Virtual Church





For some churches, “to the ends of the earth” now includes the online virtual world of Second Life.
LifeChurch.tv's newest campus is extraordinarily small. Although it holds an entire island with a large building, the new church takes up no more square footage than the server that houses it. That's because it exists in Second Life, the popular 3-D online virtual world.

LifeChurch.tv is no newcomer when it comes to using technology to reach the lost in new, previously unknown ways. Since 2002, it has taken the multi-site church idea to a new level with campuses across the United States that share services together via live satellite and the Internet and reach about 19,000 people. But this new, virtual campus pushes technology in ministry to a new level.

Second Life is an online portal that thousands of people log in to from their computers every day. They use an avatar (a virtual alter-ego) to talk with other visitors, buy and exchange items—such as a new pair of shoes, real estate, or a car—and go out to meet people at different places in the virtual world, all without revealing their true identities.

Just as in real life, there are Second Lifers who seek the mature-rated side of the alternate world, and there are those who just want to meet new people and talk about politics. Large companies such as Dell, IBM and Cisco have virtual campuses in Second Life, and companies such as H&R Block offer free tax advice on the service. A few retailers, such as Reebok and Circuit City, have virtual stores on Second Life, and Best Buy has a Geek Squad island where you can ask technical questions.

There's even a separate currency in Second Life, Linden dollars, which currently has an exchange rate of around 270 to one U.S. dollar. Some people have jobs in Second Life and make enough to support themselves in real life.

The whole point seems to be less about an actual online game—since there is no score-keeping or quests to complete—and more about just hanging out and chatting.

The Virtual Advantage

The anonymity of Second Life is what makes a virtual church particularly interesting because it creates a more open environment. People can ask questions, share the gospel, debate an issue, meet to pray together or just listen to worship music and sermons without the confrontational aspects of some ministries.

"The church is designed for people to discuss spiritual topics because an avatar lets them ask questions that they would never ask in real life," says Bobby Gruenewald, a pastor at LifeChurch.tv who was instrumental in building the Second Life virtual church. "Yet, there's a real person behind every avatar."

LifeChurch.tv first started exploring how to do ministry online with its Web site, a popular forum for people to chat and watch sermon broadcasts.

The first church service in Second Life was held on Easter this year, and about 200 people attended. Though that number might seem small, it actually stretched the limits of how many avatars can gather in one place in Second Life.

"The response has been great so far," Gruenewald says. "Second Life is an immersive metaverse environment, and we thought it would be an ideal place to connect and reach people on the Internet. During the first service, we noticed a geographically diverse group—some were clearly not Christians who just came to see what it was all about."

The Online Challenge

Gruenewald, who writes a blog at swerve.lifechurch.tv that recounts his experiences building the Internet church, noted that there have been several technical challenges in creating this unique ministry.

At the first service, some of the issues had to do with streaming a live broadcast through Second Life to so many attendees, a hurdle that has more to do with the Internet and streaming technology than the Second Life platform. They are currently working out these kinks for additional Sunday services.

There are also ministry challenges. While a company such as Dell or IBM will limit what you can do in their campus (for example, you cannot wield a weapon), LifeChurch.tv is less restrictive. Anyone can visit, and the church could potentially become a place where disruptive individuals stage their own talks.

Another challenge is just in promoting itself outside its service times. Second Life tends to be event driven because the world is so massive and visitors want to know that other people will be around. However, the church is open 24 hours a day and is usually only occupied by a few church attendees and Second Life regulars, as well as brand-new visitors.

The Second Life pastor, Larry Transue, says that some of the challenges in Second Life are the same as they are in real life, such as running slideshows that hold the attention of participants. He says the technology adds to the normal expenses, however. For example, land costs about $100 for 5,000 square miles in Second Life, plus all the streaming media fees and equipment costs.

"I think the bigger investment is time," Transue says. "Time to prepare, time to produce audio files, and time online building relationships and ministries."

A New Frontier?

In the actual virtual building, there are recorded sermons available, a worship music mix that starts playing as soon as you arrive and plenty of trinkets, such as a free LifeChurch.tv in-game T-shirt.

To find the church, you must install Second Life (just go to secondlife.com) and then search for LifeChurch.tv. When you first visit, you are placed outside where you can see the elaborate church building, which looks like it was modeled after Willow Creek or Saddleback. A large entryway leads you to a spacious foyer. The worship center has a massive streaming video screen and a stage.

"An online community is no different from all of the other media influences out there, and it can be used for good or bad purposes," Gruenewald explains. "These technologies are not inherently evil, but if the church abandons them, they will turn to evil purposes."

Other churches are holding services in Second Life as well. One example is Northbound Community Church, based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., which has a thriving virtual campus.

These virtual churches are just learning what it takes to impact a diverse group of technology-savvy people, but the rewards of planting spiritual seeds, challenging people to think about faith issues, and even leading someone to Christ through Second Life have eternal value—even if the church is just pixels on a computer screen.


John Brandon is a full-time writer, confirmed technogeek, doting husband and father of four. He is based outside of Minneapolis.

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