A Second Life for Presbyterians

**This is the first of a planned 4 part series I’ll be doing this summer on Presbyterians, Emergents, and Presbymergents in the popular virtual reality world, Second Life.***


If the birth of a real Presbyterian ministry in a virtual world isn’t evidence of the church emerging, I don’t know what is. And as strange, foreign, (or even silly) as the concept may sound to some, the more I explore the world of Second Life, the more convinced I become that this is a new context in which God is already at work, and God’s people across the world are already engaged in a diversity of ministry.  I think we should join God, and join them.

For those not already familiar with Second Life from various news reports, magazine articles, and other usual sources of hype, to explain would take up more space than would be wise in this blog post.  Instead, I recommend starting here. It’s eye opening reading, I promise.

When I first started exploring Second Life, I found plenty of evidence of minstry — from a United Methodist Chapel, to a Lutheran Pavillion, to a Taize Sanctuary 500 meters in the sky!  I found the Anglican Cathedral of Second Life, started two years ago by Rev. Mark Brown, which now has 800+ members and conducts five virtual services each week.   I also found a community — Koinonia Congregational Church – that can best be described as “emergent” and meets weekly in a beautiful sanctuary without walls or doors.

I searched for Presbyterians.  It was pretty bleak…but I did find one person — in real life she’s an elder at a Presbyterian Church in California — who has been keeping the proverbial light on, and started a group called (no surprise here) 1st Presbyterian Church of Second Life.  She reserved the name with the hope and a prayer that someday more Presbyterians would come along.  And now, that’s started to happen…

After several weeks of talking to people, dreaming and visioning, the number of Presbyterians in Second Life is growing — most of us are new, and probably feeling a culture shock not unlike what immigrants to the US feel (SL has a steeper learning curve than FB or twitter).  But we’re starting to connect, have conversations, explore opportunities for ministry that is uniquely Presbyterian, but also uniquely Second Life.  Just yesterday, our esteemed moderator, Bruce Reyes-Chow, jumped in (his SL name is Esteban Radikal), as did Philip Lotspeich (SL: Philip Lionheart) from the office of Evangelism and Growth.

So, in true Presbyterian fashion (maybe a bad thing, mabye not?) we’ve acquired some land, threw up a building (both were WAY easier and cheaper than in real life) and will be gathering on Saturday nights 9pm CST / 7pm SLT for fellowship, conversation, and perhaps eventually something like worship, too.  Tomorrow night will be our very first gathering of Presbyterians in Second Life, and anyone is welcome to drop in. May God’s Spirit breathe through the bits and the bytes into a new context (for us, at least)!

  • To find our meeting place in Second Life, click here. If you don’t have an account yet, you’ll have to create one.
  • If you’d like to get involved with what we’re doing in Second Life, contact Neal Locke via twitter, facebook, or email neal at mrlocke dot net.
  • If you created an account in Second Life but are utterly confused and lost, use the search engine to find me: I’m Neill Loxingly in Second Life. Add me as a friend, and I’ll come to your rescue, or send another SL Presbyterian to help :-)

Comments

  1. Get out into the real world where Christ is moving amongst His people.

  2. Really? Are you serious about this? Very sad indeed when the joy of real life is traded in for a micro chip exsistance.

  3. Oops pushed submit before finishing thought…

    Technology is neither emergent nor counter culure. The revolution is to unplug and exist with others rather than hide behind a screen. Trade in the car, the cell phone, the laptop and the unbridled consumption for the true peace and love of God found in simplicity. Plant a micro garden, share the fruit (and vegatables) of your labor with your neighbors. Shop at the Salvation Army for your “new” clothes (let the Gap and Old Navy fend for themselves) I love my blackberry and laptop as much as the next guy but God created a whole real world to show God’s presence (thanks Calvin for that one). I am trying to let go of that corrupted love. It is hard. I am not being critical–I am afraid of what message that this sends when church leadership and future leaders gets into this type of thing? Not sure just pondering. Thanks

  4. Mike Capron says:

    Fascinating. “Go ye into all the world.” If you can reach real people through virtual interaction, go for it!

