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PODCAST 014: DJ Soto & Planting a Church in Virtual Reality

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Here's my question: "Can 'church' work in virtual reality?" To be honest, I (Jeff) went in a skeptic.  To find out the truth, we interviewed DJ Soto, the first Church Planter in Virtual Reality, for a conversation on the theology of Virtual Reality. Midway thru the interview, I realized that this was completely the wrong question to be asking. God moves in virtual reality, and DJ's got the stories... the testimonies... to show it!

So, seriously, how can Virtual Reality create disciples? Listen to the interview and find out.

ON THE SHOW

Guest: DJ Soto
VR Church
Twitter // Facebook // Instagram

Host: Jeff Reed
THECHURCH.DIGITAL
Twitter // Facebook // Instagram // LinkedIn

Co-Host: Rey DeArmas
Christ Fellowship Miami Online
Twitter // Facebook // Instagram

SHOW NOTES

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Love you all! Praying for your Churches and your Ministry Online.
 
Jeff Reed
THECHURCH.DIGITAL
 

TRANSCRIPT

Jeff Reed: 00:00 Welcome to The Church Digital Podcast. My name is Jeff Reed and I'm excited about today's episode because I'm featuring someone that's more aggressive in technology than I am myself. It's rare when we find these people. I've been accused of being cutting edge, even bleeding edge technology and this person here has gone whole hog and I am excited to have this conversation with him. DJ Soto of VR Church, he literally plants a church in virtual reality, not a physical church, but a virtual church in virtual reality. He's been featured in Wired magazine, BBC, as well as, recently on Comedy Central. They did a shtick on him because he was baptizing people virtually, actually, doing the ordinances in VR and lives are being changed in VR and DJ's got these stories that he's sharing and wanting to talk about it and so here's just a little sneak peek of some of the stuff that I learned today.

Jeff Reed: 00:55 Here's what I found out. Number one, VR baptisms count. You can go and write that down wherever you are in your podcast, driving. Number one, VR baptisms count. Number two, physical church has a different set of rules than church online. We all know that online church listeners, you got that. Here's what I didn't know, VR Church has a different set of rules than digital church, Church Online, than doing the physical, it's this whole other deal. And I loved unpacking this and I learned the third thing, but you know what, you're going to have to listen to the podcast because I'm not even going to get into it here in this intro. So let me get out of the way and join in as DJ Soto, Rey DeArmas from Christ Fellowship Miami, of course, and myself, sit down and have a conversation about the theology and the community, centered around virtual reality. Here you go.

Jeff Reed: 01:44 We met at Church IT Conference I guess was about a year ago up in Washington DC. And I was really just encouraged by the breakout session that you'd led through there and how you were showing the community and a lot of that. So anyway, that's just really what we wanted to get into and flesh out. Rey and I will just be dialoguing with you and we'll see where we get to so is that, okay? Is that good?

DJ Soto: 02:17 Yeah. And Rey, where are you from?

Rey DeArmas: 02:18 Miami, Florida. Like Jeff, I'm here. I'm the Church Online Pastor at Christ Fellowship Miami. That's what I do. Just got a great love for tech, for tech community, and just how God's bringing folks together through these different avenues. I've actually been following some of this stuff that you have been doing. So I'm really excited to hear straight from the horse's mouth, as far as, how God's been using your stuff and and I just think it's amazing.

DJ Soto: 02:43 So then just out of curiosity. So Christ Fellowship, do they, adopt the idea that an attendee can be an online attendee?

Rey DeArmas: 02:51 They still struggle through that? So just being completely honest, they still struggled through that. Jeff will tell you, cause Jeff helped launch what we have here as far as church online. It's a hard struggle here because even our senior pastor is so not tech oriented, you know, and he'll be the first to tell you. He's like basically shut off almost all tech functions off of his iPhone. He's got an iPhone. But you know, even things like MMS don't even go through because he shut them all down. And so these are still things that, that he struggles through.

DJ Soto: 03:22 Yeah. And this is, I mean, I don't know your pastor, so this is not a criticism towards him at all. But what I find is senior leadership has been educated in a seminary system that, you know, was predigital. So it'd be interesting to see what happens with the graduates as of late, you know. I haven't really kept up with seminaries and their curriculum and how they're approaching online church or ministry. I think like you said, it's generational. I think it's educational. That construct wasn't even, part of the conversation. So they've either had to grow into it, adapt into it. Some have, many haven't and so you see the expressions. I think it's hard for them, especially the ones that want to get into online ministry. They want to, but there's like, you know, theological and ecclesiological strong holds, but just like, you know, from seminary, that's tough to shake.

Rey DeArmas: 04:17 You know, DJ, a lot of them are still struggling through on that level. They're still struggling through multisite. So they're like two generations behind in regards to struggling through what's really ecclesiological, what's a church and what's not a church? They're still struggling through, well is a campus like part of a church? Is it a separate church? But when I hear like certain folks struggle through whether or not a campus is a church? That's where I'm like, "oh no, then, you're not even there to discuss online community." You're still struggling on somebody showing up in person, but the guy on stage, who never really even interacts with people in a one on one, whether that's like church community coming together, then you're never really going to buy into the real community that's happening here.

