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In the 21 minutes that his virtual reality Sunday service was still functioning, Pastor Bill Willenbrock had to shush a group talking in the back of the room, ask a small wolf to get off the pulpit, and kick out a doppelgänger yelling obscenities. Minutes later, his virtual reality church world crashed, leaving about 20 attendees (including this reporter) frozen in their pews.
Bringing the gospel to virtual reality has not been easy.
Willenbrock, aka “PastorBrock,” is one of a small group of pastors ministering to the wild universe of virtual reality, or VR for short. Thanks in large part to the coronavirus pandemic and falling prices of VR headsets, virtual reality is becoming a literal reality in many people’s lives. Today offices have meetings in VR, seniors use VR headsets to go skiing in the Alps, and researchers suggest VR may have therapeutic benefits. Pastors like Willenbrock hope VR can also help them spread the gospel among gamers and other web users.
For two months, I periodically donned a VR headset in front of my computer and spent time exploring four Christian ministries that call the metaverse their home. Churches that meet in virtual reality allow users, represented by digital characters known as “avatars,” to walk through “worlds” designed to look like churches. Avatars can sit in a pew, listen to a preacher, and talk with each other afterward—all without the need for masks, social distancing, or Zoom.
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Fifth in a series on long ministry
Brad Evans grew up in western Pennsylvania in a family that attended church only at Christmas and Easter. At age 16, Evans professed faith in Christ after hearing John 6:37 at a summer youth retreat: “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”
Back home, he shared the verse with his mother. A few days later, she told him she had given her life to Christ, too. Not all his efforts were as successful: When his friend Bob said Jesus must have been insane, Evans shouted to Bob that he would go to hell if he didn’t repent. “In my early days, I didn’t have thoughtful conversations,” Evans admits. “I had pretty loud arguments.”
After college, Evans got married, and his passion for ministry propelled him to serve in campus ministry, attend seminary, and serve for two years as an assistant pastor. When a church in Coventry, Conn., asked him to be its pastor, Evans accepted. He found the 80 members of Presbyterian Church of Coventry welcoming, genuine, and hospitable when he arrived in 1980. But in the ensuing years, disagreements and criticism would challenge his ability to lead graciously and trust the Lord with the outcome.
In 1982, for example, the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPC)—the denomination of Evans’ new church—merged with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Evans worried: Some members of his congregation had threatened to leave over the merger. They preferred the smaller, more informal RPC over the larger PCA. When the dust settled, Evans says, the change opened up more resources for his small church, like a Christian education curriculum and topical seminars from the denomination. Evans enjoyed fellowship with a wider network of pastors. He doesn’t remember anyone actually leaving the church over the merger, though he knows some people were unhappy with the decision.
Another challenge: Congregants disagreed about how to educate their children. Some families wanted the elders to endorse homeschooling, and tensions grew between those families and others who used Christian or public schools. Evans focused on caring for the members and preaching the Bible. Though Evans and his wife, Patsy, educated their two children at both Christian and public schools, he avoided picking sides and simply told parents, “The Bible says you’re to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. That’s the parent’s responsibility, and you really can’t delegate that.” He was encouraged when one mom told him, “I feel supported and loved by you as my pastor,” even though he was not endorsing homeschooling as she wanted.
Others criticized his style. “I’m not really a visionary,” Evans says. “I’m really a plodder.” Sometimes people urged him to lead the church to formally participate in certain outreach events or ministries like Operation Rescue. But Evans felt it was important to keep the church focused on its main Biblical priorities. “I preach and teach and take care of the people and shepherd the flock and do my duty,” he says. Patsy supported him through those years of ministry, patiently enduring nights of long meetings and putting up with the feeling their family was “in a fishbowl … always on display.”
The Evanses remained at the church for 38 years, by which time it had grown to 220 congregants. Brad, 69, retired in 2018, weary of administrative duties. But he still enjoys filling the pulpit regularly at other churches nearby, counseling, and doing work for the presbytery.
He’s staying busy, but he admits there’s one thing he misses about being a pastor: “Seeing those people every week.”
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They will know we are Christians by our love,” sang 40 gray-haired members of Blue Ridge Community Church in Happy Jack on a brisk Sunday morning. The refrain could be the motto of the church, but it wasn’t always so.
Happy Jack, an unincorporated area in rural northern Arizona, is home to about 900 year-round residents (mostly retirees or semi-retirees), not including the hunters, campers, and snowbirds.
