The Church, as an institution, is both sociological and theological. As a sociological institution, its methods should shift with each generation if it is to remain culturally useful. As a theological institution, it should remain constant across all generations. The debates and divisions that we witness as a constant backdrop to each generation are, of course, fundamentally about which aspects of our practice are sociological and which aspects are theological.
Since we are currently experiencing a seismic sociological shift on a global scale – accelerated by but not necessarily resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic – it is incumbent on the Church to respond with appropriate sociological shifts. Part of that response must be its unwavering embrace of digital church.
Most churches have responded to some extent by their embrace of Web 1.0. That is to say that most local churches have a website that operates under Web 1.0 principles; as a ‘bulletin-board’, disseminating information such as service times, contact details and a few photographs showing the type of activities that happen at said local church. Web 1.0 is essentially a passive experience; the church has information to share, and the viewer passively imbibes that. In short, a 1990s understanding of what a website is for. Web 1.0.
Many churches have gone further and embraced Web 2.0. This is a more interactive model for the end user. It allows for participation and creation, not just by the host but by the user herself. Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia are good examples of Web 2.0. A church Facebook Group may allow posts by any of its members (albeit perhaps moderated) and comments will be encouraged during Live events online. Moodle and other educational portals can be used for online learning. A community is created through participation and interaction. A more dynamic approach. Web 2.0.
The danger, of course, is that most churches – when they finally arrive at Web 2.0 – will believe that they have ‘done it’ and become a truly digital church. But technology is developing at a speed we can barely comprehend and it is likely that, in the near future, Web 2.0 may be no more culturally useful than Web 1.0 is now. As is so often the case when it comes to seismic cultural shifts, the Church will undoubtedly be caught off-guard. Just as we are patting ourselves on the back for our Web 2.0 successes, the Internet – and society – will have moved on. Probably to the Metaverse, including Web3 technologies.
The Metaverse is still in its infancy as a concept, so it is currently difficult to define. The notion of a decentralized metaverse is still being worked out in detail and the possibilities are still being conceptually explored. One thing is for sure, though. the Metaverse is coming – and it will be here much sooner than we think. And if the Church is not ready for it then, yet again, we will be playing ‘cultural catch-up’ in a world that is increasingly leaving us behind…
From a missiological perspective, I am so excited about the Metaverse. The possibilities for missional engagement are, literally, limitless. There are enormous challenges facing the Church as we begin to get our head around its possibilities. There are so many questions we will need to address, for example: safeguarding, the nature of human identity in a Metaverse environment, church planting, parochial ‘boundaries’, episcopal oversight, ecumenism, the place of liturgy, the role of sacraments, land ownership, the use of crypto-currency, the development of meaningful Canon Law, ordination, BMO’s, training of volunteers – the list is endless, and we will have many more blog posts over the coming months considering such issues.
At the current time, it is difficult to find many articles/books/reflections from within the Church of England that are positive about the Metaverse – or even considering the missiological challenges and opportunities. That needs to change – and soon. Most reflections seem almost Luddite in their apocalyptic warnings of what this new-fangled technology will do to undermine the Church and Gospel. Such an approach is simply not good enough. The Metaverse, when it finally becomes established, will be a new world in which the proclamation of the Gospel will be as crucial as in any world order since the time of Christ. Life in the Metaverse will become normal for millions of people very quickly indeed. If the Church is not there with the Gospel of salvation, providing meaning, hope and purpose, then we will be failing in our mission imperative.
Technologically, most churches may not be in a position to ready themselves for the Metaverse at the current time. However, there are three attitudes that we can focus on as a part of our DNA so that, when the technology is available, the cultural shift towards meaningful engagement will be made easier.
1. Prioritize Connection
I will argue in a forthcoming blog, ‘It’s all about connection’, that this principle is at the heart of Christian mission and ministry. All forms of church, whether in-building or online, are about connection; with God, with others, with the created order and with ourselves. It is through connection that communities are built. That is equally possible in both buildings-based ministry and online.
