The strange soullessness of virtual churches

For 2,000 years, the Christian church has used the tech of the time to transform reality and sell itself better. But their first attempts at virtual reality have been soulless and creepy

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Imagine this: It’s the 6th century. You’re a peasant toiling in the fields outside of Constantinople. It’s a mean and simple life. Most of what you see, all day every day, is dirt. But four times a year, you make the trek into town to the Hagia Sophia, the center of Christian worship and the largest building in the world. The soaring arches and the impossibly high dome seem transported from another world. There, you can just FEEL the presence of the one true God.

It’s the 17th century. You’re still a peasant, sorry. But now, you live outside the town of Salisbury in England. You drag yourself to the local chapel every Sunday. However, twice a year you find your way to the 400-year-old Salisbury Cathedral. Now, we add huge windows streaming sunlight and a magnificent, full-throated pipe organ to the mix, with each filling the space with what must be the sound and glory of Heaven itself.

It’s the 21st century. You’re still a peasant, stop asking. But now you toil at a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Five days a week, you labor in a cubicle. But every Sunday, you go to the carefully non-denominational megachurch. Its soaring ceiling, massive organ, worship band, and 20-foot screens make everything God-sized. Close your eyes, and you can feel like you’re kneeling at the very throne of Jesus himself.

Changing with the times, or not

In each case, the church used what was available at the time to enhance and transform reality in order to sell itself better. It’s not hard to imagine today’s shrinking church using the technology of today to call the customer back and close the deal.

Strangely, these efforts have barely touched on our newest tech, virtual reality (VR).

More and more people today are using VR to meet up with each other and share common interests. But the way religious people are using that technology is something to see.

Let’s walk through a short history of VR, then visit some VR meeting grounds to see how people are using this tech–and how, in the case of Christians, they are not.

Inauspicious beginnings for virtual reality

Not long after graduating from college in the early 1990s, I discovered virtual reality games. At the time, I worked for an indoor amusement park called Exhilarama in Houston–it was a bit like a Dave & Buster’s, but for all ages. It was built into one of Houston’s biggest malls and featured arcade games, bumper cars, a laser tag arena, a MechWarrior-style battle arena game, and, of course, some groundbreaking new tech: VR games.

At the time, that meant a game for the Virtuality system that was called Dactyl Nightmare. Dactyl Nightmare consisted of two circular corrals that players had to stand inside while they held controllers and wore huge, bulky visors. The game was quite expensive to play, but thanks to its mind-blowing new technology, it usually had a line of people waiting to do exactly that. The company had very wisely parked the corrals right next to the main entrance to the park. As a result, people saw it even if they were just walking past as they entered the mall itself.

The graphics were hilariously primitive, even by 1990s standards.

A re-creation of Dactyl Nightmare. YouTube screenshot

The video game world had moved up to the Nintendo SNES console system by this time, but Virtuality lagged far behind.

A mind-blowing experience

Still, I can tell you what it was like to play Dactyl Nightmare: Reality somehow felt duller and less intense after taking off that visor. Once immersed in the game, its blocky, garish graphics began to look enormously realistic.

Every time I played Dactyl Nightmare or ran it for a customer, I had this sense of being part of something important: a leap forward in technology that was starting small, but would eventually become bigger than I could even imagine.

Indeed, the technology involved in VR improved vastly from those humble beginnings. Nowadays, people can use just regular smartphones to enter these universes. They don’t even require expensive headgear anymore. Once inside a VR world, people can immerse themselves in lifelike environments that feel—and look, even to outsiders—astonishingly like the real thing.

VR in research

And now, researchers are exploring ways to use VR in ways that help, not just amuse. Here’s just a small selection of studies done just over the past year about some other uses of VR:

Virtual Reality Therapy in Mental Health,” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, May 2021. Discusses psychological uses for VR, especially for therapy for anxiety disorders, addiction, and eating disorders.

