Saturday, January 27, 2007
A Real Virtual Church
I've been researching rather than writing for the past three weeks, spending my spare iMinister moments in Second Life, a massive, multi-player virtual reality which includes, among many things, a UU Church. I've enjoyed this so thoroughly that I fear I will soon need de-tox and a 12-step program, and my research is not done, but here are some interim thoughts.
First of all, like most new pursuits, this one has a learning curve. I didn't start enjoying Second Life until I'd been struggling along for a couple of weeks. Now that I've learned to see, to move, to communicate, and to play in this life, things are better.
I have met not one but two people I know in RL in this venue; a person I grew up with and another who grew up in my current church. I've also made enough new virtual friends that I'm hoping that there will be a GA gathering for the 130 members of the UU Church of Second Life.
(I've also learned to create objects and use them, fly a dragon, translate dialogue into a variety of languages, exchange money, and I've had some interesting experiences in some of the educational exhibits which are set up for visitors. The best one was a simulation of schizophrenia, complete with visual and auditory hallucinations. )
My questions in hanging around the UU church of second life have been, "Is there a way that a venue like this can meet the real religious needs of the people behind the avatars who come here?" and, "Is there a way that a venue like this can show Second Lifers the values of UU'ism and steer them towards a "real" church?"
At the moment I'm inclined to think that both answers are "yes."
About 130 people have joined this virtual church since its inception in August. Joining is pretty free at the moment, but about 30 show up for services each week, which would suggest (in Real life, at least) a core membership of about 60 people. Not bad for 6 months! (but a low ratio of the 3 million "residents" of SL) I've talked to a fair number of them, as well as folks who drop by during the rest of the weeks. By my count, about half are UU's in RL (real life). About half of the rest know about Unitarian Universalism but don't belong to a church. A quarter don't know anything about us and got to the church by accident or came to see a recreation of cave art which is also on the property. Many come because it is a peaceful place to sit...there is a waterfall or a campfire to watch and bird noises to listen to. I've given out a lot of information, in English and (haltingly, until I acquired a translator) in Spanish and French about Unitarian Universalism.
SL is not necessarily a "nice" environment. Many people come here to play with their shadow side, and spend a lot of money buying weapons, being aggressively sexual, or just foul-mouthed. The contrast of the church's values of authenticity, respect, and playful play is even more stark than in RL. And even where people are being nice, it's a kind of chaotic, frontier environment...exciting and exhausting. UU'ism comes off here as and organized, serious, peaceful, welcoming version of ourselves. It's a good thing.
The folks I've talked to really want to discuss their religious values, and they seem to really value the support they get in this on-line, visual chat. In the Joys and Concerns section of the worship service, one gets the impression that real prayer is going on. It is, as someone remarked to me after last week's (Thursday evening) service, strangely moving. There are a lot of possibilities here.