Virtual Church Proving Real for Some

Janet Chismar | Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer | Thursday, November 29, 2007

Virtual Church Proving Real for Some

Diane Karney was tired of being a short, overweight, 42 year old whose chin-length brown locks revealed a few too many gray streaks. So, she turned herself into Jillian James – a thin, tall, 20 year old with long red hair. An extreme makeover? Radical plastic surgery? No, Diane simply logged onto Second Life, a three-dimensional virtual world created entirely by its residents. It looks very similar to a video game environment.

Jillian is Diane’s “avatar” as the customized characters are known – her Second Life identity. Perhaps even more startling than the new name and new look is Diane’s new online personality. In real life a shy single who tends to stay home every night, “Jillian” explores Second Life’s virtual pubs, drug connections and adult games with abandon.

At least she did until she stumbled onto one of Second Life’s Christian islands by accident. Now she is exploring the claims of Christ – anonymously – which, she says, is much more comfortable than being confronted by a zealous member of a real life church.

Created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab in 2003, Second Life was originally envisioned as a social platform for an idealized online society. According to the London Free Press, Second Life has had more than 8.9 million accounts registered since Linden opened the site to the public. Daily traffic hovers near 40,000 users, according to CNN.

Second Life’s users control their avatars with their keyboards and communicate with one another via instant message. Members trade in Linden dollars for fantasy houses, businesses, clothes and virtual sex. Sprinkled into this mix are a number of virtual churches that are owned and operated mainly by evangelical groups from the United States.

LifeChurch.tv, an innovative church with roots in Oklahoma City, launched a Second Life campus known as Experience Island this past spring. It is just one of the church’s many physical and Internet campuses. “People from all over the world, from Indonesia to Australia to France, gather in an area of the church’s website every weekend,” explains Bobby Gruenewald, whose title is Pastor, Innovation Leader. In addition to the global online group, with its own pastoral staff, there are LifeChurch.tv campuses in Texas, Florida, Arizona, Tennessee and New York.

During a recent interview, Gruenewald explained that LifeChurch.tv’s live weekend services are streamed via video and web cam on Second Life. Experience Island has two Sunday “experiences” as the virtual services are known. Avatars gather in “pews” to worship and listen to the message. The 3-D auditorium was designed along similar lines as the Oklahoma City location.

Due to limitations in technology, there is a limit to how many avatars can attend any one event. The first Sunday experience has about 40 attendees and the second is a little larger. Roughly 100 avatars attend church on Experience Island each weekend.

Approximately 50 small groups are part of the LifeChurch.tv Internet campus; one or two meet in Second Life. As relationships develop, communication expands to other forms of media, including phone, text message and email.

“Our effort to do this is centered around a couple of general perspectives that I and the leaders of our church adhere to,” says Gruenewald. “We feel like God has put us on the earth at a pretty unique time when we see the world's population spiking like it has never spiked before. We have an extraordinary opportunity to reach people for Christ in terms of the number of people who are alive today and who need to know Him.”

Gruenewald points out that because of advances in technology and transportation, the world’s population is more connected today than ever before. “This gives us an enormous opportunity and an enormous responsibility. How do we leverage the technology to reach others for Christ? How can we leverage these tools to connect with people in a real significant way?

"We only do things because we want to see God impact people's lives,” the pastor continues. “We are passionate about seeing people become followers of Christ and so that's why we do what we do and not because it's cool or the latest thing."

One of the challenges associated with Second Life is connecting with people who are hiding behind a character. Critics sometimes ask Gruenewald if it is worthwhile to invest time in virtual evangelism. He usually responds: “It’s true that the people have these characters or avatars that aren’t their real identities. And it's true that communicating through an avatar can definitely lower a person's inhibitions a little bit in terms of things they might not otherwise say or do.”

But that works more in our favor, Gruenewald adds. He finds that people on Second Life will have a conversation about God “in much fewer sentences. We can get to that dialogue very quickly and, in many cases, the conversations we have appear to be more free-flowing and transparent than what you would find in the real life context.”

Whether we want to admit it or not, says Gruenewald, most people walk around in real life with a facade on all the time. “They aren't as transparent about what they are thinking; they want to look a certain way and they are afraid of what people will think about them.”

Occasionally, “griefers” (online troublemakers) will try to cause problems. A naked avatar showed up for one of the services, but LifeChurch’s Second Life experiment has been remarkably positive. “We've had very few of those types of incidents,” says Gruenewald. “We've had more on the other side where dialogue is rich with what someone is going through and some of the challenges that they have.”

Some avatars continue to hide, but others learn to communicate via their real identities, Grunewald explains. “We really encourage people when they take a step toward becoming a follower of Christ to then reveal who they are and not remain anonymous. But, as with any church, people who want to remain anonymous can do so.” 

In addition to LifeChurch.tv, a number of other Christian groups have snapped up “property” on Second Life. British church leaders have bought an island and launched an ad campaign with the slogan “Have a second go at life.” The churches’ advertising network is encouraging young people and others who are not acquainted with Christianity to sign up on Second Life and visit an island built by Andrew Down, a Second Life consultant.

According to the Times of London, the island is a representation of 1st-century Palestine. It has a virtual church known as St Pixel’s and a café, “We Three Kings of Orient Arbucks.” There is a well and pool of fresh water, representing the Well of Samaria. The island is home to Zacchaeus’ Bonsai Shop and a Roman amphitheatre with its own cinema.

A nativity film will be screened in the run up to Christmas for visitors to Second Life. The Christmas campaign will also feature “real life” poster and radio advertisements urging people to enjoy a “second chance at life.”

Once the Christmas promotion ends, according to the Times, the island will be transferred to another Christian group to use as a permanent Second Life mission field.

Larry Transue, pastor of Second Life’s non-denominational Northbound Community Church, also sees the virtual community as a mission field. Transue is involved in evangelism and outreach at his real-world Northbound Church located in Thousand Oaks, California. “We definitely feel the presence of the Holy Spirit there in Second Life.”

Ben Faust of Harrisonburg, Va., is the founder of ALM Cyber Church in Second Life. Faust, an ordained evangelical minister, had no desire to pastor a real-world church or give up his day job programming websites. He devotes his energy to evangelism at his cyber church.

Does all this virtual evangelism work? It did for Diane/Jillian who we met at the beginning of this article. And it did for Troy, a 41-year-old Second Life user who found LifeChurch.tv’s Experience Island while roaming around the virtual world.

In an email to Gruenewald, Troy describes the challenges he has faced in real life and then describes how he began crying when he watched the mysecret.tv videos in Second Life: “After watching and praying with [Pastor] Craig, I raised my hands, confessed my sins and gave myself to Jesus for the first time in my life… What a wonderful feeling to be free of my sins, to find out how to get rid of my bitterness, most of my fears, to understand how I’ve been holding all these dark crazy things inside me for so long and now learning how to follow the path God has for me, to give myself to Jesus.”

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