In the parable of the Great Banquet told by Jesus in Luke 14:15-24, the master of a house who planned a big feast was forced to send his servants to search the “streets and lanes of the city” to bring “the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind” to enjoy his bounty after the guests he invited turned down his offer to celebrate.
Like the feast at the master’s house in Luke, the offerings of many traditional brick and mortar churches in America are being rejected by society and Christians alike. This reality is forcing a growing number of churches to shutter or curtail their programs as they struggle to fill their pews amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the ranks of the religious nones continue to swell.
In 2020, as the pandemic marched into its first year, David Kinnaman, president of the California-based Evangelical Christian polling firm Barna Group, and Mark Matlock, director of insights, cited earlier research highlighting how a majority of young people who grew up in the Church will either walk away from their faith or from the Church when they become young adults.
They also warned the pandemic will make this crisis of faith even worse unless steps are taken to stanch its impact.
In March, another report from Barna showed that while Christians by definition are disciples of Jesus who accept and help with the spreading of the Gospel, a majority now see their spiritual lives as private. Many born-again Christians have argued that they don’t need to share their faith with others because of reasons including, “They can get to Heaven through their different religious belief,” “We shouldn’t impose our ideas on others,” and “The Bible tells us not to judge others.”
Last month, The Christian Post also reported on how an increasing share of the Church’s audience has been migrating to online ministries in the metaverse, which Che’von Lewis, a representative of social media giant Facebook, calls “the next evolution in social technologies and the successor to the mobile internet.”
Meta Platforms Inc., Facebook’s parent company, is investing heavily in the metaverse, which Lewis describes 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.”
Some experts believe that churches currently being established in the metaverse will eventually overshadow the megachurch model of worship.
Earlier this month, nearly 500 people gathered online for the Metaverse Church Summit, which featured a host of Christians involved with ministry in the metaverse. One of them was Bill Willenbrock, a hospital chaplain who has been leading a Christian fellowship on VRChat for about three years. VRChat is a growing collection of more than 25,000 virtual reality worlds where some 30,000 users are online at any one time.
For Christians looking to do low-risk evangelism, Willenbrock, who has approached thousands of people on VRChat in his avatar and finds ways to talk with them about faith in God, says the metaverse is like the subscription streaming service Netflix when it comes to finding opportunities to evangelize.
“The opportunity before us is just staggering. VR chat, metaverse in general is really like the Netflix of evangelism,” he said.
“If you have 30 minutes, if you have an hour, you can be doing evangelism from wherever you are and that’s so exciting. Evangelism in other areas can require gas mileage and effort, packing up and going somewhere, but you can do this all from your computer and any moment you have some extra time to share the love of God. And that’s just remarkable, revolutionary really,” the hospital chaplain told the audience.
Willenbrock, who does his VR Chat ministry on his own time and dime, contends that evangelism in the metaverse, including places like VR Chat, is much easier than doing it in the real world for a number of reasons, such as meeting in an avatar state or digital representation of yourself.
“That makes the social risk of sharing the Gospel much lower," he said. "People are anxious about what if they’re ill-prepared or what if they look like a fool, or what if they look preachy, there’s all these anxieties that come with sharing the Gospel and VRChat, metaverse evangelism reduces those, in some places completely eliminates those,” Willenbrock said.
“And this is why I think this would be the ideal space if you’ve got an evangelism team if you’re trying to learn how to share the Gospel. This would be like the optimal training ground. You can talk to real human beings. Hear their concerns, hear their objections, hear what gives them pause for believing in Christ. I really think that’s a really exciting opportunity even for more physical churches as well,” he explained.
Another reason why it’s important for Christian ministries to invest in metaverse evangelism, said Willenbrock, is that this is where young adults, particularly males, have migrated.
“These people need you. The demographics of VRChat are really the inverse of the demographics of the Church, in general, in the United States,” the metaverse pastor said.
“Now, your ministry may be an exception, but the Church in the United States generally is older, getting older every single year, whereas VRChat is primarily younger. Anecdotally, 17 to 26. That’s the range,” he continued, quoting passionately from the book of Psalms about declaring God’s power to the next generation.