However, too often churches speak of connection being their raison d’etre, but in reality create an organizational mindset that measures success by content and consumption: the amount of people attending worship, the number of Bible Study Groups, the amount of Likes on a FB post, how many views an online service gets, how many food parcels have been delivered that week, how many midweek organizations are running at the church and so on…’Connection’ may be the spoken priority. But in reality, the measurables are the quantity of content and consumption.
The ultimate goal of the Gospel is connection. Whatever the Metaverse will look like, we can be sure that it will be about connection and connectivity. As we prepare for the Metaverse, the Church must deepen its understanding of what Christian connectivity truly looks like so that we will be ready to adapt our principles to the new world reality, whatever form that may take.
2. Prioritize Experience over Information
I hope it goes without saying that what every church wants is to see people move into an authentic experience of being a child of God the Father, through the atoning work of the Son, living in the power of the Holy Spirit.
However, it may be argued that a visit to most churches will give us ‘information about Jesus’ rather than ‘an experience of God.’ In part, that is through the way in which we preach, the hymns/songs we use, the way we pray, and the liturgy we use. Please do not take this as a condemnation of all forms of liturgical worship. I am an Anglican priest – and I love liturgical worship! But if I were to objectively analyse the way in which I lead worship services, it would be a fair critique to explore the priority I give to information over experience.
Whatever the Metaverse eventually looks like, we know that it will be a thoroughly experiential space. Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, unlimited interconnected spaces…the Metaverse will be totally immersive.
There will be an emphasis on transcendence. But not only that. The Metaverse will provide an extraordinary opportunity to interweave immanence with transcendence in a manner that fleshes out the underlying principle of our Gospel narrative. Certainly, this is something we need to reflect on seriously in the coming months and years. As the Metaverse develops, people will be able to experience the interweaving of immanence and transcendence ‘on demand’. If we are to proclaim the Christian Gospel effectively, we will need to grapple with that in a realized eschatological manner that makes sense to people’s lived experience.
3. Prioritize Accessible Church
Historically, people have ‘gone to church’. There is the building. There is list of service times. You choose which service you want to attend – and you go to the building to take part in the service. Likewise with Bible Study Groups, midweek social groups, youth groups, children’s activities and so on. The times are fixed and the activities take place in a fixed place.
The world does not operate like that anymore. We needn’t argue about that and we don’t need to explore too many examples. I am more likely to buy a book on Amazon at 2.00am whilst I remember than wait to go to a local bookstore during my lunch hour the next day. If I want to order a week’s food shopping, I am more likely to get that delivered through making an online order than through driving to my local supermarket. If I miss my favourite TV show one evening, I’ll just watch it on catch-up another day. Like it or loathe it, that’s just the way the world is.
And why should spirituality be fundamentally different? Churches that are gambling on everyone returning to the building after the Covid pandemic ends will be in for a rude awakening. Of course, gathered congregations will always be a major part of the Christian experience – I don’t know anyone who is arguing differently. People will always want to meet and worship together in one place. But gathered congregations will increasingly become one option amongst many others – and the church will increasingly need to find creative and imaginative ways to go to where people are, rather than waiting for people to come to the church building.
The Metaverse will enable people to gather where they want, when they want, and with whom they want. People will continue to gather for worship – but it may or may not be in your building or mine. In the meantime, we need to be doing all we can to develop a mindset of accessibility; to do what we can to become an accessible church that is here for people when they want us and where they want us. Even in a Web 2.0 environment, there are plenty of opportunities to explore that and develop that form of ministry.
In conclusion, the Metaverse is coming – and it will be here a lot sooner than we think. There will be many teething problems along the way and it will evolve over a period of years. But the Church simply must begin engaging with, and planning for, Metaverse ministry right now.
We know that many independent churches are already gearing up for Metaverse ministry. But what about the Church of England? It will be here sooner than we think. How will the conversations begin? Will we embrace the Metaverse with the same zeal and passion as we historically have done other mission fields?
We need to pray for visionary Bishops and leaders who will recognize the importance of this and create spaces to allow for meaningful preparation for this new phase of mission and ministry. This is not a can that can be kicked down the road. This is not an issue that can be buried in endless committees and steering groups. This is not something that needs a Report written about it at some future, nebulous, date. The Metaverse is coming. And we need to get ready. Now.