There was a time, and still is occasionally, that I feel a little “less than” when folks ask me about our church. As pastors and church planters, we all want to tell others of what great success we’ve had. And if we have a building/meeting place, the bigger the better, as it makes things that much more impressive right? And don’t we have that attitude sometimes of wanting to impress others? Let’s be honest folks.
Well, in all honesty, we didn’t choose digital, digital chose us. When I first began to have a vision of a new church, once receiving my calling, I knew what I wanted. And I knew we’d never be a big church for sure. We were going to be different from the start. How different? Not digital only different. But as I was personally getting excited with Spring 2020 coming around, where I could get out and meet people in our local park just down the road, Covid came on us. The world shutdown in a matter of days when Covid began. And like most people, we thought, “oh, this’ll pass in a few weeks, and we’ll get back on plan.” Yeah right! We are now beyond two years of Covid. Thankfully, it is much better now, but we’re still seeing flair ups here and there and especially across the world.
At the beginning I truly resisted doing online video sermons. Even more so when every other church began doing them. “We do Church differently, right?” Yeah, that’s what I thought. “We innovate.” Ugh, how ignorant I can be at times. This whole journey has revealed in me some ignorance and arrogance from time to time for sure. I think it was Easter 2020 before I put any kind of video message out for the world to take in. Actually, it was the Psalm readings that I began with on April 5, 2020. That’s a video to watch and see just how nervous I was at the start.
For these past two years I’ve struggled to find my own voice and to find our flock. I say flock because it was just one of the Words I heard from the Lord during my calling out of our previous church responsibilities. I’ve been fumbling my way through the digital stuff, throwing up FB ads, sharing sermon videos everywhere I could, and very little has caught traction to make us grow. Along the way I have really wrestled with the whole church planting expectations and growth. But God has always, multiple times, reminded me, this is His Church and He will grow it how He wants it. So, I continue to walk in trust…minus those times I get down and start pointing my finger back at me.
I’ve come to the belief that we are to serve the forgotten, the lonely people, that cannot go to a “traditional” church…i.e. a building. This could be because of a physical or mental issue. It could even be because of a trauma lived through in the church. We all know someone that has been “church hurt,” right?
Of course, my wife is part of the impetus for us being online and not having people over with her anxiety issues, (agoraphobia too),…heightened due to Covid as well. Please understand, I don’t see this as a negative, I see it as God using her to guide us into where and what He wants us to be. And there have been a few other experiences to help me consider these forgotten folks of the Church.
You see, if you can’t make it to church on Sunday, in many churches, then you eventually get forgotten. It doesn’t matter the “why” you aren’t there, you’re just not. I have come to realize there is a significant portion of the population that can’t go and sit in a crowded place physically. Anxiety issues are just one of many. Multiple Sclerosis can keep some one inside their home. Fibromyalgia and temperature sensitivity. And we all know some there are immunocompromised persons today that Covid has brought to the forefront.
Being digital, interactively digital, not just “sit here and watch a live streamed sermon from our church you aren’t really a part of anymore,” has helped us see where and what community we desire, maybe are called, to create. (I don’t want to get ahead of the Lord’s will for sure!) Digital church allows us to be in each other’s lives even when we are not in proximity physically. After months of receiving prayer requests submitted through a service we serve, my eyes have been opened to the epidemic of loneliness in and outside the Church. And then to know there are others similar to my wife that can’t go to a physical gathering to be an active part of the Church, I can’t imagine the loneliness some feel.
We’ve always talked about how some people will never feel comfortable to walk into a church building that first time as well. Even digitally there’s some struggle with that too. But, we’ve found that in many ways, people are more willing to take such risks digitally than, “in real life.”
Don’t get it twisted, while I am a huge advocate for digital or any other means to share Christ’s love, I am not a “digital is always better for everyone,” person either. The reality is the same as any other church. Some are going to prefer what we offer than others. And that is fine. We’re here to serve those whom the Lord draws to us and that is all.
Our heart is to provide a safe place for everyone. To be a community of belonging, even from your own home, hospital bed, or prison cell. It’s been a slow journey, and that is fine. As long as we are faithful to seek whatever, and whoever, the Lord desires of us. There’s plenty of lost sheep out there. They are who we seek to bring into the fold.
