Virtual reality offers inclusive Christian fellowship

Online churches have been a reality for several years now, and many Christians often wonder if the concept of online churches takes away from the discipline of community. A new phenomenon is on the rise, however, that takes online churches to another level.

Virtual reality churches are popping up across the country. Pastors preach remotely, and church members don their virtual reality glasses as their avatars flood into the church building and join one another in the pews.  In October, the first known virtual reality baptism took place, according to Christianity Today. Alina Delp, 46, was portrayed as a purple avatar in her virtual reality church.

“When her avatar floated to the surface, dozens of congregants and family members cheered, their avatars sending heart and clap icons floating skyward,” according to Christianity Today.

Delp has erythromelalgia, a rare condition that makes it painful to be outside for longer than a few minutes. “Baptism would have been difficult for her in the past. With the virtual baptism, her family members from all over the country were able to witness the event in real time,” according to Christianity Today.

Some Christians, however, are skeptical of the nature of virtual reality churches and whether they are too isolating to truly be considered church.

Tyler Olson, John Brown University sophomore engineering major, said, “I would agree that the digital space could be seen as a mission field of its own. This leads me to believe that, when done right, it can be beneficial to the global church as a whole. I can see many benefits for VR churches. One being that those who are unable to make it to physical church because of limitations on health or social norms are given an access point to the body of Christ where they otherwise wouldn’t find one on a regular basis.”

Olson also said, for those who have been rejected by church communities before, the idea of a virtual reality church might be inviting: “I could see a more welcoming congregation where a more traditional congregation may intentionally or unintentionally discriminate against a newcomer: based on the relative anonymity that the VR landscape provides it may facilitate a more welcoming environment.”

Cary Balzer, professor of Biblical studies, said he thinks virtual reality churches have potential, especially for those with disabilities or social anxiety. “In terms of evangelism and some degree of worship and some degree of discipleship could take place virtually,” Balzer said. “You can have community on the internet. You can have counseling on the internet. It can be a supplement.”

Balzer said he would rather see the church doing a better job reaching people with disabilities and social anxieties in other ways. “I wish the church would seek out people who are seeking God who are having trouble getting to church and make it happen. Why aren’t we meeting their needs? Fellowship is a need we have. Whether we are going to their home and having a Bible study with them or whether we’re getting to their house and doing the work of getting them in the van that is functional for them, whatever that is, the church is lazy when we’re not doing a better job. We settle for things that aren’t the best. The virtual church is good, but there is something that is better.”

Olson said virtual reality might have negative drawbacks. “The anonymity of VR may also lead to a more insincere and disjointed congregation. While the ability to go to a church in VR may allow those who have never been or are unable to go a Christian congregation, I fear the impact of communing with Christians in a physical church may be unable to replicate online.”

Balzer agreed that the negatives might outweigh or at least equal the positives. “There are some things you just don’t get from a virtual church. It’s very difficult to take communion in the same way. Usually, churches that are online churches don’t do that. Also, the whole issue of the nature of the church: worship, fellowship, discipleship and evangelism. How can those things actually happen if you are not there physically? But we are physical beings. There are some dangers of the virtual reality church seeing Christianity as only cognitive. That is a Western, individualistic error.”