Virtual reality is no longer just something we see in science fiction movies — it’s part of lives.
According to Zion Market Research, the global virtual reality (VR) market was valued at approximately $2.02 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach approximately $26.89 billion by 2022.
And the church isn’t immune from its growth or allure.
D.J. Soto recently quit his job as a pastor in Reading, Pennsylvania to start VR Church in what is called “Virtual Reality Church.” It is the first house of worship to exist entirely in virtual reality.
VRC hosts services available through AltspaceVR, a free virtual reality software that connects to a variety of virtual reality headsets as well as smartphones and tablets.
He hosts services every few weeks. Sometimes he attracts a dozen people; sometimes the virtual room where he preaches is empty. He says after years of ministry it’s the first time he’s getting a chance to interact with atheists who drop in from time to time to hear what he has to say.
A few others have started virtual churches of their own.
There are detractors. J. R. Woodward, the national director of church planting at V3 believes community can only be established face to face. In a recent article posted on Wired.com, Woodward said, “I think what’s most needed today is for Christians to be an embodiment of Christ in particular places and contexts. There’s nothing really more transformative than that.”
But even congregations that agree with Woodward are facing hard choices that VR brings to the table. For example, Soto says he’s planning virtual reality baptisms. The idea came in the form of a request from a quadriplegic member who would likely have significant difficulty participating in a traditional immersion baptism.
Will traditional churches follow suit? While some might reject digital baptisms, more and more are accepting virtual church membership.
Whether churches decide to incorporate VR or not, it’s a certainty that those sitting in the pews of all churches will be impacted by the technology forcing ministers to address it.
Tim Challies pointed out in a recent article that technology appeals to vice with gambling and pornography at the top of the list of VR uses.
“One researcher says it is like nothing he’s ever experienced. It is so real, so personal, and so sensory that the brain accepts it as real. The brain fills in the gaps to such a degree that it can be felt. You are no longer a voyeur watching acts unfold on a screen but a participant actually joining in. Just like video porn proved a quantum leap over magazines, VR porn seems likely to leave mere videos as a quaint relic of the past. If standard on-screen porn is Aspirin, VR porn is fentanyl in all its power and addictiveness.”
He calls on churches to be wary, wise and in front of the coming temptation and properly assess its benefits and its drawbacks before we hand ourselves over to it.