Tech companies are investing in the metaverse and increasingly recognizing that religious communities, some which have already been meeting in virtual reality, will play a key role in the digital future. Many questions remain, however, as to whether that relationship will be good for the religious communities themselves or merely prioritize profits through engagement at any cost.
The metaverse is an immersive virtual world where people can interact with one another. It spans across companies, applications, and games, and aims to change how we interact with technology itself. Proponents of the metaverse are keen to emphasize its ability to rearrange the world into something that truly blends the virtual and physical; They stress the metaverse’s potential to contain entire crops and to be “interoperable” by letting people move seamlessly, with the same avatar or items, into multiple spaces owned by different companies.
In October 2021, Facebook was renamed and rebranded as Meta, signifying another shift from one of the big five tech companies to focus on building the metaverse. Earlier that year, Zuckerberg spoke about why he sees the metaverse as the next major development of the internet: “You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it.”
Last year, Meta also told The New York Times about studies that the company had conducted with church communities starting in 2017, learning both how faith communities leverage platforms like Facebook to gather people and thinking about how to potentially develop that relationship. According to this report, Meta’s aim is to “become the virtual home for religious community,” and the company “wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform.” Reflecting a larger trend, many institutions—including religious ones—are becoming interested in the metaverse’s possibilities, and with that interest, increased formalization and monetization are likely to follow.
Virtual church won’t fully replace in-person worship any time soon, but the benefits of having an online presence and infrastructure have been self-evident throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Faith communities were already meeting in the types of virtual environments that would make up the metaverse, and the pandemic has increased the popularity of existing metaverse churches like The Robloxian Christians.
In 2011, a child from Tacoma, Wash. named Daniel Herron started a church on Roblox, a free-to-play game geared primarily to children and teenagers. Founded by Herron when he was 11 years old, The Robloxian Christians initially began as a space for Christian Roblox players to gather and interact, and this space grew into a fully in-game church with four services a week and more than 53,000 Roblox members.
As a game that is also a game creation platform, Roblox enables users to design their own spaces and invite people to interact with them. In his first few months of playing, Herron had experienced interactive cafes and castles, but wanted to design a world that not only invited Christians to join but also to engage their faith.
The Robloxian Christians was an extension of Herron’s real-life faith. As an active member of a Presbyterian church, Herron included familiar elements such as Bible studies, Wednesday night services, and the like. But at the same time, he was able to establish a Christian community that would have never been possible, encouraged, or even allowed by the PC(USA) denomination because of his age. At present, the Robloxian Christians remain nondenominational and operates more as a collective than a traditional church with accountability to some larger governing body. Metaverse communities often allow faith groups untied from traditional denominations to gather with little to no supervision, allowing for a greater diversity of people to lead and gather.
VR Church is another religious community that meets in the metaverse. Started in 2016, VR Church meets on AltspaceVR, a social virtual reality platform that was acquired by Microsoft in 2017. According to the church’s website, its founder and bishop DJ Soto was originally a pastor at a megachurch in Pennsylvania before leaving and deciding to plant a virtual church. VR Church is not affiliated with any denomination and has a minimalist statement of beliefs: an amended Apostles’ Creed and a few tenets listed on its website.
Soto initially left his previous position with the idea to plant a church in the physical world, but after experimenting with an Oculus headset (Oculus was purchased by Facebook in 2014) and AltspaceVR, he planted a church in virtual reality instead. The church steadily grew, and then exploded in popularity during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It now hosts weekly meetings with up to 200 attendees. According to one report, the church has also ordained other ministers and baptized people who can’t leave their houses.
“People see what we are doing and think it’s innovative, but we believe later they will understand how it is currently reforming the landscape of Christianity,” Soto told me via email.
VR Church prides itself on reaching people who can’t go to church because of disabilities or chronic illness. According to VR Church’s website, one of their elders has an autoimmune condition and remains mostly at home. Pastoring in the VR Church, her profile says, has allowed her the blessing of a “VR family.” In addition to opening up spaces for disabled and immunocompromised people to lead and experience community, the nontraditional VR Church also allows creative interpretations of Christian texts and rituals. Baptism can happen in a glacial lake in a completely fabricated digital world. An entire landscape can be used to illustrate Bible verses and attendees can walk around and explore the interpretation of scripture.
