Cyber Space is a metaphor used to describe the non-physical terrain created by computer systems. Online systems, for example, create a cyberspace within which people can communicate with one another (via e-mail), do research, or simply window shop. Like physical space, cyberspace contains objects (files, mail messages, graphics, etc.), different modes of transportation and delivery. Unlike in real space, exploring cyberspace does not require any physical movement other than pressing keys on a keyboard or moving a mouse.
Some programs particularly computer games are designed to create a special cyberspace, one that resembles physical reality in some ways but defies it in others. In its extreme form, called Virtual reality, users are presented with visual, auditory, and even tactile feedback that makes cyberspace feel real.
My attempt by the article is to draw the attention and interest of the readers to an avenue that has tremendous potential but is least tapped by Christendom at large.
Second Life
The concept of a parallel universe – Second Life (SL) – within the already virtual world of the Web is quite fascinating. If you have already played ‘SIM’ games where you build an imaginary world (e.g. Theme Park, Sim City), or multi-user games where you take on an assumed persona and interact with other players, then you have a sense of what Second Life (SL) is.
Second Life is a virtual world on the Internet from Linden Research, Inc., San Francisco, CA (www.lindenlab.com), in which “residents” create an identity, meet people, buy land and build their own environment or purchase an existing one. It is a “massively multiplayer online role playing game” (MMORPG), but one that offers users total freedom to create and interact as if they were living another life. Playing the game requires a client download for Windows, Mac or Linux.
The virtual world can be accessed freely via Linden Lab’s own client programs, or via alternative Third Party Viewers. Second Life users (also called Residents) create virtual representations of themselves, called avatars and are able to interact with other avatars, places or objects. They can explore the world (known as the grid), meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, build, create, shop and trade virtual property and services with one another. It is a platform that principally features 3D-based user-generated content. Second Life is intended for people aged 16 and over, with the exception of 13-15year old users restricted to the Second Life region of a sponsoring institution (e.g. school).
Built into the software is a three-dimensional modelling tool based on simple geometric shapes that allows residents to build virtual objects. There is also a procedural scripting language, Linden Scripting Language, which can be used to add interactivity to objects. Sculpted prims (sculpties), mesh, textures for clothing or other objects, animations, and gestures can be created using external software and imported.
Linden Identity
Launched in 2003 by Philip Rosedale, alias Philip Linden in Second Life, first-time residents make up a first name, choose a last name from a list and choose a graphic identity (an avatar). The name cannot be changed, but the avatar can be. The Second Life world is a group of islands in the tropics. Using the keyboard, one can move around at will and even fly over them. You can instantly teleport from one location to another.
Linden Dollars
Second Life also has its own virtual currency, the Linden Dollar, which is exchangeable with real world currency. Land and objects are purchased from Linden Lab or other Second Lifers using Linden dollars. A small amount is given to first-time users, but additional Linden dollars must be purchased monthly to acquire more. An entire island can even be purchased.
Virtual banks sprang up in Second Life that paid interest to Linden dollar depositors. However, some of them lost money by speculating in Second Life gambling and real estate ventures and actually caused a “virtual run on their bank.” Since Linden dollars can be converted to real dollars, Second Lifers lost real money, and in early 2008, Second Life closed down the virtual banks, stating that only real chartered banks could offer banking services.
User Customization
Users can thoroughly customize their avatars with Second Life tools, and they can also be created offline and uploaded. Objects can be infused with the user’s own images as well as programming code in the Linden Scripting Language. All sorts of Second Life environments have been created, from pure fantasy to ultra-futuristic to venues resembling a shopping mall.
The Real World – Simulated
There are countless Second Life cultures and subcultures organized around arts, sports, games and other areas. Groups can be formed that simulate mini-companies and mini-communities. Even real companies, such as Coca-Cola and Adidas, participate in Second Life as a marketing venue. Numerous universities, including Harvard, Princeton and Vassar, offer online classes. Religious organizations hold meetings here. Maldives and Sweden are countries that have created virtual embassies in Second Life.
People find partners, have virtual sex and even get married in Second Life. In other words, Second Life is the “virtual real world.” For an engaging experience, visit www.secondlife.com.
The person in the white shirt just signed up and is feeling his way around Second Life. Whenever you see another person, you can click on his or her avatar and try to start a conversation. Newcomers begin at Orientation Island, and one can actually sense the uneasiness of other newbies who just arrived moments ago. Sometimes they will answer your message; sometimes not. Depending on the name you chose and how forward you are, people will make judgments in the virtual world as they do in the real world.
Second Life Virtual World – Will there be a Virtual Church?