  5. I can’t say I approach this subject with an open mind. I come heavily predisposed to believe this is a lot like trying to set up a ministry in the local strip club.

    + There are a lot of people in a strip club, but they’re not seeking anything spiritual.
    + Setting up a ministry in a strip club will attract Christian brothers into that club who otherwise would not so venture.
    + Both sex and alcohol are proven to be life-destroying addictives. Sex and virtual worlds are equally proven to be life-destroying addictives.
    + People really are wired (by God) to function in a 5-senses experience. People who experience things primarily through imagination are crippling themselves in very real ways.

    Outreach at any cost is not the church, and the potential costs of a foray-in-force into Linden-world are staggering. How many brothers and sisters of the virtual generation are you willing to put at risk to reach out to an audience largely not focused on dealing with their problems? America already has a documented predisposition to escapism, and SL plays into that weakness with a real-world vengeance.

    I’m 45. I did my time as a radical home-churcher (intentional community, no leaders/buildings/etc.) I’ve worked as a game-designer/tester, and still program for a living. I’ve got a little bit of cred. But I also have family in crisis partially due to virtual escapism.

    What you’re playing with is no game, and the first rule of life-saving is not to die trying. I can’t wish you Godspeed into SL, but I appreciate your love for the Lord and the lost. May He grant you protection, insight, and wisdom.

  6. @Stushie – shouldn’t you follow your own advice and do the same, instead of sitting in front of a computer screen commenting on a blog?

  7. @codepoke – pornography and eacapism fueled the expansion and adoption last great technology shift, too: Books and the Printing Press. The Bible certainly wasn’t the only thing Gutenberg printed, nor was it what financed his innovations.

    But you wouldn’t advocate we abandon books, too, just because some are pornographic and escapist?

  8. @Jim – I buy my clothes second hand, AND my computers, too. I grow vegetables in my garden, and I’ve long advocated against the excesses of consumerism. Read my blog. But I’m also called to go wherever people are in order to minister to and among them. I enjoy doing that in person, and try to convert as many of my virtual friends (facebook, twitter, etc.) into actual ones through tweetups and real world gatherings. But if someone is sitting in front of a computer screen, and that’s my point of entry for relationship building in order to share God’s love–I’ll take it. And I won’t judge them, either. If I did, I’d start by critiquing less interactive, more consumer driven forms of media like television and passive web-site browsing. For many people, Second Life is actually a step in the right direction.

    And if institutions from IBM, Princeton University, and Candler School of Theology to the US government and the Anglican Church are using it as a tool for communication and education, I have to ask how it’s *that* different from email, which received ample criticism and mockery before its widespread adoption. Second Life can certainly be used for negative purposes, just like any technology. But it can also be used for good, and for God’s glory.

  9. It’s no different than blogging or facebook to me. Of course the real deal is best, but when you’re at home waiting for the kids to fall asleep there’s nothing wrong with going on line. I do think it’s mainly entertainment, but a step up from tv at least!

  10. Katie Mulligan says:

    I visited last Saturday and enjoyed meeting up with a few others. Turns out one of the people there will be moving near me in the fall, so we’ll get a chance to meet in person, which is great. There are a lot of reasons why some folks might pop into a Second Life gathering but might never darken the door of a church. I don’t think anyone at our meeting was under any illusion that this would replace gathering with a regular worship community.

    God gifted us with wild imaginations, and there are many places in scripture where we are encouraged to play and enjoy with all of the gifts of creation. I have several concerns about safety for both the church and participants, but any church ministry has to address issues of safety, liability, and identity checks.

    As always, if this isn’t something that calls to you, its okay to not get involved. But if God is everywhere, then God is also found in Second Life, mysteriously, unbound, and stubbornly present.

  11. @stushie those who are so adamant about SL being a waste of time probably don’t understand what it is. to add theological assertions to that is simply then, going off-target. i have seen some cool things done with SL for educational purposes – esp. in educational technology and the hard sciences. organizations abound there that promote teaching of various subjects. but part of the problem with theology is that this “queen of the sciences” attitude coupled with the notion that there is one way of where and how and when to “do” ministry are some of the things that emergent conversations are here literally to emerge from! these two dispositions are inherently related and part of a continuous problem since the earliest biblical texts – and in other religions too. by the way, this is part of the “real world” like it or not. just not the world you choose to live in…well…kind of re: neil’s point.