More than experience? – On the unique opportunities of virtual reality to afford a holistic experiential learning cycle,” The Internet and Higher Education, June 2021. The researchers here say that VR could help with each of the four different learning styles involved in higher education.

Shopping in virtual reality: A literature review and future agenda,” Journal of Business Research, September 2021. I’m doomed if online shopping goes VR, but according to this meta-study, that is indeed where it may well be going.

Virtual reality and mixed reality for second chance tourism,” Tourism Management, April 2021. Also, see “Virtual Reality as a Travel Substitution Tool During COVID-19,” Information and Communication Technologies in Tourism 2021. Since my all-time favorite thing to do in VR is just wander around real or imagined environments, it’s always been disappointing to me that there’s so little bona fide tourism in VR offerings. That might change, though, thanks to climate change and pandemic restrictions.

Rule 34 holds true, yet again

And yes, of course Rule 34 holds true, and there is porn of it: “VR Porn as ‘Empathy Machine’? Perception of Self and Others in Virtual Reality Pornography,” The Journal of Sex Research, December 2020. Here, the “steep increase” in VR pornography is attributed to “an essential difference” in regular and VR porn.

In these VR studies, viewers experienced a much stronger feel of intimacy and interaction with the actors. This study also found higher levels of oxytocin in VR pornography viewers’ saliva. Those researchers call oxytocin “the social neuropeptide,” indicating that VR elicits stronger feelings of social intimacy in viewers.

So virtual reality might have begun as a game, but it’s gone so much further since those humble beginnings.

Of course, almost everything mentioned here is single-player, so to speak, even if our neuropeptides think something social is going on. Now, let’s look at VR being used to facilitate group gatherings.

Fellowshipping in virtual reality

I’m not sure why it took people so long to look to VR as a way to facilitate gatherings, especially now that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s just the next step, after all, in streaming church services.

A recent Religion News article covers some religious groups meeting in a VR environment now, like D.J. Soto, the Virginia-based founder and pastor of “VR Church.”

Soto wanted to plant his own church in the physical world, but doing it in VR proved much, much easier. Heck, he probably didn’t even need to get official permission from any denominational groups! So he started one for himself in 2016. It grew very slowly, now consisting of about 200 people. Soto claims to have remotely baptized housebound people and even ordained other ministers.

An ordained Unitarian Universalist minister named Jeremy Nickel calls himself “a VR evangelist.” He founded “SacredVR” in 2017, but the name put some folks off. Now called “EvolVR,” it’s taken off and boasts hundreds of members.

Nonreligious virtual meetings

Of course and obviously, these gatherings don’t need to be religious in nature.

Other people run various other kinds of meetups in various settings. I noticed many happening on a chat platform called VRChat. Not surprising: VRChat is an easy-to-run program that’s a lot like World of Warcraft in terms of graphics. It’s like an MMORPG game, just without the game part. People can play VRChat on either VR or PC.

Once ingame, virtual participants can do just about anything together. They can design their own avatars and homes, hang out together, dance together, play games together, even indulge in adult interactions (what we old-school gamers used to euphemistically call “quality RP”). Other chat platforms include AltspaceVR and RecRoom, and they all have church groups meeting there.

But a funny thing happens on our way to a virtual church service…

Consider the possibilities here. A VR environment can literally look like anything its designers want. A VR church could look like Christians’ conceptualization of heaven itself: clouds, angels flying around, beautiful music, the gates of Heaven, the actual throne of Jesus, the golden Borg cube of the City of Heaven as described in the New Testament. Feast in a celestial banquet hall with those who’ve gone before. Play ping pong with Jesus and win.

It could be anything.

The creators of these VR churches could rival anything the designers of cathedrals or flashy modern megachurches could dream of making. 

They just don’t.

A VR church could look like Christians’ conceptualization of heaven itself. The creators could rival anything the designers of cathedrals or flashy modern megachurches could dream of making. 

They just don’t.

Shockingly bleak spaces

Despite these glorious possibilities, every church I visited in VR was—for lack of a better word—soulless. Most were bare-bones–and quite creepy–shells with barely-there textures and chairs.