So, the other day I posted a blog about my experience visiting churches in the metaverse. If you didn’t see it, you can check it out here. But in today’s post I wanted to make a few suggestions for those thinking about leading or are already leading ministries, (or even businesses), in the metaverse platforms. One thing I must add is that I am brand new to the VR world, so take what I say as a completed newcomer the space.
1. Start On Time
In my first “attempted” VR church experience, I arrived at the time the event was to begin…8PM. Altspace doesn’t allow you to enter events early, but I am one that cannot stand to be late either. So, I was on time. And I was the only one there…for about 5 minutes. I was alone. I explored the space and shot a basketball or two while waiting. But, because no one else was there within those first 5 minutes I left. I went looking for something else to experience, assuming, maybe it’s not really a church group. Like one of those Facebook groups you join only to find out no one has posted in two years. As I was leaving, I do think someone might have come in, but the button was already pressed for me to spawn to another place.
I do not recall where I went after leaving, but luckily it wasn’t something that grabbed my attention for long. But what if it had? What if I was seeking community, nudged by the Holy Spirit, and then found the place empty? How might that have affected my life negatively? You may be thinking, “Come on man, it’s just a VR place, it isn’t like real people.” But no! It is real people. It is real life change that we in ministry are seeking to cultivate. We want to be where the lost are right? I know I want to serve those that are seeking a community to belong to…meta or anywhere else digitally. So, what if it was their last hope and they are left alone in an empty room? What if when I left, I found another community that accepted me and made me feel welcomed…not faith based?
Thankfully that isn’t the end of the story. I didn’t stay where I had been and when I went back out to the menu, I saw there were people in the church event, so I went back. I was blessed to meet some awesome people and to experience life giving community there as I’d hoped. In all honesty, it was the best experience I had all week in VR, so much so I know I will return to it. But again we must ponder, what if I was that lost sheep looking for a flock to belong?
2. Engagement Begins with the Host
If you, the leader/pastor, aren’t going to be there at the start time, please make sure someone is. This is where having a host comes in. It’s the greeter at Wal-Mart right? But it needs to be more than that. Your host needs to be personable. At one of my Sunday experiences, I spawned into the event, and walked to a globe they had showing where everyone in attendance was from. (Pretty cool I thought). While there, I did get greeted by a gentleman with a “Hello” and a stroll right past me. Not even a “welcome to Wal-Mart.” He was a host because his name said so just in case you were wondering. So, I turned and began to walk up the stairs to the balcony like area and there a lady spoke to me, welcomed me, said she was glad I was there, and even let me know that the service was starting in 24 minutes and to check out the space and people beforehand. She made up for the prior gentleman in a big way in my experience. Granted I might have had the thought, “I’m not staying here 20+ minutes for the service to start.”
What is it we want when we walk in the front door of a church, (or even business venue)? I think we want to be greeted in a welcoming fashion that says, “I not only see you but I am glad you chose to join us today.” It is also important to be told things that matter, such as the fact that the service wasn’t going to start for 20+ minutes. While that in itself might have turned me off, I did still want to see the space and so I stayed. Waiting 30 minutes to start the service is a bit lengthy to just walk around and maybe talk to strangers…again especially if you’re an introvert like myself.
Thankfully, as I walked up the steps another gentleman said hi to me and we struck up conversation. He too was a visitor, and I asked if he was pastor as he told me he was visiting churches all day in the metaverse. (See, I’m not weird!). The lengthy time before the service did allow us to connect and get to know one another’s story, so maybe that was a plus for us having 20 minutes to chat. Again, not sure that would be good for many others. But my experience with him brings me to my next point:
3. Encourage Your “Regulars” to be Welcoming
I do not recall being spoken to by other church members in any space except the one I joined on my first night. Even there, it was a gentleman that actually served Life Church as a host that was also attending that group who welcomed me initially. He also explained all the details and gave the history of the group meeting there…answering my questions.
This is where I think VR might be the most similar to church “in real life (IRL).” How many of us, as regular church attenders, go and find ourselves talking to the other members until time for the service to begin. I know, we all want to catch up with friends we haven’t seen in a week because we’ve probably also not spoken during the week, (yeah that’s a whole other problem we could talk about). A newcomer generally walks around curiously trying to figure out the lay of the land. We all see them…in both VR and real life, we see their bewildered faces. But how many of us will go over and introduce ourselves? How many will leave our comfort bubble to help the newcomer?
