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.


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25 Responses
  • Kristina Reply

    OMG, I think I might need to wrap my head around this a bit more. This one is hard for me. I really believe that some churches/people are close minded and judgmental. I always say (without statistics to back it up) that the greatest cause of Atheism are Christians who attend on Sunday and forget it all week long. I don’t think that any one religion is more superior than the others and strive to find a church that also believes that. However, I am also a traditionalist. I love the ritual part of church. Going and sitting on the hard, wooden pews, communion, Pastors monotone chanting, etc. I love all of it. Is there talking in the virtual church? Also, what happens to fellowship? and no donuts and coffee. How do you connect with your fellow worshipers?

    My early, pre-coffee thoughts. I’ll try to come up with more thoughts when I am more awake.

    • gavin richardson Reply

      there is statistics that you speak of kristin. david kinnaman has a book called ‘unchristian’ (http://www.unchristian.com/) which shares statistical findings. also the barna group (http://www.barna.org/) has similar findings.

      as for SL services, they are usually in voice with one or two people leading by talking through the environment, but not everyone has microphone set ups so they use the chat room/im type functions, which are surprisingly affective.

      you can also drink coffee before, after or during. if you stop by give a shout, i’ll get you some coffee or a beer. &:~)

  • Kristina Reply

    OMG, I think I might need to wrap my head around this a bit more. This one is hard for me. I really believe that some churches/people are close minded and judgmental. I always say (without statistics to back it up) that the greatest cause of Atheism are Christians who attend on Sunday and forget it all week long. I don’t think that any one religion is more superior than the others and strive to find a church that also believes that. However, I am also a traditionalist. I love the ritual part of church. Going and sitting on the hard, wooden pews, communion, Pastors monotone chanting, etc. I love all of it. Is there talking in the virtual church? Also, what happens to fellowship? and no donuts and coffee. How do you connect with your fellow worshipers?

    My early, pre-coffee thoughts. I’ll try to come up with more thoughts when I am more awake.

    • gavin richardson Reply

      there is statistics that you speak of kristin. david kinnaman has a book called ‘unchristian’ (http://www.unchristian.com/) which shares statistical findings. also the barna group (http://www.barna.org/) has similar findings.

      as for SL services, they are usually in voice with one or two people leading by talking through the environment, but not everyone has microphone set ups so they use the chat room/im type functions, which are surprisingly affective.

      you can also drink coffee before, after or during. if you stop by give a shout, i’ll get you some coffee or a beer. &:~)

  • Kristina Reply

    I will have to check those sites out. Thanks for the info. Also, I draw from the spiritual energy of the people around me, and if I am sitting alone in my bedroom in my jammies watching virtual church, how do I draw that energy??? Then again, for those of us who are ridiculously busy and seem to never get to church, this might be a viable alternative. argh! I am really going to have think about this.

    • gavin richardson Reply

      no prob on the info. glad to share it.

      do think about it, discern where you are needed. when i share this in various speaking engagements i tell folks i share not because i think they should be there, but they need to know there is a place people are going, and if you feel compelled to be there with them, do that. if not, get someone else to be there. not everyone needs a second life, world of warcraft, club penguin, habbo hotel, or whatever the virtual community might be.

  • Kristina Reply

    I will have to check those sites out. Thanks for the info. Also, I draw from the spiritual energy of the people around me, and if I am sitting alone in my bedroom in my jammies watching virtual church, how do I draw that energy??? Then again, for those of us who are ridiculously busy and seem to never get to church, this might be a viable alternative. argh! I am really going to have think about this.

    • gavin richardson Reply

      no prob on the info. glad to share it.

      do think about it, discern where you are needed. when i share this in various speaking engagements i tell folks i share not because i think they should be there, but they need to know there is a place people are going, and if you feel compelled to be there with them, do that. if not, get someone else to be there. not everyone needs a second life, world of warcraft, club penguin, habbo hotel, or whatever the virtual community might be.