This was billed as a “lounge” at Cornerstone Church in VRChat.

One included Bible verses in images across its interior walls. One had meeting rooms with mysterious furniture and no clear purpose. Only one, Faith Lutheran Church, even tried to look like an actual regular church with pews and religious imagery on the walls. 

Despite these glorious possibilities, every church I visited in VR was—for lack of a better word—soulless.

Otherwise, it was really hard to imagine anything more bleak and emotionally-impoverished than what I wandered through. It’s like their designers feared they would be accused of sinning if they produced anything actually pleasing to attend.

I'd think this was a sarcastic fedora-atheist joke if I hadn't seen it was legit myself.
Cornerstone Church of Yuba City. Just a caricature of a church building on a plain gray floor.

Even Soto’s VRChurch looked like a monument to vaporwave more than anything else.

You have to open these doors to enter the church. This was all there was: purple pillars, a wooden door, weird cloud background, purple haze floor.
If I’d found Michelangelo’s David in sunglasses in here, I wouldn’t even have been surprised.

And now, virtual tonics for a weary heart

Then, I found this Buddhist space. And lemme tell ya: I’m not into meditation these days, but I’d gladly sit in on one of their meetings just to enjoy these graphics with other people. 

Shoshin Buddhist Temple in VRChat. Unspeakably relaxing and beautiful.

Red and orange leaves drifted past on unfelt breezes. Trees rustled. Gentle music played. Inside, the place felt restful and calming. It was just striking, the work that went into it. The people who made it very obviously care about curating a feeling in visitors, and it worked on me.

Even the one pagan temple space I found looks considerably more developed and awe-inspiring than any of the churches I explored.

Pagans in VR on VRChat.

And then we have this for Team Jesus:

No imagination at all.
Brethren Baptist Church, VRChat. Hey, y’all, they’re KJV-only!

It also goes without saying that almost none of these Christian churches seemed like important members of their various respective denominations. Most seem like independent churches, even like fringe elements of right-wing evangelical Christianity. Clearly they aren’t focusing much on coding or graphics for their spaces. It’s like they resent even the necessity of making even minimal effort to construct chairs to sit in for sermons and building walls to contain it all.

Why Christian VR spaces are so uninspiring and bleak

And that doesn’t surprise me in the least. 

Remember that Exhilarama VR game I staffed in the 1990s?

I began working there right as I was deconverting. Since I knew how to use computers, I mostly staffed Virtuality. Because the game lived right inside the park entrance, other Christians saw it as they entered the mall, then came in looking to start fights with me about it. They were certain that Dactyl Nightmare was an absolutely demonic game. 

They thought VR itself was part of the Satanic Panic, a conspiracy theory evangelicals made up in the late 1970s. In this conspiracy theory, demons used fun entertainment like D&D and video games to ensnare the souls of teenagers and children. Then, demons suckered their victims into the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW).

In truth, these Satanic Panickers just thought the game was demonic because it was really new technology to them. So they’d earnestly try to save my soul, hear that I was already Pentecostal, and then try to convince me that I’d been led astray by Satan somehow. I knew the game wasn’t demonic, so these conversations didn’t go well for my erstwhile spiritual rescuers.

Zealots do not trust new tech

In my Pentecostal denomination in the late 1980s, when I was a teenager, my religious leaders absolutely forbade members to own or even watch televisions. All television was off-limits, and it always had been off-limits in that denomination, as far as I could tell. But they were totes okay with radio and printed books, as long as they weren’t too entertainment-focused and contained no depictions of off-limits behavior.

Even then, I caught our junior pastor’s tween sons watching TV at his house one day. The boys saw my look of surprise, realized they’d been caught, and then immediately volunteered that they only watched wholesome old-timey shows on it, like Leave It to Beaver.

At the time, I nodded along with them, though privately I didn’t accept the idea that a forbidden media type could become wholesome just through existing for a few decades. If television was bad now, then it had always been bad and always would be bad.