It’s funny because even I, as the newcomer in each space, saw the “others” walking around all alone, and thought, “I should go say hi.” Which in one church, as I had been standing on the edge of the worship area, almost walked over to someone else that looked “lost.” What if I were that lost soul in the church for the first time? Would I come back? Would I leave with the opinion that I mattered amongst the “crowd?”
4. Video Streaming vs Avatar
I know, I know, as a church leader myself, our time is limited. And yet we want to reach those in these new spaces without adding to our docket of “work.” So, what’s the easy thing? Let’s just restream our service to the metaverse just like we do to Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, etc. “At least our message will be heard.” I get it, I’m in this battle with myself right now. I want to be in the meta world, and I don’t want to leave my current people behind. If you’re preaching to an in-person crowd, I get the added difficulty. You can’t be in two places at once. But here are a few things I’d like to encourage you to do.
Make sure you have a host there in the metaverse world. Let them be the ones to make the welcome, the announcements to those in the VR church space. I know it will take coordination, but it would add so much to the experience. As my new friend and I were talking, (the one I asked about being a pastor), if we want to watch a video service, we’ll watch YouTube on our TV. When we come into the VR world, we come for a different experience…connection. And that is what a living avatar host can bring to the space. No church space should be about broadcasting only. It should always be about connecting to Jesus and to each other. You want that newcomer avatar soul to truly connect with more than a video screen.
5. Acknowledge Your VR Congregants
My hope would be that the other 4 items I’ve listed here would speak to you for sure. But I understand it may take time for you to make the changes, and they maybe not be perfected, but at least improved. For sure one thing we can all do is this one. If you are the pastor, or host, in an in-person church, please look into the camera and speak to those on the other side of the screen. That includes YouTube, Twitch, Fb, AND VR. At one service I attended, the pastor spoke about everything BUT the VR space. He didn’t even mention it…. though he named about 4-5 other “campuses” or “broadcasting” platforms. Even then I don’t recall him looking into the camera.
The people should matter enough to be recognized as part of your church. To not mention them, to not talk to them, to not look at them, says they don’t matter without you saying a word. As leaders our desire in these platforms should be engagement, even if it’s only a screen they are seeing, we can still engage the person on the other side. The authentic effort you put into that engagement can lead to them feeling a part of your church enough to call you “their church home.” Shouldn’t that be our goal for the lost souls out there? To give them a place to belong, in a family of Christ followers.
As I always I pray this helps you more than discourages you. These platforms give us opportunity and I simply want to see us make the best use of them for the Kingdom.
There’s a big scary thing out there, to some, called… ”the metaverse!” That’s right, there are some that are fearful of it for various reasons…some good some not. But what I wanted to share was my experience of my first week in the metaverse. It’s a place I’d wanted to explore for some time and finally took the dive when purchasing a set of Oculus Quest 2 goggles.
I most wanted to explore it for ministry purposes. I don’t do much gaming these days…though I did join in some paintball fun in “Rec Room,” a metaverse platform. I’d watched videos of VR Church’s services and listened to the “Church.Digital” podcast for some time now and was always fascinated by the idea of church in the metaverse. This is what is scary for some… ”can we do/be the Church in the metaverse?” I’m not going to answer that here, only share my experience from my first week, and more specifically my first Church activities there.
Real quick, let me share with you that there are basically two ways to share your message for churches, on these platforms. Some basically stream their in-person events to their meta “world” and others actually use the avatar feature and inhabit the place themselves. The bonus of inhabiting the place as a “living avatar” versus the “streaming service” is it allows real interaction in real time. Some do have avatar “hosts” or “campus pastors” to fill that void as well.
My first day was Monday, and after getting my account setup and all that goes along with that and sharing the device with my wife, Allison, I was finally able to jump into the metaverse via the Altspace platform. (One of the most popular, created by Microsoft). It wasn’t long after getting my avatar setup that I found the first church event, “Living Room Church.” They describe themselves as, “Living Room Church is a safe space to ask difficult questions, find community, and share life together.” “Possibly my people,” I thought.
