Baptizing Avatars in the New Frontiers of VR Church
If you said the words “Zoom church” in the year 2019, hardly anyone would have known what you meant. Then came the pandemic.
Now, for good or for ill, Zoom church, online worship, and church livestreams seem normal. Yet there is another digital frontier coming: Virtual Reality Church. In the Metaverse. With avatars. Only online.
This is not an in-person church service streamed on Facebook, nor is it a computer screen tiled with everyone’s Zoom-call faces. This is a church that exists only virtually in the Metaverse, consisting of digital avatars that represent people in distinct locations who are using VR technology to move their avatars in a shared digital world. This is a church served by pastors who preach and teach and sing through their avatars. DJ Soto, the founding pastor of VR Church, has been doing this since 2016 and says in his newly launched substack, “I’ve come to realize that the future of the church is the metaverse.”
Soto started VR Church as an experiment connected to physical church planting, but it has become a “church plant” of its own. He explains, “The first year of VR Church was experimental to a certain degree. Meaning, I didn’t necessarily think of it as a church plant at the time.” But as regular attendees started growing, “we were awakened to a certain reality: VR Church was not different than any church out there and we should treat it as such.”
This led to the formation of a team of pastors from around the globe to serve the needs of the people who attend via their avatars. This concept of avatars is central for VR Church—it is after all how you attend, how you are named, how you are known. And they see it as a feature, not a bug. Soto explains, “the metaverse church is fertile soil for people to be more authentic than the physical church has seen in a long time. We believe this is true because the anonymity of the avatar drives deep authenticity.”
Well-known church leadership writer and podcaster Carey Nieuwhof asks Soto in an interview, “you are baptizing avatars, correct?” Soto responds, “yeah, we do all the sacraments, the full functions of the church in all its aspects, we express that in the Metaverse.”
God Loves All the Avatars?
And this might be one of the most puzzling and problematic aspects of VR Church: the primacy of the avatar. VR Church’s statement of beliefs begins with the Apostles’ Creed and then offers some additional statements about avatars, including this one: “we believe God loves all the avatars of the metaverse.” What does this really mean? An avatar is a digital projection of oneself, formed and fashioned in the image one chooses. It sounds more like a creation of human will than something created and loved by God.
VR Church’s embrace of the avatar as “the future of the church” reveals the same faulty view of humanity that is evidenced more broadly in the Metaverse and other virtual reality technologies. Namely, a reductionistic view that places internal mind and feeling as the essence of humanity: that the real person is something dissociated from the body. The anti-embodiment and anti-reality orientation of digitality has been astutely unpacked in Salvo (here, here, and here, to name a few), and I’ve argued similarly elsewhere, too. But what is worth further exploration is the issues this raises for the church specifically.
The Means Distort the Message
First, it must be said that Soto’s passion for those without Christ comes through loud and clear in his writings and interviews. One of his ongoing concerns is outreach—that the church needs to go where people are, and the Metaverse is where people are. Soto reports that atheists and many unchurched people frequently attend his services, and that many of them would never step foot into a church. This is echoed by other churches that have entered the Metaverse as well, like Life.Church, an Oklahoma-based multi-site church that has 40 satellite campuses around the country and now has a Metaverse campus. Bobby Gruenewald, Pastor and Innovation Leader for Life.Church, says “we have these tools available today that have never been available before in human history that allow us … to connect and reach people that we otherwise would not be able to reach.”
Creatively reaching people is an important part of the church’s mission. But it must be done in accord with Christian theology and practice. That is to say, the message and the means must go together. What does a sermon about Christ’s incarnation mean when you are preaching it as an avatar to other avatars hovering in the invisible ether of the internet, and only present before each other as pixels in your VR Goggles?
We must carefully consider if our means of outreach or church practice are unintentionally communicating a faulty understanding of God or humanity. And the common retort that we shouldn’t limit God or that someone was converted through VR Church doesn’t justify the practice theologically any more than saying the Spanish Conquistadors converted natives, thus their methods were justified. That is simply an ends-justify-the-means approach that could be used to validate horrendous ministry practices and missionary techniques.
Another point Soto makes that is worthy of response is that VR Church is an outreach to those who are sick and homebound. He recounts a story of doing a VR baptism for a woman in a wheelchair, who with tears said, “I thought this would never happen, because [I’m] homebound.” There is something beautiful about that story. But sad, too. I wonder instead, what if a local church had embodied Christ’s love and suffering to this woman by serving her in her home with personal, pastoral care and friendship with members? How much more real would that baptism have been if the pastor and fellow church members went to her house and used real water in conjunction with the Word of God to perform a real baptism?
While online worship and VR Church may seem like a godsend for homebound members, it also might be an indictment on the state of our homebound ministry. What would it look like to ramp up our in-person work with homebound members? The only time a homebound member sees their church family should not be on a screen.
The Means and Message Incarnate
While God could certainly use any means to achieve his purposes, the real question is what he has chosen to use—where he has promised to be, and where we know he is for us. The biblical picture is that God has not just ordained the message of salvation, but also the means for delivery of that message. And this is the historic Church’s confession: that through the means of grace—words spoken, water poured, bread and wine taken—that Christ gives himself in his very person to you.
Both human embodiment and this sacramental nature of the Church draw us toward the in-person assembly and gathering as the one Body where we receive Christ. There is a place for Christian edification through digital media—podcasts, articles, prayer groups, and more. But actual Christian worship in which the sacramental communication of Christ to his people takes place in Baptism, Word, and Eucharist cannot be fully duplicated online or in a virtual world.
Thus, the church service should retain a pristine physicality and simplicity that make it as relevant and conceivable in the first century as in the twenty-first century. As low-tech and embodied as possible. Unencumbered by superfluous cords, cameras, microphones, or VR headsets. Unmediated by the technological layers enveloping us in everyday life.
The Church reveals another world—where the God of the universe has taken on flesh. Not just temporarily, but permanently. And not only that, the glorious body of God the Son that will be worshipped in all eternity is a wounded body with holes in his hands, and in his feet, and in his side. And there’s nothing virtual about that.Joshua Pauling
is a classical educator, furniture-maker, and vicar at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also taught high school history for thirteen years and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Salvo, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/baptismal-degeneration