Jeff Reed: 04:57 Like Eric Geiger, Mariners Church, I think it was like episode 9 or 10. And he really delved into like the theological aspects. He came on, thought we were talking about Omni church and instead he just went theological, defining Ekklesia and it was a really good conversation. Honestly from Eric Geiger, who traditionally, you know, struggles with some of the technological aspects and in context, it was a really heartfelt conversation wrestling with this. So DJ Soto, obviously you're much more on the liberal side of defining what technology, how communities define us. Like how do you define church? How do you define community? What does that look like in the VR space?

DJ Soto: 05:46 Yeah. I think, the broad view of it for me has been a journey. So let me give you a long answer here. The journey for me was, you know, my wife and I were part the ministry and we left that denomination, because we felt like God wanting us to seek something new spiritually. So when we left that denomination, there was kind of like a desert period, so to speak, where we weren't going to church. We actually kind of didn't even want to go to church. We just we're kind of burned out by religion, and that type of thing. So what happened for us as we started experiencing online church, and this is back, I don't know, mid 2005-2006, somewhere around there where I experienced, Liquid Church.

DJ Soto: 06:27 It was like an online church in New Jersey. And I think Life.Church and I started experiencing that spiritual community online. The worship, the music, the chat and looking back, those were memorable moments. I still have that memory imprinted in my mind, that experience, in that 2D environment. And so I think 2019, I'm the lead pastor of a church in virtual reality. For me, that conversation about is this "valid" happened like 10 years ago, you know, 10 to 12 years ago when experiencing those online churches. I think in 2010, the church that I was a part of, I help them launch a stream online, they wouldn't call it an online campus. I think they struggled with that. But, it was video player, live feed, chat interface and I saw the ministry happen there, as well.

DJ Soto: 07:20 So I think for me it was like a long time ago where it just came to the occlusion very quickly, seeing the stories, seeing the life change, changing me personally through online ministry. Really just came to a very good conclusion that online ministry was for me and that just naturally led into VR. So there wasn't, maybe there was a little bit, but not much, where when VR came that I'd had to question whether this was an experience to be had or a church experience. I kinda just dove right into it. I think I'd settled all those ecclesiological and theological things years before. That was a long kind of bird's eye view. I think specifically to your question, for me, is when Jesus says where two or three are gathered, there I am in the midst, in my name. There I am in the midst of them. And if that's not church than I don't know what is. And so when we gather in virtual reality, and so when we in that immersive 360 environment and there's two or three of us and we're there in the name of Jesus and Jesus is in the midst of us then we're having church. Then, because, you know, I think many people, I don't know you guys, but I would assume you would agree church is not a one hour event on a Sunday morning. I think the church is the body. It's the Ecclesia. It's living that out and it's interesting because people do say if you missed church on Sunday morning, well you didn't go to church. That's kind of the attitude or like maybe some of the baggage from previous years, but that's not the case anymore, at least as far as I'm concerned.

DJ Soto: 08:59 And we've experienced God in that environment. We just sense God's spirit in VR. And I know that's confusing for many people. I think that if they're struggling with digital, like online streaming, online campuses, then they are gonna struggle with VR. But what I think is going to happen, is you have the physical experience and then I don't put this down in value, but just meeting an interaction you had, online church or, or online platforms, not in value, but just you're taking away the physical, right. And this is more chat interfaces, maybe Skype life groups, but now you're going to see this curve go back up with VR because now we're in these 360 immersive environments or we're talking with each other or giving each other high fives, giving each other hugs in church again. So there is this strange new technology that's like coming back up, as far as, digital interactions and that we've never seen before in history. So, that's kind of the long, medium and short version of it.

Jeff Reed: 10:01 Yeah, there was a lot right there. That was beautiful. Thank you. But let's back up and kind of just fine tune some things. So, because you made the joke about the one hour on Sunday and that's the thing Rey and I talk a lot about on in this show. Where we're spending all our attention all our time, all our energies towards that one hour on Sunday and if you miss it, then you're a heathen. Whereas Christ came for us 168 hours a week, more of a discipleship ideology where it's more than just, you know, Sunday 9:00 AM. What does that look like virtually now? I'm going to confess, like I want to get the oculus quest. I've been waiting for that specific headset to come out. So my only point of reference in VR is like Stephen King's longboard man, that's all I got.

DJ Soto: 10:56 The oculus quest - I like to show them with that.

Jeff Reed: 10:57 Yeah. In context of, the one hour Sunday, you know, I see the video clips, I've read the article, I've seen the photos and most recently, Wired Magazine you had the thing. Most recently, I think it was Christianity Today was talking about the baptism of a person in VR and a lot of that, what I've seen but, and we can get there too, but in a discipleship perspective, like is some of that, the one on one or the one on four, the smaller groups, typical community, like what does that model look like in context of VR?

DJ Soto: 11:32 Well, just to back up a little bit, it's kind of funny. You're talking about Wired and some other things. Most recently talking about baptism was comedy central with Trevor Noah, is that his name? That was pretty funny. I mean, obviously, they made fun of us quite a bit, but my favorite part was when they call me Pastor Morpheus, I was like, okay, I'll take that. That's a fun, a little statement there. Back when we did baptisms years ago. I'm sure we'll touch on that, but if there was a lot of, not a lot but a little bit of press about that and I didn't think much about it. I was like, when we did it, it wasn't on our radar that it would cause a little stir and obviously it did. And then we did another one recently and for some reason it blew up even more. Things like being on BBC and just calls from all over the world, to talk about what, cause it's another surge of people discovering virtual reality church. And so, I think for us, if I can back up, cause I know you're talking about like discipleship and community. Let me just talk about the hardware and the tech because I think people get the general idea about things. People get the general idea of what VR is but, you know, you put on this headset and this is the Oculus Rift S, this is the second, I don't know if it's second generation. It's like maybe a 1.5 of the original oculus and when you put this on and it really overlays a new reality over your eyes, which is hard to imagine. It'd be like if you put contact lenses in and it completely changed everything that you saw. And so when I look up and down and left and right, I see this whole immersive environment around me and perhaps your audience doesn't need this, but I found recently, that people still don't know what VR is. I was talking with like 50 or 60 pastors from maybe it was from the Pacific northwest and some guy raises his hand.

