Virtual Spirituality

10 02 2007

In my post, Ministry engagement with Web 2.0 I talk about the emergence of virtual reality, predominantly through the game Second Life (SL).  In the last few days the people behind SL, Linden Labs have announced that they are keen to explore spirituality in SL.  They write:

“Is there a spiritual element inherent in the virtual experience, or are the two things mutually exclusive? Should there exist a parallel between RL religious beliefs and SL conduct? What intangible, metaphysical qualities do virtual worlds hold? Are you using Second Life as a way to explore and express your spirituality with other like-minded residents? What are the greater philosophical implications associated with all this?”

(For the full article see Catherine Linden Seeks Spiritualists).

Right now the churches involvement in SL is fairly minimal with only a few churches operating.  I am also not aware of any para church presence. As of today SL has 3.4 million members.  Given the increasing exposure in popular media I can see this increasing considerably over the next few years. 

But more important than the number of members within SL is the place of 3D within the internet.  Key thinkers are starting to talk about it becoming an Operating System and big hitters like Bill Gates and Sam Palmisano CEO of IBM are starting to highlight its importance.

Bill Gates speaking at the recent World Economic Forum on SL and 3D:

(See the full session entitled, The Impact of Web 2.0 and Emerging Social Networking Models)

It is still early days for 3D as exemplified by SL, as there is still considerable development before it could become the dominant internet Operating System.  But I can see that it will only be a matter of years before this happens. (Check out this cool article on chip development – Big thanks to g.)

This is a good time for the church to get involved, to establish itself within SL.  The basics of this include purchasing land, building churches, building offices, campsites etc…  Beyond this we need to start exploring what it means to offer ministry in a virtual world.  Do we replicate our real world practices?  One example is: do we build churches that look like the churches we already have or do we create new worship spaces through the freedom that the virtual world offers.  An example might be a virtual space where the Bible story comes alive through biblical characters represented within the virtual world (known as an ‘avatar’). 

An example is the Transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 9: 2-12); you could walk amongst the avatars acting out the event.  You could accompany Jesus, Peter, James and John up the mountain side.  You could witness the transfigured Jesus, with His clothes dazzling white, and then see the appearance of Elijah and Moses and so on.  In the midst of this biblical scene the church leader could then guide you through a meditation of what this means for you.  In a sense this is an extention of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola with its use of imagination; only the imagination is given a hand through the ability to visually experience the biblical event.

 SL and 3D is a new pioneer territory.  What would happen if the The Anglican church created the Diocese of Second Life, or The Bible Society formed the The Bible Society in Second Life?

How would it be staffed?  What shape would the ministry take?   

Could we see in the next couple of years an Ordination within SL?  What does a theology of the Eucharist look like if the sacraments exist only within SL? 

Could a para-church organisation exist only in SL?  Could it fund its ministry through funds exclusively raised within SL? 

The virtual world provides an incredible opportunity to develop a whole new style of ministry that will reach a demographic (15 – 40 age range) that is underrepresented in most church and church agencies at the moment.

I welcome your comments and thoughts below.

Mark Brown

arkin.JPGArkin Ariantho my SL avatar.

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7 responses

13 02 2007
g

Check this out Mark, an interesting article about some new hardware that’s just around the corner.
With this sort of computing power we will create Canterbury cathedral at sunset, for a candle light service for evensong.

17 02 2007
Jeff Weiesnbach

Mark,

Great Article. The thing I have liked most about my experiences with other “Players” in SL is that there is a REAL person behind the character. In other SIM and Virtual Reality “games”, there is usually a heavy, if not total, artificial inteligence behind the interaction.

In SL, there is oportunity to build relationships with people all over the world. My friends list includes people from the U.S.A., Brazil, The Netherlands, the U.K. …..

A Virtual Para-Church Organization (VPCO) could impact real individuals, families and comunities around the real world by developing relationships – evangelising – encouraging others in their walk with Christ – providing online resources along with a “real” person to discuss issues with.

The thought of developing an Online Liturgy for use by a VPCO may be overwhelming right now, but if the VPCO started small, and grew through relationship building, then just like any church in the Anglican Communion, I think enough elements could be included to qualify as common worship and prayer.

And then the question arises, “Is this to be a stand alone replacement for a real world parish? Or is the goal to get people involved in their local real world Parish?

