Why Worshippers Are Turning to Virtual Reality

Pass the VR headset

Key Takeaways

  • A growing number of religious institutions are incorporating virtual reality and video streaming during the coronavirus pandemic. 
  • The Virtual Reality Church exists only in VR and accepts cryptocurrencies. 
  • Some VR companies tout their software as useful for religious gatherings.
A nun earing a virtual reality headset.
Martin Novak / Getty Images

Houses of worship are going virtual during the coronavirus pandemic to maintain social distancing and grow spiritual connections among participants. 

The Virtual Reality Church only meets using headsets. It’s part of a growing movement to expand religious services to an increasingly tech-savvy religious audience. There may even be benefits to virtual services over in-person ones, observers say. 

"VR has no physical restrictions and allows for hosting services for as many people as you need," virtual reality developer Yury Yarmalovich of HQSoftware said in an email interview.

"On top of that, virtual spaces can be customized in whatever way the user wants. Held over the internet, VR service can have people attending from any place in the world. You don't need to travel or even walk out of your home."

A Church for the Metaverse

The Virtual Reality Church was formed in 2016 and "exists entirely in the metaverse to celebrate God’s love for the world," according to its website. Fittingly, the church accepts Bitcoin and Ethereum for donations.

"Our mission is to explore and communicate God’s love through virtual reality, augmented reality, and next-generation technologies," the website says. 

Some VR companies tout their software as useful for religious gatherings. Jimmy Giliberti, general manager of Pagoni VR, said in an email interview that his company’s Chimera software "blends a computer graphic house of worship with real video that has been captured at the source."

An open bible and a rosary on a table next to a laptop computer.
Grant Whitty / Unsplash

"This allows one to really feel like they are not only hearing the message but connecting with the messenger," he said. "At the same time, this broadcast is sent to all participants at the same time so they can sing/pray/chant in unison."

There’s also the JesusVR world tour, which tells the story of Jesus through 360-degree video. It’s shown at churches across the country. 

"We held many showings at many different locations, and people seem to be amazed at the connection they felt with the other people there without even seeing them," Adrian Rashad Driscoll, who organizes the tour, said in an email interview.

"We had a lot of people come out of the headset crying as they had felt a connection with Jesus that they would never have imagined."

Demand for VR is rising in churches as VR headsets become more affordable, Driscoll said. 

"You can reach younger audiences that wouldn’t necessarily want to read their Bibles or sit in a long sermon," he added.

Streaming Fills Spiritual Needs

Even without VR headsets, users also are turning to religious services on video streaming platforms during the pandemic. Parenting writer Varda Meyers Epstein and her husband both lost their mothers during the pandemic. As they are Americans living overseas, they had to attend the funerals via Zoom.

A closeup of a hand holding a smartphone and rosary.
Grant Whitty / Unsplash

"The quality was not amazing, and my husband’s mother’s funeral was especially difficult to hear as it was a windy day, and we mostly heard the rushing of the wind," she said in an email interview. "Also, someone bumped into the equipment, and we got cut off from the end of the funeral." 

During Epstein’s mother’s funeral, she also ran into technical issues. For example, the rabbi asked her questions, but it turned out she was on mute. 

"All in all, we were grateful to be able to participate in these funerals and credited this as one significant positive effect of the pandemic," she said.

"If it hadn’t been for COVID-19, we might not have had this opportunity—might not have been able to participate in our own mothers’ funerals, which would have been devastating for us both."

But can VR ever really replace pews? Jean Campbell, a spiritual life coach, said in an email interview that there’s a danger that the advent of VR means that people could lose their connections to spiritual institutions.

"VR reduces the effort to get to church, which makes it convenient for the elderly, but it might mean that spiritual connection will not be maintained," she added. "This could be the beginning of the end of physical churches."

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