I joined Living Room Church right at the start time of 8PM EST. The platform doesn’t allow you to join events early, and I am usually a “get there early,” kind of guy. So, at 8PM I was there…. alone. I hung around about 5 minutes and gave up. I went out, and a few minutes later I saw people were in the room, (shown on the events page), and so I jumped back in. I was welcomed by a guy named Dave. He is a nice dude that actually serves in Life Church’s world in Altspace as a host. We struck up conversation with me explaining why I was there, and him telling me of his experience as well. I almost left early because my headset was dying, and he mentioned I could just plug it in and use it if I had a long enough chord. Yep, that worked.
Another lady came over and the three of us conversed. After a few minutes we went into the “living room” of the world we were in, (a normal Altspace template…not a full custom build as some do). There the pastor gave us the general welcome words and then invited the same lady I was talking with, “Bernice,” the cue to sing for us. And she did a beautiful hymn I believe it was…not one I was familiar with. Then the pastor, “Rev ZeeTee,” began the lesson by pulling up Scripture on the media player in the room. He read the verses, gave us his thoughts on them, and then asked what we thought about it. After some silence, you know that awkward silence, someone shared. Eventually, I shared my thoughts on it. And around the room people shared what they thought and how it spoke to them. Everything shared was truly from the heart, and eventually we lead into prayer requests. And we ended the “service” with prayer. After that it was general conversation, and I met with the Rev to talk about what he was doing there and learn a little from him while also sharing my own story. I ended the night with 4 or 5 new friends from around the states. A great, fulfilling, experience for me.
The rest of the week I found little time to get on and explore, but I did hop into a few of the other platforms, make new accounts and avatars for them, and venture around a little in them. But I focused on Altspace trying to learn how to set up our own, “Innovate World,” most evenings as I had free time. It takes some learning for sure.
Saturday, I set out a plan to visit multiple churches on Sunday, as I have taken a couple weeks off to explore other ministry tools and avenues, including the metaverse. Unite 180 Worship, VR Church, Life Church, and Cornerstone were definitely on the agenda. A full day of church hopping.
I think it was 9AM that I joined Unite 180. They are a church out of South Africa…lead by a white English-speaking pastor. They were the “streaming” kind of church, making use of a template space. I was greeted by two hosts, one not so talkative and a lady that shared most of the needed information…one being that the service itself wouldn’t start for 24 minutes… (I didn’t come in right at 9AM as I had learned my lesson quickly). I walked up some stairs to the “balcony” space and was met by a gentleman that spoke to me, named Doug. He spoke and shared how he was church hopping too. He was a 57-year-old gentleman from Washington state. We hit it off good, as he was a kind gentleman and a talker. Dave, (from Life.Church), showed up here too. When service started, we went in. Because it was video, there was no real interaction after the initial introductions to the avatar hosts. The pastor on the screen also failed to mention the metaverse church when he spoke of the many other campuses, including “online.” I didn’t stay for the message as the intro, worship, giving, time took a while to get through, and I had other places to go.
I visited, “House of Grace,” on my next stop. They are using the same template space I have been working on for the Innovate Church space, but setup differently. I was late into the beginning of the service, again being video streamed. I think someone might have welcomed me, but we didn’t converse. Oh, and Doug was there already too. Here, the pastor did mention their metaverse world and said he had even been there the prior Sunday and how good of an experience he had. Props to that pastor for recognizing the people in the space as congregants of his church family.
After House of Grace, I took a break knowing Life Church would be on a little later. But I didn’t make it to Life Church as Allison and I had some good conversation, and we ate lunch. I already knew Life Church is a streaming church with avatar hosts like these others anyway. The problem with this, like Doug and I had been talking about earlier, is the fact we can watch a streaming video on our TV anytime we want. While we appreciate there are avatar hosts and “community time” following these video services, it just isn’t why we are in the metaverse.
