These past couple years have been rough for churches. With Covid-19, attendance has taken a hit in almost every church. Members are still hesitant to join in person gatherings. The church has had to reinvent itself at some level if it was going to survive the pandemic. Many adopted live-streaming options and digital forms of outreach so members could still partake at some level in the services. This may be part of the motivation behind a new movement within the Church to go completely digital.
Setting the Stage
In October of this year, Facebook rebranded itself to Meta in hopes of cementing their place in the new digital world. Many other companies have jumped into the race to create what is now being called the metaverse, an interconnected digital world where people can play, meet, work and even shop. The metaverse is meant to much like the matrix, a digital world where we all live. Proposals for the metaverse aim at using both VR and AR technology to create this digital experience for users.
Surprisingly, churches have become very early adopters of this Technology. In 2016, Bishop D.J. Soto started the VRchurch, an entirely digital church using platforms like Final Fantasy, Rust, Twitch and various other VR apps. The "church" has a group of elders and performs services in their respective digital environments. One member even recently had a "water" baptism on their digital platform. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, "Is this church?"
Defining what Church is
We have all heard the statement "church is not a building it's a group of people." While this is true does this mean that there is no need for the church to gather physically. To answer this question, we must delve into the theological doctrine of what the church is. In Systematic theology, we call this ecclesiology. There has been much debate about some of the specifics of ecclesiology for thousands of years; so I don't want to pretend that the issue isn't as complex as it is.
To begin, let's take a look at the word church in the bible. Church comes from the word εκκλεσια (ekklesia) in Greek which is derived from two other words "out of" and "to call." 2 Corinthians 6:16-18 applies an Old Testament passage about Israel to the church. The obvious implication from this term is that the church is supposed to be separate and different from the world around them.
And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, uI will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 17 Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, 18 And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.
Within traditional ecclesiology, there have been two understandings of the word church in the bible. The first and most obvious usage of the word church refers to a local gathering or assembly (2 Cor 8:1, Rev 2, 3 ect.) This usage aligns with the secular usage of the word in Greek which referred to an assembly of people. Most of the time throughout scripture this is the meaning of the word church that you are going to find. This is also why church has so often been confused with the building because that is the location where the church gathers. The physical gathering of the church is an important part of what the Church is.
There is another usage for the word "church" in the bible: a universal, invisible church. This is the meaning of the word church found in passages such as Ephesians 1:22-23. In fact most of the time in the book of Ephesians, this seems to be the reference that Paul is making in Chapter 3 when he talks about the mystery of the Church which includes both Jews and Gentiles. In Chapter four, Paul speaks of One Body thus referencing this one universal invisible church. Some have argued against the universal invisible church because of a fear of Catholicism within the church. I understand such a fear, but the difference doctrinally is that the Catholic church views itself as the universal, visible church and places a man as its head. Other passages where this sense is used can be found in the book of Acts. Acts 8:3 speaks of Paul persecuting the church. We know this cannot only refer to the local church in Jerusalem because Paul travelled to other towns to persecute the church. Another passage in Acts that could refer to the universal church is found in Acts 9:31 which in the KJV states "Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria..." In Greek, the word church here some manuscripts is singular. Textual study would have to be done to determine the correct reading. 1 Cor 12:28 speaks of apostles given to the entire church not just the church in Jerusalem. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus says that He will build His Church singular not plural. Was Jesus only concerned with building the church of Jerusalem? Col 1:18 defines Christ's body as the church. Christ only has one body as we have seen from the book of Ephesians.
So does this mean that the physical gathering is unimportant because we are all apart of the Universal church as true believers in Jesus Christ? By no means. The Church universal finds its only expression in the local church. There are so many commands to the Church that cannot be fulfilled without the local church. The church is told to keep the Lord's supper as a remembrance of what Jesus did for us on the cross. 1 Corinthians 11 speaks of the church coming together to celebrate the Lord's supper. The New Testament gives us 59 different "one another" commands that the church is to obey. These commands cannot be fulfilled without true community and physical presence in each others lives.
Another concept that people often take forgranted because it has been abused by some preachers is found in Hebrews 10:25 which says
Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
Preachers in the past have used this verse to teach that you must be in services anytime the doors are open. This application is not consistent with the intended meaning of this verse. The book of Hebrews is dealing with the issue of people who are abandoning Christianity because of persecution. When the text uses the word forsake here it literally means forsaking. There were those who had stopped attending services altogether. Honestly, there are many like this in our day as well, but the first part of the text is not intended to say if you miss a service you are in sin; however, this verse does speak to the need and the heart of those who choose not to attend physically gathered church services. The end of the verse teaches that as we see the end of times approaching, we should be assembling ourselves together more often, not less. In troubling times, we need the community of the local church more than we do during times of peace. Those who choose to skip services are often showing that they do not value what God values.
Ephesians 5:25 says
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
How does God feel about the church? He loves it and He gave Himself sacrificially for it. Sure it has problems, but love works through those problems and tries to solve them. Love doesn't run away and abandon. Love also doesn't treat something as unimportant; like I can take it or leave it. Love is eager to be with the thing it loves not looking for excuses to avoid it. The gathered church is loved by Christ; so we as believers have an obligation to love it as well.
So how does all this relate to the topic of the metaverse? The church cannot abandon its commitment to physical, local gatherings with the advent of the metachurch. To do so would be to fail to be what the church has been called to be and to do what the church is intended to do. There may be benefits to the metaverse for evangelism and fellowship, but it cannot be a substitute for what Christ has created and died for.
If the church doesn't rediscover what it was created to be, it will die with the advent of the metaverse. We must let people see what the benefits of physically gathering in community actually are or they will fall away.
Some of you have already fallen prey to not valuing the church. Its is easy to stand in condemnation of those who create avatars and join their friends in a digital church, but you don't even value the Church as Christ did. Its time for the church to awake and be what it was created to be, but it is also time for you to awake and be there.