VR Church has recently expanded with a “virtual church plant” called MMO Church that takes place in the video games Rust and Final Fantasy 14. Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMO) allow large numbers of players to meet on the same server and interact with one another. In this instance, MMO Church sets a meeting spot in a server and players show up within the MMO and participate in church there with their own chosen characters. Instead of planting a church in other states or cities, VR Church plants churches in other games.
The religious communities that meet in virtual reality are not limited to Christianity. According to the publication Forward, a synagogue outside Chicago named Am Shalom decided to give its staff VR headsets as a gift, use $10,000 in cryptocurrency to buy land in a virtual world, and begin building a virtual synagogue. Meta also recently partnered with Muslim creators during Ramadan and gave them Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses that could record their life and observances throughout the holy month. The footage was used to create an immersive documentary about the Black Muslim experience for Meta’s Metaverse Culture Series.
EvolVR is another group that meets on AltspaceVR and describes itself as a spiritual community that offers social meditation in virtual reality. The founder Jeremy Nickel is an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist Association who left a physical community in the Bay Area to form EvolVR in 2017. In 2020, more than 40,000 people from 42 countries attended EvolVR events.
Nickel sees the rise of religious and spiritual communities in the metaverse as inevitable and posits that the real question is how those communities will be treated by the companies that own the infrastructure.
“The metaverse doesn’t have a choice in the matter,” Nickel told me. “Wherever humans are, they bring these questions and build these communities. What we’ll see is different aspects of the metaverse making peace with that or making it more difficult for religious communities to exist or thrive.”
Religious groups have found and will continue to find ways to meet in the metaverse, which explains why companies like Meta have been interested in partnering with—and monetizing—how religious communities use their media platforms.
VR Church has had positive experiences with Meta and its pastor is grateful for their attention and support. “They have been, in our experience, more supportive of our work than physical church communities,” Soto said.
But other religious leaders remain skeptical of Meta. Nickel predicts that big tech companies will likely focus more on “mainstream” communities rather than communities like his and has concerns about the priorities that they will bring to produce profits.
“Big powerful entities that try to speak to a lot of people generally get in bed with large religious institutions,” Nickel said. “It will be great for religious institutions and help bring them into a new space, but what I’m really interested in is spirituality and the movement of the soul, and I don’t think it will be good for that.”
The tension between a tech company and a spiritual community is one that many religious communities will have to navigate as companies continue to grow the metaverse. Last year, EvolVR was acquired by TRIPP, a company which produces a VR meditation app, and Nickel had to navigate questions about EvolVR’s priorities given that it is a for-profit tech company.
For Nickel, it was encouraging to see that TRIPP’s CEO Nanea Reeves had her own meditation practice. After asking questions and seeing how profits did and didn’t dictate choices and values at the company, he believed that EvolVR could find a fruitful home at TRIPP that didn’t ask them to compromise their values. Nickel saw a fruitful partnership that would give EvolVR more resources to pursue its goal of providing sanctuaries throughout the metaverse for people to pursue spiritual growth through meditation and other practices.
Religious communities have long been key players in gathering people throughout history. So it’s not a surprise that religious communities have been involved in developing uses for the metaverse. At the same time, the question of who owns the infrastructure necessary for meeting and growing in virtual worlds raises concerns. Massive tech conglomerates like Meta prioritize profits through engagement, subscription, and advertisements, and the vitality of a religious community will not likely be a driving factor for decision-making. The growth of the metaverse could also amplify violence and radicalization. Given concerns about Meta’s platforms encouraging people toward extremism, the metaverse might lead to more nationalist and religious communities spouting and feeding off of disinformation.
If the metaverse is the future, robust religious life will certainly continue to grow within it. Companies like Meta are interested in creating partnerships with faith communities to make sure that future communal innovations are taking place on their platform and for their profit. What that means for faith communities themselves, however, remains to be seen.
Chris Karnadi is a writer and editor based in Washington, DC He covers race and gender in the culture industry, and his writing can be found at Slate, Polygon, and other places. You can follow him on Twitter at @chriskarnadi.