Blanketed by a pine forest on the side of a rocky mountain, Happy Jack might seem an idyllic setting for the golden years. Yet when Pastor Danny Allen arrived as a fill-in preacher in 2008, he found a divided community. Members of subdivisions with homeowners associations looked down on subdivisions without HOAs. Residents disagreed over how the fire department should be run. Worst of all, Blue Ridge and the other Protestant congregation in town, Calvary Bible Church, were at odds with each other.
Much of the trouble had started in 2003, when Blue Ridge hired as pastor a charismatic, likable man who brought new members into the congregation but clashed with church officers. That pastor led a church split, started Calvary Bible, then two years later resigned and left town amid scandal. The fiasco left hurt feelings between Blue Ridge and the new congregation, Calvary Bible Church.
When Allen took a full-time pastoral job at Blue Ridge in 2010, he and his wife, Janice, found members of the rival congregations avoiding and gossiping about each other.
The Allens were no strangers to adversity and mending broken relationships. They had experienced a personal tragedy in 2003 when their teenage son pleaded guilty in a different county of attempted molestation of his younger adopted siblings. Janice Allen says that after that incident, her family felt like outcasts. She and Danny had to rebuild relationships with their children. The experience taught them everyone has challenges to overcome.
Danny Allen decided to contact the new pastor of Calvary Bible, Mike Owsley. Owsley also desired healing between the congregations, so the two pastors concocted a plan: For Christmas Eve and Easter, they would hold joint services. They both preached hard-hitting sermons about love and putting away strife.
At the time, Blue Ridge was meeting in its original church building, while Calvary was renting from a Mormon congregation. Both churches bought property adjacent to each other and intended to build new facilities, but lacked funds. By 2011, Calvary had an unfinished building shell, and Blue Ridge had held a groundbreaking ceremony.
Happy Jack residents who knew about the split watched the two projects and saw rivalry. Who would “win”?
That summer, the Allens spent their vacation on a cruise. But the weather turned bad, and there was little to do but read and pray. During that time, Danny felt God was prompting him to offer his church’s building fund to Calvary.
He wrestled with the idea for weeks. When he proposed it to his church board members that October, they were surprised but embraced the idea. The following Sunday, the congregation voted to give the money. It also took up an additional special offering for Calvary. The total funds weren’t much—about $2,000—but Blue Ridge congregants further helped by volunteering time and skilled labor: Together, it was enough to finish Calvary’s building before winter.
Suddenly, members of the community were seeing the two rival churches working together. Some called it a terrible business move. Others began to reevaluate their assessment—and some even visited.
When 2012 arrived, Blue Ridge had zero dollars in its building fund. Soon, donations and workers arrived seemingly from nowhere: When the church needed a plumber, a retired plumbing inspector from Phoenix moved into town. So did an electrician, a general contractor, and an ornamental stoneworker. When Blue Ridge needed a concrete finisher, the county sheriff’s office called to say a man on probation needed to complete over 600 hours of community service—and all he could do was finish concrete. That man came, finished the concrete, taught others how to do it, and started attending Blue Ridge himself. The plumber began attending Calvary.
By Easter 2018, the two congregations held a joint service in Blue Ridge’s almost-finished building for the first time. One hundred and eighty people attended, including visitors, an unusually high number for the small town.
One month later, the congregants had an opportunity to serve their community together when a disaster hit Happy Jack: A wildfire swept through the area and destroyed 32 homes. Blue Ridge’s new building became a base camp for over 20 relief agencies, and church members volunteered every day to hand out food and supplies. Calvary helped by supplying port-a-potties.
At Happy Jack Lodge, where Blue Ridge and Calvary members often gather for food and fellowship after church on Sundays, server Denise McGuire described the town’s change in attitude as like “night and day.” McGuire has lived in the community since the mid-1970s, when she was 7. Five to 10 years ago, she said, members of the two congregations would say of the other, “Oh, that’s not our church.” Now, she noted, they cooperate and hold joint events. Some people even attend both churches. (Church services temporarily closed earlier this year during coronavirus restrictions, but have begun meeting again.)
Church members I spoke to agreed the old rift is history. Pastor Owsley said, “It’s completely healed.”
Pastor Allen attributed the change entirely to God. “It’s all about the kingdom of God: God working through disaster, doing bigger things than us.”