  • Norcross Reply

    I always come back to the idea that “Faith without works is dead”, and the other ideas put forth in Emmet Fox’s writings. Whether it is on-line, in a ‘virtual’ world, in a brick & mortar church, or at the local supermarket, any faith one decides to have should be reflected in how they carry themselves in everyday life.

    Personally, I don’t attend church other that the standard twice a year. My father is a minister, so it’s more a family outing than anything else. But I still am raising my son to have morals, values, and principles. Isn’t that the end goal?

    • gavin richardson Reply

      i like to say faith without works is just someone talking. dead says to me there is no life there. people might have life, just not know how to live it out, so they talk it out till they do.

      i do take disagreement that faith, as i practice, is not about morals/values/principles/abstaining or just ‘being good or holy’ as is what many people equate or live out faith these days. i live a very moral life by my government, i have good values according to america, etc… so its more about who i am compelled by. and the God i commune with and Christ i follow really does shape me to be more than i originally imagined. that’s about as best i can start this conversation without getting into a whole other posting.

      • Norcross Reply

        Without delving too deep into it (which I’ll admit, I don’t usually discuss the topic in places like this), I feel as though most religions, Christianity included, set out a set of principles to follow. And while I don’t follow the particular outline of Christianity, many of those same teachings Jesus shared are ones that I follow myself.

        • gavin richardson Reply

          i agree, that this medium is not the best for a deep discussion on beliefs & practices. there is too much break in interaction. i will say, there is a distinction between a theology of belief and the doctrine that is practiced. everything has a doctrine (whether they call it that or not). the american way has a doctrine of prosperity, hard work, etc.

          good chat

  • Norcross Reply

    I always come back to the idea that “Faith without works is dead”, and the other ideas put forth in Emmet Fox’s writings. Whether it is on-line, in a ‘virtual’ world, in a brick & mortar church, or at the local supermarket, any faith one decides to have should be reflected in how they carry themselves in everyday life.

    Personally, I don’t attend church other that the standard twice a year. My father is a minister, so it’s more a family outing than anything else. But I still am raising my son to have morals, values, and principles. Isn’t that the end goal?

    • gavin richardson Reply

      i like to say faith without works is just someone talking. dead says to me there is no life there. people might have life, just not know how to live it out, so they talk it out till they do.

      i do take disagreement that faith, as i practice, is not about morals/values/principles/abstaining or just ‘being good or holy’ as is what many people equate or live out faith these days. i live a very moral life by my government, i have good values according to america, etc… so its more about who i am compelled by. and the God i commune with and Christ i follow really does shape me to be more than i originally imagined. that’s about as best i can start this conversation without getting into a whole other posting.

      • Norcross Reply

        Without delving too deep into it (which I’ll admit, I don’t usually discuss the topic in places like this), I feel as though most religions, Christianity included, set out a set of principles to follow. And while I don’t follow the particular outline of Christianity, many of those same teachings Jesus shared are ones that I follow myself.

        • gavin richardson Reply

          i agree, that this medium is not the best for a deep discussion on beliefs & practices. there is too much break in interaction. i will say, there is a distinction between a theology of belief and the doctrine that is practiced. everything has a doctrine (whether they call it that or not). the american way has a doctrine of prosperity, hard work, etc.

          good chat

  • Suzanne Reply

    Great article Gavin. I completely agree with you that while there is a place for online interaction, we all need that sense of community and real human interaction that comes from being involved in a local group of like-minded believers. I can see how Second Life could be used as a tool to draw people toward belief and also a safe and non confrontational experience. But I wonder if people could mistake it as a substitute for the personal relationship with God that is necessary.

    Thanks for posting this and for introducing me to Second Life. I’m not much into reality universes, but it’s certainly a tool that can be used to evangelize and open doors.

