Despite drawing significant interest during the coronavirus pandemic that created a buzz big enough to question whether it could replace megachurches, the excitement for the metaverse appears to have hit a bump as some 90% of churches have gravitated towards less expensive and more easily accessed online engagement.
In its recently published "State of the Church Tech 2024" study, Pushpay, the leading payments and engagement solutions provider for faith-based and nonprofit sectors, found that only 5% of 2,200 church staff responsible for purchasing technology for their churches said in a survey conducted in October 2023 that they are currently doing ministry in the metaverse.
The findings come after Pushpay's 2023 report found 8% of churches offered church services in the metaverse, and 25% of churches said their ministries would use the metaverse for ministry in the next 12 months.
"What's more, the [number] of leaders considering incorporating it within the next twelve months fell by 32%. This avalanche in popularity is likely related to public perception," researchers stated.
"While metaverse and VR technology have existed for years, Facebook's rebrand to 'Meta' and their new metaverse were heavily promoted in late 2021 and continued to make headlines through 2022. Today, the publicity and general public's enthusiasm for those phenomena has dropped off considerably," the report states.
"Tangentially, the metaverse inherently has significant barriers to entry. Most VR headsets are expensive investments for individuals, and they require users to learn an entirely new technology platform. Combined with the fall in press coverage, metaverse and VR failed to reach a critical mass of adoption in the church community, and as such have lost much of their former luster."
Another accessibility factor that could have had an impact on church services in the metaverse was Microsoft's decision to shut down AltspaceVR in March 2023.
AltspaceVR, launched in 2013, was one of the first social VR platforms that allowed users to meet and interact in the virtual space in a user-friendly way, according to Emory Craig, a consultant specializing in VR.
"It was notable for its ease of use, availability on a wide variety of headsets, and the option to use it on flat screens — which alleviated some XR accessibility issues. And it was the home of some incredibly creative moments, where Reggie Watts and others did some of their early virtual performances," Craig wrote.
He noted that except for Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg's long-term commitment to invest in the metaverse, most developers in the metaverse have not yet figured out how to monetize it now.
"For all the hype surrounding the concept of the metaverse, no one is doing this out of the benevolence of their heart. The billions Meta is losing is part of their long-term gameplay to shift their reliance away from social media. But so far, no one has come up with a way to monetize social virtual reality experiences and make them profitable," Craig wrote.
"That's in sharp contrast to our social media platforms which have become goldmines of revenue (at the expense of our privacy). You can sell ads in virtual environments, but that's been a technical challenge, and it has drawn resistance from users."
In its fourth-quarter earnings report last Thursday, Meta reported that its Reality Labs unit registered an operating loss of $4.65 billion for the period, CNBC reports. Since the end of 2020, Meta's metaverse division has lost more than $42 billion, but the company is committed to the platform's development.
"We expect operating losses to increase meaningfully year-over-year due to our ongoing product development efforts in augmented reality/virtual reality and our investments to further scale our ecosystem," the company said in its earnings statement.
Che'von Lewis, a representative of social media giant Facebook, a subsidiary of Meta, previously described the metaverse as "a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren't in the same physical space as you."
"We see the metaverse as the next evolution in social technologies and the successor to the mobile internet," Lewis said. "It will feel like a hybrid of today's online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions, or projected into the physical world — and seamlessly stitched together so that you can easily jump from one thing to another."
In the metaverse, Lewis said, people can work, play, learn, shop, create and hang out with their friends, among other things.
"The metaverse isn't a single product one company can build alone," Lewis said. "And it won't be built overnight. Many of these products will only be fully realized in the next 10 to 15 years."
To support access to the metaverse, Meta has invested in its Quest family of VR headsets. According to CNBC, sales of VR and AR headsets dropped nearly 40% in 2023.