When Bishop D. J. Soto gives his Christmas sermon this year—his fifth Christmas in the metaverse—he will be surrounded by spirits. “I think my favorite part is going to be when the host of angels comes and the shepherds are in the fields, and we will have some lighting effects and angels in the sky,” Soto told me. His virtual-reality-headset-wearing flock of about 200 will be right in the middle of it all, walking or soaring through a VR build of Bethlehem.
Soto co-founded VR Church in 2016, which means he has been preaching in the metaverse since long before Facebook-cum-Meta turned the word into a household name. Back then, Soto and his co-founders mostly replicated the experience of attending a physical church: There were VR pews to sit in and a pastor on stage preaching. But then “the light bulb came on in our brains and we’re like, Hold on—we are in the matrix; we are in the metaverse, where the possibilities are endless because we control time and space.”
It didn’t make sense to him to have avatars idly sitting in virtual seats when they could walk through the Holy Land, or through the darkness into the light. Soto said his parishioners were excited by VR scenes from the Bible that they could actually experience—following Moses through the Red Sea, for example—and by visual metaphors inspired by biblical passages. These experiences illuminate the Bible “in a different way because you were there; you thought it, you felt it, you sensed it, you walked by the burning bush.”
Soto may be a pioneer, but he’s not alone. Noting the efforts of several evangelical pastors, a November 2021 article in Outreach, a Christan publication focused on church growth, proclaimed, “It’s time to enter the virtual mission field.” The story describes pastors such as Jason Poling, who, like Soto, has been embracing virtual church for years. After struggling to keep his Yuba City, California, congregation going, Poling started holding services and small groups in AltspaceVR, where he was able to connect with a larger network of parishioners and reach “all worlds for Jesus,” as his church’s slogan declares.
Although Soto and his ilk’s approach to church may seem novel, it isn’t particularly surprising in the context of American evangelicals’ relationship to media and technology. Evangelicals have a long history of being early and eager adopters. After the Scopes trial, in 1925, when their opposition to teaching evolution in schools was widely derided in the media, the Christian fundamentalists of the time regrouped, rebranded, and began to call themselves “neo-evangelicals.” (Later, they would drop the neo.) They promoted their new self-image on the radio, amplifying the voices of evangelicals such as Charles Fuller and Aimee Semple McPherson—wholesome, folksy personalities who combined religious teaching with music and entertainment. Keeping pace with popular culture in the 1950s, Billy Graham, sometimes called “the pope of evangelicalism,” started a film studio, World Wide Pictures, in 1953. The televangelists of the 1980s proved to many of their followers that they had a prominent and vital role to play in modern American culture. Later, in the 1990s, contemporary Christian music did the same.
In the digital era, evangelicals have continued to embrace media technologies as they have entered the zeitgeist. Evangelicals often talk about how they are called to be “in but not of” the world, which means that they feel they need to use the technologies of secular culture to spread their own messages and values. And though a few prominent evangelicals have eschewed digital media, many have taken to it enthusiastically.
I’ve spent 10 years researching multimedia megachurches, so-called start-up churches, and faith-based tech companies. I’ve chronicled hackathons in which coders raced to create cloaked Bible apps that can be secretly opened in places where proselytizing is illegal; I’ve met evangelical futurists, pastors turned founders, and programmers turned pastors. Many techie evangelicals told me that they thought that keeping up with new media technologies was the only way to attract a younger generation moving away from religion. Others thought their experiments might even help redeem the internet itself, or might be part of hastening Jesus’s return, or the rapture, by fulfilling the book of Revelation's prophecy of Christ's return once his gospel has been preached “to every nation, tribe, language and people.”
Evangelicals have been exploring what we now refer to as the metaverse since at least 2009, when Doug Estes wrote the book SimChurch, imploring Christians to found churches in the then-popular online game Second Life. “A change is occurring in the Christian church the likes of which has not happened for centuries,” he wrote. “At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the church is beginning to be different not in style, venue, feel, or volume but in the world in which it exists. A new gathering of believers is emerging, a church not in the real world of bricks and mortar but in the virtual world of IP addresses and shared experiences.” Evangelicals were marshaling online communities in Second Life when Facebook was still in its early days. In fact, when Facebook announced its name change to Meta, Soto tweeted, “Yes, the metaverse is already here. We welcome Meta to the metaverse.”
And now that Meta has made its intentions clear, even more evangelicals are taking VR and Web 3.0 seriously—and trying to understand how they might fit into this potential future. Tom Pounder, the online-campus pastor at New Life Christian Church, in Chantilly, Virginia, writes that “Meta’s venture into the metaverse legitimizes VR Church and ministry.” He notes that “VR Pastors and ministers have been ministering in this space for years now, much to the dismissiveness of traditional ministry leaders … the reality is with more and more people in this space and more companies like Meta, Apple and Amazon venturing in VR, there is a real ministry opportunity for Churches to look at.
“Online Ministry is here to stay,” Pounder continues, “and the Churches that don’t invest in this area won’t be.”
Although Facebook’s announcement has excited the evangelical imagination, it’s worth asking what might be lost when experiments in online spiritual communities get co-opted by large companies. In my research, I’ve written about how the move to embrace digital platforms has changed the whole of evangelical culture—in some ways for the better, as when it enabled scores of women to speak out against abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical organization in the United States, or in the way it has given Black Christian podcasters the tools to grow online audiences that now rival those of the largest megachurches run by the white evangelical power structure. But when tech becomes integrated into religious practices, it has the potential to change them in other ways too. Technologies often promise neutrality and inclusivity but sometimes have the opposite effect.
As churches are ported into the metaverse, they will be subject to the dictates of Facebook and the other Big Tech companies that are racing to own the virtual land it will comprise. I was reminded of this when the Oculus I borrowed from my university was unable to sync to my long-dormant Facebook account, preventing me from using it to join VR Church. Instead, I watched Soto’s services through the streaming platform Twitch, which is owned by Amazon. When I logged on, I was expecting to see Soto preaching his sermon. Instead I was served an ad with the banner text “Catch VR Church right after this ad break.” It seemed that at every turn I was confronted by the gatekeepers who have controlled the digital world for more than a decade and now seek to exercise control over—and extract profit from—the metaverse.
For Soto, shepherding his flock over the past five years has been about building a community. He describes how, in the metaverse, he has baptized parishioners unable to attend church in person, how his VR church has been a place where “there’s not a judgment about race or weight or all these things that we superficially, subconsciously judge people about” when we encounter them in the physical world.
And he is excited for the metaverse to grow. “The information age is coming to a close, and the experience age is beginning,” Soto told me. That’s why his Christmas sermon this year will fuse the old and the new.
First, congregants will sing Christmas songs as they would in a traditional church, but then they will be led on an experiential journey through Bethlehem. He’s excited to share this new build with his congregation—they will walk together down a pathway and see the nativity scene in 3-D—but he’s also aware that this year it may feel a little different, now that the metaverse is officially being underwritten by Meta––and the future of culture, of spirituality, of expression is, more and more, explicitly being shaped by large tech companies and the entrepreneurial spirits who animate them.