For those who are unaware, the online virtual world industry is booming. As American population recently hit the 300 million mark, Second Life, launched in 2003 reached its 1 millionth resident. By the tens-of-thousands users are creating an alter-ego of their real self, they can choose to be ripped, leaned and become beautiful in another world.
According to one article – The population and economy of Second Life have grown so massive that major corporations are paying attention. Companies such as Sony/BMG Music, Nissan and Toyota have converted marketing dollars to Linden Bucks to buy virtual real estate. Nissan built a Second Life campaign around its Sentra car, hiring programmers to create a gigantic driving course and digital cars that players can drive, as well as billboards and other promotional spots throughout the virtual world. Retailers including Reebok, Nike, Amazon.com and American Apparel have set up shops to sell digital as well as real-world versions of their products. A few recording artists have used Second Life as a performing venue. (Source: San Diego Union-Tribune Second Life). Needless to mention the number of subscribers from the Indian sub-continent is not less, though the exact statistics aren’t available for want of agencies who will do a reliable survey.
How should the church respond? Most would agree that Christians living inside this community should be a witness as they build relationships online. As the world embraces more and more virtual worlds, the church is going to be faced with many difficult challenges as how to respond. As church we are expected to exist and function as a community, but in this new developing avenue it could be virtual community
It’s worth prayerfully considering using Second Life as a tool to spread the gospel. We are called to be “wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves”, how is it that the world always beats us to these opportunities? We are in this world, not of it. That’s how I approach SL.
Evangelistic potential
As always, when a new innovation arrives, we should ask ourselves, “Can this be used to share the gospel?” Models of evangelism, which operate both in the physical world and the Web world, can also apply to Second Life.
Attractional Evangelism: It’s to present gospel in a platter that will attract individuals who otherwise wouldn’t give heed to the Truth, in the real world, but are active in this virtual world. Taking advantage of the tendency of residents to explore for new information in the virtual world every time they access, gospel is highlighted and made visible. Virtual church and meetings are organized in SL and wait prayerfully for people to come exploring.
Incarnational Evangelism: This is where the cyber evangelist enters goes out into the virtual world – SL and shares of oneself in God’s mission.
The cyber evangelist can visit (or set up) secular-interest affinity groups, or talk to individuals he/she meets at random.
Both of these need similar gifts to those needed for chat-room evangelism. These are early days, and it will be fascinating and challenging to see how an SL faith presence will develop. Christians must resist the temptation to build little inward-looking ghettos in SL – an all-too-familiar pattern.
I have come to think that it is no longer a question of rejecting Second Life or embracing it, but accepting the fact that it is a “place” where people somehow hang out, some of them a considerable amount of their time. As Christians we are called to be witnesses, in every area of our lives, including I think, the “virtual” area of our lives.
I believe that Second Life could become a great place to be witnesses of Jesus our Lord. After all, he is also Lord of Second Life. Questions people have in real life and it will have some reflection in Second Life, and they do take these along when they are there. Their search in the real world will probably continue in the virtual world. Therefore I think we should create a place in Second Life to meet this people, to be able to talk to them “face to face”. Maybe in a form of a “house” or place (or whatever) where people can come to meet people who follow Christ, and just fire their questions at us. Maybe it will be easier for many people to open up their hearts with their search in virtual reality than in real life.
I don’t believe that a virtual church can replace a real world church, and therefore that people should eventually be led to a real life church somehow. But even if there are differences in thinking about this, it does remain our call to witness about the Great News in Second Life.
Of course, like any other sort of ministry, this is a calling from God. Some would rather watch paint dry than play silly virtual games. Others will really resonate with the relationships and narrative they can engage in.
There are already churches in the virtual world.
If interested you can check out the ALM Cyberchurch at Vine 164,192,114 or http://livingsounds.org, which conducts Sunday services and where one often finds impromptu discussion groups forming and peer counselling going on.
There is also a special church building in Second Life connected with this group, a fantastic place with a beautiful garden, I truly recommend you going there! The coordinates are (42, 251, 97). This is how the church is presented:
The Fellowship of the Unashamed Christian Retreat (http://www.calvarychapelsl.com ) is an entire mainland SIM in Second Life devoted to providing a clean, wholesome, safe environment for fellowship, recreation and the edification of residents while gently spreading the Gospel of Christ. The Fellowship offers prayer ministries, bible studies, praise ministries and through our ministry partner, Calvary Chapel: Second Life, Sunday services, Lady’s Fellowship and Christian counselling.
