Will virtual reality be the future of worship?

5 min read

Imagine a virtual worship service where you can sit where you like; where you hear your own voice blend into the chorus of a song; where you can linger for a conversation with a neighbor after the pastor has wrapped up, just like you would at the coffee hours of yore.

It's a possibility with virtual reality a possibility that could be coming to a church near you.

"If you look at the history of religion and media in the U.S., religious communities have almost always been at the forefront of adopting new technologies and new media to spread their message and to gather in community," said Isaac Weiner of the Ohio State University.

He's an associate professor of comparative studies and religious studies.

"As VR becomes more and more prominent," he continued, "I would fully expect religious leaders and religious communities to experiment with it as well."

Virtual reality presents a step beyond the two-dimensional virtual experiences to which many have gotten accustomed since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring. Consider a worship service, for example: Rather than simply watching a liturgy via Zoom or Facebook Live, church-goers who don a virtual reality headset could participate in the worship service almost as they do in reality, a cartoon-ish avatar relaying virtually anything you do or say from their living room.

Virtual reality worship is an idea that's currently being explored by some religious communities. It's still somewhere on the fringes of religious practice for now, but Mr. Weiner isn't alone in imagining a future for it that's more mainstream particularly as a pandemic pushes congregations to think anew about the ways technology can facilitate community and as virtual reality headsets make their way into the homes of more and more believers.

What was valued as a $10.3 billion global market in 2019 is valued as a $15.8 billion in 2020, according to Grand View Research. And it's only expected to grow into the next decade.

"I think in the future, you're going to see, slowly, churches beginning to embrace virtually," said Jared Oluoch, an associate professor of computer science and engineering technology at the University of Toledo. A Christian himself, he can see the potential value in a faith-focused application. "If the costs go down, then you're likely to see a lot more churches embracing virtual reality."

Local faith leaders like Luke Shortridge of CedarCreek Church and Stephen Swisher of Epworth United Methodist Church said they see possibilities in the idea, too. At CedarCreek, VR has even come up in conversations about what their ministry might look like in five or 10 years.

"The main downside, I would say right now, is just the lack of technology in people's homes," said Mr. Shortridge, who's the executive director of campuses. "In order for technology to be widely utilized, people have to be familiar with it. It can't just be the early adopters that have it."

Check back in when a headset maybe, someday feels as ubiquitous as a smartphone.

"I think we'll absolutely get there in the future," Mr. Shortridge said.

Pandemic push

Pastor D.J. Soto brought home an Oculus Rift in June, 2016. It occurred to him that he could set up a church in the virtual space on a Friday, and, by Sunday, he was welcoming a congregation of avatars into the first service of what would become VR Church.

By now a well established community that meets on multiple virtual reality platforms, with services that in a lot of ways mirror the structure of any more analog community, according to Pastor Kari Soto, who launched the church alongside her husband, they conservatively put their numbers at around 300.

If they're the first and still the firmest church to set itself up in virtual reality, Ms. Soto said she sees a future where their idea takes off. She's already seeing it, really, albeit gradually, she said. VR Church noticed a slight uptick in interest they see under stay-at-home orders this spring, Ms. Soto said, and they've been tracking a gradual increase in interest since then.

"It is picking up slowly, which is really exciting to see," she said. She said she thinks about the possibilities with VR, "especially for people who are homebound or maybe have social anxieties or different reasons why they would rather attend a church in VR. It can be really good."

A pandemic is perhaps as good a time as any to think about the possibilities of church in virtual reality.

UT's Mr. Oluoch said he thinks the pandemic will push virtual reality toward broader acceptance in general, building on a level of financial investment that's already brought it into many homes since in the past four or five years. To date, gaming has been presented as the primary use consumer use for virtual reality headsets.

OSU's Mr. Weiner is the co-director of the American Religious Sounds Project, which under the pandemic has been crowd-sourcing audio recordings that document the ways that religious and spiritual practices have shifted. He's not yet come across any examples of a virtual reality service, he said, but an important shift they are documenting is toward digital.

"I think during this time of COVID, we've seen religious communities be enormously creative and innovative in how they've not just tried to recreate what they've done in the real world in the digital realm, but actually to rethink and develop new ways of being in community as religious communities," he said. "I would think VR would be an extension of that."

Future of worship

Radio. Television. Internet.

Religious communities have long been at the fore when it comes to exploring new media as a means of worship and evangelization, and, locally, Mr. Shortridge and Pastor Swisher said they remain of that mind. CedarCreek has long maintained the view that the mission and the message are sacred, but the method is open to exploration, for example, Mr. Shortridge said.

Pastor Swisher brings his own background in televangelism and other media to Epworth UMC.

"I think it only makes sense for churches and ministries to use every single technology available, and even those that are being researched at the moment and are not yet perhaps available, but they're on the cusp of being available," Pastor Swisher said. "We need to be aware of that, we need to be investing in it, and ready to employ it as soon as it's ready."

Epworth UMC actually does have virtual reality headsets available in its youth ministry wing, he said, although they're less a ministry tool right now than they are a recreational outlet. Pastor Swisher is thinking about a future where that kind of headset would let a congregant sit in on a listen to a sermon by a pastor who's out of town or even long deceased.

Maybe they could even sit in for Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

(It's not a far-out possibility. Ms. Soto said they're already doing as much with VR Church. At Christmas, they walked through Bethlehem, as recreated in virtual reality by "world builders," for example; at Easter, they traveled to Calvary, and when Pastor Soto preached on Acts of the Apostles, they situated themselves aboard a virtual boat in a stormy sea.)

Pastors are looking forward to the post-pandemic day when current constraints on in-person worship are lifted, but they don't anticipate dropping their virtual outlets. Screens might never replace the experience of standing side by side, but, for myriad reasons, they're here to stay.

At CedarCreek, Mr. Shortridge said he's looking toward a post-pandemic future in the church and in general that blends that blends the physical and the digital.

The more seamlessly they can do that, the better, he said.

"What's interesting about VR," he said, thinking back to his experience trying out a friend's headset, "is that it really does trick your brain into thinking you are there physically when you are experiencing things digitally. So when we think about what that means for the seamlessness of physical and digital, it seems like VR very easily could have a role in that."


This article is written by Nicki Gorny from The Blade and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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Nicki Gorny