D.J. Soto believes Christianity can be renewed through worship in virtual space. His VR mega-church is even attracting atheists.
Author: Kristen FrenchBY Kristen French
The first time D. J. Soto strapped on an Oculus Rift and stepped into virtual reality, he felt like the ancient prophets must have felt—arriving in the promised land that would fulfill his destiny. It was a summer Friday in 2016, and the virtual world he was visiting, AltSpaceVR, was just a year old. Billing itself as a free social network in virtual reality, AltSpaceVR allows its users to toggle between 2-D and 3-D, using a virtual-reality headset or a computer monitor to explore the space. When Soto entered, he found a virtual world that was practically empty: just a few avatars attending quiz shows or cheesy comedy performances. Still, the young preacher was electrified.
In all his years as a pastor, Soto had never had an atheist at his service. In virtual reality, atheists regularly came to listen to him preach about divine love.
In the months since he'd quit his job as a pastor at a branch of his local megachurch in Reading, Pennsylvania, Soto had been looking for a way to create a radically inclusive church. After all, he had embarked on a career in ministry to introduce as many people as possible to God's love. Scripture called for men of the cloth to reach into the most unreceptive corners of the world and find common ground with outsiders: the weirdos, the sinners, the dammed, the indisposed. But Christianity, Soto believed, had stalled in this mission. The ministers he knew were happy preaching only to those who walked through their doors on Sunday. The only way to spread the good news as he envisioned, Soto decided, was to found his own church.
Soto's head buzzed with ideas. He felt called to become a spiritual entrepreneur—an "apostle" in the lingo of some Christian writers whose thinking had come to influence him. Soto imagined bringing religion directly to the people by offering sermons or bible study in unusual places, like backwater towns, CrossFit gyms, campgrounds, and bars. That November, Soto convinced his wife, Kari, to join him on his mission. They sold their home and most of their belongings and piled their five young children into a 30-foot trailer. Their plan was to head to California, by way of backroads, launching a series of pop-up churches along the way.
But gradually Soto's plan shifted. AltSpaceVR was exactly what he'd been looking for. Across the country churches were rolling out digital offerings—building livestreaming tools and message boards to engage the young and allow seniors, the sick, or disabled people to worship remotely. Soto had even used some of those tools to launch his own church online five years earlier. But virtual reality felt like a radical next step. It felt tangible, a digital world that could convey the feeling of communing in worship.