July 25, 2008
The First Church of Second Life
What is the role of real Christians in a virtual world?
There is another life beyond this one: a realm where one's role on earth is a distant memory, where inhabitants have new bodies and can fly anywhere they like. It sounds a bit like heaven. But it's not. It's cyberspace.
Second Life is - well, for the uninitiated, it is hard to explain. Some call it a game, but in reality it is ultimate virtuality: a virtual, 3D, online world that is continually created and updated by its residents. Originally introduced to the public in 2003 by the company Linden Lab, Second Life now boasts over a million members from around the world.
These members, 50,000 or more of whom are online and "in-world" at any given time, create their own names and "avatars" (virtual identities with infinite combinations of customizable human and nonhuman "looks") that can own merchandise and property (bought with real U.S. dollars) and interact with any anyone else in-world via Second Life chat or instant messenger. Residents can walk, fly, or teleport to various destinations, including lush beaches, raucous dance clubs, trendy restaurants, seedy strip joints, bustling malls - and churches.
As of this writing, there were around 100 churches listed in Second Life. Some were obviously created as a joke (The Church of Apathy), but dozens of others advertise legitimate doctrine, membership, and church functions. But why would anyone start a church in a place that isn't real?
Because, for many of its residents, Second Life is real; more real - to them, at least - than their real-world existences. Some members spend entire days in-world at one time; they make friends, go to school, party, play, and sometimes even derive more income from their virtual enterprises than from their real-world ones. This is either cause for great alarm, or great opportunity for ministry.
Second Life resident "Emmanuel Hallard" believes the latter, and started the Christian Church of Second Life two and half years ago. "I felt that Jesus' saying, ?Go into all the world' included Second Life," explained Hallard, who in his "First Life" is Lee Wilson, a minister, author, and actor who works for the Family Dynamics Institute, a nonprofit marriage and family ministry located outside of Nashville.
Wilson/Hallard chose his Second Life first name, Emmanuel, because it means "God with us." "When I first joined Second Life I wanted that message to go with me - that God is everywhere," he said. "We can't hide from Him in the dark, in a voting booth, or in a virtual world." The Nashville minister says he spends around 10 hours per week in Second Life, communicating with his church's 1,000 members, developing the church "property," leading Bible discussions, talking with church visitors, and exploring new areas of the world. The church also has a donation box and accepts gifts that go toward the purchase of new property and the Second Life land ownership fee of $30 per month.
Other Second Life churches function in a similar manner, offering Bible studies and discussion groups. Some hold special events based on the liturgical calendar, such as Easter gatherings and special prayer services.
"Second Life in general lets you experience freedom you might not have in your everyday life," explained Wilson/Hallard.
And the freedom to be and do anything you want in-world is a two-edged sword. "Slappy Yering," another Christian who has spent significant time in Second Life, has observed the darker side of this freedom.
Yering, a church planter and telecom employee in his First Life, used to spend 8 to 16 hours per week in Second Life. He originally joined to get closer to a couple in his church that was very quiet in real life, but spent a lot of time in-world. "In the game they were just crazy," Yering explained. "The couple worked at a virtual strip club. He was a DJ and she was a dancer, and they owned a house in-world. Most of the time I was there, we were talking about life. I was a counselor to these people who had trouble dealing with each other in the real world.
"It was kind of a fun thing," Yering continued "You could be whoever you wanted and do whatever you wanted - no responsibility, because it's just a game. But that's the dangerous part. It crossed a line. The couple eventually divorced. They should really have never been married in the first place, but the game accelerated their downfall."
So, what is Second Life? A colossal time waster, a harmless (albeit elaborate) diversion, or evil escapism? From my own experience, the Second Life world is difficult to learn, yet potentially addicting. The virtual world is completely unreal, yet totally real at the same time. Dangers lurk, yet opportunities abound. What is the appropriate approach for a Christian? On the one hand, Scripture warns us of spending time in futile pursuits; on the other, we are to spread the Gospel to the unreached, using whatever means possible.
Personally, I am too busy in my First Life to spend time in Second Life. But I commend those who are thinking outside the box about how to engage a vast, unevangelized world that is actually contained inside a box.
For a brief glimpse of a Second Life church experience, check out this video, produced by Craig Groeschel's LifeChurch.tv.