I'm never sure what to make of news articles on Internet-based virtual worlds. This is partially since I have never participated in a virtual world, and while I play the occasion video game, the closest I've ever been to a "second life" on the Internet is the rare occasion that I play Halo 2. By no means am I suggesting that there are not legitimate news stories in these second Web lives. It's just that I'm perplexed that there are enough people out there with enough time to make these genuine news stories. Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times is up on the trend, and writes in an article on Easter Sunday that "Second Life has developed a rich spiritual dimension in the last year, welcoming congregations of Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and numerous Christian denominations." Online-based churches are not exactly a new thing. Tmatt wrote about the Church of Fools experiment back in August 2004.
Maybe some of you out there who play virtual reality games like Second Life can provide a more nuanced perspective, but I can't say for sure whether Simon is onto anything significant other than another attempt to start a virtual church in the latest popular online virtual reality world. The article mentions that Second Life has a membership of 5 million, but that does not mean they're online at the same time. Simon gives the skeptics the first word on the trend, but more on them later. Here is what the proponents have to say:
Then again, it's not all escapism: There are Al-Anon meetings in Second Life, and dances and bingo games -- and every manner of mundane daily activity, except perhaps the bathroom pit stop. While worship services may be a bit stilted online, veteran gamers say they can be surprisingly fulfilling. Communities as varied as Hare Krishna, Quaker and Mormon meet weekly for discussions, lectures, live streaming music and text-messaged prayer.
"It's obviously important for a small but significant number," said Yunus Yakoub, who's researching a doctoral dissertation on the religious dimensions of Second Life. Yakoub said he hears from several dozen avatars a week looking for information on virtual congregations.
Perhaps because all interactions are anonymous, conducted from behind facades, gamers say the spiritual conversations in Second Life tend to be more intimate and meaningful than the good-sermon-nice-weather exchanges that pass for conversation in real-world pews.
"We definitely feel the presence of the Holy Spirit there in Second Life," said Larry Transue, who runs the virtual Northbound Community Church, which is a ministry of the very real church of the same name, located in Thousand Oaks.
Now would be a good point to hear from a theologian about God's presence on the Internet. I know from a personal account that the mother of the American astronaut John Glenn was concerned what would happen to her son's soul if he died while in space. In other words, does God exist outside of the Earth? She was assured that God does indeed reign in outer space. What do the theologians say regarding the Holy Spirit's presence in Second Life? The answer is probably fairly simple but worth exploring.
Now, what of the unbelievers in this trend?
Skeptics suggest that believers could find more enriching ways to spend Easter Sunday than tapping out commands to make animated emus pray.
"It's like online sex -- it's satisfying in a weird way, I suppose ... but the real thing is so much better, why would you want to waste your time on it?" asked Francis Maier, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver and an avid video gamer.
Some Second Lifers also find the idea of virtual worship odd: They would rather spend their online time flying, shopping for risque clothes, chasing gorgeous blonds or engaging in other activities they would never attempt in a world marred by gravity and cellulite.
The article profiles a pastor named Craig Groeschel of the Oklahoma City-based church LifeChurch.tv, which has spent $5,000 to $10,000 in programming and other expenses for its Second Life Easter service. The numbers show that nearly 4,000 people "attended" the service, which is more than the number of visitors to MTV's virtual show.
For the non-gamers out there, check out the video that accompanies the article to get an idea of what Simon is writing about. The nature of the these virtual world is so flighty and subject to the latest crazes that it's difficult to know whether this attempt to establish Internet-based churches will stick around in any lasting way.
Simon balances her article well with those who do not see the future in Internet-based churches while providing a voice for those who believe they are on the edge of the next big thing. But some historical perspective (the fact that these things are not new) and a bit of theology would have rounded out the piece nicely.