Religion Unplugged

In 2020, the Presbyterian Church (USA) was preparing for its 224th General Assembly as the COVID-19 pandemic began. They hoped to figure out a plan in advance. 

Rev Dr Christopher Benek, the lead pastor at First Miami Presbyterian Church, told other leaders they could meet online, even with virtual reality.

“And people laughed at me like I was a crazy person,” Benek told Religion Unplugged.

VR 1

A woman using a VR headset. PICTURE: Creative Commons.

The increasingly virtual modern world was shoved online by the quick surge of COVID-19 infections, and mandated shutdowns prevented worshippers from meeting in person.

“Sure enough, we ended up doing it on Zoom,” Benek said, “and people came back to me and said ‘You know, we’re sorry we laughed about that like we didn’t know what you were talking about.’”

The pandemic showed many Christians and their churches that virtual worship works, and is at times preferable to a physical location.

According to Pew Research data collected the first week of March, 2021, Americans have been increasingly willing to return to religious services, with 76 per cent saying they felt safe going to houses of worship without thinking they would catch or spread COVID-19. Likewise, more respondents said they had attended an in-person service than in July, 2020 - and fewer said they had attended a virtual one. 

As of 31st May, 41.2 per cent of Americans have been fully vaccinated, and CDC guidelines changed in mid-May to allow fully vaccinated Americans to “resume activities that [they] did prior to the pandemic", not requiring a mask indoors unless local laws do. That means in-person services are allowed at churches, and more Americans are attending them. 

But the pandemic showed many Christians and their churches that virtual worship works, and is at times preferable to a physical location.

Benek, who also works as a tech developer and writes about the intersection of theology and artificial intelligence, is one of many enterprising clergy who are carving out a digital space for churches that will last far beyond COVID-19. 

He founded CHVRCH+ in 2018 in order to develop the church’s presence in virtual reality. With VR, congregants can meet together after strapping on a headset. CHVRCH+ offers a digital recreation of church buildings, so worshipers and congregations can meet in an entirely virtual building with avatars and other immersive elements.

CHVRCH+ began as a way to develop a platform for Benek’s congregation alone, but it was too popular and but now has a primary focus on creating platforms for other churches and training pastors in the technology. 

“There’s a whole bunch of pastors out there already who have a skill set for ministry,” Benek said. “They just don’t have the skill set for this tech.”

CHVRCH website

The website of CHVRCH+

Some pioneers of virtual worship, like Life.Church based in Oklahoma, realised the importance of virtual worship over a decade ago. 

Life.Church began in 1996 as a small congregation of about 40 people, then called Life Covenant Church. A personable pastor and strong community caused the church to grow so quickly that satellite churches, where sermons are broadcast instead of shown live, became a necessity. Their rapid growth continued with a large 2001 merger with MetroChurch and the formation of more satellite branches. 

In 2006, Life.Church launched “Church Online” - a fully virtual church campus. 

“Initially, the premise behind it was that we really wanted to reach as many people as we could reach,” said pastor and innovation leader Bobby Gruenewald. 

Gruenewald came to the church with a background in entrepreneurship, and he said that influenced the way he approached his work in ministry.

“I just really felt like there had to be a way to leverage technology to connect people to people in a way that could really build a church community,” he said. “Not a way to distribute content, but a way to connect people to each other.”

They’ve remained at the forefront of virtual worship since. In 2007, the church had a strong presence on Second Life, the virtual reality world that allows users to create an avatar and interact with others online. They aren’t on the platform today, Gruenewald said, because it wasn’t capable of hosting as many viewers in their Second Life sermons as wanted to join.  

In 2008, they launched YouVersion, one of the most popular Bible apps available for mobile devices with over 477 million downloads. 

Today, Church Online has grown into a powerhouse of virtual worship with a unique approach. 

“We started by replicating the physical as close as we could,” Gruenewald said. “Now it’s leveraging the fact that we can do global. We can use volunteers all over the world. We can have services at any time.”

Rather than hold a backlog of video sermons or have pastors preach multiple sermons every day, Church Online runs one sermon almost every hour-and-a-half every day as though it is live.

“If you come in 10 minutes late, the content is 10 minutes late,” Gruenewald said.

This format replicates the feeling of attending a church service but offers an increased accessibility for worshipers. 

At any given time, there are about approximately 100 viewers watching the livestream. The livestream is also equipped with translations into several other languages.

One of the most involved features online is an active chat room, hosted and guided by volunteers. It allows viewers to ask questions and chat during the service, often as they’re provided other reading materials or thought-provoking questions. Participants can also ask for individual prayer and be transferred to a private chat room with a volunteer in the middle of the service. 

It provides a new experience, as technology often does, for churchgoers to connect with people they wouldn’t get the chance to.

“For example, right now, I’m having this common experience in a conversation right now with someone in Australia, someone in South Africa, someone in Indonesia and someone in the UK - and I’m sitting in the United States,” Gruenewald said. “And you don’t really get the same experience in a physical church environment."

People wearing VR headsets

People wearing VR headsets. PICTURE: Lucrezia  Carnelos/Unsplash

Benek said he’s encountered many people in his ministry who require a virtual option in order to be able to attend church at all. 

“There’s so many people in the world that are caring for somebody, so they can’t leave the house,” Benek said, “or there’s people who have disabilities, or there’s people who live in countries where they don’t have access to a church, but they have access to this technology. It’s a free way for them to engage with people and to grow as people.”

Both Life.Church and CHVRCH+ began before COVID-19, as their leaders recognised the usefulness of technology in their mission. It meant that they were prepared to continue on in their usual ministry.