    • gavin richardson Reply

      i do believe that some people will get confused and a virtual life will become for them their whole life. that is sad, but i’d also say there is most likely something else going on there for that person that helps enable that. the ‘personal relationship’ as i somewhat identified in my first posting here is a rather new concept as the technology of print took away the community element of faith and built into it the individual experience. i’m not much into sl & other worlds (wow, habbo hotel, there, sims online) but it is a place where people with needs are taking themselves.

  • Suzanne Reply

    Great article Gavin. I completely agree with you that while there is a place for online interaction, we all need that sense of community and real human interaction that comes from being involved in a local group of like-minded believers. I can see how Second Life could be used as a tool to draw people toward belief and also a safe and non confrontational experience. But I wonder if people could mistake it as a substitute for the personal relationship with God that is necessary.

    Thanks for posting this and for introducing me to Second Life. I’m not much into reality universes, but it’s certainly a tool that can be used to evangelize and open doors.

    • gavin richardson Reply

      i do believe that some people will get confused and a virtual life will become for them their whole life. that is sad, but i’d also say there is most likely something else going on there for that person that helps enable that. the ‘personal relationship’ as i somewhat identified in my first posting here is a rather new concept as the technology of print took away the community element of faith and built into it the individual experience. i’m not much into sl & other worlds (wow, habbo hotel, there, sims online) but it is a place where people with needs are taking themselves.

  • chad swanzy Reply

    My team and I are basically “creepers.” 2/3 of my leaders are 23-27 and it is nothing for them to connect with the kids online leading them, encouraging them, and “being where they are at.” We’ve had to create a few guidelines for this but only to create freedom and more security for the kids. When we started an online campus I had a girl who had moved from a small town in Kansas. She started a facebook group back home for her friends and without me knowing had been pushing them toward our experience online. My wife as counseled a girl from Kansas we have interacted with that group online and it’s been both interesting and odd to see them interact without reservation. Everything we do is somehow represented or celebrated on Facebook.

    • Matt Reply

      @Chad – Thanks for coming by! I think that’s really the blessing (and at times the curse) of the internet – the transparency it provides, allowing us to interact without reservation. At times, this can lead to acting without regret or accountability, but in this realm, in a spiritual sense, it can be a beautiful thing, allowing for free flowing of ideas and theories without judgment. That is what I really pulled from this idea of the virtual ‘self’. It provides a forum for unrestricted ideas, it provides an outlet for people to pursue faith beliefs and ideas that they may be passionate about, but afraid to confront in ‘real’ life.

      In short – allowing for such open communication can translate into real-world results. Someone who was once afraid to be judged or was fearing a lack of acceptance may be re-assured after their online experiences to pursue their faith face-to-face.

  • chad swanzy Reply

    My team and I are basically “creepers.” 2/3 of my leaders are 23-27 and it is nothing for them to connect with the kids online leading them, encouraging them, and “being where they are at.” We’ve had to create a few guidelines for this but only to create freedom and more security for the kids. When we started an online campus I had a girl who had moved from a small town in Kansas. She started a facebook group back home for her friends and without me knowing had been pushing them toward our experience online. My wife as counseled a girl from Kansas we have interacted with that group online and it’s been both interesting and odd to see them interact without reservation. Everything we do is somehow represented or celebrated on Facebook.

    • Matt Reply

      @Chad – Thanks for coming by! I think that’s really the blessing (and at times the curse) of the internet – the transparency it provides, allowing us to interact without reservation. At times, this can lead to acting without regret or accountability, but in this realm, in a spiritual sense, it can be a beautiful thing, allowing for free flowing of ideas and theories without judgment. That is what I really pulled from this idea of the virtual ‘self’. It provides a forum for unrestricted ideas, it provides an outlet for people to pursue faith beliefs and ideas that they may be passionate about, but afraid to confront in ‘real’ life.

      In short – allowing for such open communication can translate into real-world results. Someone who was once afraid to be judged or was fearing a lack of acceptance may be re-assured after their online experiences to pursue their faith face-to-face.

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