A thousand virtual churches will bloom in the VR metaverse
An old article, and some new thoughts & plans.
I’m republishing, with permission, my 2015 Hypergrid Business article titled “Virtual reality a new frontier for religions.”
Reading my 2015 article, the first thought that jumps to my mind is that “the coming metaverse renaissance” is happening very slowly, or not at all. In 2023, it hasn’t materialized yet.
This recent article announces the death of the metaverse. The article makes some valid points and tells the story of how Facebook (sorry, Meta) and Microsoft (which bought the late lamented AltspaceVR and then shot it down) are screwing things up in the metaverse. However, these stories just show that large corporations don't have a clue. AltspaceVR was doing well before Microsoft came with a hatchet. But the distributed, decentralized metaverse is alive and well.
The death of the metaverse is evidently BS as noted by Wagner James Au, who has been one of the more perceptive and insightful voices in the metaverse industry for two decades now.
I’m reading an advance reader copy of Au’s new book “Making a Metaverse That Matters: From Snow Crash & Second Life to A Virtual World Worth Fighting For” (2023), to be published on June 27.
In the second half of the Stone Age of the 2000s I used to run a company called metafuturing that developed Second Life sims and events for high-profile clients worldwide. I’m now rekindling my interest in all things metaverse and my burning question is, WTF did we do wrong and how to do it right this time? I hope to find answers, or at least ideas, in Au’s book. I’ll write a review when I finish reading the book.
A note on terminology: I use the terms “metaverse” and “multiuser virtual world” as synonyms. Contrary to others, I don’t reserve the term Virtual Reality (VR) for headsets like Meta Quest, but use it for all virtual worlds. So, to me Second Life is VR, even if users view it on flat screens.
VR headsets are cool, but they don’t have a large user base. It is important that virtual worlds support VR headsets for the users who have and enjoy using them. But to me it is much more important that virtual worlds are usable and enjoyable with the flat screens of computers, tablets, and smartphones. I think the upcoming browser-based virtual worlds based on technologies like WebGL and Three.js (take a look at Croquet and prepare to be amazed), which support all devices (computers, tablets, smartphones, and VR headsets), are a potential game changer.
Another burning question is, since I still agree with all that I and my friends Chris, Lincoln, and Robert say in my 2015 article, how to make it happen?
In general, those who are happy with their life are unlikely to pay too much attention to virtual analogs. For example, a social life in the virtual reality of the metaverse is especially appealing to those who, for one or another reason, don’t have a happy social life in this reality. Similarly, those who are happy with their religious community and its shared doctrine are unlikely to seek virtual alternatives.
But many spiritual people don’t feel part of any religious community and don’t entirely agree with the doctrine of any established religion.
For example, strictly speaking, I’m part of a religious community with one member. I call my personal religion Turing Church.
Making room for minor (from my point of view) differences, I’m also part of three religious communities called Mormon Transhumanist Association, Christian Transhumanist Association, and Terasem. These are small and geographically distributed religious communities that can only be virtual communities. While the first two see themselves as part of the broader Mormon and Christian communities, Terasem is theologically unconventional like Turing Church.
Of course we use Zoom a lot these days, but a few years ago we used to meet in the late lamented Second Life and, believe me, the sense of “being there” with friends and like-minded people was much stronger.
A few years ago Chris Benek, the pastor fetaured in my 2015 article, who is also the founding Chair of the Christian Transhumanist Association, launched a virtual church in the metaverse and a virtual church platform called CHVRCH+. “We are just on the very front end of Virtual Technologies,” he said in a press release.
“The potential for evangelism and ministry is enormous… Our platform is the most robust VR platform available to date. We believe that, once people see its full potential, it is going to be a technological game changer.”
See also this 2021 interview with Chris. “CHVRCH+ began as a way to develop a platform for Benek’s congregation alone,” notes Religion Unplugged, “but now has a primary focus on creating platforms for other churches and training pastors in the technology.”
Of course, getting things right will be hard. In “Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality” (2017), VR pioneer Jaron Lanier says:
“VR is hard to do well even in a lab, and there’s still a lot to learn about how to make great VR products. Be patient… Just because it takes a while to figure a technology out, that doesn’t mean the world has rejected it… Maybe VR will be huge, huge, huge...”
