace them.
But the shift also stirred a religious awakening of sorts, forcing once reluctant pastors and church leaders to rethink their outreach and adopt widely-used technology, like livestreaming which has allowed them to reach audiences far beyond their church walls.
Now some faith leaders are considering what's next on the technology horizon and the implications for ministry, eying the unchartered world of the metaverse to plant churches and preach the gospel.
Metaverse: A Primer
Not to be confused with Marvel Comic's multiverse, the metaverse is a 3D digital world that allows users to experience an alternate reality using computer software and specialized VR equipment, like goggles and haptic suits that use sound vibrations to mimic physical sensations that can simulate touch.
To the casual observer, it's easy to dismiss the computer-generated depictions as cartoons or video games, but in reality, they represent real people guiding their avatar selves in a much more immersive world than what most people are accustomed to experiencing on their phones, tablets, or computers.
That realm is gaining interest among the curious and the faithful, including ministries like Life.Church based in Edmond, Oklahoma. Its Church Online Platform helped 30,000 churches continue to spread the gospel even as their physical doors shuttered in the wake of the global shutdown in March 2020.
While many churches are still struggling with attendance, Life.Church has witnessed growth —even adding a campus in the metaverse last December, a reboot of a previous venture on another multimedia platform called Second Life. Much like traditional missions, its decision was based on a desire to be a "light" in a space that lacks a Christian influence.
"We found that the environment was a rich environment for ministry," said Bobby Gruenewald, pastor of innovation at Life.Church. "When there's new technologies and new platforms and all the new attention that the metaverse is getting today, we want to be present and we want to learn and understand how we can do ministry in it."
Mindset for Ministry
The motivation to move into the metaverse reflects a cultural mindset for the team that leads Life.Church.
"We always say if we're going to reach people that no one else is reaching, we're going to have to do some things that no one else is doing," Gruenewald told CBN News.
Facebook's highly-publicized company rebranding to Meta — which heavily promoted its plans to dive into the digital dimension — helped to propel the metaverse away from the fringe and fantastical to legitimacy, with major players in gaming, fashion, and health care – among others – investing billions of dollars to set up shop in the developing multimedia platform.
In 2021, real estate sales in the metaverse topped $500 million, and some analysts expect that figure to double in 2022.
While businesses view the metaverse through a lens of revenue generation, a growing number of faith leaders are focusing on the virtual frontier as a platform to promote Christian virtues.
"There's been this shift of this fringe technology [and] fringe experience that's now starting to become mainstream," said D.J. Soto, a pioneering pastor who launched VR Church in 2016.
Soto predicts by 2030, churches' use of the metaverse will become as commonplace as their websites and social media are today.
Another benefit of adopting the move toward VR, he insists, is the door it opens to a broader demographic.
"When you start to experience church in the metaverse, you start to see this whole world of forgotten people who want to be a part of a spiritual community — who don't have a way to be connected to one," he added.
Those relationships, like the ones in the physical and online realms, can evolve and grow into deep friendships or beyond. In February, two Dutch members who lived in adjacent towns in the Netherlands were married after first meeting in VR Church.
A Virtual Lifeline
After years of isolation, Alina Delp discovered Soto's church in the metaverse, which has become a lifeline for the former flight attendant and self-described adventure seeker. She suffers from erythromelalgia, a rare neurovascular condition that has sidelined her career and hobbies and has kept her confined to her home for the past 12 years.
"For probably the first couple two or three services, I just cried," recalled Delp, who spends approximately 99 percent of her time inside her house apart from doctors' visits.
Although streaming helped Delp to learn and grow in her Christian faith, she felt that method had its limitations.
"You could watch others be a part of the church, but you couldn't be part of the church," she told CBN News. "If anything, that just saddened me."
Attending VR Church gave her a sense of community that she had been missing. In the virtual world, she grew actively involved, volunteering as a greeter and leading a small group Bible study.
After years of serving in different capacities and enrolling in seminary, Delp currently is part of the pastoral team. She finds fulfillment in ministering to people from places around the world she can no longer visit physically and use her own pain to relate to others who visit the church in the metaverse — a platform where people tend to be more candid about their religious and emotional experiences.
"In VR, people are very open about where they are. There's not a facade. They don't put on their Sunday best and pretend that everybody's a 'Grade A' student and life is wonderful," she explained. "They're really honest about what's happening in their lives, which allows us to pastor better."
Life.Church's Gruenewald has found the phenomenon to be true for his team as well, highlighting how barriers in the physical world seem to vanish in the metaverse.
"We, as humans, inherently tend to put up emotional facades," he explained emphasizing people's aversion to vulnerability. "When you put an avatar on, when you can't see my face but you can see a representation of me, it does something different. All of a sudden, I feel more comfortable talking about questions that I have about God."
The Physical World vs. Metaverse?
While some see endless possibilities in the metaverse, skeptics question everything from user safety in the world of virtual reality to sound theology to justify its use.
One line of criticism likens alternate realities, like the metaverse, to the ancient orthodox Christian teaching on fantasia, suggesting it borders on sinful for creating a man-made reality apart from God and rejecting the one he ordained.
Gruenewald, who developed the YouVersion Bible app, doesn't see the debate between virtual and physical as a choice between the two. He believes it all boils down to reaching people where they are.
"We are for meeting in buildings," Gruenewald said, noting Life.Church's 42 physical locations. "We also feel like we have these tools available today that have never been available before in human history that allow us and give us the opportunity to connect and reach people that we otherwise would not be able to reach through our physical environments," he continued.
Soto views the metaverse as a smart use of technology—similar to how the late Rev. Billy Graham revolutionized traditional ministry by repurposing radio and TV for evangelism.
"If you take that same attitude to what's happening in the metaverse, that's the same thing that's happening," he said. "We're connecting with people digitally, virtually, [and] over airwaves. And the relationships and the community and the connection [and] the salvation and the discipleship is just as powerful as anything that we've seen in the past."