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April 2022
Pulse

In the previous article on the metaverse, I mentioned Alina Delp, a woman with a rare neurovascular condition called erythromelalgia, who has found participation in the Virtual Reality Church a meaningful spiritual experience.

In 2018, Alina was baptised by Pastor D.J. Soto, one of the most prominent advocates of the VR Church. In a ceremony in the metaverse attended by her friends and relatives, Soto’s avatar baptised the former flight attendant by submerging her purple robot avatar in a pool.

Disagreeing with those who are of the view that the sacraments should only be conducted in physical space, Alina insisted that the virtual experience was a real blessing to her. ‘Jesus is who baptised me,’ she said. ‘Jesus is who changes me … The water, or lack thereof … doesn’t have the power to change me.’

In 2019, Pastor Soto famously baptised a buxom anime girl avatar whose real identity is the male YouTuber with a following of 2.5 million who calls himself Drumsy. The gaming site Polygon promoted the event with the headline ‘Watch in awe as a real pastor baptises an anime girl in a video game.’

What are we to make of the VR Church? The response to this question has hitherto been at best mixed.

Some are of the view that the VR Church, with its more immersive experience and the use of avatars, has taken things a bit too far. While these critics may have no objections to online or live-streamed worship services, the VR Church is just too radical for them. They fear that it will bring serious distortions to our understanding of the Church itself, not just some of its liturgical or sacramental practices.

Others, of course, disagree. For example, in his 2009 book published by Zondervan entitled SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World, Douglas Estes argued emphatically that virtual churches are real churches. The communities it forms and the rituals it conducts are just as authentic as those that take place in brick-and-mortar churches in the real world.

CHAMPIONING THE VR CHURCH

Advocates are convinced that the VR Church is able to reach out to people that churches in the real world are unable to, and to minister to them in novel but meaningful ways.

This includes people who are disabled or housebound such as Alina Delp. But it is also attractive to people who have been hurt or disillusioned in the past, and who prefer the ‘distance’ and ‘anonymity’ afforded in VR churches.

In addition, Pastor Soto points out that the VR church is appealing to people who are too ashamed to meet others face-to-face, such as alcoholics and drug addicts. Concurring with the observation, Paul Rauschenbush, the senior advisor for public affairs and innovation at the non-profit Interfaith Youth Core said that virtual reality allows people to meet without judgment.

Advocates, however, are careful to point out that just because participants relate to one another through the virtual representations of themselves (avatars) does not mean that VR churches are not real communities.

For example, Douglas Estes claims that he has met numerous people who testify that they were able to experience a genuine sense of belonging in the virtual Church. He argues that virtual platforms can offer more authentic communities for some people than real churches.

However, it is not just for this reason that Estes wants to convince sceptics to change their mind-sets and embrace the new technology and its exciting possibilities. He believes that it is critical for the witness and mission of the church.

Estes likens the virtual world to a new landmass discovered off the coast of Africa. He argues that if such a new territory were discovered, the Church would surely send missionaries to evangelise its inhabitants.

In a similar vein, the Church should hear the Macedonian call to reach out to the natives of the virtual world because it is ‘by far the largest unreached people group on the planet.’

Estes also maintains that the Church must embrace this new technology if it is to remain relevant. If the Church refuses to do this, it will be left behind as the population of the world becomes more engaged in the virtual world and as more activities are conducted in the metaverse.

Pastor Soto shares Estes’ concerns. He states quite categorically that the ‘future of the church is the metaverse,’ and predicts that the main focus of the church of 2030 ‘is going to be your metaverse campus.’ This implies that churches that refuse to enter the metaverse will lose their relevance and influence in the future.

Trend watchers who are tracking the increasing popularity of virtual reality technology may be persuaded by these arguments and predictions.

In 2020, it was estimated that more than 57 million Americans have used VR systems in one form or another. This number is expected to double by next year (2023).

REAL QUESTIONS

The arguments put forward by the enthusiasts of the VR Church such as Soto and Estes may indeed sound compelling to some pastors and Christian leaders. If the VR Church can reach out to more people – especially those who are averse to the traditional church – and if it can minister to the disabled, why should there be any objections to it?

Isn’t this precisely what the Church is called to do? If certain technologies promise to enable it to perform these ministries more effectively, why should the Church hesitate in making full use of them?

The benefits of the VR Church that Soto and Estes have highlighted mostly have to do with practical matters, such as expanding the church’s outreach. There is also the worry that the Church would cease to be relevant if it does not make its presence felt in the metaverse.

However, the issues raised by the VR Church are much more complex, and it is important that serious thought is given to them. Even more important than the practical benefits that virtual reality can bring to the ministry of the Church are the profound theological questions that must never be brushed aside or ignored.

There are many important theological issues that the Church must carefully work out. However, due to the limitation of space, I will highlight –albeit very briefly – three fundamental issues for our reflection.

These concerns are indeed not new because they were discussed when churches were forced to offer online services due to the restrictions brought about by the pandemic. But they must be revisited for the simple reason that there are sharp differences between an online and a VR worship service.

Worship

The first issue is the Church’s worship.

The corporate worship of the Church is not an optional extra, but the central activity of people who have been called out of darkness into God’s kingdom of light. As Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner explains:

The liturgy and sacraments are basic elements of the church’s life because they embody for the church, in fully embodied form, the heart of the church’s faith and bring the believer into the fullest possible communion with the faith.