I’m confident that, one day, VR will be huge and a thousand virtual churches will bloom in the VR metaverse.
I intend to create a virtual church in the VR metaverse as a meeting point for Turing Church, Terasem, and all seekers who want to come. I will add the virtual church to a microverse based on Croquet that I have started to build. This microverse will be loosely inspired by the launch area at Starbase, the home of SpaceX’s Starship development and testing. This makes sense to me, since watching space launches is my personal religious ritual.
Here is my 2015 article. I left the original text almost identical. I only removed some links that don’t work anymore, and added some notes in  brackets.
Virtual reality a new frontier for religions (2015)
Published in Hypergrid Business in February 2015, republished with permission.
Virtual reality technology is going to radically change what it means to attend church in the next fifty years - and maybe much sooner.
While the technology is still in its infancy, however, virtual churches are limited experiments rather than significant outreach efforts - but this will change.
“Numerous persons and groups have developed churches in the virtual world, mainly Second Life,” Rev. Christopher Benek told Hypergrid Business. “I would venture to say that most have been less concerned with true evangelical success and more focused on what their technological exploratory experience may yield in the future.”
Rev. Benek serves at the largest church in the Presbytery of Tropical Florida, the First Prebyterian Church of Ft. Lauderdale, as the Associate Pastor of Family Ministries and Mission. He is also enrolled at Durham University in England where he is working on a Ph.D. in theology focusing on the intersection of technological futurism and eschatology.
For most traditional churches, virtual reality isn’t even on the horizon, he said.
“But for those of us who tend to be more inclined to the developments of human technology, we are keeping abreast of the important advancements that are occurring in the virtual world,” he said. “Personally, I think that as technology like Oculus Rift becomes more developed, immersive, and available to the general public, we may soon be able to easily develop virtual worship and Christian education experiences. This would be a great asset to the church universal, as it will enable the infirm, homebound, and potentially even the poor to participate from afar regardless of their personal mobility or lack of affordable transportation.”
There are a number of other ways in which churches can benefit by removing physical obstacles to worship, he added.
“Congregants and pastors will be able to visit and pray with greater numbers of people more often,” he said.” Small groups will be able to meet more frequently, even at great distances. The way that we currently do care and discipleship will radically change as will our expectations as to what it means to participate in those aspects of the church.”
And it’s not just physical barriers that virtual reality may help overcome, he added. Linguistic barriers will start coming down, as well.
“Virtual reality will allow church services to be seamlessly translated creating a more unified church body,” he said.
A few months ago Rev. Benek discussed his ideas in more detail at a Second Life workshop that I organized to discuss the coming metaverse renaissance. You can watch the video below - his talk starts at the 1 hour 30 minutes mark.
High Fidelity founder Philip Rosedale also appears in the video - and his presence brings in too large an audience and causes the region to crash. That is precisely one of the problems that next-generation metaverse platforms like High Fidelity will solve, Rosedale said. Soon, it will be possible for thousands of simultaneous participants to congregate in virtual reality, with low latency and none of the lag problems that today’s Second Life users are familiar with. That will enable the creation of massively popular online megachurches.
LifeChurch.tv is a large online church that has pioneered e-religion, initially with televised services broadcast from a central location to a network of secondary campuses and an online community. They established a presence in Second Life in 2007, but their foray into the metaverse hasn’t been very successful because they treated their Second Life campus as just another physical campus. They were not creative enough and didn’t design new experiences tailored to the new possibilities of virtual reality.
The story of LifeChurch.tv in Second Life is told in the book “Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life,” published in 2014 by Oxford University Press, by Robert Geraci, Professor in the Department of Religion at Manhattan College. Geraci argues that virtual worlds can play the role of sacred spaces, places of power where believers can engage in compelling forms of ritual behavior and form online religious communities.
The book reports that many groups in mainstream religions, including Christianity and Islam, established a virtual presence in Second Life, often bypassing institutional channels and creating grassroots communities instead. These virtual communities are often independent of traditional religious hierarchies, and much more open to inter-faith dialogue and alternative lifestyles.