As I got older, though, I began to understand.

Familiarity might breed contempt, but it also breeds comfort with what was once scary and demonic.

Getting used to virtual tech takes time for religious authoritarians

Once I began attending university, I learned about how the religious authorities tended to oppose pretty much all new technology when it first emerged. There’s a reason why our historical examples earlier all inspired awe through long-established methods like architecture and painting–and in the case of the megachurch, through music and the use of oversize accessories and visual effects.

Once a tech has been around a few years and people have gotten used to it, religious authorities can go all-in on it. Familiarity makes it okay. Once it becomes okay, then Christians can experiment with using it to achieve their goals. (That Pentecostal church I mentioned earlier has an active YouTube presence these days.)

That’s what’s happening with VR, though it has taken considerably longer for Christians to adopt the new tech. More-established religious groups still haven’t figured out what to do with it quite yet. Only fringe-dwellers and independents can really experiment with it.

Meanwhile, other spiritual types and the non-religious have been inhabiting and playing with the tech leading up to interactive VR for years now. As a result, they use the tech far more effectively.

Moving past religion

One early application I saw along this line was for tabletop gaming sessions. That’s been going on since at least 2015. One site calls these gaming sessions “the only form of Dungeons & Dragons nerdier than larping.” They ain’t wrong, either–at least in these early days of the trend.

Along similar lines, TechRadar reviewed a more recent tabletop gaming emulator for VR called “Demeo,” calling it “one of the best VR games yet.” It allows up to four players to transport themselves onto the tabletop itself. Like VRChat, it allows players to use either a VR setup or a PC to access the game.

Various hobby groups can also set up meetings using the same platforms and software that businesses use—like Holospace, which sets participants in chairs at virtual tables. Similarly, Dallas has always had a thriving meetup hobbyist culture, and its Meetup page now includes a whole subsection of VR-based meetings. Most revolve around tech or gaming, but nothing says that other groups can’t meet this way.

That’s what people do, after all, when we make groups. We try to meet up so we can share our interests and hang out together.

An immediate and sociable experience

To wind up my VR walkabout, after I’d visited all those churches and shrines and temples, I dropped by a traditional Japanese shrine and the Black Cat Bar. VRChat listed them as among the most popular meeting spots on their platform.

These two spaces’ artists and coders have done a lot of work to make them look good, and a bunch of people hung out at both spaces. At the shrine, I listened in on funny jokes and squaring-off insult contests between what sounded like belligerent 12-year-old boys. I moved quietly past people meditating by themselves in the shrine’s gardens. 

Just jumping around having fun at the shrine at VRChat.

At the bar, I checked out the numerous group photos of people who’d participated in the bar’s karaoke and dance contests and meetups. These photos could be found everywhere, hanging on the bar’s walls as framed pictures. 

An event/community board at The Black Cat Bar, in VRChat.

One of their main socializing spaces was a marvel–so much attention to detail!

An actual bar setting at The Black Cat bar, VRChat.

As I wandered through these two spaces, people regularly greeted me. My mic wasn’t enabled, so I cocked my head and waved hello back to them. Though I couldn’t participate more directly than that, it felt very immediate and sociable, a big upgrade to the old-school chat programs of yore.

The future’s so bright we gotta wear shades

Even in 1994, even while playing the hopelessly-primitive Dactyl Nightmare in VR, I sensed the vast potential of this fledgling technology.

I’ve no doubt that as time moves on, VR tech will find its way into quite a few secular groups’ operations. There’s something deliciously immediate–and intimate–and social–about VR. It isn’t the same as being around people in person, no, but it comes closer than anything else we have now.

Now, pushed by an endless global pandemic and our own very human desire to socialize, we may get to enjoy the benefits of this explosion of research into VR–and these early experimental efforts to bring group meetings into virtual spaces.

Right now, VR still seems primitive compared to what most of these groups could be doing. But I don’t think it’ll stay that way forever.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...