VR And Churches

How to effectively leverage virtual reality

I recently attended VR church services for the first time.

I’m not convinced virtual reality is superior in any way to livestreaming video with chat for church members and regular attendees. In fact, these early days of VR church pioneering come with some serious glitches and concerns. This article offers some practical suggestions to improve VR church services.

And maybe the church shouldn’t try to replicate a church service through VR, but leverage the technology as an outreach, Bible study or targeted small group. Even smaller churches could easily take advantage of these formats.

I tried five different VR church services. Some where better than others, all were cartoony and felt like “Wii Sports Resort Church” which gets into branding, a discussion for another post. For now let’s look at the current state of VR church services.

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Practical Tips for VR Church Services

Eliminate Technical Issues

I admit, I had to have my teenage son set me up with his Oculus. He turned on the headset and downloaded an app that shows live events. We clicked on one particular church service, and after 5 attempts it finally connected. Other events on the same app and other apps connected fine.

Use a VR platform and technology that connects the first time and operates smoothly or most people (visitors especially) will probably just give up.

Welcome & Inform

Once connected, I entered a fairly sparse, space-age looking movie theater environment. No one greeted me. I had questions, but there was no one from the church to ask.

Greet people as they enter as if it were your physical building. Secular VR events I’ve attended do this well. You may need a few moderators and volunteers depending on the number of attendees.

Choose a VR platform that allows voice and chat if possible. Some people find chat less intimidating.

Have waypoints or instructions helping people with the experience. Remember, some people will be newer to VR.

Know Your Audience

Some pastors used a lot of church talk and “Christianese” during VR church.

Keep in mind, VR predominantly reaches the 16-34 year old crowd with more males than females and they’d likely be single for an event like church.* I can’t see a family of 5 each strapping on $300 headsets to attend VR church. Nor can I imagine lots of elderly members who can’t get to church logging in. My guess is (for now) you’ll mostly get curious young guys who entered because they saw your service on a list of live events.

Common questions I heard attendees asking were, “What is this about? What are they doing? What is he talking about?” VR can attract people who have ZERO concept of or experience with church or God.

Talk in a way that outsiders can grasp the Gospel (like Jesus did.) Your VR crowd is likely more “outsiders.”

Connect with the Audience

For this VR church, real-life worship musicians showed on a screen. You could tell they were on a large stage in front of a large audience. Another VR church had a video of a human pastor on a screen addressing a large crowd. This felt disconnected, impersonal as he frequently looked side to side. This was really no different than watching most livestream videos of church services in their auditoriums.

Consider doing scaled back musical worship and the message portion in a studio environment looking into the camera as you sing and share. It connects better with a digital audience. It’s just odd to see a music group and pastor in “stadium tour” mode when there are a handful of avatars in the room. Acknowledge people experiencing service through VR frequently, not just once at the beginning.

Keep it Focused

Most attendees were looking at the screen during worship, some with avatar hands raised. But immediately some kept wanting to interact with me. I simply waved politely. There was no text chat feature on this app, only mic audio. I was muted, trying to focus on worship. This distraction is similar to the live chat feature on a church livestream video when the entire service people are chatting about their jobs, kids, vacations. Have you ever been in a physical church service or movie theater where someone is talking behind you the entire time? Or have you spoken at an event watching lots of discussions going on in the audience? “Fellowship” is great, but better in a small group context and not competing with worship and teaching. A well moderated event keeps things focused on teaching content and relevant interactions.

Use one of the VR platforms like Altspace VR by Microsoft that can mute the room. Allow room audio interaction before musical worship and after the sermon for a Q&A session.

Moderate, Moderate, Moderate!

After a few more minutes, lots of avatars dropped into the virtual church space. I could hear babies crying and kids laughing trying to figure out how to use Oculus. Then a British teenage male voice began trolling asking others questions about their (let’s just say) “body parts” while everyone listened. He also began mocking Jesus on the screen and playing his own music. I looked around for a church moderator, but could not find an avatar with a screen name using that title or the church name.

Now, I could have switched over to event only audio, and I did for a while, but that sort of makes being in VR pointless because I could just watch the livestream video on Facebook or YouTube. Hoping a moderator would clean up the room after a while, I turned the volume back on. More and more people began to drop in laughing, mocking and totally destroying being able to focus on the message.

And then there were all the avatars with suggestive screen names and clothing trying to engage me and send me friend requests.

There needs to be clearly identifiable moderation from the very beginning of the service, preferably more than one moderator. Moderators need to show the love of Christ to attendees, but also protect by muting, kicking and blocking those who have only come to cause problems. This behavior wouldn’t be tolerated in your physical church.

I won’t go too far into the debate here about having avatars that don’t represent people’s true identity. I will say in a church context our vulnerability, humility and transparency before God and people is essential for spiritual growth. Anonymity can help people enter “church” who normally wouldn’t feel welcome, but at some point, they need to come out of the shadows to fully engage. And anonymous characters that lead others astray can be a major liability in different ways.

Use better moderation tools and have many volunteer “eyes and ears.” I don’t know what the moderation tools look like on all VR platforms, but suspicious activity or attendees must be monitored. Think of it like your church security cameras.

And if you flood the VR space with church member volunteers they could alert moderators or report bad actors. Think of this like the plain clothes security people in church.

Keep it Short

So after this particular VR church service became a three ring circus of profanity, inappropriate talk and constant invites from avatars, I exited the service. My face was starting to feel uncomfortable, and I was getting a headache anyway. Recent stats show “VR sickness” is quite common.*

Keep it short. I’d say 15-30 minutes max. It’s better to make 1-3 memorable points with life application than to lose people mid message. Younger audiences don’t watch long form, one-way, non-interactive “teaching.”

Love Others Well

One popular VR church had a designated “prayer area” in their Microsoft Altspace VR which I clicked to engage. I also moved to the spot and stood there for a long time, but no one came to talk with me. What if I wanted to accept Jesus? What if I was in crisis? This gets back to staffing, volunteers and moderation.

If you have special features / areas like for prayer, be sure they’re staffed and work.

Treat this as Front Line Ministry

Pastors, if you’re providing a VR church service, seriously dedicate staff to this. Avoid making this something way down a staff member’s laundry list of things to do “when they have time.” This is the same mistake made with so many church social media accounts. This is real ministry, and it must reflect Jesus and your church’s brand very well.

Think Out of the Box

I entered one VR church with only 4-5 people. It was more like a Bible study. The pastor would teach and then entertain questions from the audience. This format has tremendous discipleship potential.

Consider whether “church” is really the best format for leveraging VR. Maybe church shouldn’t try to replicate the in-person service though VR at all. Maybe it should be an interactive outreach event like “Ask me about Jesus” or “Is God Real?” You could also host a young men’s small group or a Bible study for registered members so trolls don’t detract from discipleship.

*Source: https://99firms.com/blog/virtual-reality-statistics/