Henry Ford didn’t set out to create megachurches. But before the advent of the personal vehicle, most Christians seeking a church faced a simple denominational decision: do you attend the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Catholic church around the corner?
With a vehicle, Christians could suddenly attend whichever church had the best children’s ministry programming, youth activities, and rock ’n’ roll Sunday morning worship – as long as it was within 10 to 30 minutes of driving.
We became consumers because we could be consumers. Indeed, churches appealed to our consumerism by offering a menu of ministries so expansive it could make a Cheesecake Factory server blush.
This wasn’t the first time (and won’t be the last time) that technology changed the church. But even as the pace of technological change has felt dizzying and exhausting for churches in recent years, we’ve only seen the tip of the digital iceberg.
The real change which will truly transform our mental, spiritual, and ecclesial landscapes is coming soon: the metaverse.
What is the metaverse?
For most people, ‘metaverse’ is a new word, and we’ve only heard it because of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that Facebook’s parent company is changing its name to Meta.
The new name is a nod to the future. Meta is positioning itself as the first mover of a new digital universe.
But what exactly is the metaverse? Matthew Ball – managing partner at a venture capital fund investing heavily in the metaverse – writes, ‘The metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.’
The metaverse is not a digital world. It’s a digital world of worlds through which people can travel seamlessly, retaining their appearance and digital possessions wherever they go.
These worlds do not merely exist in VR (virtual reality), but also layer onto physical reality through AR (augmented reality).
The metaverse is still a zygote, but a few early examples offer glimpses of the future. FOX’s television show Alter Ego features musical artists performing as digital avatars for the show’s judges. Contestants explain that physical appearance or social anxiety previously hindered them, but using an avatar allows them to be real. In the metaverse, people will have digital identities they may prioritise over their physical identity.
The game Pokémon Go allows players to use phone cameras to see AR Pokémon and capture them. In the future, people may use AR glasses to simulate offices and hangouts with friends.
Apple’s facial recognition software uses infrared to analyse 30,000 points on your face. This is what allows you to make animojis and memojis which accurately render your facial expressions in real time. In the metaverse, people’s digital avatars will seamlessly reflect their actual facial expressions, creating a simulacrum of authentic personal presence.
The Playstation 5’s controllers have revolutionary haptic technology, which enables game-makers to create eerily realistic physical sensations. In the future, haptic gloves will give you the ability to feel a digital handshake, hold a digital mug, or slap a digital high five.
Microsoft’s latest Flight Simulator contains over 2.5 million gigabytes of data, because Microsoft mapped the real world and built it into the game. It has 2 trillion unique trees, and 1.5 billion unique buildings. The simulator matches real-world activity, including weather.
This is called a ‘mirror world,’ and in the future people might use these digital assets to design buildings for real-world construction or digital use only. You could buy a hyper-realistic digital property in which you live, interact, or go on mini-vacations.
None of these examples by itself is the metaverse. But collectively they outline the future baby the metaverse might produce.
How Christians can prepare
What does the metaverse mean for the church and for Christians?
When Facebook debuted in 2004 and the iPhone was released in 2007, we didn’t know what the future held. Fourteen years later, we know. And the church is only now catching up.
We can’t catch up a decade after the metaverse reshapes culture. We must prepare disciples now, knowing the metaverse will only exacerbate the current problems created by a (believe it or not) less invasive internet.
Thankfully, the metaverse is still five to ten years away. We can anticipate coming changes and prepare disciples of Jesus to live as faithful witnesses in that future world. Here are three themes we should start emphasising today, so we can form resilient disciples of tomorrow.
1.Givenness of identity in a customised world
If you think society is struggling with questions of identity now, get ready.
Individuals will be able to express themselves however they want through fully customisable avatars in the metaverse. For example, in Mark Zuckerberg’s recent presentation, a friend appeared as a robot in a room up in space.
What happens when we identify more with a virtual version of ourselves than with our real selves? People may begin to conflate their God-given identity with the self-made identity they crafted in the metaverse.
The transhuman debate is on our doorstep. The imago Dei is about to encounter the imago meta.
We will live in a world where every aspect of our identity will be completely customisable. Therefore, affirming a received identity – given by God to be his human image-bearers, made with flesh and bone, male and female, for the cultivation of the world – will be radically counter-cultural.
But it will also be life-giving. The anxiety of self-creation is already crippling Gen Z and millennials.
The church may be the last place that accepts you as you’re made, not as you’re projected.
2.Goodness of creation in a disembodied world
We will begin to live more of our lives disembodied, either as avatars in VR spaces or holograms using AR technology.
The separation we feel – between our physical bodies and surroundings and our virtually expanded consciousness – will grow. It will be easy to begin to see the infinite possibilities of our virtual world and bodies as better and more real than the physical world.
Secularism disenchanted the world and stripped it of transcendent, sacramental meaning. The metaverse offers a transcendence knockoff when it fulfils, as one podcaster put it, ‘the very long-term human aspiration to be able to enter a completely imaginary world’.
As disciples of Jesus, we insist upon the goodness of our physical world and bodies. Adam’s first, most fundamental job was to cultivate a garden. Jesus calls his followers to care for the sick, visit the lonely, lift up the downtrodden, and steward the environment.
We know a virtual world created by publicly-traded companies will never be more real or important than the world God created and called ‘very good’.
Followers of Jesus must resist constant digital connection, but rather seek out communities where people intentionally disconnect from virtual reality to be present with others, looking them in the eye, giving them a hug, and simply being with them. This will be counter-cultural in the best way.
3.The grace of limits in a ‘limitless’ world
The metaverse will present us with the opportunity to experience glimpses of power that only God has.
The readiness of information will give us a glimpse of being omniscient. The ability to create worlds and identities will give us a glimpse of being omnipotent. The conquering of geographic boundaries will allow us to be wherever we want to be at any given time, approximating omnipresence.
The breaking down of space-time barriers as we’re able to travel back in time through VR experiences will give us a glimpse of eternity. Our futuristic tower of Babel is luring us in with promises of limitlessness.
Disciples of Jesus will need to resist by embracing God-given limits.
We can be a presence in our local communities, focus on the slow incremental growth of systems and structures that lead to people’s flourishing (both physical and virtual), and embrace the increasingly unfashionable phrase ‘I don’t know’.
Our lives can manifest the truth that we can’t be everywhere, and we can’t be everything, and that’s a gift from the God who is.
Faithfulness on a new frontier
While we can’t predict all the ways the metaverse will change us, we know that Christian witness is always counter-cultural.
The metaverse may promise godlike power and knowledge, but like all idols, it will take more than it gives. Despite its allure, the metaverse will ultimately point beyond itself to the transcendent king whose words made non-virtual reality a reality.
Like every technological innovation, the metaverse will bring both opportunities and threats. But if we begin the hard work of discipleship today, we might find resilient disciples of Jesus faithfully leading on the edge of a new frontier, working for the flourishing of everyone – physically and virtually – with confident humility in the face of monumental change.
A version of this first appeared at The Gospel Coalition. Reproduced with permission.
Ian Harber, a communications director working in Texas, and Patrick Miller, pastor at The Crossing Church in Missouri.