Embrace the Metaverse

In recent years, talk of the coming metaverse captured the imaginations of millions. Though the term “metaverse” is a bit nebulous, it encompasses everything from shared online video-gaming worlds to virtual reality experiences where a user enters a totally digital environment with the aid of a headset to augmented or mixed reality where digital elements are superimposed on real-world environments. The idea of fully integrating the digital with the physical world where people can use technology to craft a broad, varied life experience is an intriguing one. Through rapidly advancing technology, what might be possible for the average person in two years? Five? Ten?

At the same time, many people met the metaverse concept with apprehension. Could technology as immersive as the metaverse truly expand the human experience, or would it limit our potential? 

Essentially, embracing the metaverse means we have to acknowledge that we’re already living in a world of mixed reality, at least to some degree—whether we realize it or not. Mixed reality, a term coined by Fumio Kishimo and Paul Milgram, is an evolving avenue of blending the digital and physical worlds. 

Many people spend a large portion of their lives in a digital world. They’re well-versed in the idea of immersion, as well as virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR, respectively). What if faith leaders could draw them out from in front of their screens and into a digitally integrated physical environment that transforms how they commune with, or relate to, God? What if a technology-driven experience could help a nonbeliever step into new faith? 

When leveraged strategically, I believe it’s possible to use mixed reality to enrich our lives and expand our faith experience. It would be wise for ministries to consider how they might be able to incorporate mixed reality into their mission and calling.

COVID-19 Paved the Way 

While some forward-thinking churches and organizations were already beginning to incorporate a digital transformation prior to the pandemic, COVID-19 accelerated these efforts. Businesses of all kinds were forced to quickly make changes to their existing models, leaving behind long-established traditions and practices in favor of technology that allowed them to continue operating remotely. Churches embraced streaming services and integrated apps to help their members continue to feel connected despite months of separation and social distancing.

There are so many ways, big and small, that you can integrate technology into your ministry efforts. Mobile apps and an updated web presence promote ease of access and use to both members and nonmembers alike. Online streaming services mean that anyone can access your worship services from anywhere in the world. You can incorporate augmented reality into your children’s ministry, gamifying their learning and helping them engage with Bible stories in ways that resonate with them. And, virtual reality can serve as a tool to help others “step into” the real Bible locales.

Becoming more intentional about incorporating technology into our faith spaces isn’t necessarily a precarious endeavor. While it might feel like a daunting new frontier, the church has historically been a cultural and technological leader. Embracing new innovations and stepping outside your comfort zone as a faith leader will encourage others to do the same. 

Beyond the Mobile App

Mobile apps with AR features are an easy way for people to access mixed-reality experiences, so they’re a great place to start. But if your ministry is looking to build out mixed reality on a larger scale, many sources of inspiration are available to draw from. One great example is the Museum of the Bible’s (MOTB) VR tour of the Bible lands.

Not long after its Washington, D.C., grand opening, MOTB’s leadership team recognized a need for more interactive experiences for its guests. Our team at PlainJoe: A Storyland Studio worked with MOTB to create and implement an immersive VR experience that takes museum visitors on an immersive tour of renowned locations throughout the Holy Land. Through the use of innovative OVRx technology, visitors who might never have the chance to traverse locales of the Bible on foot are transported to 20 locations, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Sea of Galilee and the Temple Mount.

The VR experience supports up to 240 people per hour, which is excellent for large groups who want to participate together. Because the headsets were designed to play sound through the headbands, participants can communicate with one another throughout the experience. That’s a true mixed-reality attraction, allowing for participants to engage with both the virtual and the real worlds simultaneously.

Another excellent example is The Changemakers Project from the American Bible Society (ABS) in Philadelphia. The PlainJoe team came alongside ABS to create early prototype experiences for an immersive digital visitor space called the ChangeLab. Ultimately, the project-in-progress will attract and engage visitors with a fusion of digital and in-person experiences that grow faith and affect change. The ChangeLab will integrate 360-degree video storytelling and interactive Bible experiences, which could include VR.

ABS will leverage its 205-year history and deep roots into the early days of the United States. Its early leaders included notable names such as John Quincy Adams, John Jay and Francis Scott Key.

“The concept behind the ChangeLab is to inspire multi-generational changemakers,” says Matt Ferguson, chief innovation officer at PlainJoe. “It’s targeted toward the everyday people visiting Philadelphia’s Independence Mall.

“Making history and affecting change are already on their minds, by virtue of their presence at one of the most historic locations in the United States,” he continues. “ChangeLab is a way to bring the story of the Bible into that experience, as it was one of the prime inspirations for our founders.”

The ChangeLab will complement ABS’ mission to give people all over the world access to the Bible (read more about the work of ABS on page 46). 

Embracing Innovation

Technology can open the door to limitless possibilities for integrating God’s Word into the world around us—and drawing us further into his story. Consider what ways, big and small, your ministry can combine mixed reality and immersive technology to broaden the faith experience of those you come into contact with. Through innovation and the creativity given to us by the Creator, we can expand the scope of everyday life to truly experience the divine in new ways. 

Mel McGowan
Mel McGowanhttps://plainjoestudios.com/

Mel McGowan is an Outreach Magazine contributing editor and the co-founder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios, a multidisciplinary design firm focused on storytelling from branding to building. He also is the author of Design Intervention: Revolutionizing Sacred Space (PlainJoe Studios) and serves as an adjunct professor at California Baptist University’s College of Architecture, Visual Arts and Design.