Glory be to God online

by
18 April 2007

Members of a ‘virtual church’ have taken part in Sunday worship on Radio 4. Simon Jones looks into churchgoing on the internet

Virtual church: Abundant Living Ministries Cyber Church is open for 24 hours, seven days of the week, to Second Life’s virtual visitors

Virtual church: Abundant Living Ministries Cyber Church is open for 24 hours, seven days of the week, to Second Life’s virtual visitors

MANY PEOPLE have had contact with the Church through the internet. Perhaps their parish church has a website listing the times of the services and describing the building and something of the parish’s life. Some churches even offer recorded sermons that people can download on to their digital music-players. But what if a casual cyber-visitor seeks a fuller virtual experience?

Individuals have built Christian discussion sites to make up for perceived institutional failings, but people wishing to discover more about Christianity are not well-served in cyberspace, says Nicola David, a member of the web team at Holy Trinity, Ripon.

She sees this as a missed opportunity. “When some surveys say that 58 per cent of people in Britain have never even been inside a church, we need one that’s open around the clock, where people with questions can get them answered in a no-pressure environment. It needs to be jargon-free, too.”

Football fans or music-lovers interact with one another on the net; so why can’t church be equally accessible, asks Ms David. The web team of Holy Trinity has an answer: a new site, Church on the Net, to be launched in June. Its mission is to attract an online network of users who would feel encouraged into faith and form an online flock, before moving on.

“There are people out there who want to learn how to do that, but have been scared off by churchy language or intimidating buildings,” says Ms David. “Church on the Net will provide straightforward help to the uninitiated. We don’t want to replace existing churches. We want to fill them with people who come to us first. Our goal is to lose our members.”

The site is aimed at addressing what the team sees as a lack of accessible, web-based information about Christianity, and at allowing people on the fringes of the Church to ask questions that they might otherwise feel embarrassed about asking. The five-member team behind Church on the Net reflects a wide range of church traditions. The site will concentrate, therefore, on what Christians hold in common.

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Whereas Church on the Net will try to direct existing Christians to non-internet churches, those of Christian faith who find regular attendance difficult or prefer an internet experience might try St Pixels, a virtual “parish” supported by the Methodist Church.

Users of St Pixels enter by choosing an avatar, or character, to represent themselves. They can select how they want their cartoon avatar to look — hairstyle, shape of nose, skin colour, and clothes. They then enter a two-dimensional church building with several interactive elements. Visitors can talk to each other, take part in worship or Bible study, or listen to a sermon illustrated by pictures.

Whereas Church on the Net will try to direct existing Christians to non-internet churches, those of Christian faith who find regular attendance difficult or prefer an internet experience might try St Pixels, a virtual “parish” supported by the Methodist Church.

Users of St Pixels enter by choosing an avatar, or character, to represent themselves. They can select how they want their cartoon avatar to look — hairstyle, shape of nose, skin colour, and clothes. They then enter a two-dimensional church building with several interactive elements. Visitors can talk to each other, take part in worship or Bible study, or listen to a sermon illustrated by pictures.

 Simon Jenkins, one of St Pixels’ creators and editor of the Ship of Fools website, says: “We can show images and play music, hymns, and sound effects. Until now, St Pixels has been meeting on the equivalent of website bulletin boards; so going ‘live’ in this way is a huge step forward. When people pray with each other, as they can when their avatars meet, it’s real.”

Not everyone agrees. Arne Fjeldstad, chief executive officer of the media project of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life, disputes the idea that virtual fellowship could ever be a substitute for the real thing. “The social dimension of physical church includes a God-given desire toward real fellowship with other human beings. Christian fellowships of any kind cannot be substituted by human-computer interaction in whatever ‘space’ it may appear.”

 Simon Jenkins, one of St Pixels’ creators and editor of the Ship of Fools website, says: “We can show images and play music, hymns, and sound effects. Until now, St Pixels has been meeting on the equivalent of website bulletin boards; so going ‘live’ in this way is a huge step forward. When people pray with each other, as they can when their avatars meet, it’s real.”

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Not everyone agrees. Arne Fjeldstad, chief executive officer of the media project of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life, disputes the idea that virtual fellowship could ever be a substitute for the real thing. “The social dimension of physical church includes a God-given desire toward real fellowship with other human beings. Christian fellowships of any kind cannot be substituted by human-computer interaction in whatever ‘space’ it may appear.”

Mr Jenkins, however, says that, unlike Church on the Net, which hopes to lose its members to physical churches, St Pixels can genuinely provide community. “Like John Wesley, who took church outside institutional buildings, we’re just taking the church to where people are. We listen to each other, pray together, and even sing together. People show love and compassion in ways that many off-line churches have forgotten.”