Christian worship is the embodied participation of the members of the Church (the Body of Christ) in the offer of praise, thanksgiving and prayer to God.

During the pandemic, online services are conducted because public safety measures prohibit the members of the congregation from meeting physically for worship. But even though Christians worshipped remotely, they were able to participate meaningfully – although not fully – in the service.

This brings me to a profound difference between the online service and the VR service.

In the case of the online service, the worshipper participates in the liturgy that is played out on the screen of his computer or smart television. In the VR Church, however, the worshipper participates in the service through his virtual representation, his virtual ego, or, to use the prevailing jargon, his avatar.

The worshipper sings and prays through his avatar, which may be in the form of a human being, or, some other form. In the case of Alina Delp, it is a purple robot. In any case, although the experience of VR worship is said to be more immersive, in reality the worshipper is arguably twice removed from the worship service.

The pressing question is whether the ‘worship’ and ‘prayers’ of an avatar can be considered authentic. In his book, Cybertheology the Roman Catholic theologian Antonio Spadaro posed this question:

Can an avatar participate in a prayer event? Is it possible that an avatar can live a form of communal prayer that can be considered liturgical? Is it possible to think of a virtual Eucharistic celebration where avatars receive the Eucharist species in the simulated world?

There are already numerous VR churches in Second Life. There are Anglican Churches such as the Church of Fools, and even a cathedral where liturgical services are held at set hours. There are VR churches that are simulations of the Catholic Notre Dame in Paris and the Salzburg Cathedral.

The question is whether these simulated environments can be considered as proper ‘places’ for the conduct of worship.

There is also a touch of frivolity or irreverence in the appearance of some avatars. As we have seen, Alina Delp’s avatar is a purple robot. In the worship service of a VR Church, the ‘congregation’ of avatars gathered can be in the form of a Walt Disney cartoon character, a buxom anime or a banana. We must ask if these choices of avatars are indeed appropriate.

Sacraments

We turn next to the sacraments.

Alina Delp’s avatar was ‘baptised’ by the avatar of pastor D.J. Soto in a virtual baptismal pool in a virtual Church. Can this be indeed considered as a real baptism?

The VR Church celebrates virtual communion in which the elements of bread and wine are virtual objects. The avatars of worshippers partake of these elements in a simulated environment of the VR Church. Can this be considered to be Holy Communion?

Again, the difference between the VR Holy Communion and that practiced by churches that celebrate the sacrament online must not be missed.

In the case of the latter, the participants either collect the elements from their churches or prepare them as instructed by their pastors and leaders. At the actual Holy Communion ritual, the participants partake of these elements.

In the case of VR Holy Communion, however, the elements are simulated. And it is the avatars of worshippers – not the worshippers themselves – that partake of these virtual elements.

Can the virtual be substituted for the real? Can simulation be regarded as genuine?

Writing from the perspective of Catholic theology, Spadaro states that:

…it is impossible and anthropologically erroneous to consider virtual reality to be able to substitute for the real, tangible, and concrete experience of the Christian community: the same applies, visibly and historically to liturgical celebrations and sacraments.

Spadaro is surely right!

Community

Finally, can a gathering of avatars be considered as an authentic community? More importantly, can such a gathering be regarded as a genuine ecclesial community?

In the first place, the relationship between the individual (agent) and his avatar is at best tenuous. Although the avatar is theoretically supposed to be the digital representation of the individual, this is not always the case.

Jørgen Straarup, Professor of Religious Studies at Uppsala University explains:

When meeting an avatar, you have no idea to what degree it mirrors its agent, i.e., expresses his/her identity. In some respects it is reasonable to assume that the avatar is a copy of its agent: when it comes to experience it makes no sense to talk about the avatar representing something which differs from the agent’s experience. An avatar taking part in a religious service, experience something there, is a direct line to the experience of the agent. In other respects one might expect the opposite: the exterior design of an avatar is not necessarily mirroring the looks of its agent, and the behaviour of an avatar is not necessarily similar to what the agent would normally do.

Again this is quite different from a church service or fellowship meeting that is conducted over Zoom. Although Zoom creates some ‘distance’ between the people who participate in this meeting, some genuine connection between them is possible because they appear as they are.

In comparison, the use of avatars in the VR Church or fellowship meeting creates a further distance among participants even though the experience has often been described as being more immersive.

This is because their avatars may fully obscure their real identities. One clear example is the male YouTube Drumsy mentioned above who represents himself in Soto’s church as an anime girl.

Discussions on the pros and cons of online worship services have very often gravitated towards the question of the importance of embodiment, that is, for worshippers to be bodily present to one another. The VR Church, with its use of avatars, has made this problem more acute.

The theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has proposed the concept of the ‘story-formed community’ by which he means that authentic community is always undergirded by its history. However, in order for the community to be truly authentic, the story behind it must be a ‘truthful narrative’ that reflects its members and their complex relationships with one another.

It would be difficult for the VR Church to be an authentic community as Hauerwas sees it if the true identities of its members are masked or obscured by their avatars.

CONCLUSION

These questions (and there are many more) should give pastors and church leaders pause in the wake of this new technological reality.

Decisions about whether to jump on the bandwagon and uncritically embrace the VR Church or the metaverse should not be made only on the basis of what they can offer. They should also be made on the basis of what they can take away, and how they can distort not just our relationships and ministries but also the Church’s very nature as the Body of Christ.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.