Virtual worship

Discerning what the metaverse means for the church

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Some of my favorite YouTube videos are clips originally broadcast on network TV in 1995, the year the internet became widely available. The internet was revolutionary, and most people had no clue what it was. These videos reveal David Letterman joking with Bill Gates that the internet will never take off. Bryant Gumble doesn’t know how to pronounce the @ symbol, and Katie Couric famously asks, “What is internet anyway?”

Technology moves fast, and keeping up with the latest inventions, apps and services is challenging. Breakthroughs like the internet are immensely helpful and important tools. But for every new tool like the internet, there are also “revolutionary” products that don’t live up to their bold, world-changing promises. For example, when was the last time you rode a Segway? Most of us probably have accounts on Facebook and Instagram, but do you remember Google+?

It’s impossible to predict which inventions will become part of our daily lives and which will be laughable flops, but if the last few months have been any indication, I think decades from now we’ll remember 2022 as the birth year of the metaverse.

What is the metaverse?

The term metaverse is difficult to define, in part because the technology is still being refined. Wired magazine says that the metaverse “doesn’t really refer to any one specific type of technology, but rather a broad shift in how we interact with technology.”

Most people use metaverse to refer to the use of virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR). These are similar but not the same. Virtual reality refers to the ability to be completely immersed in a digital environment, often with the use of a VR headset. Augmented reality often uses a set of glasses or an app on your phone to superimpose digital elements on top of the actual physical world around you. The mobile game Pokémon Go is probably the most popular use of augmented reality.

Think of metaverse church as the next evolution of online church. Just like an online service, metaverse churches bring people together at the same time to engage in a worship service with music, prayer and a sermon.

Another defining characteristic of the metaverse is the use of avatars. Avatars are cartoon-like representations of yourself, similar to the “Miis” of the Nintendo Wii game system.

It’s hard to avoid technical jargon in these conversations, but the key thing to understand about the metaverse is that it allows you to interact with people around the world—in real time—in surprisingly realistic and immersive atmospheres. While you might be looking at and talking to an avatar instead of your friend’s actual face, in these digital spaces you can walk around together, play games, attend events, watch Netflix or simply sit in your virtual house for an in-depth conversation.

If you haven’t experienced this yet, it’s hard to describe how realistic this world feels. It takes some getting used to, but once you become comfortable, it is possible to forget that everything around you is simply a complex combination of pixels and high-speed internet.

In a related change, people are talking about “internet 3.0.” Internet 1.0, the very first iteration of the internet, was basically static information. You could visit a webpage and read an article or possibly look at some photos—and that was about it. Internet 2.0 introduced social media, where you could become part of the internet by representing yourself in chat rooms and social networks. Internet 3.0 introduces things like VR, AR and cryptocurrency.

There was a very significant cultural jump going from no internet to internet 1.0, and I think we’d all agree that the introduction of social media also changed our lives forever. Tech and cultural experts are expecting that big of a shift as the metaverse continues to develop.

What about the church?

Whenever there are significant advances in technology, every organization must decide if and how they will invest time and resources into it. The church is no exception.

Over the past year or so, several large churches have experimented with hosting worship services in the metaverse. Think of metaverse church as the next evolution of online church. Just like an online service, metaverse churches bring people together at the same time to engage in a worship service with music, prayer and a sermon.

What’s different about metaverse services is you can actually “see” other people attending. These rooms are filled with avatars representing people attending from anywhere in the world, likely with the real person wearing a VR headset in their home. If you walk up to one of these avatars, you can talk with them.

Some metaverse churches stream video of their physical gatherings on a virtual screen, so it looks and sounds a lot like what you experience if you watch church online. Other churches have their pastors present in these rooms as their avatar, giving a sermon, praying and otherwise leading the service.

We are in the early days of the metaverse, and many of these experiences can be awkward and clunky. There are a lot of technological bugs to work out and we are collectively figuring out what the culture of this online space should feel like.

Still, there are some powerful stories coming out of metaverse churches. Home-bound individuals can experience the church in ways that have never been possible before. People with handicaps are being baptized in VR, with their avatar body being submerged in ways their physical body never could. Authentic communities form where people make friends around the world that they’ll never meet face-to-face. And ironically, a lot of people feel more comfortable being honest about deep and difficult faith questions when they are represented by an anonymous avatar.

Most people would say there are some interesting possibilities and encouraging examples of people experiencing Jesus in these new digital spaces.

Is this church?

Understandably, metaverse churches are met with skepticism and criticism. This feels very new, and the tech is hard to understand. It’s easy to wonder whether this “counts” as a real church. Concerns about safety are legitimate, and it’s true that 2,000 years of church history included face-to-face interactions. Clearly the Bible does not discuss these specifics, just like Jesus also didn’t talk about online giving, church databases, air conditioning, parking lots, bulletins or high school lock-ins.

However, there is an interesting story in Luke 7. In the story, an unnamed centurion has a highly valued servant who is sick and about to die. The centurion asks Jesus to heal this servant, but instead of inviting Jesus to his home “in person,” the centurion asks Jesus to heal him now, from a long distance away.

Jesus has never done “remote” healing before. Luke records that Jesus is “amazed” at the man’s faith for raising such a bold request, and after traveling home, they find the sick servant miraculously healed. Now, jumping from Jesus-healing-from-a-distance to church-in-virtual-reality is a big leap. Still, in the early days of the internet, most people would also be shocked to hear about an online church service streaming to a phone that fits in your pocket.

Since a relatively small percentage of the population is utilizing VR today, the metaverse doesn’t need 10,000 churches, just like a small town in rural Oklahoma doesn’t require 200 churches. Smaller or midsized churches can let others move first, taking advantage of staff and volunteers already familiar with the technology to work out bugs and explore possibilities.

Wherever you land on the spectrum from excitement to outrage, I think we would all be wise to be “quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19) when we encounter new technology. Wisdom tells us not to jump on every new bandwagon “just because.” At the same time, shrugging off new ideas because of unknowns and controversies also does not sound wise. I think a “middle of the road” approach is helpful here, where we intentionally adopt a “not so fast, not so slow” mindset.

We should be cautious about discounting technology simply because it feels new and foreign but also cautious about investing significant time and resources into a difficult medium that may flame out quickly (hi, Segway!). Most importantly, we should invest significant time discussing the theological implications.

Culture and technology move fast—just ask Letterman and Couric. Whenever these issues arise, do your research, be authentic to who your church is called to be and move forward with prayer and discernment.

Matt Ehresman
Matt Ehresman has served as the media/graphic design/communications/web/video/social media staff member at First MB Church, Wichita, Kansas, since June 2013. He graduated from Sterling College in 2010 with a degree in graphic communications, and went on to get his master's in digital media from Regent University in 2012. Before coming to First MB, he worked on a television show for Focus on the Family and in the marketing office at Sterling College. He lives with his wife, Tillie, and their mischievous dog, Jarvis.

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