The pastor is a wizard and some believers look like cats: this is a church in virtual reality

Tapestry53:52How COVID Rewired Religion

Pastor Bill Willenbrock begins his worship service like many others: with an introduction and a prayer. But take a look around, and things may 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, hovers slightly above his head.

“I consider myself a bit like a virtual evangelist or missionary,” he said tapestries Arman Aghbali.

“It was just really fascinating to see what kind of conversations people would have on this VR platform.”

People gather in a virtual reality church.
People gather in a digital rendering of a church in the virtual reality program VR Chat. Bill Willenbrock, aka PastorBrock, can be seen near the center of the screenshot speaking to the congregation. (Arman Aghbali/CBC)

As the COVID-19 pandemic turned indoor gatherings into potentially super-distributed events, many people who are part of religious communities had to rethink their relationship with their churches.

Some churches have held masses outside, in parking garages or via online chat. But a few customers have had surprising success breaking bread in virtual reality.

Willenbrock, who is located in Whitehall, Michigan, worked there as a pastor in a Lutheran church for a predominantly older congregation.

Now he spends most Sunday afternoons in the Night Church, speaking to a crowd of about 40 seated in the pews of a medieval-style church. In real life, everyone present is at home or otherwise apart. But with the help of VR headsets and the internet, they have gathered in this shared space.

The digital avatars of two regular parishioners in Bill Willenbrock’s virtual reality church. Ashton Mayfield, left, is based near Phoenix, Arizona, and takes the form of a feline creature. Liam Kelly, right, is a college student from Brandon, Male. (Submitted by Ashton Mayfield and Liam Kelly)

Some of them are represented by digital avatars that look like relatively realistic people. Others have chosen to take the form of anthropomorphic cats or other animals. A person came like a hovercraft.

Welcome to the Night Church

Willenbrock started venturing into VR chat rooms almost every week about a year before the pandemic — just hanging out and talking to others who had signed up.

He has since left his church, converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church and currently works as a chaplain in a hospital when not conducting night church sessions online.

Liam Kelly, a college student from Brandon, Man., describes virtual reality chat rooms as an intermediate place between reality and fantasy. Yes, some people use cartoon character avatars, and many will say or do childish things.

But once they come to a regular meeting place, like Willenbrock’s church, a few times, deeper connections begin to form.

“At some point you get attached to the people in that world. That’s why your actions have weight,” Kelly said.

A virtual church service.
Attendees listen to a sermon in a virtual reality church session on the Rec Room program. (Arman Aghbali/CBC)

“The people you meet aren’t just randos on the internet. They’re your friends.”

Many of Willenbrock’s regulars grew up with the Church in some form of their lives. But that’s not all they have in common.

Some have experienced problems attending church in real life, whether they lived too far away, had physical accessibility issues, or some other form of isolation.

“I have social anxiety, so it’s hard for me to be in other people’s groups,” says Dave Brunker, one of Willenbrock’s regulars, who lives in Portland, Oregon. He first met the pastor at The Black Cat, another popular VR hangout space.

“I started watching his stream and once I thought I would get brave and try to join him and see how that went. And it went pretty well. So I started every chance I got to join him.”

Willenbrock hopes his sessions at the Night Church can connect some of those people where other venues may not.

“People are, you know, depressed and broken,” he said. †[They] need someone to take care of them; need someone to love them,” he said.

The congregation attracts all kinds of people who ordinarily would not have attended a traditional parish, despite their shared interest in religion.

Willenbrock says he believes in “traditional Christian sexual ethics,” which means, among other things, that he doesn’t condone same-sex marriage or premarital sex.

Still, his congregation has some LGBT parishioners who have come to appreciate his style, despite the theological mismatch.

A man plays video games on Twitch.
Willenbrock talks to others about scriptures in a virtual reality chat room while livestreaming on Twitch. (Pastor BrockVR/Twitch)

“My church is more liberal in spirit, but it’s still very traditional, with the liturgy of the service and the words and things,” said Adam McCurdy, who began attending Night Church after his local parish in Belfast was left alone during the pandemic. Zoom went.

He said that while he wouldn’t call it more inclusive, people 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 good to ask questions [about] stuff.”

Are VR churches ‘real’ churches?

Willenbrock quickly makes it clear that this is not a full Sunday service. Municipalities do not participate in communion; nor 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 be left behind 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 that could be touched. A body that ate fish,” he said.

“I think all these things show the importance of the body… So I try to encourage people to connect with a physical church near them.”

A pastor is shown in virtual reality.
Jason Poling’s digital avatar greets visitors to his virtual reality church community on a program called Alt Space. Poling is based in Yuba City, California. (Arman Aghbali/CBC)

Jason Poling, an evangelical minister in Yuba City, California, has a more malleable take on the question.

“I think that is by far a superior experience of communion to taste the bread and wine. But is it necessary?” said Poling, who runs his own VR community on a program called Alt Space.

“It’s a limited sensory experience [in VR]but the lack of physical consumption, the bread and wine, invalidates what communion should actually refer to in its forms?”

His congregation is a little less rowdy than Willenbrock’s – you can’t come in dinosaur form, for example. But they also perform a version of communion, where they hand out digital wafers to attendees who line up and then hold 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 on hand at home, to bridge the sensory gap.

Willenbrock says VR technology will eventually become so immersive that those sensory holes will be less noticeable. As one who encourages people to seek a real church if possible, he hesitates to embrace the metaverse of the future with open arms.

But for Liam Kelly, religious leaders may not have a choice.

“Take those 12-year-olds who are now playing VR chat. In 10 years’ time, VR chat and the virtual world will become such an important part of their beings that they have no intention of…practicing a religion that fits not somewhat near that ideal,” he said.

Radio documentary “Praying in VR”, produced by Arman Aghbali.

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