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Religion & Liberty: Volume 35, Number 4

Worship in the Metaverse

    Health is the silence of the organs. When one’s bodily organs function as they should, there is a relative silence within the body. A pancreas is neither heard nor felt as long as it is functioning properly. A malfunctioning pancreas, however, cries out with pain and discomfort. And so the normal functioning of the bodily organs goes on largely unnoticed.  

    The COVID pandemic left most houses of worship with no choice but to go online. This opened the door to digital worship as a constant, with many questioning the need for physical presence in a sanctuary. Must we worship bodily to worship at all?

    Luke the Evangelist, a physician and author of the Gospel of Luke, wanted his readers to notice the body—especially in the final chapter of the text. Anatomy abounds in the account of the resurrection as Luke invites his readers to meet Jesus on an Emmaus-bound road with Cleopas and his nameless companion.

    While walking with resurrected feet, Jesus used resurrected vocal cords to talk. Days prior, those vocal cords cried out, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Yet Jesus now spoke of how Moses and all the prophets foretold the events that had just passed.

    Along with feet and mouths, other parts of the body appear in this account: Resurrected eardrums that had once heard “Crucify him!” (Mark 15:13) were now met with the flummoxed inquiries of Cleopas. Later in the narrative, Jesus broke bread with resurrected hands as eyes opened, hearts burned, and mouths were set agape in awe and worship.

    The feet, mouths, ears, hands, eyes, and hearts make it clear: Worship and the wonder of the human body come together in Luke’s Gospel. This post-resurrection account combines salvation and the senses, faith in Christ Jesus and the fleshy promises of the empty tomb. The resurrection of Jesus forever altered our understanding of the human body and the way that our bodies respond in worship. Because the Divine Physician is risen, our organs cannot remain silent—they cry out in worship with hope and rejoicing.

    An emerging technology—the “metaverse”—has the potential to alter this understanding of the human body and worship. While it is difficult to arrive at a single definition for the metaverse, it is generally understood as a 3D version of the internet. The metaverse is an immersive virtual world that is accessed by means of a virtual reality headset. The digital world that is the metaverse is beginning to transform how people live, work, play, meet, and worship. The last on this list—worship in the metaverse—is our focus here.

    The Oklahoma-based megachurch Life.Church recently began offering worship services in the metaverse. Others are sure to follow. Bringing Christian worship to the metaverse raises many questions: Does this sort of worship accord with God’s plans for worship? What are the implications of merging digital media and the divine service? Which specific technologies should or should not be used for worship? Which aspects of worship can or cannot be mediated? What might the metaverse do to Christian congregations? Are some ecclesiologies or Christian traditions more or less congenial to worship in the metaverse?

    The resurrection of Jesus forever altered our understanding of the human body and the way that our bodies respond in worship.

    What might the metaverse do to Christian congregations? Are some ecclesiologies or Christian traditions more or less congenial to worship in the metaverse?

    Answering all these questions is beyond the scope of this article. However, this article will seek to clarify the opaque world of worship in the metaverse, enabling interested readers to investigate further with an enhanced vocabulary.

    Worship: An Assembly Around What?

    Across various Christian traditions, the topic of worship is highly discussed and widely divergent. Although corporate worship is a feature present in all Christendom, there is tremendous diversity in both the theology and practice of worship. From an ecumenical perspective, defining worship can be very difficult.

    Is there anything commonly held about corporate worship across the majority of Christian traditions? At the very least, agreement exists that corporate worship by its very nature involves assembling for worship, transcending differences of theology and practice.

    Scripture even depicts corporate worship as an assembly. While the New Testament uses several different words to talk about worship (latreia, threskeia, leitourgia), the word ecclesia expresses the essentially corporate nature of worship. At a minimum, corporate worship involves coming together, convening, or assembling in some way (1 Cor. 11:18, 20; 14:23). Gordon W. Lathrop, in his book Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology, argues that assembling is the most basic feature of Christian worship: “Assembly, a gathering together of participating persons, constitutes the most basic symbol of Christian worship. All the other symbols and symbolic actions of liturgy depend upon this gathering being there in the first place.”

    Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1435)

    Yet, almost immediately, this simple assertion runs into problems. Does this assembly have to be in person within the same physical space? Or can this assembly be in a digitally mediated space such as the metaverse? Can it be a hybrid of the two, with some people gathering in person while others livestream at home? Unfortunately, Scripture is silent on these questions, since the churches in Corinth and Philippi, existing in a pre-scientific and pre-digital age, knew only in-person gatherings. This means that contemporary Christians must develop some more nuanced understandings regarding worship, digital media, and how they relate to the human body.

    Whether in person or in the metaverse, assembling for worship assumes there is a center around which the assembly coalesces. What is at the center of this corporate worship? Worship is an assembly around what?

    Avery Dulles, in his classic ecclesiological text Models of the Church, explores the distinct emphases within worship. Dulles’ five models of the church—Church as Institution, Church as Mystical Communion, Church as Sacrament, Church as Herald, and Church as Servant—all coalesce around different centers. According to Dulles, various ecclesiological models place different aspects of the worship service at the center of worship. For instance, the Church as Sacrament model identifies the Eucharist as being the centerpiece of worship, while the Church as Herald model recognizes the Word of God proclaimed and heard as being the centerpiece of worship.

    Dulles makes it clear: Different Christian traditions place different things at the center of corporate worship. While this insight may not immediately help us make sense of the church in the metaverse, it will play an important role as we explore a framework for a balanced understanding as the church looks to the future of worship in the metaverse.

    Worship: An Assembly of What?

    While different Christian traditions may disagree on what is at the center of worship, there is agreement that worship is an assembly of people gathered for a common religious practice. Approaching worship from this perspective shifts exploration toward topics such as creatureliness, embodiment, and what it means to be human.

    Martin Luther, in his explanation of the first article of the Apostles’ Creed, offers a basic understanding of what it means to be an embodied human creature: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.” Notably, Luther connects creatureliness to the bodily senses.

    John Calvin, in his Catechism of the Church of Geneva, echoes Luther’s emphasis on the importance of the bodily senses as they relate to Christian anthropology. Calvin connects the sacraments to the bodily senses so that God’s promises are comprehended through all those senses:

    As we are surrounded with this body of clay, we need figures or mirrors to exhibit a view of spiritual and heavenly things in a kind of earthly manner; for we could not otherwise attain to them. At the same time, it is our interest to have all our senses exercised in the promises of God, that they may be the better confirmed to us.

    In other words, Calvin argues for a multisensory relationship between the creatures and the Creator. Calvin indicates that the bodily senses are integral to being a human creature and that these senses are vital when it comes to receiving the promises of God.  

    The importance of the bodily senses is certainly not limited to Protestant traditions. Drawing on insights from the ancient Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, Pope Francis highlighted the role of the bodily senses in an address from the Vatican in 2017:

    In the human body, the senses are our first connection to the world ad extra; they are like a bridge towards that world; they enable us to relate to it. The senses help us to grasp reality and at the same time to situate ourselves in reality. Not by chance did Saint Ignatius appeal to the senses for the contemplation of the mysteries of Christ and truth.

    Pope Francis, like many theologians before him, indicates that the bodily senses play a crucial role in interacting with the world in general and worship in particular.

    Eastern Orthodox theology also has something to say on this topic. John Zizioulas, in his Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, explores how the church is an incarnate community in communion with the Trinity. According to Zizioulas, one cannot be fully human without being in relation to others, just as the church cannot be the Body of Christ without being incarnate: “A Church must incarnate people, not ideas or beliefs.”

    Although Lutherans, Calvinists, Catholics, and Orthodox may disagree on worship theologically, they agree on worship anthropologically. These Christian traditions agree that worship involves wholly human creatures engaged in the ongoing communion of body and soul, eyes, ears, members, reason, and senses.

    Worship: An Assembly with What?