    @codepoke for the idea that strip clubs are not good places for ministry, i think hookers for jesus and the xxx church offer pretty decent counter examples. remember jesus was not supposed to offer the kingdom to those stinking shepherds, evil tax collectors, and women caught in adultery. i mean, why would they ever listen to him and try to become better people when it was clearly not in their genes to do so? don’t waste your time jesus. go to the temple and claim your throne.

    @jim this is not about technology at all. technology is always present and always will be. it’s part of how people build worlds and will continue to do so. for to build worlds is to be human. escapism is not interacting with anyone. this is one way to utilize the media at one’s disposal to engage interaction in a novel way. the literature on identity exploration, ethographies on second life, and the lessons we can learn about people as they create and recreate their identities tell us a lot about people. talk to people who spend time in SL frequently and they will tell you that there is a deeper level of intimacy often expressed because the boundary of space and time largely go away. so do get rid of the blackberry especially if you love it. it is better to cut off your arm lest it lead you to sin right? now i don’t love technology and can dispose of it at anytime. but the connections with people i have made through this and many other spaces i would never trade.

    btw, in order for you to go out to meet someone face to face, you have to drive a car, on paved roads, that are navigable, and you drive through computer controlled traffic signals, etc. all technology. is that bad as well? does that corrupt and should we get rid of it? microwaves, pencils, pens, paper, basketball hoops, alphabets=technology one and all. it is not the technology, but the relationship we have with it as a medium that is at stake. the same was at stake for paul and the function of the law, if you recall…

    if it’s not your thing that’s fine. but it’s not the “thing” of most americans to “shaine claiborne” it and live a true monastic life apart from virtually any consumerist excess. that’s not my gig either. it clearly is his.

    if god calls to being a community, it is a shame if we ignore that to pursue our own idols of what we think is worthwhile for an investment of time and effort.

  12. @codepoke: So what the Sam Hill are you doing on the internet? Why should churches be on the internet, given that it’s pretty much porn central?

    The answer is that engagement with new media, be that social networks, vlogging, or tweeting, is an imperative if the church is to be engaged in the business of transforming culture with the message of the Gospel.

    I do tend to think Second Life is a bit…err…doofy. I’m already part of a world that is in full HD, with 360 degree infinite point surround and an intense tactile interface with both the other users. But if others find this to be a good way to reach out, well, I’m no going to cast stones.

    However one approaches it, we’ve got to be spreading the Gospel everywhere. If we limit ourselves to venues where there are no publicans or sinners, we’re not really doing our job.

  13. hi neal – i agree with you completely. I’ve been hangin’ around sl for a while and pondering the ministry possibilities. i can’t wait to converse with you in person. i believe that God calls us to live the kingdom wherever we may be…even if that happens to be a digital reality… the conversation doesn’t need to be about whether or not we should be there, but what we do once we find ourselves in a world of furries and fuzzies, athiests and abstract artists, people and programs… how will we represent God’s love for all people?

  14. Kimberly says:

    Neal,

    I am so very excited that your ministry is becoming a vibrant part of our community in SL. I have been in ministry in SL for over two years now and the ways in which people have found God here has been moving to say the least. Folks have come to us in afraid of or deeply wounded by the church but with a real thirst for God and Christ. When we can share with them a loving and kind faith that welcomes them no matter where they are – then that is a good thing. I am honored to walk with people on their faith journey where ever they may be along that path.

    Kimberly
    Sophianne Rhode
    Pastor – Koinonia Church in Second Life

  15. Rev. Mark Brown (Anglican Communion) just posted on his blog the summary of a paper by Rev. Professor Paul S. Fiddes (Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford and Director of Research, Regent’s Park College).

    It’s about Communion/Eucharist in Virtual worlds, and lays out a strong theological position that answers some of the criticisms brought up in the comments above.

