Are Virtual Reality Churches the Wave of the Future?

REUTERS/LUCY NICHOLSONA woman is seen here putting on an earlier version of the Oculus virtual reality headset during the 2014 LA Auto Show.

Virtual reality, which can easily allow churches to have global presence and foster diversity and inclusiveness, is far more enabling than live-streaming, which numerous megachurches are currently using to conduct multi-site worship services. So are we going to see a rise of VR churches in the near future as the technology becomes cheaper and more accessible?

“Attend a real church in virtual reality,” says the website of a VR church established by Los Angeles, California-based Pastor D.J. Soto and whose mission is “to explore and communicate God through virtual reality, augmented reality, and next generation technologies.”

Soto, the owner of Sonata 7 Studios, LLC. which is a film production and virtual reality company, quit his job as a pastor at a branch of his local megachurch in Reading, Pennsylvania, a few years ago with a burden to reach out to people in unusual places. He and his wife even sold their home and most of their belongings and moved with their five young children into a 30-foot trailer.

His journey soon took him to virtual reality as the vehicle of his dream. However, as Pastor Soto spoke about his vision with pastors and church planters, he realized that Christian ministers are not quite ready to try out this new technology, he tells  Wired.

“It has been abysmal, to be honest, just trying to connect,” Soto is quoted as saying. At times, he wonder is “this the biggest mistake of my life?”

“We haven’t stopped trying to connect with churches, but we are wondering if that type of support is further down the road,” he adds. “Maybe we need to do a radical tactical shift to support from outside the church and church planting organizations.”

The group is going to accelerate plans to create a 501(3)(c), and start a crowdfunding campaign, as he firmly believes that virtual churches can tremendously increase church attendance, particularly among the young and others who feel alienated by real world churches.

According to a 2017 Baylor survey, some 45 percent of Americans already use the internet to access religious and spiritual content.

Wired author Kristen French identifies herself as an atheist but likes the idea of VR churches.

“I stopped going to church at the age of 13,” she writes. “But as someone who remains curious about religion, I am, in some ways, Soto’s target audience. When I attended a recent service in virtual reality, I was struck by how welcoming and informal it felt. To me, church meant the hushed tones, muted colors, and high tight collars of Sunday best in my youth. Here, the avatars of parishioners—sleek chiseled robots and blocky cartoon humans—came and went throughout the service. Many huddled into the pews, laid out in orderly rows. Others spilled out onto a red carpet that stretched to a small stage in front. The music was thumping.”

Some Christian ministers share Soto’s belief in this technology, but are treading with more caution.

J. R. Woodward, national director of church planting at V3, is quoted as saying, “I think media used carefully and thoughtfully is really, really helpful. But 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.”

However, Neal Locke, a Presbyterian minister who writes about religion and virtual reality, warns, “The virtual world is a place where identity is fluid,” and adds that virtual worlds are often used to seek out people and places that differ from the experience of the users.

In a 2015  Christian Post op-ed, Pastor Christopher Benek, who specializes in theology and technology, predicted that VR tech will benefit the physically disabled and others who are unable to be physically present at a worship service.

“The main impact that VR is going to have on the global church is that it is going to, one-day, enable Christians to easily gather from a variety of places without being in the same physical location. This will enable persons who are homebound, sick, caregivers, without transportation, on vacation, or severely disabled to participate in worship with the larger community of faith without needing to leave the place where they are physically residing,” he wrote. 

Last year, Roger E. Olson, professor of Christian Theology of Ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University, warned that congregations that do not have a physical pastor present during worship services and only watch video streams of pastors preaching, could be a sign of Gnosticism.

“One that comes to my mind, as a Christian theologian, is the question of possible partial Gnosticism — at least the lack of concern about bodies and physical presences.”

He continued: “Virtual reality replaces bodily and physical reality. Or the two are confused — as if the difference does not really matter. Can a pastor really ‘pastor’ (shepherd) a congregation if he or she never is among them? Is there really total commensurability — spiritually — between seeing and hearing a local pastor preach, pray and teach bodily, physically, and seeing and hearing a speaker via satellite feed or internet connection?”