DJ Soto: 13:32 He's like, is VR like a zoom call? I was like, no, it's not, let me start over. Right. I didn't say it that way. But the point is, I don't think people realize that you put this on and there's no shortage of like youtube videos of people reacting to it. Like jumping back, falling over. It does something that a brain that, I had a friend over here who put it on and a dinosaur was coming at her and she like freaked out. Like, you know, it's fake. But the virtual reality is so immersive that it tricks the brain into thinking that it's real. And so what you're going to hear a lot about VR is that it feels real and that's why people are reacting and freaking out. So you put that on you, you become an Avatar. These versions of the Oculus have touch controllers.

DJ Soto: 14:17 So when I raised my hand, and this is important to talk about like discipleship and immersion, like when I raised my hand in the real world or we don't say real world, we say the physical world, because what we experienced in VR is actually very real. When I raised my hands in the physical world, my Avatar does the same thing as digital hands will raise up and we can waive, give each other high fives when I'm preaching on a Sunday, like they'll see all my gestures and they'll see my head turn. It's pretty crazy. This is the Rift S. It connects to a computer but this guy is the Oculus Quest. For VR enthusiasts we believe this is like the first mainstream VR device that everyone should get. This is like, you know, like the first couple of iPhones took a little bit of, you know, and kind of work out some things and you've got a really good functional iPhone.

DJ Soto: 15:04 VR had, you know, it was compelling and an awesome experience, but it needed a few couple of tweaks and we think that this is going to be the one that really, I don't not necessarily say it's going to go mainstream, but it has the potential for it and it's definitely is so user friendly to be able to use this. And it's just as good as the Rift S that I showed you there. But so think about that. You're overlaying a new reality. You're creating avatars that are very lifelike and these avatars are getting more sophisticated. Like if you see some of my early images of VR Church, it looked like a Nintendo. Was it the wheezes, those me's characters, you know, talking about. So it kind of looked like that and things are evolving where some of the latest videos I posted, I wouldn't say hyper-realistic but very realistic skin tones.

DJ Soto: 15:52 And at one point I think someone mentioned just a quick glance of the video, she thought it was real. And then you know, the brain like analyze and said, oh, this is a virtual thing. So it's crazy how it's going to be like that where you're going to walk. And I'm going to, you know, see Jeff just as he with is, if that's the Avatar he chose to be. So what that does for us in discipleship and relationships in VR is that we're able to have interactions. And so a very similar to like if you would have discipleship or a Small Group in the physical world. We do that in virtual reality and it feels real. That's the thing you're going to hear me say over and over again. And so when we get together, we have two small groups right now, one on Tuesday, one on Thursday led by different leaders.

DJ Soto: 16:37 And so they'll get together eight to 12 people and then they'll create an environment. There'll be on the moon, there'll be in a forest though. That's a whole other world of VR to talk about these experiences that you can have. Yeah like if you're walking into a house for a small group and you greet each other, you say hello, you just have a conversation and you group up and talk. That's what's happening in virtual reality. There's really isn't much difference and the immersion makes it feel real. And I think it's a disruptive technology for sure. And there's a lot to say about that, but that's like the fundamental elements of how we do small groups. Sometimes they're impromptu prayer sessions or prayer meetings. One thing that we get criticism for, people say, "Well, won't people be fake because they're an Avatar? They're going to change their persona." And we actually found it to be the complete opposite because of the Avatar there is a sense of anonymity and with that anonymity came to deep authenticity. So it's nothing like I've ever seen before in ministry. I've been in ministry for over 20 years in some form or fashion, big and small churches. And the barrier for whether it's intimidation or fear of being judged, that barrier just melts away so quickly in VR and people. I mean, I can tell you story after story, my friend was watching you preach and he said, some kid started talking to me about suicide and I was like, he just met you. How was he talking to you about that? And I was like, yeah, you take that one little story and multiply it times 100 and something about the nature of the platform, the anonymity, the Avatar, just leads to deep authenticity. So discipleship, there's very little pretense. So, you know, as sometimes discipleship is trusting the person, developing that relationship, you know, that can be an intimidating thing and that does still exist. It's not that VR eliminates that, but for some reason it melts that away very quickly. So when it comes to discipleships, relationships, we're connecting, we're talking, and people are less afraid to just get to the heart of the matter of the heart of the issues. And that's really kind of, I don't know, magnified discipleship for us. And it's very beautiful actually to experience.

Rey DeArmas: 18:56 The anonymity almost seems like, because of the Avatar to me, like the first thing that comes to mind is almost like the experience that somebody gets when they walk into a Roman Catholic church and they sit in a confessional and they've got a barrier between them and the priest. Right. I mean, does it seem like that where it's like, because a barrier exists, you have the ability to be more open with another guy?

