It’s time to enter the virtual mission field.
In 1992, science fiction writer Neal Stephenson wrote a novel called Snow Crash in which he described a shared virtual world beyond our reality. He called this world the metaverse. In 1999, the Wachowski siblings released the movie The Matrix, which imagined a universe where humans’ lived-reality was a shared illusion generated by machines. 2003 saw the launch of Second Life, a virtual reality space that, as the name implies, allowed users to create an alternate existence using an avatar to explore an expanding virtual world.
Since the early days of the internet, the idea of a shared metaverse has captured our culture’s collective imagination. As the 20th century has given way to the 21st, what was once a snapshot from an imagined future is quickly becoming a reality. Online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, virtual reality spaces like Roblox, interactive livestreaming gaming services like Twitch and video conferencing platforms like Discord allow users from all over the world to interact in shared online environments.
As virtual spaces have become more immersive, the number of people getting involved has exploded. According to Statista, there are an estimated 3.24 billion gamers worldwide—around 40% of the world’s entire population. Which begs the question: What is the church doing to reach these people whose lives are increasingly lived online?
Walking in a Sermon
Churches have experienced a taste of the expanding digital world as they have been forced by the pandemic to quickly (and often begrudgingly) move their services online. But the church has only scratched the surface of the massive opportunity for outreach online. Several trailblazers have recognized the online world for the ripe mission field that it is and are dreaming up innovative ways to minister.
D.J. Soto is one such pioneer. He set out to plant churches. Little did he know his vision to plant physical houses of worship would soon be eclipsed by the possibilities of virtual reality.
In June 2016, his family purchased their first virtual reality headset, thinking that they would just use it to blow off steam and explore 3D worlds for a fun escape. Then they discovered AltSpaceVR, a virtual reality meeting space, and immediately realized the potential to plant a different kind of church in a virtual environment. The following Sunday they held their first service on AltSpaceVR and five people showed up, including an atheist from Denmark. Soto had stumbled upon a way to potentially reach anyone in the world with the gospel in virtual reality environments. VR Church was born.
By 2017, 40 people who would probably never darken the door of a physical church were attending weekly online. As the church continued to grow, VR Church added a service that synchronized with European time and expanded to the VRChat and Rec Room platforms. Recently they created another offshoot in the massively multiplayer online gaming metaverse called MMO Church.
The ministries of VR Church and MMO Church operate much like brick-and-mortar churches. Participants are offered spiritual gifts assessments that help them determine how they can plug in to the community. Pastors in each region the churches reach preach in an ever-expanding number of languages and offer discipleship and community.
“The church has only scratched the surface of the massive opportunity and potential for outreach online.”
The way they do church in virtual space has some key advantages. Each week, for example, a volunteer designs a new environment tied-in with that week’s sermon for the participants to explore. Participants have crossed the Red Sea as the Israelites did, experienced a storm at sea as the apostle Paul did, and walked the streets of Bethlehem. It’s a 360-degree immersive experience that brings the Bible to life.
In addition, church leaders have found that because everyone interacts with one another through avatars, a range of people from every faith to no-faith backgrounds feel comfortable participating in virtual small group discussions, where they can examine Christianity in a safe environment. Far from hindering community, the church has actually experienced an enhanced feeling of togetherness. And planting new communities is as easy as dreaming them up and designing them.
From Maintaining to the Metaverse
Like many pastors in the leadup to the pandemic, Jason Poling, lead pastor of Cornerstone Church in Yuba City, California, felt as if he were stuck in maintenance mode. His church was, by all appearances, healthy and growing, but many of the new members were the result of transfer growth as Christians migrated from one church to another. Much of his energy was dedicated to keeping the machine chugging along.
So Poling prayed a bold prayer that God would help him overcome his fear of man and lead his church to become radically missional. Leadership set the ambitious goal of planting 10,000 gospel seeds in 10 years. But how would they break out of the maintenance cycle to reach new people?
In 2019, God opened Poling’s eyes to the idea of doing ministry in the metaverse. The billions of gamers who play in online environments were not only largely unchurched, but they were desperately hungry for something more. As he led his IRL (in real life) church to plant a virtual reality church, Poling discovered that many people were willing to have a spiritual conversation within the first five minutes. The anonymity provided by digital avatars made people much more comfortable to ask deeper questions sooner. They were practically begging for the gospel. Cornerstone was onto something.
“People from every faith feel comfortable participating in virtual small group discussions, examining Christianity in a safe environment.”
As the church established itself in the metaverse, leaders also discovered that they could connect with people they would otherwise have no opportunity to reach. Soon after they planted, a woman from the United Kingdom who was a self-proclaimed Satanist came to troll them. Instead of blocking her or turning her away, they invited her to participate in their community. Ever since, she has been a regular participant and eventual friend. She even built the environment for one of their subsequent virtual reality church plants.
The virtual-reality church is also reaching places that brick-and-mortar churches have for the most part been unable to penetrate. For example, a man from Estonia, a country that has been largely closed to the gospel, visited Cornerstone’s virtual church on a week when a member of Cornerstone’s IRL church was in attendance. The man’s Muslim neighbors had been persistently trying to convert him. The Cornerstone member struck up a conversation with the Estonian that has led to an ongoing one-to-one discipleship relationship.
