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Ready Prayer One: Virtual Reality Church worship will be as follows during a pandemic

Rev. Bill Willenbrock, like many others, begins his church service with referrals and prayers. But when you look around, things may seem a little different.

He hosts the service at Night Church. Virtual reality program Anyone can download it for free with the map in VR Chat. 

Willenblock himself is styled as a buff wizard. The text of his digital alter ego name, Pastor Brock, floats a little above his head.

"I consider myself a virtual preacher or missionary," he toldTapestry'sArman Aghbali.

"It was very fascinating to see how people talk on this VR platform."

People gather in a virtual reality church.
People gather in the digital representation of the church in the virtual reality program VR Chat. Bill Willenblock, also known as Pasterblock, can be seen near the center of the screenshot as he speaks to the congregation. (Arman Aghbali / CBC)

Many that are part of the religious community when the COVID-19 outbreak turns indoor gatherings into potential super-spreading events. People had to rethink their relationship with the church.

Some churches held masses outdoors, in parking lots, or in online chat. However, some patrons have achieved amazing success by breaking bread in virtual reality.

Willenbrock, based in Whitehall, Mississippi, worked as a pastor at the Lutheran Church, mostly an old congregation.

Currently he spends most Sunday afternoons in Night Church, speaking in front of a crowd of about 40 people sitting in medieval church seats. In real life, all attendees are at home or away. But with the help of VR headsets and the internet, they gathered in this shared space.

Digital avatars of two legitimate parishioners in the Virtual Reality Church of Bill Willenbrock. Ashton Mayfield on the left is based near Phoenix, Arizona, in the shape of a cat-like creature. Liam Kelly on the right is a college student from Mann's Brandon. (Submitted by Ashton Mayfield and Liam Kelly)

Some of them are represented by digital avatars that look like relatively realistic humans. Others have chosen to take the form of humanoid cats and other animals. One came as a hovercraft.

Welcome to Night Church

Willenbrock started stepping into the VR chat space almost every week, about a year before the pandemic began. He just hung out and talked to the other person who logged in. 

Since then, he has left the church and converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church and is currently working as a hospital pastor when he is not leading a night church session online. 

Liam Kelly, a college student in Brandon, Massachusetts, describes the virtual reality chat room as a place between reality and falsehood. Yes, some use cartoon character avatars, while others say or act childish.

However, when you start coming to a normal hangout, such as the Church of Willenbrock, a few times, deeper connections begin to form.

"At some point you will become attached to the people of the world, so your actions have weight," Kelly said. 

A virtual church service.
Participants will hear a preaching in a virtual reality church session set up in the program RecRoom. (Arman Aghbali / CBC)

"The people you meet are not just land on the internet. They are your friends."

Willen Many of Brock's patrons grew up with the church in some way. But that's not all.

Faced with the challenge of attending a church in real life, whether you lived far away, had physical access problems, or had some other form of isolation. There are also people.

"I have social anxieties that make it difficult to join a group of others," said Dave Blanker, one of Willenbrock's regulars in Portland, Oregon. Said. He first met the minister in Black. Another popular VR hangout space, the cat.

"I started watching his stream. I dared to join him and see how it went, and it worked pretty well. So I started joining him every time I had the opportunity. ""

Willenbrock helps his session at Night Church connect people who can't be anywhere else. I hope.

"People are depressed and broken, as you know," he said. "(They) need someone to take care of them. They need someone to love them," he said.

The congregation attracts all kinds of people who may not normally attend traditional parish, despite their common interest in religion. 

Willenbrock says he believes in "traditional Christian sexual ethics." This means, among other things, that we do not approve same-sex marriages or premarital sex.

Still, his congregation includes LGBT parishioners who have come to like his style despite the theological mismatch.

A man plays video games on Twitch.
Willenbrock talks about the Bible with others in a virtual reality chat room while live streaming on Twitch. (PastorBrockVR / Twitch)

"My church has a more generous heart, but it's still very traditional, with service rituals, words and things." Adam McCardy, who started, said he visited Night Church after his local parish in Belfast was only zoomed in during the pandemic.

He doesn't call it more inclusive, but he said that people seem to be more welcome to ask questions in Willenbrock's service than in other churches.

"I think his church is a little more ... interactive. You can ask questions about things." 

VR Church is a "real" church. 

Willenbrock quickly reveals that this is not a full Sunday service. The congregation does not participate in fellowship. Also, they do not have complete literature. There is no digital dress code for your Sunday. You can't sing because the sound may be delayed on the internet.

"As I always say, Jesus did not come back as a friendly ghost Casper. He came back with a touchable body. A fish-eating body." He said.

"I think all of this shows the importance of the body ... So I'm trying to encourage people to connect to a real church nearby."

A pastor is shown in virtual reality.
Jason Poling's Digital Avatar welcomes visitors to his virtual reality church community in a program called AltSpace. Pauling is based in Yuba, California. (ArmanAghbali / CBC)

Jason Pauling, an evangelical minister in Yuva, California, has a more adaptable view of this issue.

"I think it's a great experience of fellowship to taste bread and wine, but it's necessary," said Polling, who runs his own VR community under a program called AltSpace. I am.

"This is a limited sensory experience [in VR], but physically, not consuming bread and wine invalidates what fellowship should actually point to in that way.

His congregation is a bit less violent than the Willenbrock congregation. For example, it cannot come in the form of a dinosaur. But they also carry out a version of the communion, hand out digital wafers to the attendees in line, grab the VR controller and put their hands in front of them.

He encourages people to "grab bread and cups" with the wines and juices they have at his home to fill the sensation gap.

Willenbrock states that in the end VR technology will be very immersive and the sensory gaps will be less noticeable. As a person who encourages people to look for a real church if possible, he hesitates to open his arms and embrace the future metaverse.

But for Liam Kelly, religious leaders may have no choice.

"Take the 12 year olds who are currently playing VR chat. 10 years later ... VR chat and the virtual world will be a big part of their existence. Let's ... I'm going to practice a religion that doesn't fit that ideal. "

Radio documentary "Praying in VR" produced by Arman Aghbali.