The Embodied Church in a Digital Age

Virtual Reality Church’s first baptism took place in a 3D house with an underground pool and a massive billboard overhead proclaiming “A Special Baptism and Communion service.” Alina Delp, 46—portrayed as a purple, robot-like avatar—stood submerged in the water while Pastor D. J. Soto proclaimed her new life in Christ and her sins washed away. When her avatar floated to the surface, dozens of congregants and family members cheered, their avatars sending heart and clap icons floating skyward.

Delp rarely leaves her house due to erythromelalgia, a rare condition that makes it painful to be outside for longer than a few minutes. Baptism would have been difficult for her in the past. With the virtual baptism, her family members from all over the country were able to witness the event in real time.

“When the opportunity came to me, I just had to do it. I was so excited that church was an option for me, that baptism was an option for me,” she said.

She believes it was a real experience, just like getting baptized in water.

“It was powerful. As D. J. was speaking and I was under the water, I could feel this life I lived before being lifted away, and there was this new, amazing future for me,” she said, getting emotional. “I was there. It counts.”

Virtual Reality (VR) Church is just the newest iteration in a series of digital church trends that have picked up steam in the past few decades—from livestreaming entire church services, to virtual campuses that stream a sermon, to fully digital churches and digital missionaries.

Such technology is increasingly used for evangelism and spiritual identity. More than three-quarters of Americans own a smartphone, and nearly half of all US teenagers describe their phone use as “constant.” A recent Barna study found that while more than half of Christians (55%) feel that technology makes others avoid spiritual conversations, about a third of Christians say they are just as likely to share their beliefs online—and 10 percent are even more likely.

Many believe the church needs a strong digital presence in a tech-immersed culture. Others argue that we are designed as physical creatures to be physically present to one another. So what is the role of the church in digital ministry?

Virtual Church Planting: A New Frontier

Pastor D. J. Soto has been in ministry for two decades. He left his last position at a Pennsylvania megachurch two years ago to pursue what he initially thought would be a physical church plant. Now he believes God was leading him to plant churches in virtual reality.

His family discovered the Oculus Rift VR headset and a new social networking application called AltspaceVR around the same time they left their church. Soto was immediately hooked. If he could meet people all over the globe in that digital space, why not hold a church service there? Two days after this initial thought, Soto held his first Sunday service. Five people showed up, including a Danish atheist.

Since its launch in 2016, the church has burgeoned into about 50 people weekly, coming from all different religious backgrounds, or none at all. About half of his congregants are unchurched, and a majority are over the age of 40. Soto created an elder board, formed a church government, started fundraising, created a server for weekly chats, and launched weekly life groups.

Soto believes virtual reality is a mission field through a medium that will be commonplace soon. Last fall Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed he wanted a billion people in virtual reality, though only a few million headsets have been sold. Regardless, Soto has already presented VR Church to employees at Facebook headquarters.

Some say church is a positive alternative in a realm known for graphic pornography and violent games. In many ways, Soto feels that his church offers more community and intimacy than his former megachurch, where it was easy to go unnoticed in the large crowd. Though the anonymity offered by an avatar is enticing to people who wouldn’t generally step foot in a neighborhood church, it’s impossible to hide when your username is listed for all to see. At VR Church, people ask questions after the sermon, and congregants greet one another before and after the service. They talk to Soto openly about suicide and other sensitive topics.

“This openness, this love at the forefront, you feel it immediately when you walk in the doors,” said Delp, who had not attended church much since her childhood.

Many Parts, One Body

Despite the press Soto has received, he knows VR Church is controversial (more on that below). Yet it’s not far removed from a more common church expression: digital campuses.

Dan Hickling has pastored Calvary Chapel Ft. Lauderdale’s online campus for nine years. When hired, he was tasked with moving their growing online audience from “monologue to dialogue,” Hickling said.

Their strategy: to be present when others are online, engaging the audience through chat boxes and interacting during the sermon with intentional questions. As a campus, they have their own volunteers who greet, moderate, and pray with people online. In contrast to VR Church’s virtual baptism, Hickling encourages his online community to seek a local church for baptisms, and he directs his congregants to partake of communion elements at home in unison with the corporate communion at the main service.

“If your irreducible minimum is that you want to connect people to the body of Christ, then online church is a great place to do that. You can connect with hearts that are repelled by brick and mortar,” Hickling said. “Tech can come across as shiny and glamorous, but at the end of the day it’s just another way to connect with broken people.”

Hickling does not police his congregants to attend a physical campus.

“Online church is a tool in God’s toolbox. God wants people to connect to his church in all of its forms,” he said. “One thing the last nine years have taught me is that affinity trumps vicinity.”

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Source: Christianity Today