DJ Soto: 19:14 Yeah, I never thought about in that way, but that's a perfect example. I think that, there is a sense of protection. You know, they're not judging me for the way I look or who I am or who they knew me to be and, you know, in my town or whatever. I think that's a great way to put it. They just feel comfortable because there is a little bit of protection there and people want to talk about what's going on. You know, we kind of hide those things. And I joke around with my pastor friends, you know, I kind of like poked back a little bit and I said, "Well, I think people are coming to your church as an Avatar there. They're already projecting this best self into your environment."

Rey DeArmas: 19:49 Oh, don't go there.

DJ Soto: 19:52 And so I poke back a little bit just for fun, but, it kind of makes a point that, we're all projecting something.

Jeff Reed: 20:01 The people who tend to come, is it a once or twice and they're gone? Is it like leaders, is their long term development where people, people are regularly engaging? Like I, you know, I started to use the word Avatar, but like what's the model for somebody that attends? Like what types of profiles do you see coming out?

DJ Soto: 20:29 One broad idea is that it's one big experiment. We haven't established models or concepts that have been solidified. It's even constantly changing. Even recently, you know, we talked about, the comedy central and the BBC, stuff like that. Let me give you a physical church example. What's happened to VR church in the past couple of weeks, would be like, let's say you're a hundred person church, one week and then the next week you're a 300-400 person church. So that's basically what's literally happening right now and in real time. I think we're just trying to figure it all out. We thought we had it figured out, like, Oh, here's our large gatherings on Sunday and now we have small groups, we're good and if 300 more people come in. So now we're just scrambling to think about our systems and our structures about how can we shepherd people well? How can we connect them to discipleship or leadership if they want that?

DJ Soto: 21:24 So we're in the middle of all that. As a matter of fact what's happened in the past 10 days is we're immediately planning two more churches. So we have two church experiences on Sunday. One for Europeans cause of a time zone, and one for North America. And then the influx of new people, we said we have to plant at least two more churches. And so that's what we're going to be. We're going to be, you can think of it, multisite. They're all going to have their different flavor and they're in different meta-verses, and I don't mean to try to complicate the conversation, but, so in the next three to four weeks here, we'll have four church plants in virtual reality.

Jeff Reed: 22:00 Now are you breaking up because 100 is like the preferred manageable number? Is that just like you building relationships? Is that a software limitation? What drove this immediate change?

DJ Soto: 22:14 So, let me see if I can simplify the idea. It'd be like if we planted a church in New York City, and then Chicago was like, we don't have a church. Bring a church here. And we went to Chicago. There's different metaverses or different virtual reality cities. We've been in Altspace VR, which is a great platform but there's another one called VR Chat, which is, some of my latest videos have been coming from VR Chat with a realistic avatars and there's one called Rec Room. So we have these different virtual cities and we've only been in this one city. and you know, we always felt like people could come, but with the energy that's been coming, people are like, please come plant a church in our city. Please come plant a church on this side of the city.

DJ Soto: 22:57 So it's not necessarily a technological limitation because we in theory can have as many people, hosted on our server in Altspace. We can have a hundred, we can have a thousand, we can have 10,000, theoretically. Then these other ones are asking us to come. So these other ones are different. There are different technologies, different platforms. So our altspace VR experience is going to be like a megachurch model, a large, music and preaching. The VR chat has technical limitations, but we can't have a thousand on a server. So for that one, we're going to go a house church model. We're going to start developing into house churches there. So I think we're in the middle of trying to figure it all out. And we're doing the mega church and the house church and it's interesting times. So I think you're catching us at a time where we're not overwhelmed but like definitely not, you know, model figured out yet. So, maybe next year it will look a little different. Yeah. So, that's good.

Jeff Reed: 24:01 Very cool. Now tell me this cause and I don't think you said this at the conference I met yet. Like how'd this come into your head? How did you make the jump from, Hey, I'm a pastor to, and you talked a little bit about church online, but there's still, it's a big jump from church online to, "Hey, I'm going to leave my business, I'm going to leave my job and I'm gonna, start planting this church where I'm going to preach and I'm going to put on these goggles and I'm going to engage with people in VR." Talking about unconventional ministry and doing things from a unique perspective when it doesn't necessarily make sense by how the world is looking like this is a big leap for anybody. How did you get to this place? What were the things that kind of God used in your life to get you to here?

DJ Soto: 24:49 Yeah. So I'll give you this, like it's a two to three year journey. Let me give you that, like, you know, 60 second version, two minute version of it. Cause my wife and I were pastors at a mega church in Pennsylvania and I was one of the campus pastors. I did a lot of digital initiatives for them, with their own app, a native app, online. I used their online church platform to launch our own online experience. So different things like that and everything was great. We loved it. But it was about 2016 where I sensed something was wrong inside me. I couldn't identify those little turmoil and working through that discovered that God wanted us to go do something new and we had no idea what new meant. We thought that meant plant physical churches. So that's what we kind of, we sold our stuff and we got a travel trailer and we did a lot of massive radical tactical shifts in our lives to go into physical church plants and went to an arc church planning seminar and you know, we're doing all that stuff. It was about the same time where virtual reality came out and I experienced VR, I experienced social VR and social VR was crazy for me at the time because that's like ready player one or the matrix. Like you're in these virtual worlds with avatars. And when one Friday I was in there and just hit me, I was like, you know what, let's have a church service in here. This would be an amazing experience. So sure enough, that was a Friday. On a Sunday, I had my first church service in VR.

