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.