Thirty per cent of the users of St Pixels don’t belong to, or attend, “real” churches, “but they get real Christian community with us,” he says. One St Pixels blogger, for example, has posted a request for support while trying to work out the relevance of faith held since her teenage years. “I found St Pixels via a link from another site, and I thought that maybe here was a group of people that could keep me going while I try to work it all out, and maybe help me on the journey.”

Others use the site to supplement the teaching and interaction they experience in physical church congregations.

“St Pixels may fall outside of what is traditional, but we still consider it a genuine church. It is a real parish of real people who don’t stop being members when they log off. It is not a second-class experience, just a different one. The site appeals to a whole spectrum of people, and we are hoping to encourage faith through sermons, hymns, and, ultimately, loving interaction.”

“Virtual church, particularly internet churches, could be very helpful in reaching people who genuinely have difficulty linking up physically with their local parishes — such as the housebound or those who have visited their local church but who, for whatever reason, don’t feel welcome,” says Prebendary Dr Paul Avis, general secretary of the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity.

Nevertheless, he sees a possible danger in “pandering to the rampant individualism of our society and culture. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together speaks about the importance of the physical presence of other Christians in the Christian’s life, and that there is no substitute for that.

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“In the Anglican understanding of the Church, in common with the Reformation tradition,” he says, “we have identified the ministry of the word and the celebration of the sacraments (baptism and the eucharist) as the marks of the visible Church. While an online church could participate in the ministry of the Word, it is difficult to see how the eucharist could be celebrated; and, if you can never have a eucharist, can you ever be a real church?”

The Revd Pam Smith, an assistant curate in Caludon Team in the diocese of Coventry, and a member of the St Pixels management team, says: “When we get together in real life, we always celebrate communion. But we don’t have plans in the near future to do that within the site. Ultimately, we’re reaching out to people looking for Jesus. The internet is a place where people congregate, and they should be able to meet Jesus there.”

There are plans for St Pixels to go 3-D by the end of the year; and the creators of St Pixels hope that other online congregations — tied to real churches or religious orders — may soon follow. “We’re wanting to establish a genre of internet church,” says Mr Jenkins. “We’re developing the software so that churches could also use it to develop their online presence. For example, a church with a missionary leaning could use it and incorporate the people they have sent overseas. Or it would be possible to establish an online monastery. The Franciscan Tertiaries share a rule of life for living in the real world. They could use the software to meet in a virtual space. That’s our aim: to bring people together online who can’t necessarily meet physically.”

In the United States, churches have gone a step further to reach an unchurched generation. An online game, Second Life, offers the chance for players to “visit” churches as part of its 3-D simulated world.

In Second Life, people take on a character — which they can “sculpt” to look just like themselves — and move it around a virtual world in the same way as one might move a character in a video game. The difference here is that the environment is not pre-programmed, and neither are the characters (other users) whom they meet as they move around. Their environment is what they choose to “build”, using Second Life currency and some programming skills.

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Second Life is peopled by those seeking something new, suggests Vincent Doctorow, a student researching online religion. “The first people who went out and settled California and the West Coast were adventurers, eccentrics, pioneers, and outlaws.” Much like the Wild West, Second Life has its fair share of “missionary frontier congregations”, he writes, in the Second Life insider blog.

In Second Life’s early days, only 1000 of its 500,000 users visited religious sites, but interest is growing. “It’s obviously important for a small but significant number,” Yunus Yakoub — who is writing a doctoral dissertation on the religious aspect of Second Life — told the LA Times.

Second Life users — who might range from church ministers to pornographers — can build establishments for other visitors to inhabit. Although there are currently more strip-clubs than churches, some bold congregations have created places to worship and services to take place in them. Times are announced, and users “teleport” to the location and take their place in the pews to listen to sermons delivered by other users.

Some of the churches are clearly jokes. There’s a 2nd Church of Bunny & Fun House and a Church of Elvis. But others are in earnest. “Worship is always between you and God, wherever you are,” Ben Faust, founder of Abundant Living Ministries Cyber Church, told USA Today. His church has a place to pray, services that can be uploaded if missed, and a drum kit, if you wish to praise that way.

A quick trip around the game suggests that the first virtual churches there have tried to replicate existing practices, with sermons, prayer, and church music. But other proponents of virtual church would point out that this is the model that is attracting a declining attendance.

As virtual church develops on the web, it could offer some new ideas, says Mr Jenkins. “It’s an experiment. We wanted to see what would happen.”

What would people do in church if there weren’t bishops and creeds to restrain them? St Pixels allows some humour into the proceedings. “Humour fits well into today’s more informal lifestyle. People need to be mischievous. They need to be able to ask questions.”

The problem with a lack of formal control, however, is that some Second Lifers run riot. Troublemakers might make their avatars run around naked, or might even attempt to burn down the church building. While the Early Church is said to have thrived under persecution, the question remains whether an internet church can do the same.

www.church-on-the-net.com
www.stpixels.com
www.secondlife.com

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