Into the Meta-Church
Updated: Mar 11, 2022
What do you get when you cross science fiction with religion? A bunch of strange manifestos about aliens and technology and parallel universes colliding, resulting in apocalyptic mayhem for all but the “chosen few.” Or you get the meta-church—a virtual church existing in the metaverse, in which individuals can communicate, gather, and worship together from anywhere in the world. And unlike the predictions in techno-cultist manifestos, the meta-church is actually taking place.
They’re here. Meta-churches already exist. I don’t know what technological advances officially determine when we arrive in “the future,” but church campuses existing entirely in virtual space at which people from all over the world can congregate seems pretty futuristic. But despite my excitement about living in a world predicted by science fiction decades ago, I can’t help but wonder if a future filled with metaversal church campuses is a future that is too far removed from the biblical understanding of a church.
Coddling Consumers and Cheapening Community
As churches create campuses in virtual reality, they continue a decades-long trend in Evangelical churches of leveraging technological advancement for expansion of local churches.
Churches began recording their sermons and uploading them to YouTube and other websites, allowing people from all over the globe to learn from the message.
Then, churches started filming their worship services and posting them on the internet in real time, allowing church members to listen as if they were there in person.
Utilizing similar technology, many churches began streaming their pastor’s sermon to multiple campuses, allowing the church to exist in multiple locations simultaneously.
Eventually, numerous churches launched “online campuses,” in which “members” from anywhere in the world can participate in live-streamed worship services.
In that case, why not create a virtual space to house an online campus in the metaverse?
Each step proceeds logically from the other as technology advances; however, each step builds on erroneous assumptions, so each advancement drags a church further from the biblical model of ministry.
Assumption #1: The Church Is the Organization
Although present in earlier steps, this assumption moves to the forefront in the multi-site concept. Churches that proceed through these steps assume that the church is ultimately composed of its organizational structure and leadership. Thus, two local churches in different cities, different states, or even different countries can all count as one “church” because they share a name, organizational structure, and leadership. “One church meeting in [insert number here] locations” only makes sense if a “church” is a brand—a set of systems and processes led by a specific individual or group.
But Scripture doesn’t define a local church as a brand. Instead, the term church, or ekklesia, refers to an assembly or gathering of believers. The church isn’t the building, as I'm sure most churches would affirm, but it’s also not the name or organizational structure or leadership or color scheme or website or logo. The church is the local assembly of the body of Christ.
Assumption #2: The Church Exists to Distribute Information
As we transition to online forms of worship, we perpetuate the idea that a church is successful if it conveys information to more people. We convert the worship service into a one-way event—a monologue of song and speech designed to pass information from the stage to the religious consumer. In effect, we teach our congregations that Christians gather to get a religious experience through singing and an uplifting message from the speaker.
Thus, a church can post the worship service online and have the same effect; you don’t have to be present to receive the information. In fact, a church can operate an “online campus” comprising “members” who never step foot in the church building, since all they need is the experience created by the music and the information presented by the pastor.
But the local gathering of God’s people isn’t meant to be a one-way event, and our churches aren’t supposed to be filled with consumers seeking a personal experience just between them and God. Hebrews 10:24-25 encourages Christians to gather for mutual edification; we assemble primarily for each other. I need my fellow church members, and they need me; together we encourage each other in our devotion to the Lord. We don’t gather to get; we gather to give. And when we all serve and encourage each other, we collectively grow in our faith.
The music and sermon are important aspects of that process, but they’re not the only activities that occur on Sunday mornings (Not to mention the fact that singing and hearing the Word proclaimed as a church are actually communal activities meant to be enjoyed and experienced together or the problematic nature of observing the Lord’s Supper in churches that don’t physically gather, but those are posts for another day). The local gathering of believers is more than an information-distribution event; it’s the mutual encouragement and advancement of God’s people.
Assumption #3: Digital Gatherings Are Just as Good as Physical Ones
A large number of churches that have multiple sites, online campuses, and metaverse locations would probably agree, at least in principle, with my analysis of the first two assumptions. They might agree that churches are the people, not the structure, and they might agree that churches exist for more than information distribution. Where they would likely disagree with me is in my assumption that we have to gather in person. They might argue that technology has advanced to the point where we can have meaningful relationships online—in fact, we can do all the things we’re supposed to do as an assembly in a virtual space.
I admit they have a point. We can have full conversations online. Through virtual reality, we can listen to another person’s voice and observe their facial reactions as they talk. As we sing, we can turn and observe others singing gospel truths with us. We can gather in small groups and discuss Scripture. Everything we would do in person we can do online.
But I’m not convinced that they’re the same. I think we all know they’re not—no matter how far technology advances. Humans are embodied creatures; we’re more than just minds or emotions. God has placed us in a tangible, physical reality, and virtual reality is more of an escape from reality than an extension of it. It’s easier to hide behind a screen. It's easier to opt in and out of church relationships and conversations at our convenience when "attending" online. It's easier to hide behind an avatar than to stand in the physical presence of fellow believers.
When you’re present in the real world, you’re fully present. And when you’re absent in the real world, fellow church members can visit your home and have conversations with you there. In contrast, when you’re present online, the bar for participation is incredibly low. You decide when you want to log on or log off; you create a level of church participation that suits your whims as a consumer. When you’re present in the real world, the commitment is higher—if for no other reason than you decided to travel to the physical church building and commit to being present.
They’re not the same. At best, virtual community is an imperfect imitation of the real thing. Virtual community denies the fundamental reality that we are embodied—that God designed us for physical community. Virtual community may be good; physical community will always be better.
Good, Not Great
While my posture towards metaverse churches and other uses of technology may seem harsh, I’m actually very sympathetic to the decision to advance along these technological steps. The church I serve posts sermons on a podcast, and as soon as we have high-quality video capabilities, we will post sermons online. I firmly believe most churches who adopt these and other practices do so out of a desire to reach more lost people. That is not only a noble goal—it’s one of the greatest goals we as Christians can pursue. Nothing brings God glory quite like a sinner repenting and receiving eternal life. So I commend the urge to do whatever it takes to win the lost.
However, I’m afraid that in our evangelistic zeal we have uncritically adopted practices that undermine the goal of kingdom expansion. We have launched operations that ultimately expand our own personal empire—the brand of the church and the platform of the pastor(s)—as a stand-in for expanding the kingdom of God. In reaching the lost with the gospel through these virtual means, we have simultaneously undermined God’s design for the local church, cheapening community and teaching a Christianity that is thoroughly Western and individualistic. I love the opportunity of reaching unbelievers through the internet; I just wonder if we can do so in a way that also teaches the a biblical understanding of the local church.
Maybe I’m an old soul who will never catch up with the times. Or maybe our “new and improved” methods for functioning as a church sacrifice critical aspects of the way God designed us to operate as his people. Maybe time will tell. Or maybe God’s Word already has.