VR technology has changed the way that we see events that previously only took place in physical spaces, like playing sports. Are there spaces, however, that shouldn’t be virtual?
CNN recently posted a video featuring Pastor DJ Soto. Soto was previously a leader of a megachurch in Pennsylvania. For the past two years, however, Soto has been the pastor of a different kind of church that many people are calling the first VR church. He is now based in California.
“We need innovation in the church. The western church is in decline, and we need new thought leaders to step up to reach this culture in a new era,” Soto wrote in a blog post introducing VR Church. “We believe that God will resurrect the innovative spirit of the church.”
Going To Church in AltspaceVR
Soto’s VR Church meets every weekend within AltspaceVR. VR technology is required to attend the service, though you can join their Discord channel without access to virtual reality. Platforms that support Altspace include Oculus, HTC Vive, Google Daydream, and Samsung VR.
A visit to VR Church looks, on paper at least, a lot like a visit to many churches. Services, which last about half an hour, begin with music and a prayer. There is then a reading from the Bible followed by a brief sermon. Before and after the service members of the congregation mill around and chat with one another. During much of the service, members of the congregation are encouraged to have their microphones turned off. However, they are encouraged to express themselves by displaying emojis. Members of the congregation can also sit, stand, and move during services. They are sometimes even encouraged to dance in the aisle.
The emojis make a VR Church service look different from a conventional church service. That’s not where it ends, however. The avatars in Altspace usually look more like robots than people. The setting where VR Church takes place also looks very different from most people’s understanding of a church. There are seats arranged around a central aisle leading to the “pulpit” where Pastor Soto’s avatar stands. On the other side of the VR Church, however, is a rock formation and above the congregation is an open virtual reality sky.
This isn’t the only way that you can use virtual reality to practice Christianity. One of the members of Soto’s VR Church created a VR Bible (available for Oculus or Microsoft). The free app lets you read or listen to the Bible in “calm, natural environments”. Users can even use this app to navigate to the VR Church.
Is Virtual Reality Church Really That Bizarre?
Virtual reality may be a new player in religion but it might not be as weird as you think.
How comfortable you are with VR technology in religion may have to do with your own religious background. Some ministers have been televising their services for years. Even “stricter” religions like Catholicism have televised masses.
There aren’t a lot of virtual reality churches right now, but prayer services have been live-streamed before. There has also been a weekly “church service” on the online gaming platform Roblox for over seven years. Church moving into virtual reality might be the next logical step.
Does VR Church Meet A Spiritual Need?
It’s understandable if something still doesn’t feel right to you about a “VR church”. 20th century American academic and anthropologist, who studied comparative religion, Joseph Campbell, had a lot to say about the importance of church as an event but also as a location. Campbell believed that there were “sacred” spaces and “profane” spaces. For Campbell, much of what made church important was that we had to go to a specific and dedicated space to experience it. Does virtual reality take that aspect of religion away?
Some might say that it does, but others might say that VR technology can make those spaces more sacred. Take Soto’s VR Church described above. It may not be a physical space, but you’re not likely to see another space like it. The Robloxian Christian Church is a digital space but it looks much more like a conventional church, complete with red brick and stained glass.
Can your mind enter a sacred space while your body is in your living room? In some ways, that is the basis of religious traditions like prayer or meditation. Many proponents of virtual reality technology in religion believe that VR church is no different. They also point out that it makes religion more available and more interactive for people who may not be able to make it to a physical service due to disability, sickness, etc.
Is VR Church For You?
I can’t tell you whether virtual reality church is right for you, but I don’t think that it’s wrong for anyone. Before you make your judgements, however, you might as well visit a virtual reality service to see it for yourself. Even if you don’t hear a sermon from Pastor Soto or become a Robloxian Christian, both of these “congregations” have active online communities. You may find that they aren’t that different from an online community that your own brick-and-mortar church might have.