Will the Churches Follow Mark Zuckerberg into the Metaverse?

During the last two years, many if not most churches have been wandering in a wilderness.  Exiled from houses of worship due to COVID-19 mandates and regulations, the retreat of congregations to cyber-space at the onset of the pandemic was almost universal.  Institutions of higher learning, businesses, and public schools joined them.

Churches now are searching for ways to fill emptied sanctuaries.  But many also are seeking ways to establish a permanent presence in cyber-space.

Moving into the gap and offering to lead the way out of the desert into a new church of Meta: Mark Zuckerberg.  The recent decline in regular viewers, the drastic decline in Meta stock value, and the demise of his Diem currency do not seem to have deterred Zuckerberg from his ambitious goal of incorporating the faithful into his metaverse.

As Elizabeth Dias explained in a recent New York Times article, "Facebook is shaping the future of religious experience itself, as it has for political and social life."

In return for helping "reshape" denominations' religious experiences, Facebook offers apps designed to increase churches' bottom line.  As Dias notes, Hillsong, a Protestant megachurch will be streaming its services exclusively on Meta's platform.  She adds:

The Church of God in Christ...a denomination of roughly six million members worldwide, recently received early access to several of Facebook's monetization features, offering them new revenue streams.

They decided to try two Facebook tools: subscriptions where users pay, for example, $9.99 per month and receive exclusive content, like messages from the bishop; and another tool for worshipers watching services online to send donations in real time. Leaders decided against a third feature: advertisements during video streams.

For only $9.99 a month, a subscriber may have access to a higher spiritual plane not available to those who don't pay the fee.  At least for now, as comedian and commentator Russell Brand notes, parishioners can be relieved that streaming video church services won't be interrupted by advertisements for life insurance, coffins, or incontinence products.

But Brand also hints at a larger problem: the temptation to allow Meta to make money from the spiritual practices of the faithful, including their prayers and worship.

Zuckerberg's own words about the goals of Meta should be a warning.

In an interview for The Verge magazine, Zuckerberg made it clear that his metaverse has a distinct worldview about "how the virtual space is governed, how its contents would be moderated, and what its existence would do to our shared sense of reality."  He speaks of disseminating "authoritative information, taking down content that could lead to "imminent harm" and flagging "misinformation."  One thousand people are working on Meta's AI and technical systems, while 30–35,000 people are to "review the content, proactively identifying harmful content."

He summarizes: "In order to have a cohesive society, you want to have a shared foundation of values and some understanding of the world and the problems that we all face together."

Translation: Meta's "community standards" are part of a cohesive worldview that supersedes the worldview of the Christian church.  The truth is that Zuckerberg's Meta leans to a secular leftist worldview that is opposed to traditional religions, but not opposed to making money from their organizations.  The godliness of parishioners is a means for Meta to achieve financial gain.

Any church (or other institution) that embraces Meta's value system and believes in making money off spiritual practices, is in danger of selling its soul.  There is a word of warning for churches rushing to reap monetary benefits from Meta.  The word is "simony," which is a system of making money from spiritual practices, offices, and sacraments.

The term finds its origin in the story of Simon Magus, who offered money to Peter in return for the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8).  The practice of simony is forbidden in Catholic canon law, which prohibits the buying or selling of any spiritual benefit or office.  It was the pervasiveness of simony that brought about the reform of the papacy in the 11th century.

Simony certainly has not been the sole province of the Catholic Church.  Protestant churches also have been guilty.  Most Protestants are aware of and regard with distaste shady practices that include the sale of prayer cloths, anointing oil, and holy water from the Jordan, all of which are supposed to bring miraculous healing.

Churches should reflect on the consequences of selling parishioners' experiences to those who wish to make a profit from souls' most intimate spiritual practices, be they worship or prayer.  To that end, leaders should think long and hard about Facebook's commercial model, which is based on extracting personal information from its clients in order to make money.  Simony might now be termed "monetization of data capture."

Bottom line, the Meta commercial model would be brought into the heart of the churches, which may be unaware that the metaverse's chief desire is not to help or promote religious institutions but to exploit their spiritual riches while supplanting church doctrines with their own ideological tenets.

To put it another way, FB is run by opportunists with the mentality of Simon Magus, who wanted his magic combined with spiritual power in order to advance himself and to make money.  Meta is a secular instrument for an ideological revolution that wishes to absorb every other faith, irrevocably changing the nature of the church as it has attempted to change politics and social interaction.

Meta's "re-shaping" of the religious experience would probably be done as it currently is being done to politics, social behavior, and ethics: reminders about transgressive thinking, smacks on the fingers for "hate speech," several months' exile from Meta for violation of "community standards."

Add to the above assiduous "fact-checking" on sermon content and a close examination of biblical texts that are "missing context."  Leaders may be pressured to better reflect community social values and "equality" as well as to remedy "gender imbalance" and "racism."

The FB enterprise may falter, and the enterprise eventually may be broken up, but the lesson of putting an institution's message and inner workings into the hands of anti-religious, cancel culture platforms remains.

One lesson churches should remember is that the Reformation was sparked by simony in the form of the sale of indulgences.  Such practices since have been repudiated by the Catholic Church; but for all churches, the danger of simony in the form of selling people's religious experiences, including prayers and worship practices, remains.

All denominations should recommit themselves to reforms centered on reconstituting actual congregations in actual buildings.  They should commit to the tangible experiences of the sacraments and the preaching of the Word to real congregations.

The notion of a universal matrix in which all live, move, and have their being is a persistent dream of science fiction, books, and films alike.  Such a matrix is an ultimately unrealizable and abstract gnostic concept that has proved and will continue to prove to be devastating to authentic spiritual life.

Churches charmed by the opportunity to be a player in the metaverse, with all the advantages it offers, display a forgetfulness of the matrix known as the Kingdom of God.

They also reveal a forgetfulness of the lesson attendant to the temptation of Christ, who was offered the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down and worship the Devil.  Denominations must resist the lure of the metaverse, which falsely promises enormous opportunities for wealth, evangelism, and innovation in exchange for worshiping other gods.

Churches may think they have much to gain by joining the kingdom of Meta, but they actually may be in danger of losing their souls.

Fay Voshell holds a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, which awarded her the prize for excellence in systematic theology.  Her thoughts have appeared in many online magazines, including American Thinker. She may be reached at fvoshell@yahoo.com.

Image: TechCrunch via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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