Attendees at another virtual church, CHVRCH+, walked through a thick digital forest before arriving at a faithful re-creation of First Miami Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), the Florida-based, real-life church of Pastor Christopher Benek. Although his virtual world looks like a church, Benek emphasizes that his ministry isn’t a replacement for a physical church.
CHVRCH+ recently lost its VR world developer, so its meetings are currently on hiatus. But at a virtual service I attended last year, Benek appeared as an animated version of his real self, with yellow hair, black ball cap, and a torso so straight you could measure it with a ruler. He spoke to an avatar—Link from Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda game franchise—about baptism. In real life, Link is Almog, a 28-year-old who professed faith in Christ recently but hadn’t been able to attend physical church due to pandemic restrictions. Benek said he’d be happy to baptize him, but only in person. Technology does have its limits.
All the pastors I spoke to take church theology and ordinances seriously, but each has a different perspective on how that should look in virtual reality. Soto of VR Church conducts baptisms in VR, but others say such religious rites must remain in the physical realm. Benek and Willenbrock hold Bible studies and pray and minister to people in VR, but because both belong to denominations that reserve communion and baptism for their in-person churches, they do not conduct them in virtual spaces.
Jason Poling is another pastor who hosts a “VR campus” of his in-person church, Cornerstone Church in Yuba City, Calif. He says he feels everyone is “building the plane in midair” when it comes to developing a theology for virtual reality. Since his Evangelical Free denomination allows him the freedom to decide about virtual ordinances, he says he’s on the fence. “Before the pandemic only a few churches were promoting a lot of these virtual realities, but now, everyone’s really bending,” he said. He has told VR congregants they can take communion using elements in their homes, he said.
John Dyer, assistant professor of theological studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, says when it comes to spiritual guidelines for virtual reality, the bottom line is never forgetting the person behind the avatar. “All of it is real and all of it matters, whether it’s in VR or not.” Dyer sees parallels in how the Apostle Paul addresses churches “virtually” through letters, but he adds that even then, Paul reserved some topics for in-person meetings. He believes Christians should think likewise when it comes to virtual reality worship.
“Church doesn’t have to mean pews. It doesn’t have to be Sundays either,” said Dyer. “But if your only Christian experience is mediated by technology and you don’t share that part of your life with others in real life, then it can be unhealthy.”
People who’ve joined these VR Christian communities say the relationships they’ve developed there are hard to replicate in real life. Yvonne, a shut-in for the last 15 years who attends Poling’s VR campus, said going to church as an avatar allows her to have conversations where “you don’t see race, and you learn about people through the way they talk.” James, who attends Willenbrock’s fellowship, said he’s thrilled to have found a place where atheists and Christians can talk without feeling judged.
Dyer predicts the VR tech trend will only last for about five years, until people move on to better technology. He says that shouldn’t be surprising. Christians also set up ministries in Second Life, another online virtual world that had its heyday in the early 2000s. Now, Second Life has faded into obscurity. The same may happen with VRChat.
But even if virtual worlds pass away, Christians will never stop finding ways to reach the unreached.