There will probably need to be discussions with a few Bishops about; 1. consecrecation/representation of the Sacrements, but since the Sacrements are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, could not a 3D representaion qualify?
2. Ordination of Deacons/Clergy, but wouldn’t at least the concept of a Chapliancy apply?
3. Primacy, Diocesean Autonomy, Parish Development, etc… There are many languages spoken by users of SL. Presenting the VPCO in the “Heart Language” of each one should be a goal.

I need to stop writing or else the response will become longer than the original post. 🙂

Let’s keep up the discussion. Hopefully we can interest Anglicans worldwide.

Jeff Weiesnbach
Texas

Roberto Salomon
SL

19 02 2007
Ian

Mark – this is really interesting and thanks for raising the vital issues around this. I’m just reading a book about the development of missionary Christian Radio stations:

“The Power of the Air” by Peter and Pam Cousins, Hooder and Stoughton 1978 ISBN 0 340 196 52 1.

The issues then, the potential, the crazy people who believed that God could do something – they were the roots of bigger things.

A tiny group of 3 Wheaton College students with a vision for WABA (West Africa Broadcasting Association) – with no contacts, no mailing list, no resources began to pray. Eventually WABA was taken under the wing of SIM – and ELWA Radio was set up in Liberia, broadcasting there from 1954.
See: http://www.sim.org/country.asp?CID=29&fun=1

…And not to mention the Printing Press!
See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gutenberg_Bible

Let the media revolution in the gospel go forth – time is short, we need god.tv (check them out on http://www.god.tv) , Christian Radio, books, internet, Second Life – ‘Lord, release the angels to reap the harvest’ (Revelation 14:14-15) and send us out into the harvest fields! (Matthew 9:37-38).

21 02 2007
Jeff Weiesnbach

There was a wonderful “Ecumenical Prayer Meeting” Monday Feb 19th at 7:15 pm SLT in Second Life (SL). Most of the leaders from the currently active SL Churches were there.

All of our Avatars knelt in a circle, and prayed in turn around the group. Lasted about an hour and a half.About 20 people total. I was encouraged to see that many, and very encouraged at the maturity evident in most.

I am convinced that Christ is calling us to use this tool to reach others with His Good News, and encourage each other in Christ. Both my wife and I are excited to see what can be developed, and to be a part of it.

One of the things we have been discussing with Unchurched and Churched friends alike, is the form of service. I was wondering what your opinion/vision would be for an actual “Anglican SL Church Service”. Some of those we have talked to are excited that in SL we do not have the constraints of the “Physical Laws”, and can possibly use this to advantage in visual example of “God’s Laws”. And some are concerned that just duplicating what we have in RL would turn others “off”. In other words, “Use SL to create a new thing, so that it is not “Churchy”, but remains a limb of “The Church”.

Those things said, I think that WEB2.0 in it’s interactive nature, is the perfect medium for a liturgical service, and that a liturgical service is possibly the easiest introduction to Christian Worship for the unchurched. The potential for “real” work of the Church in SL, i.e., Prayer, Evangelism, Counseling, Equiping the Saints, Providing resources for Spiritual Growth and RL needs, The fellowship of believers, etc…, is astronomical and has me almost exstatic in anticipation of what it will become.

Yours in Christ,
Roberto (Rob) Salomon

7 03 2007
Christian Ministry in a Web 2.0 Environment « brownblog

[…] Virtual Spirituality […]

18 03 2007
jdavey

I think the theory behind the idea is great. The fact that there is a real human being behind the avatar makes this an interesting experiment in ministry and definitely feasible. What bothers me though is the middleman…the avatar in between the human-to-human communicative transaction. I can’t put my finger on it, but I believe that will call for an entirely new paradigm of ministry, an entirely new rhetoric in the passing on of the Good News. I agree that the time for the Christian church to infiltrate the virtual environment is now. Like an innovative business penetrating an early phase of the product life cycle and saturating the market, the lack of “God”, so to speak, in Second Life thus far give the Lord great potential to reach those who have not heard or have not accepted the Good News as of yet. We must remember though that in the real-time environment there is still alot of work to do.

Justin

19 03 2007
Mark Brown

Justin,

Spot on. My view is that this is just another ministry not the new and only ministry. It is there to complement rather than replace. But it simply amazes me how much ministry is happening in SL. I have had the privilege of participating in some amazing encounters, including the chance to pray for someone via text messaging!

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