Virtual church services provide community for people without easy access to a brick-and-mortar parish
Pastor Bill Willenbrock starts his church service like many others: with an introduction and a prayer. But take a look around, and things might seem a little unusual.
He hosts his services in Night Church, a map that lives in the virtual reality program VR Chat, which anyone can also download for free.
Willenbrock himself is styled as a buff wizard. Text with his digital alter-ego name, PastorBrock, floats slightly above his head.
"I kind of consider myself a virtual evangelist or missionary," he told Tapestry's Arman Aghbali.
"It was just very fascinating to see what kind of conversations people would have in this VR platform."
When the COVID-19 pandemic turned indoor gatherings into possible superspreader events, many people who are part of religious communities had to rethink their relationships with their churches.
Some churches have held masses outdoors, in car parks or via online chat. But a few patrons have had surprising success by breaking bread in virtual reality.
Willenbrock, who is based in Whitehall, Mich., used to work as a minister at a Lutheran church there, to a mostly older congregation.
Now, he spends most Sunday afternoons at Night Church, speaking in front of a crowd of about 40 people sitting in the pews of a medieval-styled church. In real life, all of the attendees are at home or otherwise apart. But with the help of VR headsets and the internet, they've gathered in this shared space.
Some of them are represented by digital avatars that look like relatively realistic humans. Others have chosen to take the form of anthropomorphic cats or other animals. One person came as a hovercraft.
Welcome to Night Church
Willenbrock started venturing into VR chat spaces nearly every week about a year before the pandemic started — just hanging out and talking to others who logged in.
Since then, he left his church, converted to the Eastern Orthodox church and currently works as a hospital chaplain when he's not leading Night Church sessions online.
Liam Kelly, a university student from Brandon, Man., describes virtual reality chat rooms as an in-between place between reality and make-believe. Yes, some people use avatars of cartoon characters, and many will say or act out childish things.
But once they start coming to a regular hangout spot such as Willenbrock's church a few times, deeper connections start to form.
"At some point, you become attached to the people in that world. Therefore, your actions have weight," Kelly said.
"The people you're meeting are not just randos on the Internet. They're your friends."
Many of Willenbrock's regular guests grew up with church in some form of their life. But that's not all they may have in common.
Some have faced challenges attending church in real life, whether they lived too far away, have physical accessibility issues, or some other form of isolation.
"I have social anxiety, so it's hard for me to be in groups of other people," said Dave Brunker, one of Willenbrock's regulars, who lives in Portland, Ore. He first met the pastor at The Black Cat, another popular VR hangout space.
"I started watching his stream and I thought one time that I would get brave and try to join him and see how that went. And it went pretty well. So I started joining him at every chance I got."
Willenbrock hopes his sessions at the Night Church can help connect some of those people where other venues might not.
"People are, you know, depressed and broken," he said. "[They] need someone to care for them; need someone to love them," he said.
The congregation attracts all sorts of people who might not have typically attended a traditional parish, despite their shared interest in religion.
Willenbrock says he believes in "traditional Christian sexual ethics," which means, among other things, he doesn't approve of same-sex marriage, or premarital sex.
Yet his congregation includes some LGBT parishioners who grew to like his style, despite the theological mismatch.
"My church is more liberal minded, but it's still very traditional, with the liturgy of the service and the words and things," said Adam McCurdy, who started visiting Night Church after his local parish in Belfast went Zoom-only during the pandemic.
He said that while he wouldn't call it more inclusive, people seem to feel more welcome to ask questions in Willenbrock's services than in other churches.
"I think his church is a bit more … interactive. It's all right to ask questions [about] things."
Are VR churches 'real' churches?
Willenbrock is quick to clarify that this isn't a full Sunday service. Congregates don't take part in communion; neither do they have a full liturgy. There's no dress code for the digital equivalent of your Sunday best, and because of the way sound can lag over the internet, they can't sing.
"As I always say, Jesus didn't come back as Casper the Friendly Ghost. He came back with a body which could be touched. A body which ate fish," he said.
"I think all of these things show the importance of the body.… So I try to encourage people to get connected to a brick-and-mortar church near them."
Jason Poling, an evangelical pastor in Yuba City, Calif., has a more malleable take on the question.
"I think that is a superior experience of communion by far to taste the bread and the wine. But is it necessary?" said Poling, who runs a VR community of his own in a program called Alt Space.
"It's a limited sensory experience [in VR], but the lack of consuming physically, the bread and the wine, does that invalidate what communion actually is supposed to be pointing to in its forms?"
His congregation is a bit less rowdy than Willenbrock's — you can't come in the form of a dinosaur, for one. But they also conduct a version of the communion, handing out digital wafers to attendees that line up and then put their hands in front of them by gripping their VR controllers.
He even encourages people to "grab bread and a cup" of wine or juice if they have it handy at home, to help bridge the sensory gap.
Willenbrock says that eventually, VR technology will become so immersive that those sensory gaps will become less noticeable. As someone who encourages people to seek out a real-life church if possible, he's hesitant to embrace the metaverse of the future with open arms.
But to Liam Kelly, religious leaders may not have a choice.
"Take those 12-year-olds who are playing VR chat right now. In 10 years from now … VR chat and the virtual world is going to be such a major part of their being that they're not going to … practice a religion that doesn't somewhat adapt to that ideal," he said.
Radio documentary "Praying in VR" produced by Arman Aghbali.
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