DJ Soto: 26:18 The summer of 2016 and five people came to that event in which for a physical church planter, that'd be devastating if only five people came to your launch day. But for me, I was so excited. One guy who was an atheist from Denmark, he was like, man, I don't believe in God, but I'm curious to see what this is all about. And that really led to like some or a lot of the media attention where getting is because many atheists and agnostics come to VR church. And, that was kinda the beginning of it. And, so through 2016, it was just more of an experiment. Every other week or so, you know, I'd had the church service, you know, not many people had VR. I mean, this was like three years ago. So it's not even like now where it's still a low adoption, but even back then it was much less and we were doing services and sometimes people would show up, sometimes people wouldn't.

DJ Soto: 27:10 So, but I would do the full service whether I'd preach, whether, someone was there or not. I wanted people to pop in expecting there was a service because VR is like that. People just kind of popping in and pop it out and it was about 2017 where the light bulb finally came on. It wasn't an overnight thing. It was a gradual realization, oh, we're not church planters in the physical world we're church planters in virtual reality. And that little shift, is really what kind of skyrocketed things. The energy in our community and the energy from our experience turned into a community. People from different, they were Christians from different part of the world would come and they're like, hey, we want to volunteer, we want to help. So it was kind of like an accidental church plant.

DJ Soto: 27:54 I heard a church planter say that one time, and I didn't think much about it until it happened to us. It was like, "Oh, you're a leader, here's volunteers and I'm preaching and we're doing music and all right, let's do a small group." And then all of a sudden this church like existed and it was a beautiful thing and we just been developing leaders, building the church, launching new churches, all of that. So that's kind of the, I guess, three year bird's eye view of transitioning from a physical church plants to virtual reality, which is very, I probably would have to admit to you that was kind of like a little mental moment. Saying that out loud is kind of like, oh, okay, this is interesting. We're really excited about it and my wife and I have been amazed about what's happening in virtual reality and the ministry there. And, and I feel like we're just scratching the surface. So it's been a lot of fun.

Jeff Reed: 28:51 What percentage of people agree with you and encourage you and what percentage of people look at you like you're crazy?

DJ Soto: 28:58 That's like an evolving number. Don't read the Youtube or Twitter comments for all these like Comedy Central stuff because that can get pretty, negative. People who know us and love us, you know, they might not understand it, but they just believed in us, like Carrie and I, and they just believe in our ministry, you know, we've done ministry with many of these people for a long time. So many of them don't get it, but they love us and support us. So from our circle, so to speak, there's a lot of support and a lot of encouragement and we've made a lot of new friends too that have really just been the wind at our backs. But certainly there is an energy out there that, really resistant towards the, I mean forget sacraments, like just the idea of an online only church and we're really not, it's really more of a virtual reality church. I think there's a big difference between something that's digital and something that's virtual reality. Not to complicate it, but, to go back to the theology of things, I think people are trying to take their digital ecclesiam and copy and paste it to virtual reality and can't.

Jeff Reed: 30:02 Let's unpack that cause that's interesting. So you would separate a physical churches expression of worship digitally, so broadcasting services online, you mentioned the Skype small groups, there's a separate, theological grounding for VR church? Go let's unpack that.

DJ Soto: 30:23 Yeah, I think so. I guess there's many ways to come around it. And like I think many churches would say you couldn't have an online only church, like just completely online, forget virtual reality. Let's say you wanted to use the church online platform and you're going to have a church and you're going to have a Facebook group. I think it's a brilliant idea, but I can see most churches, coming to the conclusion that isn't proper, valid, functional, whatever you want to say, but enter virtual reality with the immersiveness of it and I think that changes the game. I think it's a different beast. And so I've had some people say, you know, this theologian is writing about virtual reality and with all due respect, but they've never experienced it because I think they're trying to take the copy and paste approach and that would make sense on the outside. I could see why someone would do that but once you experience it and experience virtual reality and then experience virtual reality church, it's completely different. So I've had critics come in, not many, but I remember one guy, he was super truthful. And he said, you know, I came in here, I thought this is going to be a joke. And, this is pretty amazing is what he said. And so you have people that on the outside have serious theological reservations. I actually had this pastor, I did a presentation in California and this pastor internally, was like, nope and I didn't know that. So I said, hey man, I'd love to have you come to VR church, come check it out. I had him actually come up on stage with his Avatar and represent his ministry.

DJ Soto: 31:58 And afterwards he said, I want to do virtual reality. So like that little knowledge there is so important for us to communicate what our struggle has been. We can talk about it. I can show you pictures. I can show you images. I can, you know, cast vision all day long, but it takes two seconds in virtual reality for the brain, the light bulb to come on, for the, the spirit to illuminate, to the idea that you can have, a ministry in VR and as we do fully online or fully virtual reality ministry.

Jeff Reed: 32:34 Rey, I feel bad. I'm asking a bunch of questions. Let me ask this. In digital church, in Church online, and Rey may disagree, it's probably one of the top, one of the biggest issues we've got is this idea of consumerism. Is that church online is all we're creating is consumers, we're not creating disciples in the vehicle online ministry to move people from a consumer to a disciple. You know, they're not comfortable doing that in context of Ekklesia and theology and blah, blah, blah. What are the theological issues that you run into when you talk to people other than they don't understand VR, like theological, practical, other than just pure education. Or is education really it? Like, what's the major hurdle you overcome on a regular basis talking with people?

