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The minister is a wizard and some worshipers look like cats: this is a church of virtual reality

Rev. Bill Willenbrock, like many others, begins worship in the church 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 the map in VR Chat for free. 

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

"I consider myself a virtual evangelist or missionary," he told thetapestryArman 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 Pastorblock, can be seen near the center of the screenshot as he speaks to the congregation. (Arman Aghbali / CBC)

Many people who are part of the religious community when the COVID-19 pandemic turned an indoor rally into a possible super-spreading event had to reconsider their relationship with the church.

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

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

Currently he spends most Sunday afternoons in the evening church, speaking in front of a crowd of about 40 people sitting in the pew of a medieval church. 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 in 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 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 anthropomorphic cats and other animals. One came as a hovercraft.

Welcome to Night Church

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

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

Brandon, Massachusetts college student Liam Kelly describes virtual reality chat rooms as a place between reality and falsehood. Yes, some people use cartoon character avatars, and many people 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 sermon in a virtual reality church session set up in the program Rec Room. (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 accessibility issues, or had some other form of isolation. There are also people.

"I have social unrest, so it's hard to join a group of others," says Dave Blanker, one of Willenbrock's regulars in Portland, Oregon. I did. He first met the minister in Black. Another popular VR hangout space, the cat.

"I started watching his stream. I had the courage 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 parishes, 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 marriage or premarital sex.

Still, his congregation includes LGBT parishioners who have come to prefer his style, despite theological disagreements.

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

"My church has a more liberal heart, but it's still very traditional, with liturgy, words and things of service." Adam McCaddy, who began, said he visited Night Church after his local parish in Belfast was only zoomed in during a pandemic.

He does not call it more inclusive, but 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." 

The VR church is a "real" church. 

Willenbrock quickly reveals that this is not a full Sunday service. The congregation does not participate in communion. Also, they do not have a complete liturgy. There is no dress code equivalent to your Sunday's best digital edition. Also, they can't sing because the sound can 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 nearby physical church."

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. Polling is based in Yuba City, California. (ArmanAghbali / CBC)

Jason Pauling, an evangelical minister in Yuba City, California, has a more adaptable view to this question.

"I think it's a great experience of communion for tasting bread and wine, but it's necessary." Polling, who runs his own VR community in a program called AltSpace. Says.

"Although the sensory experience [in VR] is limited, it does not physically consume bread and wine, which invalidates what the communion actually points to in that form. "

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

He recommends "grabbing bread and a cup" of wine or juice if you have it at home to fill the sensory gap.

Willenbrock states that eventually VR technology will be 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 12-year-olds who are currently playing VR chat. 10 years later ... VR chat and virtual worlds will be a big part of their existence. Let's ... I'm going to practice a religion that doesn't fit into that ideal. "

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