Spirituality and Social Media: Discovering Your Virtual ‘Self’

Gavin RichardsonMeet Gavin Richardson: Youth Minister, lover of South Park, Renaissance man. Last week, Gavin discussed the power blogging can have at bringing people together, and the connection in can bridge between a spiritual leader and their followers. This week, in the third installment of the ‘Spirituality and Social Media’ series, Gavin discusses ‘virtual communities’, the development of faith within the realm of ‘Second Life’, and how the web can be an inviting, non judgmental alternative for those pursuing religious awareness. Visit Gavin on the web at www.gavoweb.com and follow him on twitter @gavoweb

Is community possible…virtually?

A number of years back there was a collaborative experiment to do a ‘virtual church’ called “the church of fools.” The experiment wanted to know if people could worship and live the spiritual life within a virtual environment. As I mentioned in our first posting, a spiritual life is meant to be done within a community of people. So can a virtual environment provide a community of people? And a community of people to live into faith with?

Shane Hipps, one of our better thinkers on technology and faith, says in an interview that he does not believe you can have ‘virtual’ community. From his perspective he’s probably right. But I would disagree with him, to a point. He puts forth that community needs a few elements; shared history, permanence, proximity, and shared imagination of the future. Being someone who has participated in long standing social media communities I have been a permanent fixture as well as many of the people I commune with. We have a shared history of stories, actual meet ups, and an imagination for the future. We might not have proximity, but that is relative in how we feel proximate with the tools (phone, video chat, letters) that enable us to be closer and up to date on people through an expanse of distance.

Second Life = A better life?

One of the more unique spiritual communities I have participated in over the last few years is the various church communities in Second Life . Second Life, for those that do not know, is an avatar based user created virtual world. You can be whomever you wish (I happen to be a monk with a spiked mo-hawk), live in exotic places, buy and sell just about anything, work as whatever you like, and more. There are some 1.5 million people that log into SL regularly and some 15 million registered users. The Christian church, and other faith expressions have seen it as a place to reach people with their message and build community.

Gavin (Gavin Tellig) Worshipping Virtually in Second Life

This is a pretty fascinating phenomenon to me. LifeChurch.tv (which is a rather progressive church in using Internet media for its message) has their own island ‘campus’ where they have people there to meet you and live stream their worship services onto screens in their ‘sanctuary.’ Check out this little video for a tour if you like. The Anglican church has their own island with sanctuary, regular services, labyrinth, coffee house & other conversation areas, even has a memorial garden. The Anglican community connects itself through its ‘out of world’ blog posting service times and other discussion that can happen in a less ‘real time’ chat form. You will also find the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as well as many New Age, Pagan, Wiccan, and other faith expressions ‘in world.’

One of the more fascinating practices of spiritual life I’ve been a part of within Second Life is to become a member of communities/churches that are homes to the GBLT community. I hang at two churches, one is Koinonia which is a church plant loosely affiliated with the United Churches of Christ and the GBLT Church.

A ‘safe’ place for worship without judgment

What is fascinating is that Second Life has enabled individuals who have been hurt or are scared to enter a church building out of fear of the stereotype that Christians are not welcoming, even hostile, to the GBLT community (there is truth to every stereotype) to explore. For many, this is a safe place to come in, be accepted, worship, share stories, and develop relationships. They are faithful attenders ‘teleporting’ in for the start of service then doing meet ups at homes after services or going back to their real world life. A safe place to worship is something I can only say is a good thing, regardless of medium. I do believe that people need a physical element to their spiritual life, being able to touch and be touched with hugs and see the faces of empathy and joy. However, from my experiences, a virtual community can be just as impactful in allowing people to make honest change in their lives.

Some of the remarkable stories that I have been around for. I have had a lady in my prayers whom I met in SL and was abused by a church staff person. One man would come to church and was in obvious need of some ‘real world’ spiritual counseling. He lived in Ireland and it just so happened someone in the group collective knew a pastor in his town, passed along info, he began counseling & was eventually baptized into the faith. A friend of mine has done pastoral counseling for a wife who was having an affair, virtually in physicality but real in mind & spirit. Through some of the counseling she made decisions to breakup with her virtual affair and work on her real world marriage. I’ve met off and on with an older gay teenager who has been a great conversation for me in understanding the life of a gay teen. I’ve had some amazing conversations with the Wiccans and other non-Christian’s getting some glimpse into what they are feeling, what they believe, and some of their story.

Can you live your faith on the web?

In my experience, a virtual community, whether that be a message-board or an amped up virtual reality world, can happen but it is not a complete community experience. There is a need for that hug or personal acknowledgment which comes with a physical presence. But a virtual community effort will make a place, to those committed to being there, for people to feel a part of community. It becomes a tool to find common ground, dispel fears, and might even provide some skills to help someone enter into a real world community; which I believe is the ultimate desire and need for any individual.

If you want to try all this out, you can give a shot to Second Life. Look for me, I’m ‘Gavin Tellig’ in SL. You can also visit the 2nd version of the Church of Fools, aptly called Saint Pixels.

Community response: What are your thoughts on establishing faith whithin a ‘virtual’ community’. Can someone pursue religion solely online? What does a person turning to an online community due to a fear of judgment say about our society? Share your thoughts and insight in the comments below.