This article was originally published by The Mennonite

The avatar goes to church

Mediaculture column

When I heard there are churches in the online virtual world, Second Life, my jaw dropped—although not as far as the other jaws in the room.

Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of the religion department at Publisher’s Weekly, told the audience at the Associated Church Press convention in Dallas on April 21 that several mainline denominations have online presences in Second Life.

Second Life is an internet-based, 3-D virtual world constantly evolving by the work of its millions of users. It launched in 2003. Since technology is constantly changing, it is only getting more difficult to draw a line between what is appropriate and what is not. In Second Life one creates an avatar—the computer’s representation of the user. This avatar can look like you, or nothing like you. In Second Life you direct your avatar around the virtual world to text chat and gesture to other avatars. A monetary system in Second Life allows users to build and create.

I logged on to Second Life last month. After creating my avatar, I tried searching for these churches I had heard about. However, I could not get past the “trial stage” (instructions for how to manipulate the avatar). I knew after about 20 minutes that this is not for me—at least for now.

But, regardless of how my first, quick experience with Second Life went, I must acknowledge that Second Life may be life-giving for others—and perhaps a place where they discover church life and theology.

In Second Life there are churches: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and more., a Christian church headquartered in Oklahoma, has campuses in Second Life. In these virtual meetings, users experience audio sermons, discussion forums and worship. The hidden and anonymous identity of a user’s avatar plays a key role in the way users interact with Second Life churches.

Pastor of, Bobby Gruenewald, writes, “What I have found so far is that there are definitely people in Second Life who simply want to hide behind their avatar and say/do things they normally would not say/do in real life. However, it is this same lack of inhibition that leads people to ask questions about God they would not normally feel comfortable exploring in real life. Creating an avatar becomes a very nonthreatening [sic] way for people to explore more about God.”

While this makes sense, virtual church probably feels like too much of a jump for many of us. But it is best to not react too strongly to these new—somewhat startling—ways of seeking faith. Instead let’s try to learn, listen and understand why this is appealing to so many people.

Richelle Wiseman, director of the Centre for Faith and the Media, told those gathered at the Associated Church Press convention about her daughter’s reliance on several social networking sites. I had to think about how Wiseman told the group: she stated the fact with no judgment or qualification—or even slight roll of the eyes.

We must model Wiseman’s careful openmindedness when learning about new technologies, or we risk only further separating ourselves from people curious about faith. But staying neutral is not easy. When we do not understand a technology or use it regularly ourselves, it is difficult to grasp how other people could dedicate hours of their life to it. This goes for texting, instant messaging, interactive games, blogging and much more.

Remember, it is all relative: Friends older than I teasingly brag about how they wrote hand-written love letters in college—not emails like my generation. We have to get used to the idea that things change, sometimes more quickly than we realize.

It is most important to work at understanding why people use technology, as opposed to making judgment calls.

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