    Having established that worship is an assembly of human persons (sensory creatures), we can now venture to another nuance of the worship question: Worship is an assembly with what? With what tools or technologies do we assemble for worship?

    Contemporary worship is an assembly with many different technological artifacts: There may be pulpits and pews, buildings and baptistries, crucifixes and candles, speakers and screens, cameras and computers. Those gathered for worship assemble with multiple forms of media, such as Bibles, hymnals, artwork, and video.

    While technology and media are often conflated, they are not identical or interchangeable. Technology can be understood as tools or instruments. (To be certain, this is not an exhaustive understanding of technology.) Media, on the other hand, are often understood as conduits for communication. Media are that which convey ideas, images, or information. For example, Martin Luther in his lectures on Isaiah recognized the ways in which worship and media intersect: “As the God who is worshiped, God is clothed in the earthly media of the Word, of Baptism, and of the Lord’s Supper, wherein he reveals himself.” Although it may often go unnoticed, corporate worship—both past and present—relies heavily on media.

    Just because media are conduits of communication does not mean they are entirely passive or neutral. Marshall McLuhan, an influential media theorist, highlighted the ways in which media shape not only communication but also the sensory creatures involved in this communication. A prevalent theme within McLuhan’s work is the notion of media serving as an extension of the human body in some way. For example, in his book The Medium Is the Massage, McLuhan notes: “Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments. All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical.”

    These extensions, however, are not without consequence. As one aspect of the body is extended, the other senses and human faculties are transformed as well. McLuhan goes on to say, “The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change.” Thus, media are conduits for communication that influence not only the message itself but also the recipients of the message. For example, livestream video of in-person worship extends the sight and sounds of the sanctuary, but not the taste, touch, and smell of the worship service. Those viewing the livestream worship see and hear the sanctuary while the rest of their senses are located elsewhere. Their eyes and ears are extended into the worship space while their nose, tongue, and other body parts are not. Digital media allows part of you—but not all of you—to be somewhere far from the rest of your body.

    Digital media’s ability to extend some of our senses results in a fragmented bodily experience, hence a disintegration of the senses. Part of you may be somewhere, but not all of you. The opposite of this is common sense (sensus communis), wherein there is communion and harmony of the bodily senses. Common sense occurs when all your senses—sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell—are gathered together in a harmonious and singular experience.

    Worshipping in the metaverse is devoid of common sense—you are here, you are there, you are everywhere. In short, you are nowhere.

    In-person worship is a common sense experience: You see the sanctuary, stained glass, cross or crucifix, and candles. You smell the incense. You taste the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. You touch the pews and hymnals and embrace others. You hear the Word proclaimed, crying babies, and the din of the worshiping space. In-person worship is the communion of senses wherein taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing coalesce in a common experience.

    Metaverse worship, however, ruptures the communion of our senses. A VR headset transports everything to a virtual site of worship; eyes and ears and minds extend into the metaverse, while noses, mouths, hands, hearts, and guts remain elsewhere. The sense of touch is relegated to a couch or computer chair while smelling a house, coffee shop, or dormitory. Since the metaverse is a place devoid of tastes, VR worshippers taste whatever happens to be at the ready where they are worshiping: pancakes, coffee, or Doritos. Worshipping in the metaverse is devoid of common sense—you are here, you are there, you are everywhere. In short, you are nowhere. 

    Does this mean that nothing happens when people worship in the metaverse? Far from it. To be certain, something real and meaningful can and does occur when people gather for worship in the metaverse. The Gospel can be proclaimed and people can come to faith in Jesus through digitally mediated worship. The metaverse is a place where people can worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23­–24).

    However, the more integrated the bodily senses, the more worship engages the fullness of the sensory creature. If worship is to grab us by the head and the heart, the gut and the soul, then it needs to engage the body and soul, eyes, ears, members, reason, and all the bodily senses. Unlike in-person worship, worship in the metaverse is a disintegrated, dismembered, here-there-everywhere-yet-nowhere practice of worship.