DJ Soto: 33:22 Well, you know, I kind of pushed back a little bit in the sense of like, you know, I love the churches I visited across America. I've visited maybe hundreds. I love the church. I was a part of it. I wouldn't necessarily say I was like a disciple. You know that that one hour event is more just, it's very passive. It's not like you're going in there and have your expressing your gifts. There is aspects to volunteering. There is aspects to getting involved, but I think, you know, many churches I've been a part of who are doing a great job, there's still this element of assuming that their physical construct is doing it well or doing it right. I think you actually need to go back. For me personally to go look at the physical, how that's functioning. Are you, are you actually making disciples not to assume you have a building, you have an event, you have small groups. That's great from a like instructional point of view. But functionally and organically are, is that even actually happening? And then I would argue that when you can take a good hard look at some churches might come inclusion where we could do a lot better of a job. And so what I pushed back a little bit to that, it really kind of illuminates to what we're doing in VR. Not that it's perfect, but it's not, it's when discipleship that we have, when it's done in person and when it's, it's done in an immersive way and people kind of experienced that it's very beautiful. So those interactions are spirit to spirit, a person to person. And so yeah, I think just kind of, for me it's challenging. Well, let's not assume that what's happening physically is done well. It's kind of take a look and then let's apply that also into virtual reality.

Rey DeArmas: 35:01 That's good. You know, DJ, as folks kind of dive into this, I think what a lot more of them will start to realize is how much consumerism actually happens in the physical environment. Right? And so, how are you guys as part of your service, like walk through like somewhat of a surface structure as far as how you guys bridge that gap and get to the community portion for the person who's coming home?

DJ Soto: 35:26 Yeah. And then real quick like how, what would be, just to clarify, like when you say consumerism, what would someone say would be an example of that?

Rey DeArmas: 35:35 It's typically like I sit down and I just absorb content. So I sit down and I just get preached at or you know, hey we sing some songs, I listen to a sermon and then I'm out. And I don't really make any kind of personal connection. I don't have any kind of personal ties or even in the least. Right. Like some churches consider this like in the least of a step, I didn't even fill out a card or I didn't even submit like some kind of next step or anything like that.

DJ Soto: 35:58 So I just want to flush it out a little bit. Cause I remember the argument for a long time ago. I just haven't been in it for a while. So would have church assume that they're doing it right and the attendee is doing you're wrong. Is that the assumption as well?

Rey DeArmas: 36:15 Yeah. So the churches start off with that construct, right? Like we're doing everything we can. And I remember Ed Stetzer to wrote about this and Jeff, you love this article. Ed Stetzer talked about how we can instruct our churches like we do theaters in a sense of one person is exercising his gift and he stands on the stage and everybody else just sits there and just absorbs. And we assume that the body is taking place because one cell is active, but the rest of them are dormant during that time period.

DJ Soto: 36:42 Right and so yeah, and that's I think maybe it wasn't clear in my brain, but now I'm seeing what you're saying is because, I'm just wondering if maybe we got to start there. Like consumerism is not so much the people in the pews, but maybe the leadership or the structure that you've created. So whether that's, you know, physical or whether that's virtual reality, I could create as a leader in VR, a situation that's just about me. Right? Forget the physical, it's just, you know, the VR thing but I don't think that's what we're trying to do. Let me explain a little bit about like what one experiences in virtual reality. And so when they come in, they spawn into our church world and very similar to what you'd see in a church. There's a welcome desk there. There's a prayer area and they'll see the building, so to speak. We're really more in worlds and amphitheaters than like an actual building. But, for lack of better words, they come in and they experience all that. And there's like, you know, people milling about people saying, hi, welcome. We'll have a welcome team there. They'll see a countdown. We kind of do a, I was part of that mega church, so there's a lot of influences from that. You know, so I got a countdown with some, you know, jamming to music going on and there'll be an announcement, hey guys, we're going to start, I can turn on a megaphone and it's kind of like a PA system and I'm in everyone's ear like, hey guys, we're going to get started with VR church soon, it's good to have you. And then once the countdown is done, people will come into our environment and we have different environments that we use and so they'll come in and I'll just greet everyone real quick. We'll go right into a worship song. People ask what's worship like? Well, we do a lot of lyrical videos, so like open resources at Life.Church. They have a lot of lyrical videos and it actually works really, really well. And sometimes we'll have an individual that'll like jam his guitar and sing, and people love that too. We'll cast some vision about the church because we'll have a lot of visitor flow, people that are curious about what VR church is all about. And then another worship song and then we'll go into the sermon. Sermons for us have evolved. I used to deliver them from the stage, with, you know, like the big screen behind me. What we've been able to do now is every sermon is constructed, so we'll go create the environment for it.

DJ Soto: 38:59 We just did the whole book of John. We went chapter by chapter through the book of John and every chapter on a Monday would be sent to our build team and our world builders would create whatever was happening in that chapter, whether it was the feeding of the 5,000, whether it was, you know, Jesus on the boat and the storm coming and we'll create those scenes. So, the last one was, John 21. We finished up that chapter where, the disciples were out fishing and Jesus was on the shore and they couldn't catch the fish. And we had that whole like net, broken and the fish were there and the fire and the food was on the shore. And we actually as a church walked into that boat. So part of the sermon, I'm walking, so it's hard to explain it to maybe send you a video, but, so I'm not delivering.

