Virtual Churches: Is VR the Future of Religious Technology?

In the 18th century, the American colonies experienced an enormous swell of religious fervor known as the First Great Awakening.

Leaving the cold, dark churches and their solemnly delivered sermons for exuberant traveling preachers in the town square, the colonials must have felt a profound spiritual transformation.

Since that First Great Awakening, there have been many other breakthroughs in the way people worship and interact spiritually: televangelists, megachurches, and online churches, just to name a few.

They’re all part of the constantly evolving way that we experience religion, and for the church to stay relevant, it will need to continue to embrace innovation by listening for new voices coming from the town square.

VR is one of the most recent examples of technology altering the way we worship, and in this article, we’ll look at how your Virtual Church could become a virtual church.

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality uses computer-generated 360-degree images to immerse the viewer in a comprehensive, realistic experience.

When I recently came home from a summer in Washington, D.C., I brought my little sister a virtual reality viewer that let her visit the national monumentswithout ever leaving her room. She loved it, and spent hours that night looking around the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, and (my favorite) the Lincoln Memorial.

Virtual reality offers an escape from ordinary content consumption, but it also offers an exciting educational experience.

Students can work with virtual reality in the classroom to visit historical sites, watch a demonstration, or learn about the stars. Employees can train on the job without entering into dangerous or uncomfortable situations in real life.

Virtual reality can also be a portal to faith and spirituality for those who might not otherwise get the chance.

Virtual reality and the church

L. Michelle Salvant, founder of Mission:VR, considers virtual reality to be vital for faith formation.

“We have a lot of people talking about faith,” she says. “But I know for a surety that when you can experience someone’s faith and their hope, when you can go inside of their life and feel it, conversion will increase.”

Mission:VR partnered with Covalent Reality to create an environment for the virtual reality platform Google Cardboard called BelieveVR.

BelieveVR uses 360-degree cameras to follow the stories of people of faith as they struggle to overcome spiritual challenges. The first story, called “Healed,”follows Florida pastor Nicky E. Collins as she finds spiritual support during her battle with breast cancer. After the premiere of the short film, Salvant said viewers were “uplifted” by the experience, which they called “awesome” and “touching.”

That’s just one example of how virtual reality is affecting the worship experience.

  • Church Online is developing a virtual reality platform to supplement its online presence.
  • The Virtual Reality Church uses the software platform AltspaceVR (free for most Android VR devices) to bring their congregants a 360-degree church experience.
  • SecondLife, one of the earliest virtual reality software systems, offers three different churches in its platform, and you can start exploring for free.

Virtual Churches: Second Life

The National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Second Life

No one expects any of these platforms to replace traditional churches, and even a megachurch would be ill advised to buy hundreds of high-end Oculus Rift headsets for their congregation.

But as VR devices become more and more affordable and ubiquitous (Google Cardboard can turn your smartphone into a VR headset for about $15, for example), virtual reality will become another channel for people to communicate on.

For people who can’t physically come to church, people who want to enhance their experience with new technology, or people who want to come back to the church, virtual reality offers another opportunity to do so.

Using virtual reality in the church brings a holistic spiritual experience to those who can’t or wouldn’t normally go to church. Making faith accessible to more people was one of the major goals Salvant hoped to achieve with her church software. People with disabilities are less likely to attend a service, so virtual reality quite literally opens the door for hundreds of thousands of disabled religious people across the country.

Clearly, VR is making its way into the spiritual community. But what are some ways you can use it in your own church?

1. Live stream in VR

I love watching live streams. They’re like a little window into someone else’s life. My church at home sets up a live stream at every Mass for those who can’t make it. But VR takes it to a whole new level. Your congregants can meet in a common space that requires no travel time, no cleanup, and no reservation.

Virtual churches: VahanaVR by Orah

VahanaVR by Orah

Software such as VahanaVR by Orah, or Facebook Spaces for Oculus Riftprovide real-time hangout spaces for any kind of event, meeting, or service. Your congregants don’t necessarily need a headset. All you need to broadcast in 3D is:

  • the software (VahanaVR sells for $2,195; Facebook Spaces is free on Oculus devices)
  • 360-degree camera (which start at about $100)
  • a connection to a livestreaming platform such as Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter

Anyone who wants to watch can simply click the link, put on a headset or watch on their computer screen, and become immersed in the experience.

2. VR small groups

You can also apply virtual reality to smaller groups of people. Instead of meeting at the church for department decisions, your staff can simply log onto an online VR platform.

Virtual churches: HyperFair

A demo in Hyperfair

  • Hyperfair, which is usually used for businesses, could be used to meet in a virtual space. Pricing for Hyperfair is not available online.
  • Mozilla’s MozVR is a free, open-source virtual reality framework that allows you to create your own online VR experience and share it with your coworkers or friends (assuming you have advanced programming ability, of course).
  • vTime is a VR social network that allows people to meet in virtual space, and is free on Windows Mixed Reality devices.

Meeting in virtual space provides a chance to meet new people without the pressure of meeting in person. It gives your congregants a chance to talk to like-minded people about their faith, without having to leave home. For people who are new to the church, a virtual reality group just for them can give them a chance to get to know new people before they arrive.

3. VR group retreats

Retreats are expensive. There’s no way around it. From finding a place to accommodate everyone in your group, to catering food for each night, to planning the content and activities, retreats are labor intensive and costly.

Virtual churches: A VR group retreat

What if you could join them from anywhere in the world using your computer?

Meeting in a virtual space (using the same devices and apps outlined in the sections above) can reduce the cost of reserving a building or campground, as well as travel to that location.

Guest speakers can give talks without ever having to leave their homes. People with disabilities can participate without having to worry about whether the space will accommodate their needs.

And the possibilities are endless. In the near future, you might be able to virtually travel all over the world on your retreat without having to pay for tickets or hotels. Because the virtual environment is computer generated, the options are only limited to what the designers and programmers can dream up. Just be prepared for a little push back if you try to convince your congregation that a virtual Hawaiian beachfront is as good as the real thing. We’re not quitethere yet.

How will you include virtual reality in your church?

Media professionals say virtual reality is the future. Classrooms, real estate, and construction are just three industries where virtual reality is already becoming a part of everyday life.

Places of faith and worship are not far behind. Will you incorporate VR in your church experience in the future? How will VR help your church? Tell us what you think in the comments!

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