    Keeping Balance in a Virtual World

    With all that said, outrightly rejecting the possibility of worship in the metaverse is not a responsible path forward. After all, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found in its November 2021 report that 80% of U.S. congregations now utilize a hybrid worship service in which congregants simultaneously gather in person and online. While livestream worship is not the same thing as worship in the metaverse, both are digitally or technologically mediated and involve a rupture of the bodily senses. With so much online and digital worship happening in the church today, there is tremendous exigency for developing a framework for maintaining a balanced approach to such worship in all its forms. This requires accounting for such key components of online worship as ecclesiological foundations, patterns of habitual use, and the technologies themselves.

    This frenetic fragmentation of our bodies will eventually leave us unable to remember what it is like to assemble for worship as wholly present human beings.

    At the foundation of any Christian worship are certain ecclesiological presuppositions. As previously mentioned, this is where Avery Dulles’ insights are helpful. Each Christian tradition identifies a different center of corporate worship; for example, some traditions identify the proclamation of the Word or the celebration of the Eucharist as the sine qua non of corporate worship. As such, different ecclesiological foundations are more or less congenial to digital forms of worship; a tradition that values proclamation of the Word may see great possibility in online worship, whereas one that gives priority to the Eucharist may see online worship as untenable.

    Patterns of use and their implications must also be considered. What happens to a Christian community when it moves online? Is a congregation dismembered when some of its members worship in person while others worship online? (If so, what happens to mutual care, fellowship, and encouragement?) Changes in worship practices will have impacts on habituation, formation, and community. Altering where and how we worship will alter our values and virtues, possibly encouraging a more solipsistic and individualistic approach not only to worship but to the Faith as a whole. A thoughtful approach to worshipping in the metaverse will consider its impact on our relationships, community, and practices.

    Finally, a framework for maintaining a balanced approach to online worship must attend to the technological tools themselves. VR headsets have different affordances than that of a television screen. Broadcasting a worship service over the radio is not the same as conducting a service in the metaverse. As such, we must carefully attend to the affordances, design features, and implications of the particular technological tools we use for worship. Is idolatry a real threat here, not only by making fetishes of our gadgets but also in imagining God and proper worship of Him in inappropriate ways?

    sutton chart

    When all these elements are brought together, this framework looks something like a seesaw or a scale. At the fulcrum of the seesaw are the ecclesiological presuppositions upon which worship hinges. Balanced atop this fulcrum is habitual use on one end and the technological tools on the other end. Since both of these are dynamic and ever changing, they must be constantly assessed and adjusted to maintain balance. For example, VR headsets and other tools for accessing the metaverse will continue to develop and change, which will in turn have an impact on patterns of use and worship practices. Maintaining reflective equilibrium depends on holding these three elements together in a good and godly balance. Failing to consider any or all of these elements may be ruinous for a Christian community. 

    Upholding Worship in a World of Uploading

    Worship in the metaverse, along with all the other digitally mediated forms of worship, extends part of our bodies while leaving the rest behind. This frenetic fragmentation of our bodies will eventually leave us unable to remember what it is like to assemble for worship as wholly present human beings. While the world uploads into the metaverse, the church must give priority to worship with the wholly present human body.       

    Why? Because the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus brings redemption to the whole human person: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23). Faith in Christ Jesus and the fleshy promises of the empty tomb grips our head and heart, gut and soul, eyes, ears, members, reason, and all our bodily senses. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so—not with detached bodily organs but as whole humans responding in worship.

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    Rev. A. Trevor Sutton is senior pastor at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Lansing, Mich., and a Ph.D. candidate at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He also teaches in the digital humanities graduate program at Concordia University Ann Arbor. Sutton has written several books, including Redeeming Technology (coauthored with Brian Smith, M.D.) and Authentic Christianity (coauthored with Gene Edward Veith Jr.), and his writing on technology has appeared in the Washington Post, Religion News Service, the Christian Century, and elsewhere.