The Fellowship offers much to see and do–alone, or in the fellowship of friends–showcasing some of the best that Second Life has to offer. Here you find a prayer lodge; a chapel; a meditation park; a drive-in movie theatre with over 45 movies to choose from; a game park with board games and laser tag; a resource centre with tons of free stuff; an amusement pier with cool rides; a coffee house to meet friends, or watch KMTV Christian television; an event pavilion with regular, live Praise and Worship; a sandbox for building and messing around; and much more…
I have also found several other Christian groups as well as places to get to know more about the Christian faith. I found more than a dozen of churches in Second Life, although only a few appear to be functioning communities of Christians.
“The Church of Second Life is a community church, classical in our beliefs, but contemporary in style. We base all things on the Bible. We believe that human beings have lost their way and can only find it again with God’s help. Our greatest joy is the discovery that God loves us and has provided us with the Way, the Truth, and the Life – Jesus Christ. God revealed the true path for human beings in His life, teachings, death, and resurrection.”
Says Helena who is part of the community,
“I have been an active member of Second Life since Jan of 07 and immediately began to reach out to others with the Gospel message. As a real life Christian counselor I have brought that experience and heart into this virtual world which is in effect real hearts and souls behind those pretty faces and odd names. To date the Lord has blessed my ministry immensely, having used me to lead seven new believers to Himself and to help countless others. They may be pixel feet but they are still just as beautiful bringing the gospel message to those who would never hear it otherwise…” Beacon BeCloud (in game) Second Life Christian Counselor
Some Christians due to ignorance consider involvement in evangelism in this avenue as a waste of time at the very least, and at worst, a sinful way to spend your time. It is not less legitimate, than, say, having a penpal or talking to someone on the phone. Anything can become obsessive. Television isn’t bad, but some things on TV are; the internet isn’t bad, but some things on the internet are, etc. Would they not be a missionary in a country that has bad stuff going on?? Would Jesus talk to people on SL?? Would Jesus use the internet, watch TV sometimes or use a telephone? Technology isn’t bad, but it can be used for evil intentions.
The Christian community in Second Life, though small compared to the 16.5 million residents SL now touts, is strong and ever growing.
Importantly, behind each of those 16.5 million avatars is a very real person–with real needs, real desires, real fears and real problems. Because there is a certain level of anonymity (each person has a name–not their own), people can be whatever they want, look as they want and behave as they want–often in ways they may not in real life, As you might guess–just as in the real world–with so many people and such diversity comes much that is good… and unfortunately, much that is… well… not so good… and some are just plain bad! But, there is one thing that everyone in SL‚has in common–they all need Christ! And that makes Second Life one of the largest mission fields anywhere in the world. A calling from God to labour in His harvest.
Warning
It’s also important to note that the SL Christian community is not without its problems. No type of evangelism is risk-free. Ministry here is as difficult as anywhere else and many who start with good intentions later find they can’t stick to it and wind up giving it up. Because of the diversity, there is a small amount of division among some in the community, though not as much as is witnessed in the real world. And most unfortunate, there are even a few “churches” that are run by people who aren’t, in fact, pastors at all, but claim to be in SL. One must be very careful to discern what is what here – just like in the real world!
No one should engage in any sort of evangelism without prayer backing – for instance at least one prayer partner, and ideally also the covering and prayer of your church fellowship. Just because web evangelism is essentially a solitary activity – just you and your computer screen – this does not mean you should do it alone. The Web has many bad places and dangers, yet we may feel deceptively safe because we are accessing it within the familiar territory of home. One has to be careful avoid these possible hazards – mess up a life, ruin your relationships, hurting other people and damaging your faith.
In addition, Second Life is a place where people take on a new identity, their ‘avatar’. This may or may not be very different from their real life persona. In addition, because they are not identifiable by their real life identity, some may wish to live out all sorts of fantasies that social pressures or timidity would never allow them to in real life (just as people on holiday in a new environment can behave differently, without their normal restraints). And to many, an attraction of Second Life is role play where you can act out being someone different to your real personality. This is not necessarily dishonest, because SL is similar to multi-user internet games, except there is no actual game plan.
‘You shall be My witnesses unto the ends of the earth’ this is the mandate and expectation of our Lord from each of us, His disciples. SL being one of the avenues to fulfil this mandate in its scope and extent, I pray that at least some of us should consider to minister to the needy and lost through this means.
Underlying my prayer are two aims. One – is to provide a church community for the SL residents, which includes pastoral care and all the usual things of church. The second aim – and this is quite ambitious with a cutting edge – is to provide a venue for people in the real life around the globe to go to church, who, cannot do so or may not be interested in going to a church in the physical world.