Imagine a church building where the sanctuary suddenly morphs into biblical locations, where worshipers confront the burning bush at the same time it’s preached about and where converts can be baptized without being physically present.
That’s not the church of the future. For one pastor, that’s the church of now.
“Ministry in VR is not just pews and a screen and a pulpit,” said D.J. Soto, founding pastor of the three-dimensional, cyberspace congregation with a global fellowship.
During a sermon about Jesus walking on the water, say, worshipers watching through virtual reality goggles will be transported to the disciples’ boat to witness Christ’s miracle firsthand. Or maybe they join him out on the water.
“It’s really cool,” said Soto, a minister who hails from a Baptist and Pentecostal background. “We’re going to do crazy things.”
Perhaps none more so than baptizing people in virtual rivers and lakes.
Soto said he’s gotten some push back from fellow ministers on the idea. But a quadriplegic who has been a regular at Virtual Reality Church has asked to be baptized.
“What am I going to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do it?’ I said, ‘Yes, I will baptize you in a virtual environment.’”
Soto, his wife and five children have been traveling to California from their hometown of Fredericksburg, Va., as they host the online church. He spoke with Baptist News Global during a recent stop to share about the virtual reality church concept.
You’ve been traveling across the country as you do this. Why?
We weren’t getting help from church-planting organizations, so we thought maybe … let’s go across the country to connect with pastors and churches. As Virtual Reality Church started becoming clearer as a ministry to pour into, we thought let’s raise awareness as we go with an ultimate destination of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Has the VR Church concept been a hard sell?
It’s such a new thing. It really hasn’t been done before. Some view it as a video game. That’s the challenge and we are in the middle of that. We have had some breakthroughs because of the Wired article, but it’s an enigma to people. Even innovative guys can’t grasp it. But when they see it in 3-D, they are blown away.
How did the concept even dawn on you?
I’m kind of a techie nerd. I started to marry that with the calling into ministry. When VR started to come out in 2016 … I was playing around with it. And then social spaces started coming out. I noticed you can create your own spaces. You can work around in and control the screen. My gifting is in church planting and I thought here is a basic structure to have a church experience. I thought I have to try this out.
How did it go?
We held our first service in VR in summer 2016, and five people came. The first visitor was an atheist from Denmark. That was a foreshadow of things to come. A lot of people who come are not believers. They are agnostics and atheists. The platform lends itself to that. People just feel comfortable popping in with their avatar. That summer our question was, is church viable in a VR environment? I realized it was. By May 0f 2017 we were more established and were having week-to-week [online chat] communication with those attending our church.
What stage is the church in now?
We meet every week, Sunday nights at 7:30 Eastern. It’s very similar to walking into a church building. We just started doing live worship. I’ve found that mini-sermons work best in VR, and we go into discussion afterward. Throughout the week we are communicating, praying with the congregation. We probably have 30 to 40 regulars each week but hundreds and even thousands have come through as visitors.
Can someone participate if they don’t have VR goggles and the right computing capabilities at home?
Yes, there is a 2D version. It’s a way different experience, but it’s still cool.
Theologically, how would you describe VR Church?
Probably a hybrid. Theologically conservative, progressively expressed. Theologically, it’s from my Baptist years and biblicist model and mindset, and there are some Pentecostal influences, but you wouldn’t see … tongues and prophesies and interpretation. The expressions are more like modern megachurch and the preaching is very expositional.
How would you describe the worship format?
We’re just scratching the surface. We want to create experiences. You don’t go to VR just to sit there. If we are talking about Moses and the Red Sea, then the church building goes away and the sea comes up around us. We can worship at Golgotha and the tomb. At Christmas, we had a full nativity and people could walk up and see Joseph and Mary. The next level is those experiences. You create an environment in VR. The possibilities are endless. What you want to do you can do it and it’s going to feel real.
How do you handle baptism in a VR congregation?
That is one of the top questions. Part of it is that even though VR is amazing, and the conversations are the next level you might not have in a physical church because of the anonymity of people when they come in with their avatars, we still do feel like getting involved physically is important. But we also believe that VR is such a different beast. We haven’t done one yet, but it is a brave new world.
What surprises have you encountered in leading a virtual church?
Trolls and connectivity. There were a couple times when I was preaching and I disappeared, and then I popped back in and had to say “Sorry, everyone.” And we have trolls come in to be disruptive on purpose. So we mute or block them.
How do you handle tithing?
It’s a tough one. We believe in the aspect of giving and generosity, but we haven’t implemented that yet because the environment at the time was a little hostile to Christianity. Some were asking why is there a church coming into our virtual environment? There was a lot of anger and trepidation. So we kind of laid low. But then over time people have grown to respect us and now we are a respected experience in there.