    Here’s the link: http://brownblog.info/?p=886

  16. We’re supposed to go where people are. People are in Second Life. Ergo, you are doing a good thing. Bless you!

  17. Hello Neale,

    > But you wouldn’t advocate we abandon books, too, just because some are pornographic and escapist?

    Wine can be addictive, but vodka is much more easily and powerfully so. Books carry data, and any data transfer medium can be addictive, but SL is more usefully understood as a medium of social interaction than as a data transfer medium. SL is a vastly more potent distillation of the same stuff that makes books so much fun.

    You’re going into SL. May the Lord bless your journey.

    Still, let me tell you my experience. I, too, had the logical arguments and the vision and the excitement, just like you do now, when I made my radical move 20 years ago. I was as right as you are, but I didn’t calculate the irresistible pull of human frailty. Of the couple dozen people to whom I was closest, 90% of them were scarred by our adventure (and not in that, ‘Look at my cool scars,’ way). It was not the “thing” to which we gave ourselves, but human failure.

    Go where you must and where the Lord leads you, but remember to focus on people, not ideas. Tune in with kindness to the people who are faltering, and keep in touch with the ones who drop off the radar screen. I suspect you will need to spend an awful lot of your time reaching out to drifting brothers.

  18. My concern is that the emergent movement (of which I have been a part of for a long time–old timer here) is becoming equated with technology, tattoos and “sensitive guys with guitars” (those are not my words but I dig them and for the record I have admitted my corrupt love of my technology, I have a tattoo or two and I play), much like the Christianity of the late 80′s and beyond became synonymous with conservative politics. Emergent was and needs to once again become a movement of ancient future faith lived out within a living orthodoxy, not a technological revolution or a revolution of license for shock value sake. I would welcome discussion centered on what we believe and why we believe it rather than focus on the mode of transmittion. It is like we used to debate the Willow Creek model verses the robe and stole model back in my seminary days—when both were nothing more than platforms for entertainment for the comfortable and well fed. This is not a rant, trust me I am capable of a rant, it is just a free flow or stream of consciousness post!!!

  19. @Drew Tatusko — you don’t have to drive a car if you ride a bike :) just saying…

  20. The only danger I see in it is using SL as an escape from reality, which can be fine but can be problematic. I personally am not on second life because I KNOW is would use it to do all of the stuff I can’t get away with in real life, even though I know it’s imaginary. I likely would use a totally different identity and not use it to spread the word of God. It’s kind of like the holodeck on Next Generation, (yes I am a geek). I could see how it would be addictive. I think it’s harmless and perhaps helpful for those that want to use it like Neal, but personally I wouldn’t be looking for God. I would be indulging fantasy, which is unnecessary because I have plenty of outlets for my imagination. I try to get out of my head to find God more often than not. :)

  21. Deverill says:

    Hi everyone. I just flew in from Twitter (get it? I know, sorry. ). I follow Neal there and this topic came across my screen.

    I have some comments I’d like to make about the topic. First I want to say that if the Lord leads you, Neal, then by all means go and I speak blessings on you in your walk! My comments are mainly about the thought (and article) of Eucharist in virtual worlds and I mean them respectfully but they are strong so I may not come across that way.

    Straight to the article:
    “God is present in a virtual world in a way that is suitable for its inhabitants. We may expect that the grace received by the avatar will be shared in some way by the person behind the avatar.”

    Sorry, but this grates on me. God will not give grace to an avatar! What does an avatar need (with anything?), it’s a bunch of bits. God gives grace to His people, not computer constructs. And what would this avatar need grace for? Just as we don’t need anointing to click the TV remote, an avatar wouldn’t need God’s grace to flicker on and off.

    “Studies have shown that people feel a bodily connection with those with whom they are communicating over the net.”

    So we don’t need to follow Hebrews in “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together”? It could be argued that SL is a gathering together but it’s no more a gathering than watching TV church or virtual marriage. How long would a guy remain married if he only spoke to his wife via I-net chats and avatars? Not long I’d bet and we in the Body of Christ need each other in a physical and corporate manner, not just by mental ascent.