Pastor Nick Foles Wins the Super Bowl; Eagles 41, Patriots 33

The Philadelphia Eagles won Super Bowl LII over the New England Patriots 41-33 Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium. Here’s how it happened:

Key drive: After the Patriots took their first lead of the game, at 33-32 with 9:22 remaining, the Eagles could have wilted. But quarterback Nick Foles led the Eagles on a 14-play, 75 yard touchdown drive to retake the lead with 2:21 remaining on an 11-yard pass from Foles to tight end Zach Ertz. The drive included a fourth-down conversion near midfield, also on a pass from Foles to Ertz.

Key play: The Eagles defense, who struggled to pressure on Tom Brady throughout the game, finally got to Brady as the Patriots’ quarterback was trying to lead yet another game-winning drive. But defensive end Brandon Graham pushed his way into the pocket and knocked the ball from Brady’s hand, and teammate Derek Barnett recovered the fumble with 2:16 remaining. It was the first turnover of the game for the Patriots. The Eagles again held firm against Brady and the Patriots on the final drive.

MVP: Nick Foles started this season as a backup quarterback, and he ended it as Super Bowl MVP. Foles threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception (that was not his fault) and also caught a touchdown in the Eagles upset win.

Spoiled comeback bid: Most teams would panic with a double-digit deficit in the second half of the Super Bowl, but not the Patriots. This wasn’t rallying back from 28-3 like they did last year, but the Patriots erased a 29-19 third-quarter deficit to take a 33-32 lead early in the fourth quarter. Brady threw three second-half touchdowns to spark the rally.

Officiating questions: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has vowed to rewrite the catch rule this offseason, and now the league has two more controversial calls to review. Two of the Eagles’ touchdowns went through lengthy reviews, in the first half by Corey Clement on a pass the running back caught near the back line of the end zone, and late in the fourth quarter by Ertz, who dived across the goal line. The ball bobbled as it touched the goal line while in Ertz’s grasp, then popped up in the air. Ertz caught that deflection. Both touchdowns were upheld upon review.

Best adjustment: Patriots coach Bill Belichick is the king of in-game adjustments, and he made another brilliant one that changed the game for the Patriots in the second half. After tight end Rob Gronkowski was largely shut out in the first half, the Patriots started the third quarter by splitting the tight end out wide, and feeding him. The first three plays of the third quarter went Gronkowski, and he caught four passes for 68 yards, including a five-yard touchdown on the drive. He later scored the Patriots’ go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.

What we’ll be talking about Monday: Where was the defense? Much of the game felt like a 7-on-7 passing drill, as both quarterbacks racked up yards in chunks. By the end of the third quarter, the teams had combined for 962 yards, a Super Bowl record. Brady went over the 400-yard passing mark with about four minutes remaining in the third quarter. It was the third 400-yard passing performance in Super Bowl history – and the second for Brady in the last two years. It wasn’t an entirely surprising performance from the Patriots defense, who routinely gave up lots of yards this season but held strong in the red zone, but it was certainly out of character for the Eagles, who finished fourth in the NFL in total defense this year with 307 total yards allowed per game.

Best play: The Nick Foles touchdown catch in the second quarter was such perfectly executed trick play that will go down in Super Bowl history. The ball was snapped directly to running back Corey Clement, who handed it to tight end Trey Burton (a former college quarterback at Florida), who lofted a pass to a wide-open Foles in the right side of the end zone. What made the play even more spectacular was that it came on a fourth-and-one at the one yard line with 34 seconds remaining – a time when most coaches would opt to take the points with a field goal rather than take such a risk. With the catch Foles became the first player in Super Bowl history to catch and throw a touchdown in the same game.

Second guessing: After missing an extra point in the first quarter, the Eagles tried to get that point back with a two-point conversion attempt in the second quarter. That try failed, and it came back to haunt the Eagles later, after the Patriots took their first lead, at 33-32 with 12:15 left in the game. Instead of trailing, the Eagles could have at least been tied in that situation.

Key injury: The Patriots lost wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the second quarter after he appeared to be knocked out on a hit by safety Malcolm Jenkins, following a long completion. Cooks was blindsided by the hit as he turned to run Jenkins’ direction, and the safety’s shoulder collided with Cooks’ helmet.

Philadelphia Eagles running back Corey Clement (30) celebrates with teammates after catching a touchdown pass against the New England Patriots in the third quarter in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports

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