DJ Soto: 39:46 I'm not delivering a sermon from the stage. I'm walking around and there's scripture in the sky, I'm talking about it and we'll go on the boat and we'll talk about, you know, what's happening with Peter. We all cross the Sea of Galilee and went to where Jesus was cooking the fish and the bread. And we talked about that. We had a little sheep there for when Jesus talked about, you know, feed my sheep. So, for us it's very experiential. So people are walking it, in these worlds, kind of like, like Inception, Leonardo Dicaprio and Ellen page, you know, they're building these worlds with their minds. It's very similar to what we do. I think people are pleasantly surprised about it because people come in thinking, not to be negative towards stage sermons, but people come in thinking, oh, this is going to be a stage sermon for 20 minutes. But then they find out we're just walking all together through these experiences. That is what people have been saying about VR is that we're leaving the information age and we're entering the experience age. And that's, VR and AR.

Rey DeArmas: 40:48 My wife's a teacher and we talk about all the different styles of learning. Are you discovering a new style of learning with this? Because this immersive environment just sounds so perfect for different styles of learning to take place. In it so much, you know, you're making the scriptures come alive for people in such a way that, that they can experience it, that they could see it, that they can borderline feel it in such a way, that it's not so much that it's real to them, but it's just a different, it's a very different way to experience the Bible that you're talking about here which I just think is amazing.

DJ Soto: 41:18 Yes, for us it's new and I don't think we like discovered in declared it. I think it was more of a subtle thing. We just kind of just happened into, so I think what it does is it just imprints it, that memory in a different way. So, you know, like you might watch a movie, right? And you might watch a movie, you might remember it, maybe you'll have dreams about it, but virtual reality now creates a new imprint on your brain where everything is in 360. So, when you remember the scriptures, the sermon, you actually walked on the boat, you actually were by the Sea of Galilee, you saw the fire cooking there. There's the sheep. And so there is a new aspect of memory and education and experience that I think is imprinting the narrative of the Bible at it in a different way that we haven't seen before. So it's interesting.

Jeff Reed: 42:14 That is so cool. I'm going to come, I'm going to jump on. I've been waiting for this quest to come out because when I was reading about it, it seemed like it was the best headset to kind of be that entry point. But I do, I want to come, I'm going to hang out at your church. When do you guys meet? Right, cause it's, live?

DJ Soto: 42:38 Yeah. Live at 2:00 PM on Eastern. That's our European service that's led by our, I team teach with our European pastor. His name is Pastor Bismack. Then 7:30 PM Eastern. But we'll probably fill that afternoon with our two more new church plants coming. Then we have life groups during the week. And the one thing I forgot to mention, if you're familiar with Discord, Discord is like a chat interface and used by a lot of gamers and gills and choose that for the life of our church. So when our offline, there's quite a bit going on Discord. We probably have about 400, you know, hitting up to 500 members on Discord. And there's prayer, there's just general chatting. There's a bunch of stuff and that's like the glue for us cause there's that large event, there's a small group and then there's this kind of like the space in between and that's what Discord fills it in. So there's almost a cohesiveness, happening for our experience.

Jeff Reed: 43:32 It's funny you mentioned that last episode, Jate, who runs a video game ministry has got like 650 in a discord and he's discipling them to like share their faith and going through four fields and like really just some really crazy discipleship stuff.

DJ Soto: 43:52 That's amazing. That's a lot of people. That's really good.

Jeff Reed: 43:55 And, man, it's just, you know, Discord's not a tool. I mean, I've got it on my phone. I play a Star Wars IOS game that they want me to be on Discord, the gild that I'm in or whatever, but like, it's not on my radar, right. But evidently like they're addicted to it and they're on that platform all the time, utilizing it to communicate and then to plan. And so using those tools just to even continue on the conversation, where they already are, starting to talk about spiritual things and praying together within that space is awesome.

DJ Soto: 44:32 We're even talking about like, at what point do we create a second server because we do want there to be a sense of discipleship and community and spiritual life. But, we can see already that at some point it's going to be too much and you're just going to feel like, like we want to take that Mega Church feel that maybe we have on a Sunday and break it down through life groups and on discord. But our Discord starting to become a mega discord. I don't know what the right word is. So we might need to create another server there, which is the beauty of that technology. But yeah.

Jeff Reed: 45:02 Yeah. He's got his core, I want to say his core is about, you can go back to listen to that last episode, but I'm pretty sure core was like around 20. The committed was closer to 50 and that 650 is kind of the "I'm in the community. But I'm not a leader in that." And so he's got his 15 to impact his 50 to go out and, and message.

DJ Soto: 45:25 That's beautiful. Yeah.

Jeff Reed: 45:28 So it's just man, I love stories like this because before I had the podcast with Jate and now you, discord wasn't even on my radar. I'm pretty sure I downloaded it. I didn't even, I had an account but it wasn't even on my phone, you know, like I just had deleted it cause it wasn't, to me, it wasn't a big deal cause I'm not in that space, but now recognizing, there's all sorts of people that are using this, they do have community there and the church has an opportunity to create, to be part of that community and to use that community to point and connect people to Christ is a phenomenal idea that's out there. So, hey DJ, this is the last question that I want to ask, where is this going? Where is VR going to be looking? Look in your magic glasses, get in your Delorean, whatever you gotta do. 10 years from now, 20 years from now, VR church, is it just you guy? What does other churches look like adopting into it? Who is in that space? Where are we going 20 years from now? 2040.