    Another point as an aside, what about those who believe in transubstantiation? Does the bits on the screen in SL become the body and blood of Christ? I’m what is best described as Full-Gospel but some of my brothers and sisters believe in this. Should we tell them Christ is in the computer? Some won’t even touch the elements because they are holy so how would this translate for them?

    “3… the cathedral in Second Life is a place where avatars worship God and avatars minister to avatars.”

    How can bits worship God? There is no worshiping from the avatar. The person behind the avatar certainly could worship God, but not a computer construct.

    How can an avatar minister to an avatar? An avatar has no needs. It has no soul or spirit to be uplifted. It has nothing to give as it is nothing but bits. It certainly has nothing from God that it can give to another bucket of bits.

    Conclusion:
    I absolutely think that we can reach people online that we may not be able to reach otherwise! I think it is a matter of talking to them in their own language, so to speak. I do not think it should be ignored.
    BUT
    We should not leave them there! God wants us to worship Him ourselves and not via an avatar and certainly not *from* the avatar. The old saying is that “God has no grandchildren” – your momma can’t get salvation for you… you must do it yourself.
    To “worship God” via an avatar is like the man who believes in God and thinks that’s enough. The devil believes in God…. he met Him personally… but that’s not enough. A mental ascension is not salvation.

    If we leave people in the computer world we will leave the real people as lost as ever.

    Finally, my problem with the article is that it makes avatars real, capable of worship and to receive God’s grace and to minister that grace to others. This is nonsense. We are God’s beloved, not a computer construct.

  22. Hey Deverill — thanks for the thoughtful and passionate response. I know that eucharist is a pretty hot-button issue in and of itself, even when not attached to something as controversial as virtual reality. As fascinating as this issue is, my own mind isn’t exactly made up either way on this one: Actually, I’m kind of wary of both people who say with great certainty that this is “right” or this is “wrong.” It’s too new to say, really. Also, I think you’re missing the main point of the article in question. The professor who wrote the paper is saying that we need to develop a notion of “virtual sacraments” –not necessarily that a virtual sacrament equates to one in real life. One other thing: “virtual” doesn’t necessarily mean “fake” in this context, even though we do tend to use “real” as its opposite too often. I continue to see virtual reality as an extension of physical reality, in which case, God is present and can work through whatever elements God chooses, including bits and bytes. Eucharist is already a mystery enough — pretending that we understand how it works, or even how it “couldn’t” work might be just a little bit presumptuous for me to stake a claim on.

    Anyhow, for more discussion on this issue, I’d actually refer you (and anyone else) back to Mark Brown’s original blog post (see link in comments above), where there is a fascinating conversation already going on, will well thought out arguments on both sides of the issue.

  23. Mike Capron says:

    Deverill makes some interesting points. Leads me to some questions not related to eucharist. If I watch a television broadcast of a worship service, can I say that I am worshiping? If I record it on my DVR and watch later, can I say that I am worshiping? If I teleconference into a worship service so that my voice is heard in the sanctuary with the responsive readings and songs, does that make a difference? Does your view of any of these change if I am home-bound and unable to come to a physical church?

    (All of these assume that I am attempting to worship rather than having the television on and ignoring it.)

  24. deverill says:

    Mike, your comment about ignoring the TV made me think of a guy who makes a macro in SL to “go through the motions” of worship just to fulfill his “moral obligation”. Funny but sad too.

    As for the home-bound person, if the church is functioning properly the people will go to them and minister. One guy I read about had friends that carried him to church and ripped out part of the roof just to get him there. Should we be willing to do any less? Where has our fire gone?

  25. Well, first of all I just want to say that my first life is crazy enough without trying to add the complication of a second one. Who has time for that? Who has the energy?

    Second, I’m intrigued by this idea of “worship” in this second world. What do you mean by worship? Is it possible to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God in this world? Are there prisoners to set free, orphans to raise, hungry children to feed, sick people to care for? And if not, what does that say about our understanding of worship?

    What does “worship” in this virtual world infer about one’s theology of our physical bodies? Are there shades of gnosticism involved here? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but has anyone thought about them?

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