In addition, Poling has been using the video-conferencing platform Discord to provide pastoral, evangelism and discipleship training to a group of people from both his IRL and virtual reality churches. He’s then been able to help those people apply what they’re learning by taking them into virtual spaces for hands-on application. The expansive possibilities of the metaverse are multiplying Cornerstone’s impact and reach in ways that would be impossible through their IRL church alone.
Streams of Grace
For years, there has been much-publicized hand-wringing in the church about the declining percentage of millennial and post-millennial Christians. Gen Z is commonly considered the least-churched generation. Now, consider that the livestreaming platform Twitch has an estimated 15 million daily active users. Of those users, 65% are male, with 73% of them under the age of 35. For that reason alone, the streaming platform has become an ideal space for online churches that want to reach the next generation.
From the time he was a kid, Matt Souza, the co-founder of GodSquad Church Online, always enjoyed playing video games. But it was a love he felt he had to hide because of the stigma around gaming. After he became a pastor, Souza decided to take his hobby to Twitch to see if he could start some gospel conversations. He began to livestream his games of Halo and quickly gained a following. He discovered that fellow gamers were more than willing to have deep conversations while they waged virtual war on aliens and each other.
Today, Souza’s Twitch channel reaches about 5,000 to 7,000 gamers each week who watch him play video games while he engages them in conversation. From there he connects them to GodSquad Church where they can find discipleship tools and virtual community. In non-pandemic years, Souza’s team also has hosted an annual SquadCon in-person convention that brings gamers in from around the world for tournaments, fellowship, small group meetings and water baptisms.
“Going online is one of the best ways to reach people in countries that have traditionally been closed to the gospel.”
In 2019, Matt Lutz, founder of Lux Digital Church, was captured by a similar vision to reach people across the metaverse, leveraging the power of influencers. A podcast that he started on The Elder Scrolls Legends allowed him to interview influencers, YouTubers and other content creators, which was the seed that would grow into an online church. Though it’s not a perfect one-to-one comparison, online influencers are nevertheless much like the pastors of their own personal tribes.
Lutz’s dream was to provide tools for streamers and content creators to amplify their online platform and reach their followers, and to build a network of microchurches, small groups and healthy communities across the landscape of the metaverse. In essence, Lux Digital Church would be a Twitch hub for discipleship and multiplication that used gamers’ love for online experiences to reach into the other aspects of their lives with the love of Christ.
It’s a vision that Jate Earhart shares. When he was growing up, his church planter parents were ambivalent about video games, but allowed him to play them at friends’ houses. He developed an early love for connecting with others through gaming, which blossomed into a career as a motion designer for such companies as Google, ESPN and Nike. As he got deeper into his career, he began to realize that he wanted to find a deeper purpose. So, he quit his job and joined a church planting cohort through his church, fully expecting he was on a trajectory to plant a physical church.
“As online communities grow into equipping communities, they are finding a ready audience eager to have spiritual conversations.”
As Earhart studied to be a church planter, he formed a community in one of the games that he played that would grow into what is now an online community for nerds called Love Clan. Earhart found that at least once every week he was having conversations with gamers late into the night. Eventually he left his job at the church he was attending to create more time and space to reach out to gamers across the metaverse. Today, Love Clan’s vision is to equip 1 million disciple makers through building community on Twitch and Discord.
As these online communities grow into equipping communities, they are finding a ready audience eager to have spiritual conversations. The online metaverse with its expanding selection of interactive experiences gives gamers a safe space to express their needs to like-minded people, find enclaves of gospel community and take one more step on the road toward faith in Christ.
Can Metaspace Be Sacred Space?
As the church begins to establish community hubs in online spaces, there is understandably a bit of hesitance. The question of ecclesiology often comes up. If you never physically interact with one another, can you really be participating in the life of the body of Christ and following the biblical mandate to not neglect meeting together? What characteristics must a community in the metaverse embody in order to be considered a church? Are we compromising the mission or message of the church in our efforts to connect with seekers online? Will the digital church take the place of the physical church?
Every form of church from the mega to the micro must wrestle with these all-valid questions, but ample indicators show that taking the church into the metaverse is an effective way to expand the kingdom of God.
“We’d be hard-pressed to find a higher concentration of unchurched or dechurched people from the 18 to 35 demographic than we can find in the metaverse.”
The pandemic has reminded us of our need to adapt to changing technology in order to meet people where they are. In fact, since the beginning of our faith Christians have used advances in technology to advance the gospel, from the spokes of the Roman road to the printing press to the radio and TV. Online communities are the new mission field.
As the church looks to reach more people, particularly in younger generations, we’d be hard-pressed to find a higher concentration of unchurched or dechurched people from the 18 to 35 demographic than we can find in the metaverse. And going online seems to be one of the best ways to reach people in countries that have traditionally been closed to the gospel, or for various reasons have a shortage of Christian witnesses.
Despite fears that the online church will eventually replace the physical church and we’ll be poorer for it, we should instead understand that the online church is reaching a unique demographic. As long as we have physical communities, we will always need the physical church. Online and virtual reality churches envision a bright future of hybrid ministry where the physical and digital church go hand-in-hand as two indispensable parts of a strategy to connect with others.
A Brave New World Mission
We look forward to the day when the pandemic is just a memory and the word “pivot” has been expunged from our ministry vocabulary. But the church would do well not to forget the number of ways we have learned to reach people online. If anything, we should let our imaginations expand to encompass the growing mirror world with citizens from every corner of the world.
As our lives are increasingly lived online, a ripe mission field is just a click away.