Some readers of this blog are going to think I've totally nerded or weirded out. So be it. Truthfully, I would have thought the same thing about myself one month ago peering into this moment. I imagine that for most non-gamers, or anyone who has never visited a virtual world like Second Life, the proposal that Second Life is meaningful, profound, and important may come as a surprise. If I were writing about global missions, readers would think, "Ah yes, global missions, I can see reasons to be committed to that!" But here I'm writing about missions on-line, in a game no less.
Admittedly, there are many aspects of Second Life that make it secondary to real life. There's plenty of analysis of the weaknesses out there. For an important essay on Second Life, you can read this great essay on the Anglican Cathedral web site, http://www.phil-wright.net/ailsa/AoSL_paper.pdf For the most cogent argument for mission on Second Life and on-line more generally, see Douglas Estes's Simchurch.
All of this being said, I have discovered one small slice of life in Second Life that I think is important, if not potentially transformative for the life of the church, and so I'll launch this series on virtual life with the topic. I have discovered some wonderful groups of people who are praying the daily offices on Second Life, and I've learned a lot praying with them. Before I write about the daily offices, I'll mention that this post launches a series of posts on virtual life, so watch for forthcoming installments on:
1) The Sociological Implications of Having an Avatar
2) The Theological Implications of Having an Avatar
3) The ethics of being present as an avatar.
3) What is the relationship between role-play and authentic faith, authentic existence?
4) Can you play at worship? In fact, is playing at worship more worshipful?
5) What about other forms of on-line community?
6) Why Second Life when you can just text and Skype each other?
And now to the topic for this post. Maybe it will come as no surprise, given my theological and liturgical interests, that the communities I first tracked into on Second Life were worship and prayer communities. My first day on Second Life, I had the opportunity to pray Compline with a group at St. Matthew's. Since then, I have joined in prayer at the Anglican Cathedral, and been invited to another praying community of Oblates of St. Francis. I have also visited, but not worshipped at, sites hosted by an LCMS seminarian, and a few other evangelical sims.
In each case, the basic format for worship is to gather at a chapel or church, where a worship leader gives you a document, like a bulletin, with the full order of service printed inside. Since these are all Anglicans organizing the prayers, the order of service is liturgical in the way they traditionally do it, out of the Book of Common Prayer, but Lutherans and other folks familiar with the daily prayer offices will recognize it.
Typically, the leader both posts the full text of the worship service in a chat window, AND does audio of the leader parts, including at some services a sermon. Participants in worship can post their responses in the chat window as text, and can say responses verbally for the rest of the community to hear. All of this duplicate communication works surprisingly well. Those who are visually or hearing impaired can still participate easily, and even if you are in a noisy environment, or don't have the right equipment for the high tech experience, you can still participate via text.
So far I have experienced these SL worship services to be very similar to actual daily prayer offices I have attended in Real Life (RL). I experience it as prayerful, I would say I am truly praying while present, both verbally and by typing. Furthermore, I definitely have the sense of being "present" with others. It isn't just a game. Or it is a game (more on that later), but meaningful as that.
It also has some practical benefits. To be honest, I have had difficulty finding local communities to gather with for daily prayer. Most churches I have attended or pastored do not conduct daily prayer offices like Matins, Compline, etc. Perhaps I am guilty of not having coordinated them and invited people, but the details of actually doing it and getting there, especially while raising a family, are not inconsequential. To attend one, you have to drive to church, schedule the time away, commit to it for the long-term, etc.
However, on SL, I have attended Compline each evening at 10 p.m. with others while the new baby slept on my chest. It didn't cause any parenting problems in the house because I was available, and so there I was, each evening this week, praying compline with people from around the globe.
I have also had a chance to meet the chaplains and worship leaders. Similarly, I can't say it is easy to differentiate the depth of the encounter from if I had attended a new church for compline in RL. After worship, there is typically time to chat and get to know each other. There are a variety of ways to chat while in this situation unique to SL. You can chat with those who are present in their avatars. You can also chat individually like sending an IM message. Furthermore, you can chat with anyone that is a friend "in world" even if they aren't present directly. This can all be voice or text.
You can see the advantages. For example, if the worship service is confusing, you can send a private text to the worship leader asking a question without interrupting the flow of the service.
Finally, I simply think it is a beautiful thing that groups of people are gathering each day and evening and morning to pray together on SL. Many cannot attend RL church for a variety of reasons. Some are autistic, have speech or hearing problems, geographical restrictions, etc. Others simply prefer worshipping in this context. But when they gather to pray, they are the church, together, and they are praying for the needs of the world.
I find that the model of the daily prayer offices is an especially appropriate way to play in Second Life. It does not replace RL church--almost everyone I have met also has an RL church they attend, especially for Sunday services and other events. But it gives them a chance to pray with others drawn to a daily life of prayer together.
To be continued...