VR Church was coming up soon, and so I was excited to finally be in there with one of the originating, innovating, churches, that I knew was avatar taught…not video streamed. Sadly, DJ Soto, the pastor, wasn’t in this space today. I also got Allison to join me in this one as I thought it would provide the best “meta-church” experience… (i.e., what is possible). She anxiously joined me lol. (She’s not comfortable with the interaction just yet). VR Church custom builds their world. So, we started out in an outdoor space with a video screen and stage setup. Alena, one of the pastors, lead the service along with an 80+ year old gentleman, former traveling evangelist, “Mr. Pete.” Long introduction and welcome on the screen detailing much of their metaverse world, (they have worlds in several platforms and games), and a video of worship music. Then we were off to the “teaching space,” via walking through a water fall or teleporting by a button.
In the teaching area it was built as a small city, and the teaching was on Matthew chapter 6, the entire chapter verse by verse. We had to “walk” around the city to the various Scripture reading sets, and mostly Alena shared her thoughts on each section of Scripture. Volunteers generally read the Scripture for the group. It was interesting for sure, but more of a free flowing, “this is what I think,” kind of teaching versus a sermon. All good for some and not for some. You be the judge.
We took a little break after VR Church. That’s one thing about wearing the Oculus, you need a break after an hour or two for sure.
After about an hour I hopped back on and joined, “Faithbase VR Church.” I’m not sure where they are from, but the female pastor brought the heat for sure! Super good message, “Over the Hump,” about not giving up on various situations when you are truly almost, “over the hump.” This was indeed an urban style teacher/church with maybe a Pentecostal flavor. The world was created by them, and you spawned in the parking lot basically, and had to walk some distance to get into the church space. It was like walking up to and into a modern church building. The sanctuary space was rather sparse but had a large video screen in the center with two smaller screens on the outside edges. Seats were the typical cloth covered chrome seats. She taught as an avatar from the stage. And again, she taught with passion for sure! The message was so great I tried to find a recording on YouTube to no avail.
My last church to visit for the day was Cornerstone Church from California. A physical, multi-campus church, with the metaverse world as well. I think someone greeted me shortly after I spawned there, but I also joined there with Doug again as I had visited the world he’d created before the church time. Here they had a world they had fully designed themselves with a rustic open top sanctuary space. They had a “live” avatar host along with video music up front. They hold multiple group meetings in the metaverse as well on other nights/days. For the teaching, we had to go outside and walk to the outdoor teaching space. Again, similar “modern” style chair setup with large video screen up front. They did also have a communion table out, which to me was awesome. I stayed part way through the teaching but left early…even though I really wanted to see/participate in communion with them. I was tired.
All in all it was an interesting week visiting more than six different churches without leaving my home and interacting with multiple real live people in the process. There were a couple churches I visited, or thought about visiting, that didn’t have many people…or any in them…so if I entered, I didn’t stay. That would be one piece of advice I’d give the churches…if you are scheduled to begin at a certain time, make sure someone is there in that first minute. And for us visiting, it might pay to hang out a little longer than five minutes to join in with others. If I hadn’t checked back in on Living Room Church, I would have truly missed my best experience of the week with likeminded friends.
Stay tuned as I may have a follow-up post to this blog on some of my learning and expectations as a metaverse church visitor.
All of us have fears in our lives. For some, we deal with fear better than others. For some, fear overwhelms us and causes to shrink back. Personally, I fear many things, health issues, my wife’s health, familial loss, fire, some animals, violence, politics, failure, and more.
Some things we fear are good. We should fear being burned by the fire…it keeps us from putting our hands in it. Fear is a preserving emotion in many cases, and that is why the Lord gave us this emotion. It is protective. But for some, fear can keep us from moving forward, because we fear the “what if?” questions.
What if I fail?
What if I get hurt?
What if go broke?
What if I experience pain?
What if I hurt someone else?
What if I do something sinful?
Fear can keep us from receiving blessings planned for us. Fear can keep us from trusting in the promises of God…mainly that He has a future for us, not to harm, but to prosper, and that He is with us through all the ups and downs of life.
I am reminded of the Israelites in the Old Testament book, Numbers. Numbers 13 tells us right off the bat, “The Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel.”
So, Moses sends out 12 men, one from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. It’s a forty-day adventure for these men. They are told to take stock of the condition of the land, the protection, and the fruits available in the land. Verse 20 pretty much says, “whatever the condition, don’t fear, just bring back some of its fruit.” (It technically says, “Be of good courage.”