But the pandemic brought plenty of changes to these organisations, too.

“We began to have to broaden our vocabulary as we recognised that many people were joining for the first time,” Gruenewald said. “And people were dealing with anxiety, a lot of fear. Like every church, we reshaped the nature of the content to address what’s happening at that time.”

Life.Church also made the platform they built for Church Online available to other churches to use for free. Gruenewald said they had about 30,000 churches sign up in just a few weeks at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, sending them scrambling to provide onboarding training for the platform. 

Because, while some tech-friendly ministries were well-prepared, many churches were forced to adapt quickly and fully to virtual ministry - including those who held doubts before.

“The difference was that COVID gave people eyes to see,” Benek said.  

While some churches scrambled to create an online presence, others were presented with the opportunity to begin anew. 

Our Safe Harbor, a non-denominational church based in Tennessee, was one of those places. 

Senior Pastor Patrick Mead was encouraged by a group of a few dozen close friends to start a new church in November 2020. 

Our Safe Harbor held its first service as a hybrid experience, broadcast from a private soundstage. The soundstage currently has the in-person capacity for about 50 churchgoers; it reaches the rest of its congregation through livestreams and “house” churches, groups that meet in homes. 

Their first YouTube video has more than 4,000 views. The church’s YouTube channel has more than 2,000 subscribers and averages about 1,000 views on every Sunday service video. The church also has a presence on Vimeo and its own app, contributing to its total viewer count. 

“If you’re in a church where you’re led and fed, don’t leave them,” he said. “That’s your community, though we’d love to have you add us in. And if you don’t have a community where you’re loved, we’d love to have you.”

- Patrick Mead, senior pastor of Our Safe Harbor, a non-denominational church based in Tennessee

Every Sunday, the church asks for its viewers to “check in” from where in the world they’re watching. An interactive map on the church’s website shows these locations globally, from Uganda to Saudi Arabia to Australia. 

Our Safe Harbor’s hybrid format makes it particularly flexible for congregants to worship how they want to. Mead says he’s been contacted by virtual viewers who are passing through town on Sunday - so he encourages them to come worship in person. 

The church’s theology also opens it to a broad group of worshippers. They support and believe the Nicene Creed and Apostles’ Creed, but don’t necessarily require that their churchgoers believe the same. 

Mead also lifts up churches outside of his own.

“If you’re in a church where you’re led and fed, don’t leave them,” he said. “That’s your community, though we’d love to have you add us in. And if you don’t have a community where you’re loved, we’d love to have you.”

But the online format presents its share of difficulties and downsides, particularly for churches that are just beginning. 

“I think the biggest fear on starting a virtual church is sustainability,” Mead said. “Will people give to an online church? Will they keep giving? Why should they give to us instead of another church or charity? Will they continue to give and engage post-COVID when we've had a year plus of screens?”

It’s true that not all churchgoers have signed onto attending virtual worship and contributing money and resources to churches online. 

According to a Barna poll from March 31, the things that churchgoers missed the most about in-person services were taking communion, socializing with other churchgoers before and after services and listening to a live sermon.

As churches work to find a way to adjust their worship to a post-COVID world, there are still several concerns about health and wellness. CNN offered advice for worshippers after the new CDC guidelines were announced on 13th May. They say to create a personal risk budget and to consider factors like masks, ventilation and sanitation when returning to church buildings. 

Some will undoubtedly choose to return in person, but that doesn’t mean virtual church is gone for good. In fact, many expect the opposite. 

“From what I’ve heard anecdotally, I believe that most churches will continue to have an online experience because they went through the learning curve to do it,” Gruenewald said. 

And though the past year has been marked by difficulty and tragedy, many leaders have found the silver lining. 

“Talking about doing ministry in VR, I still get people who look at me like this Star Trek guy or whatever,” Benek said. “They don’t know what to make of me. But when I talk about the people, they have some frame of reference. COVID has created that because it’s forced us to think about safety and care differently.”

That means congregations are working to best serve their communities in all spaces - including ways to enhance rituals like communion in a virtual space. 

“VR is primed for [communion]. If you want to talk about having communion over Zoom or VR, in VR you’re far more embodied. There’s far more sense of presence.”

- Rev Dr Christopher Benek, founder of CHVRCH+

“VR is primed for [communion],” Benek said. “If you want to talk about having communion over Zoom or VR, in VR you’re far more embodied. There’s far more sense of presence.”

Benek has five different denominations of churches prepared to join in monthly training to develop their own VR platforms. He hopes to keep growing CHVRCH+ and participate in Miami Tech Week next year. 

Mead said he hopes Our Safe Harbor will one day be able to expand into a larger building, allowing more to come attend in person. For now, they encourage the formation of more house churches, which Mead or a member of leadership visits once a year. They spend time forming personal connections - whether that’s responding to comments on social media, answering emails or encouraging congregants to participate in the worship service by sending in videos. 

“We have found that some have left us now that they can go to a local church again, but most add us to their weekly worship and study even after returning,” Mead said. “We’ve had no loss in total viewers at all, and giving remains high.”

These personal initiatives are the way to sustain a virtual community, Gruenewald says. It’s how he and the rest of Life.Church have maintained a steady and growing church since they went virtual in 2006.

“What I try to remind people of is that the purpose of online church is connecting people to people - not content delivery,” Gruenewald said. “That means you need to emphasise those forms of ministry that help people engage.”

Jillian Cheney is a Poynter-Koch fellow for Religion Unplugged who loves consuming good culture and writing about it. She also reports on American Protestantism and evangelical Christianity. You can find her on Twitter @_jilliancheney.

The headline on this story was changed.