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.”
Crossing the Digital Line
While digital ministry is clearly doing some good, many wonder if it can replace church as we know it.
The church finding ministry applications for available technologies is nothing new. It has used various media to build long-distance relationships since the Apostle Paul wrote letters to the early churches, said Skye Jethani, an author, pastor, and speaker. Church leaders have adopted everything from print media, radio, television, and cassette tapes to the more recent social media and podcasts to convey their messages. Technology isn’t the problem, because it can be useful, said Jethani. Rather we should be concerned with the blurring line between technology and the very definition of church.
Evangelical Christians tend to use the word church broadly—to mean a physical building, a Sunday morning event, a cultural institution, and a local or global community. Only that final definition conforms to the New Testament use of the word, Jethani said.
“Once you understand that church is not an event, a sermon, or a concert, but rather an incarnate community living with Christ and one another, you realize it can’t be disincarnated,” he said. “Use the tool, but don’t call it a church.”
Alan Noble, assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and author of Disruptive Witness: SpeakingTruth in a Distracted Age, believes the church body is more than just minds and voices—it also includes our physical bodies.
“When I sit next to someone in the pew, I am conscious of their physicality in a way I can’t be online. I can smell them, I can tell if they’re distracted or concerned, how they’re reacting to a sermon,” he said. “We are not brains in vats. We are embodied creatures. That’s how we were designed.”
But what about situations like Alina Delp’s—someone who is homebound or isolated? Generally, virtual reality technology has tremendous potential to improve the quality of life for homebound people.
Writer, professor, and church leader Angie Ward believes there could be a purpose to online church, but narrowly—for those confined to their homes or as a mission field to draw people to the local church. Even so, her church still visits those who are homebound, she noted.
“If church is just an educational institution, sure, you can get it disembodied and online. But spiritual formation needs to come in embodied relationships. That’s how you become like Christ.” But, she said with a laugh, “Digital church is an introvert’s dream!”
Alex Wilgus is the pastor of Logan Square Anglican Church, a small congregation in Chicago that limits its technology usage to an occasional recorded sermon audio and a topical podcast. While ministering to homebound people is not a new challenge by any means, said Wilgus, digital technology has great potential to reach out to those in that situation. “Beyond that it’s up to the body of Christ to go to those people.”
Noble goes a step further: “The appropriate response in that situation is for the ministers to go to that person regularly and care for them. That’s so important for a suffering person. To look someone in the eye and commune with them is more an example of what Christ calls us to do than giving them a streaming worship service.”
While he’s not by any means opposed to technology, Wilgus is afraid the evangelical church is “in danger of being tempted away from experiencing Christ’s real presence, reducing the gospel to simply information.”
Jethani calls this “anemic ecclesiology.” Jesus could have dictated his message through any means, both Wilgus and Jethani pointed out, but he decided to become incarnate. He became flesh and blood, and dwelt among his people to show his glory.
“If we are going to disincarnate every part of our faith, why not disincarnate Jesus as well?” Jethani said. “This is where the church needs to be counter-cultural, to thoughtfully say, ‘This is what these technologies are good for, but here’s where we need to draw the line.’ The church can lead the way.”
According to Wilgus, if the church is calling us to be where people are gathered, and people are gathered in digital space— whether virtual reality or social media—the church should be there.
“With every technological innovation we should ask ourselves, how does Jesus want us to use this? What’s the ideal here?” he said.
“The ideal is for people to be physically together. Then the question becomes, how does digital technology help us get to that point, rather than how will it help us avoid that calling. If VR Church is a part of that, great, I’m all for it.”
Kara Bettis is a Boston-based reporter who writes on the topics of faith, politics, and culture.