DJ Soto: 46:34 Yeah. I have some thoughts about that and I'm just going to give him the yeah, you can take them or leave them because some of them might be a little far out there. But, if we back up just a touch, you think about like churches that were hesitant to add a website, you know, at some point in the past or maybe recently it was Facebook that they were hesitant to add. But like in 2018, it'd be ridiculous to think that you wouldn't have a website. You wouldn't have a Facebook that you would just wouldn't be, you know, imaginable that would be a thing. So fast forward, I don't know if this is, two years, five years, 10 years. It's going to be the same thing with VR and AR. When we thought, you know, this is a, you know, a technology that not to be regarded, I think churches are going to discover that it's going to be an expected part of your experience. What are you offering in VR and particularly for online. Like if your organization or your church adopts an online campus, it's the most logical next step. It really is, and I know other churches are struggling, you know, with the ecclesiology of it, but if you're church says, yeah, we like online campuses and that's what we're going to do. Virtual reality is going to be the next step for you. I think it's going to be quite disruptive. I think it's going to be one of the more disruptive technologies the Church has faced in this digital era, which is still like in the history of the church so very much a baby like internet and tv, computers and technology, smartphones, this is just, we're just barely getting started. And now VR is coming around. And so I think it's going to be super disruptive and I think churches are going to have, are going to have a hard time to know what to do with it. And so I hope that primarily number one, churches plant or they have a multisite and one of their multisites is a VR campus. That needs to happen and I hope churches, you know, get into that. At least for us it's like we're the only church in VR right now. I think there's a couple of people doing some really good spiritual work that they maybe wouldn't call themselves a church. So right now we just need people to come and to help plant churches.

DJ Soto: 48:39 It'd be like if there was only one church in New York, I think I alluded to that earlier and like it wouldn't make sense that that even would be a thing. And certainly church planners would go there and that's what church planters do. They look and see where is the need, where is there a low amount of churches? And as far as digital and online and virtual reality, the lowest like engaged is virtual reality. So we do need churches. We do need online ministers to engage that space. It's gonna be crazy because the technology is only, I mean, this is, you know, it's a big device. It's comfortable, but it's not like, you know, you can stick it in your pocket thing like the thing with, like a smart phone.

DJ Soto: 49:21 So, but it's only going to be a matter of time before these things like, I don't know, 10, 20 years, who knows where these things just become a pair of glasses and it'll just be in your pocket, put your glasses on, and you're in a fully VR experience. The avatars are going to look humanlike, we're going to be existing in these virtual worlds. We're going to go to school, we're going to go to work, we're even going to go to church in VR. And I think that's going to be a big thing coming that maybe, and that's going to be like you're talking about, it was like that might be a generational thing, but certainly like my kids they would have no problem being part of a church that's like virtual reality. I think that generation is going to come up and theologically that's not even going to be on their radar. So I think it's going to be an interesting future with VR and AR. Part of me says it's hard to tell what's going to happen. The other part of me says, I think this is going to be quite disruptive and, and possibly in a really good way.

Jeff Reed: 50:17 Yeah, there was a Clay Scroggins quote, he said at a conference I was at recently. You know, the business world looks at the digital disruption, as an opportunity. The church, looks at digital disruption as an obstacle to overcome or an obstacle to run away from. And so it really will be interesting to see how the technology's adopted. Traditionally, churches don't, they don't adopt technology. Well, it's usually pioneers and innovators, honestly, like yourself, who have jumped into the space and said, you know, I'm claiming this for Christ even though everybody else is on the sidelines ridiculing or saying why you're wrong in that, and so, man, first off, I just want to thank you for being a pioneer, for jumping in this area, when the rest of the world probably isn't as supportive as it could be. And taking some lumps, through, comedy central, which ended up increasing your church 400%. God works even on cable TV these days. So who would have thought that, hey Rey, as we're landing the plane here, man, any thoughts or anything on your end?

Rey DeArmas: 51:31 DJ, I hope we can have you back. I've still got so much more that I want to learn and listen in and look forward to checking out more, through this. Just like Jeff, I can't wait to get a headset and start diving in and seeing more about what you're doing this.

DJ Soto: 51:44 Yeah. I had a great time. Thanks for having me on the podcast. It was great.

Jeff Reed: 51:48 We'd love to have you back, maybe once you get a couple of these multisites launched here in the other metaverses, if I'm using the right word. And I do want to jump in a couple services to just try to get that feel and maybe have a more, you know, open frank dialogue on it. DJ, thank you for being here.

DJ Soto: 52:15 Thanks for having me. I had a great time.

New Speaker: 52:18 Awesome. Hey, this is it for TheChurch.Digital. We're going to wrap here and we'll see you next time. You all have a good day.

 

 

Church, Here's To The Crazy Ones.
PODCAST 015: Rey DeArmas & How to Impact the Workplace

About Author

Jeff Reed
Jeff Reed

With about 20 years experience serving the church in the digital/technological realm, Jeff loves working with churches. As passionate about Discipleship as he is Technology, Jeff uses his passion to help Churches develop technology systems to bring people far from God closer to him. Oh, and he loves Church Online.

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