These men went and watched, and even took some of the fruit of the land to being back with them. But, while there, they also noticed the men of the land were like giants, and the defenses are strong, along with all the different people living in the valleys and hill country there…all enemies of Israel. So they reported these things to Moses and the other leaders.
In short, these men returned with a warning of fear. One that told the rest of the Israelites, “The people are too big and too strong for us, so we shouldn’t go.” And in the next chapter we see where God punishes them for the faithlessness…really their rebellion…and most of them end up dying in the desert never to see the land for themselves again.
If you’re not familiar with the story, this was not too long after God had freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and they crossed the Red Sea miraculously by God’s power. He’d already protected them along the way, provided manna (bread from heaven), and lead them on their journey in a pillar of fire and smoke. They had witnessed, with no doubt, the fact that God was with them.
Canaan was the Promised Land. It was the land given to Abraham, whom the Israelites descended from, years prior. This was the goal of the journey they were on. But for fear, they did not receive it.
God had promised “I am giving you the land of Canaan,” before sending the spies. It didn’t matter what was in the land, or who was in the land. God had already said, “I am giving you this land.” The land was theirs! The blessings of the land was theirs!
But fear kept them from obtaining God’s promise. They feared for their lives. They feared harm. They feared failure. Their fear even made them cry and desire to go back to where “it was safe,”…as Egyptian slaves! They desired to trade the safety of living under God’s care, and His promises, for the life of slavery again. Fear enslaves!
What if they had believed God? How would their lives have been different? Who else would have been blessed?
Because of their disbelief, a whole generation perished in the desert, where they continued to basically walk circles for 40 more years.
How many of us are “walking circles” because we didn’t believe the Lord’s promises? I’m sure, like me, you can probably look back on life and say, “if only I had done…trusted…had courage to…” Where would our lives have been? What blessings did we give up because we feared?
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Isaiah 41:10 NIV
Here’s the thing, look back over your life. How have you seen God work time and time again? He has proved faithful right? If you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure that is proof enough of His presence with you. Remember what He has done, what He has brought you through, and then make a stand today on His promises.
One warning…don’t try to go back and do what He told you to do before. That was a folly of the Israelites too. Once He had pronounced His judgement, THEN they tried to go and take the land without His blessing. And…they were easily defeated.
Seek and listen now to what He wants you to do now. What is He promising you? When you hear it, when you see it, stop walking in the circle of fear and GO. If it is a promise from God, there are no giants big enough to stop you!
During these times we’ve all jumped on the video bandwagon on social media. Many of us have no clue what we are doing, and yet that shouldn’t hold us back either. But that’s not what this writing is all about.
Today, I wanted to talk to you about your audience, more specifically, the audience that Facebook or Youtube tell you you have. When looking at the insights for your videos, each has their way of telling you some numbers. And come on, be honest, the bigger the number the happier we are, right? But, what good is a number if it doesn’t speak the truth to you? Zero. So, real quick I wanted to use Facebook as an example, using my own more “popular” videos I’ve posted recently on my own church page.
The bottom line here is you need to understand the metrics on your FB and YT message performance. If you don’t understand them, then you can’t truly grade how well your message is connecting. The numbers can mislead you easily.
So, these numbers below are from MY two best “performing” videos on our church FB page:
Reach – 373 and 643
3 Sec Views – 217 and 358
Ave Time Watched – 17-sec and 13-sec! 😭
The same goes for the “Ads” you paid for. I created one that ran for 7 days (Very targeted less than 2 miles and specific demographics):
Reach – 1,770
Impressions – 3,238 (means it simply showed up in the feed)
3 Sec Views – 451
Ave Time Watched – 2-secs! (of a 15 second video of still images).
In Innovate Church’s case, we have a whole 92-person page audience to begin with, so I don’t expect big numbers on anything. But, if I were to quickly glance and think nothing about the Facebook is giving me, I’d be thinking a lot more highly about our recent videos than reality leads me to…hence continuing to under perform my hopes and goals for posting.
So, while we have a captive audience at home right now, and we all have the internet, it doesn’t mean we are getting our message to them just because Facebook or YouTube give you some numbers that appease your ego. There is more to those numbers up front that you have to dig in to.
On a positive note, keep working on what you are putting out there and keep posting. The audience will build but you need to keep your eye on the real metrics to build upon. Getting started at anything is usually a slow process.