Most of the metaverse churches described by Geraci have disappeared since the publication of the book, but new churches appear all the time. At this moment, the most active metaverse church is the First United Church of Christ.
The Church of the Latter Day Saints, aka the Mormon Church, has a long tradition of esoteric ritual, including re-enactments of creation and salvation mythology. Historically, those re-enactments were performed live by actors. Presently, the re-enactments are generally presented as video recordings in temples to facilitate consistency across broad distribution. Recently, the LDS has developed several new versions of the video recordings, which emphasize and nuance the mythology re-enactments in various ways, renewing many members’ interest.
“I think the Church, as well as other religious organizations, would benefit from proceeding further in this direction of virtualizing and even open-sourcing their rituals,” Lincoln Cannon, President of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, told Hypergrid Business. “Imagine authenticating to an neurally immersive online temple in which you participate in the mythological re-enactment, adapting the imagery to your personal spiritual needs, perhaps in concert with or according to the guidance of spiritual friends or authorities. I don’t have a particular platform to recommend, but I do feel a great deal of inspiration from this vision of customizing and revitalizing ritual to such extent that re-enactment transcends itself and actually becomes reification: the expression of salvation mythology itself becomes transfiguration to godhood, and the expression of creation mythology itself instantiates new worlds.”
The chapter “Sacred Second Lives” of “Virtually Sacred” is dedicated to new, emerging religious movements in Second Life. Perhaps more than established religions, new alternative metaverse religions will be able to take full advantage of the endless possibilities of virtual reality and offer a spiritual home to multitudes of people worldwide, especially those who search spiritual meaning independently, outside the legacy framework of mainstream religions. I invited Geraci to present the book and discuss new Metaverse religions in Second Life. You can watch the video here.
[Note: the video, which wasn’t recorded by me, has disappeared from YouTube. Too bad, the talk was very good. I added a picture of Robert’s talk below. The talk took place in the late lamented Soleri City above the late lamented Terasem sim, both disappeared from Second Life.]
One of Geraci’s central points is that shared virtual spaces provide a sense of place, direction, and orientation, which has profound implications for religious practice. Contrary to flat web pages, in virtual reality we can build holy places, cathedrals, and sacred objects, which act as a physical scaffolding to hold virtual religious communities together. While vision and hearing are powerfully engaged in today’s consumer 3D virtual realities, “the possibility to touch objects in virtual spaces in which the brain regions associated with grasping can potentially respond as though to conventional reality” isn’t available yet to most consumers, but that will change with new interface devices.
“I’m deeply curious about how an innovative church might make use of augmented reality in its services or festivals,” Geraci told Hypergrid Business. “It seems to me that there could be beautiful and artistic uses of something akin to the new Microsoft HoloLens. That kind of technology would actually allow people the benefits of physical community and virtual creativity. Like online churches, it could even be used to provide people with online connectivity to distant communities. Most likely, an initial introduction of such technologies would have a lot of awful, kitschy stuff happening; but there might be some real beauty and novel forms of storytelling included. In terms of a virtual-only church, I’d be curious as to what could be accomplished using something like the Oculus Rift. I have not, myself, used the rift, though; so i don’t know what limitations the platform might have.”
We can imagine powerful, inspiring religious services in virtual cathedrals, or in new places of worship - how about a virtual Stonehenge on the Moon - gathering huge numbers of people from all over the planet. The new virtual believers will listen to old and new words of wisdom, make friends, exchange mutual spiritual reinforcements, and contribute to their virtual communities.
Of course everything - even religion - runs on money, and how to finance virtual churches will need to be addressed. Many religious communities are self-sustaining through donations, and that financing model will still be viable. Virtual worlds have built-in payment methods, from the Linden dollar to the Bitcoin-like crypto-currency planned for High Fidelity, so that collecting donations in virtual reality will be even easier than in physical churches.
Besides recovery of survival expenses, it’s well known that religion can be a profitable business as well. Other forms of financing include membership fees, merchandising, pay-only events and virtual adventures, donations from wealthy patrons, and discreet sponsorship - or even blatant in-service advertising if the virtual parishioners are willing to put up with that.