Churches Are Using Virtual Reality and Apps to Live Stream Services Online and Hold Virtual Baptisms

Avatars attend “special baptism” at VR Church. (Photo: D.J. Soto)

Instead of ceremoniously sitting in a sanctuary on Easter Sunday like millions of Americans, dozens of experience-driven parishioners from all around the world took a walk into Jesus’ tomb, peering at the massive stone that once blocked the entrance before taking a tour of the cross where their Savior was crucified.

No plane tickets to Jerusalem required. All they needed was an internet connection and a VR headset.

This is a radical change from how many experienced church as kids.

“When I grew up, there was no such thing as tech in church. You weren’t allowed to text, you weren’t allowed to take videos, you weren’t even allowed to have a phone,” said Lasha Hubbard, 26, who attends New Direction Baptist Church in Nashville.

“If it wasn’t in the book – meaning the hardcopy Bible – you couldn’t use it. Today, everywhere you turn, there’s someone using an app or looking up at a screen.”

As churches across the nation install giant screens in the sanctuary and professional-grade cameras to live stream services, others are embracing technology on a whole new level.

Some perform digital baptisms where avatars are immersed in pools of water-colored pixels. More exist entirely online with no geographical footprint, while others recruit coders to develop apps to enhance Sunday service.

Virtual Reality

“We are leaving the information age and entering the experience age of VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality),” said D.J. Soto, pastor of VR Church, which he says is one of the first fully computer-generated religious institutions.

One week, churchgoing avatars attended service on top of a skyscraper that’s hovering in the clouds. By the next week, they could be teleported into a grassy field with a Dubai-like skyline in the background.

Roughly 150 people attend each week.

“Our sermons are less stage-delivered,” Soto said. “They’re more engaging. We want people to really experience the scripture, so I’ll have everyone follow me as we go through the story.”

To attend the church, congregants with virtual reality headsets use AltspaceVR, a social media platform that provides digital meeting spaces for avatars. On AltspaceVR, there’s a calendar that lists events you can attend such as computer-generated comedy nights and cyber open-mic nights. The events list is home to Soto’s VR church.

Soto set out to create a “radically inclusive” worshiping experience after quitting his job at a local megachurch in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 2016. Months later, Soto started the virtual reality congregation.

“There are certain conversations that are tough to have in physical churches,” Soto said, “And some people who don’t identify with any specific religion may have a hard time finding where they fit in.”

Soto’s computer-generated church aims to fill that gap.

The digital pastor says the simulated environment is welcoming to people with religious traditions and atheists alike. “Let’s have discussions for or against God, and let’s be respectful. Everybody is invited to a VR church,” Soto said.

Embracing technology and radical inclusivity might help churches like Soto’s survive during a time when adults of all ages are leaving religious institutions in record numbers.

Unsurprisingly, millennials are leading the wave.

Just 42% of the connected generation are members of churches, while 62% of Gen X-ers attended church when they were about the same age as millennials, according to a new Gallup poll.

Since 2000, when 70% of Americans went to church, Baby Boomer’s attendance dropped by 8%, and Traditionalists (born in 1945 or before) dropped by 9%.

Now, the percentage of Americans who report belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque is at an all-time low – averaging 50% in 2018, Gallup found.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Dalvin Brown