Virtual Mission Field

Dr. James Emery White | Mecklenburg Community Church | Updated: Aug 29, 2023
Virtual Mission Field

Virtual Mission Field

The Church has entered a new era—a post-Christian, digital age. But simply having a website, social media, and an online campus should not be our only forays into a digital post-Christian world. We should enter the virtual mission field.

According to DataProt, it is estimated that there are 3.24 billion gamers worldwide, which is approximately 40 percent of the world’s population. Writing for Outreach magazine, Jonathan Sprowl asks, “What is the church doing to reach these people whose lives are increasingly lived online?” Or as David Roach titled an article for Christianity Today, “The Next Mission Field Is a Game.”

Generation Z and Generation Alpha, says AdAge, are “growing up in virtual worlds in a way no previous generation has—with Fortnite and Roblox going mainstream and blockchain technologies” making waves. AdAge adds, “The metaverse has been set up to scratch the itch of socialization in a way that didn’t exist until this moment.”

In June 2016, D.J. Soto purchased his first virtual-reality headset. Then he discovered AltSpaceVR, a virtual-reality meeting space. He soon envisioned planting a church in a virtual environment. On the Sunday he held his first service, five people showed up, one of whom was an atheist from Denmark. From that point on, Soto knew he could potentially reach anyone in the world with the message of Christ in virtual-reality environments.

Joining Soto in AltspaceVR is Life.Church, which in late 2021 announced it would be hosting services on the virtual-reality platform, offering its first services in December of that year. “While critics might question if real connections can be made in the metaverse, Life.Church has seen countless lives changed through relationships in digital spaces over the years,” said spokeswoman Rachel Feuerborn. In the church’s experience, she said, people “are often more willing to let their guard down and have deep, meaningful conversations more quickly from the safety of anonymity than they are face-to- face.”

Not only can virtual-reality environments extend our reach but the metaverse can offer enhanced virtual-reality experiences. New environments can be created to allow participants to explore various aspects of the biblical story. They can cross the Red Sea as the Israelites did, experience a storm at sea as the apostle Paul did, or walk the streets of Jerusalem. “It’s a 360-degree immersive experience that brings the Bible to life,” notes Sprowl.

An additional benefit is the safety of the environment: “because everyone interacts with one another through avatars, a range of people from every faith to no-faith backgrounds feels comfortable participating in virtual small group discussions, where they can examine Christianity in a safe environment.”

Jason Poling, lead pastor of Cornerstone Church in Yuba City, California, began ministry in the metaverse in 2019. He too discovered that many people were willing to have a spiritual conversation within the first five minutes. The anonymity made people much more comfortable to ask deeper questions sooner.

Ministry in the virtual world is also critical to reach people in younger demographics, such as Generation Z and Generation Alpha. Consider that the livestreaming platform Twitch, where participants of various games talk with each other as they play, has an estimated 15 million daily users, of which 73 percent are under the age of 35.

I know of one member of our church who is active on Twitch and uses it to direct people to our online campus, and then, through Twitch, watches a service with them. He has a following in a unique interest group that has nothing to do with spiritual things, but through that shared interest and his expertise in it, he and his followers have both a relationship and trust. He just casually mentions that if anyone wants to join him as he watches Meck’s online campus, much the way they join him to watch him pursue their shared interest, he would welcome the time together.

Many do.

Chicago-based NewThing, a ministry of Community Christian Church, launched a digital church-planting campaign it hopes will result in hundreds of new churches. “The plan is to start looking at digital space and the metaverse,” says Jeff Reed, director of NewThing’s digital realm, “as communities where people are gathering.” The goal is to capitalize on the “increasing number of people who have wide social networks that exist entirely online.”

As with an online campus, questions of ecclesiology arise with the metaverse, particularly the degree to which physical interaction is necessary for there to truly be “church” or to be a participant in the body of Christ. But we’ve wrestled with such questions before in response to a changing spiritual climate or an advance in technology and eventually determined the use of technology was both theologically acceptable and missionally decisive.

Corrina Laughlin, who teaches media studies at Loyola Marymount University, has studied evangelicals’ use of media and technology. She notes that evangelicals have long been early adopters of new tech, and not just recently. She points out that early in American evangelicalism, preachers like Charles Fuller and Aimee Semple McPherson took full advantage of radio. Billy Graham embraced television for his crusades and even founded a film studio, World Wide Pictures, in 1953. Then came the televangelists of the 1980s and the contemporary Christian musicians of the ’90s.

“In the digital era, evangelicals have continued to embrace media technologies as they have entered the zeitgeist,” she writes, “[using] the technologies of secular culture to spread their own message and values.” In an article for the Atlantic, Laughlin quotes Tom Pounder, the online-campus pastor at New Life Christian Church in Chantilly, Virginia: “Online ministry is here to stay, and the churches that don’t invest in this area won’t be.”

This is the heart behind the upcoming Church & Culture Conference—to help the church embrace a hybrid model that will advance the mission to reach those who are far from Christ.

I hope you’ll join me.

James Emery White

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Ageorder from Amazon.

Jonathan Sprowl, “Ministry in the Metaverse,” Outreach, November 23, 2021, read online.

David Roach, “The Next Mission Field Is a Game,” Christianity Today, September 21, 2020, read online.

Jason Mitchell, “Getting the Metaverse Right—Can the Lessons of Social Marketing Guide Brands?” AdAge, January 6, 2022, read online.

Sarah Einselen, “Life Church Adds One More Site—In Virtual Reality,” Roys Report, December 21, 2021, read online.

Chris Moon, “NewThing Hoping to Plant Hundreds of Digital Churches,” Christian Standard, March 4, 2022, read online.

Corrina Laughlin, “Why Evangelicals Are Early Adopters of New Tech,” The Atlantic, December 21, 2021, read online.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Photo courtesy: Annie Spratt/Unsplash 

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.



Virtual Mission Field