“So if you’re trying to share the Gospel with the next generation, here they are. They’re in the VRChat,” he said.
Willenbrock said the audience in VR Chat is predominantly younger males who are “excited to hear about Christ” from Christians who are prepared to answer their questions.
“Now, of course, there are young men and women in VRChat, but especially young men. We ask ourselves, 'Where are they?' and they’re here in VRChat,” the pastor said.
He painted a picture of VRChat as a place where “people are generally kind and receptive to a conversation” compared to other social media like Facebook.
“It can get real nasty [on Facebook] but [in] virtual reality you have this sense of sharing space and people are more kind when they share space, and so I think that makes it an exciting place to share the Gospel,” he said. “People can hear the kindness and love and concern in your voice where someone would be lost in mere text.”
A haven for those who suffer from agoraphobia
What Christians interested in evangelism should also know, said Willenbrock, is that many of the young people who spend time there struggle with social anxiety, also referred to as agoraphobia.
“The people on VR chat are oftentimes, this isn’t always the case, but are oftentimes neglected by society. These are people, many of who have agoraphobia. They don’t like to go into places of community. They may be even shut-in, not just for medical reasons but for social anxiety, and many of these people they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They desperately want social interaction and community, but they also find them very anxiety-provoking,” Willenbrock explained.
The anonymity provided by VRChat through the use of avatars, he said, provides a place where they can find love and community.
“These people they maybe are rejected because they are agoraphobic. They don’t have a lot of interaction with people so they may be lower on the EQ spectrum and may have personality traits that are a little off-putting, but these are the people that Christ loved. These are the people that Christ embraced,” he said.
“I’m reminded of these words from the Apostle Paul: ‘Consider your calling brothers, not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world,'” he said. “And so we have the opportunity to bring the love of God to people that may have no other opportunity to hear of Christ.”
Virtual reality, he suggests, provides a safer place for people to discuss religion than in real life.
“People are dying to have these conversations because we are told in society do not talk, never ever, ever talk about politics or religion. And consequently, religion becomes this very interesting topic, but it’s deeply personal and people have their own ideas and you never get to hear about these ideas because well, it’s taboo,” he noted.
Willenbrock said there are many times when he has opened up religious discussions in VRChat about religion and watched his audience quickly grow from one person to an entire room “just listening to the conversation about Christ about why we should believe in Christ.”
He says he gives people reasons for his faith and people interested in doing ministry in VRChat should be prepared to do the same.
“The Church has not been prepared. I think a lot of people the best answer they got on why they should believe in Jesus is you know, ‘You should believe.’ Their grandmother just went, ‘You should believe,’” he noted. “I’m not the big apologetics guy … but I do think people in VRChat are asking for a reason. If we can give them a good reason for why they should believe. I think it’s very powerful and people become, they start to lean in on the ear, 'Oh there’s actually a real reason to believe that there’s love and purpose and joy and the cosmic resolution to all the brokenness.' That’s exciting.”
Preparing for metaverse evangelism
If one decides to make the jump into metaverse evangelism, Willenbrock warns that it's crucial to be prepared for the personal part of oneself that will emanate from their avatar — their voice.
“I think our voice needs to be conveying the love and care … that we’re not here to win a debate or beat them in an argument. We’re here to share the most exciting thing in our life. And so I think loving our voice and trying to remind ourselves of why we’re here to not win a debate but to share the love of God I think that’s really important,” he said.
Christians should also be prepared to listen.
“We always want to talk to people, we never want to listen. I think there is a reality that if we genuinely care and listen to other people, people will genuinely care and listen to us,” Willenbrock said.
Also, be prepared for the question of theodicy and positions on the LGBT community, he added.
“One of the things we should be prepared to talk about right off the bat [is the question] if you believe in God why do bad things happen to good people? That question of theodicy, that’s going to be prime in VRChat,” he said.
“I think that the main reason why people are so overwhelmingly moving to that none category — no religious affiliation — is because they’ve experienced tragedy and pain,” Willenbrock said. “They’ve cried out to God and well, ‘God didn’t help me out. I’m still experiencing pain and tragedy.’”