In part one of my visit to the First United Church of Christ in Second Life I looked at some of the background behind the church and why they have been embracing virtual worlds. In this part I’ll delve a little further about my discussions with Reverend Jerome Newstart (at times referred to as ‘Jer’) and Reverend Becca Kellstrom (at times referred to as ‘Becca’). A point to note here is that there are two other ordained clergy within First UCC SL but I did not talk to those clergy. However Becca and Jerome both pointed out that the other clergy are a big help with the project.
So what sort of services and support can you expect to find at a church in Second Life? “It’s much the same sort of ministry one would do in RL, except that we do a good deal more being the ‘non-anxious presence; than is generally true in RL churches,” Jerome told me, “We also offer two types of services, worship in the sanctuary on Sundays and Thursdays and Psalter services most evenings,” continued Jerome, “Worship is usually gathering music, scripture, a message, community prayer. We use voice for the sanctuary services, with text. The Psalter is done in text only, and they are centered on the Psalm of the evening. Peace Grove was created for those.”
“Lots of pastoral care and good, deep conversation with folks who are happy, or even relieved, to find us,” Becca added, “With the exception of Thursday at 4pm SLT, all other services take place at 6:30pm SLT right now. We are considering changes, as we’ve long had a request from friends in European countries for an earlier time.”
There we see one of the key differences between virtual world communities and physical world communities. In the virtual world you can attract a global audience, but with that global audience comes the challenge of global audience time zones. However I’m sure most communities would find that a refreshing challenge, First UCC SL certainly seem to enjoy the challenge.
However I had to rewind a little at this point, Jerome had mentioned singing, do people really sing at these services? I mean it’s one thing for people to sing when they are physically together, but are they really singing at home in front of their computers? “No, well, at least not that we hear!”, Becca tells me and then adds conspiratorially, “When I sat next to him at Conference meetings, Jer would only lip-sync, so I only heard my own voice ;-)”.
Jerome isn’t so convinced about people not singing, “At home I suspect they do. I don’t know, I sing in the shower! We use music videos on a viewer during services.”
We move on to First UCC SL’s wider role within the United Church of Christ and I start by asking how the General Synod went when First UCC SL members attended the physical world event in Cleveland, Ohio, earlier this year. “Very well! We got a special shout out to the Synod when we were introduced!” they tell me.
Becca tells me that she wasn’t able to attend but that Jerome and another board member, who is a long time Second Life resident attended and were even on stage to represent the virtual world Ministry.
“Visitors to our booth were amazed, some mystified. We’re still very ‘out of the box’ as churches go,” Jerome told me.
I then moved on to the open and welcoming nature of First UCC SL and mention the marriage equality act that was passed in the United States earlier this year. ” It happened during Synod and it got pretty exciting,” Jerome enthuses, “I should mention that I would estimate that over half of our membership in Second Life is gender dysphoric in one way or anther,” Jerome adds.
“Right, we are what’s called ‘Open and Affirming‘ in the United Church of Christ, which means we welcome people along those spectrums of human sexuality, as well as gender identity, so it’s wonderful to see marriage equality come to pass in so many countries.” Becca tells me, “Basically, we take the stance that it is okay to be gay, and people are still God’s beloved children,” Becca continues, “Every congregation makes it’s own decision, we actually held a vote within our Second Life congregation and voted to be Open and Affirming.”
However Becca also informs me that this is not a uniform stance for all UCC congregations, “The national leadership of the church are all supportive of people who are LGBTQIA, but not all individual members or congregations are, so when people who are U.S. residents seek a UCC church in first life, we encourage them to check if the congregation is listed as ONA (short-hand for that welcoming stance).”
Jerome adds more information, “Yes, the denomination cannot dictate. RL churches vote to become Open and Affirming after a study period. Being Open and Affirming is not mandatory, but many UCC churches are, and that includes us,” Jerome then adds an interesting point regarding links between the virtual world ministry and physical world ministries, “I took a RL church through the Open and Affirming process recently, one person who helped was a transgendered person from this ministry who also joined the RL church,” Jerome adds.
That’s an interesting transition between the virtual and physical world spaces, but it also exemplifies that virtual worlds can help to build communities that exist beyond virtual worlds, but what sort of community do First UCC SL have and what sort of people are visiting their Second Life space I ponder.
Becca responds first, “There are a core of people who are regular in attendance for worship, or coming by to chat and others who come as they’re able, then a steady stream of visitors, people who are curious.”
Jerome then adds, “Like RL churches there is a small very loyal core and others who are here as they feel they can be. The thing I am happiest about is the feeling of community that has grown up around this place.”
The visitors to First UCC in Second Life are not all patrons of the church, nor do they all identify as religious, as Becca and Jerome inform me with further discussion. Becca tells me, “We have people of all faiths and no faiths who like to simply wander the grounds, hang out, and talk with us whenever we’re here.”
“We’ve actually attracted atheists from time to time who seem pleased at our welcoming stance,” Jerome further adds.
What of the Second Life build I wonder, do they enjoy that aspect of the virtual world, do they change the build much? I have observed the church, entertainment venues such as The Rainbow room, the comma cafe, an art garden and a Peace Grove whilst looking at First UCC SL, but who does the heavy lifting? “Jer… the senior pastor there likes to putter about the grounds. Chief architect and gardener!” laughs Becca before adding, “It was fun to put the sim together, and our senior staff were SO helpful with all that in the first year, to make the place welcoming.”
“I get lots of help and the occasional surprise! Generally I change things with the seasons,” Jerome informs me, “We were autumn decor shopping yesterday,” he adds.
“We change the build when we draw talented members with things to share, like the Garden Tomb, that was a recent build/addition by Lora Chadbourne,” Becca informs me.
At this point we decide that it’s time to call a halt to the discussion, the time has flown by and I’ve got a lot of notes to sort through.
Virtual World churches are not a use case that gets much of a mention and as we head to a more immersive environment with developments in virtual reality. One of the few people who have discussed the subject matter is Giulio Prisco, who wrote an article for Hypergrid Business earlier this year; Virtual reality a new frontier for religions :
Virtual reality technology is going to radically change what it means to attend church in the next fifty years — and maybe much sooner. While the technology is still in its infancy, however, virtual churches are limited experiments rather than significant outreach efforts – but this will change.
Giulio is of course considered rather controversial as he’s a transhumanist, but he undoubtedly recognises the power of community within churches and similar organisations. First UCC SL also recognise the power of community and are applying it rather well in a virtual world setting.
SLURL To First UCC : http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/First%20UCC%20Island/120/204/25/