Friday, January 28, 2011

Virtual Church is Real Ministry

by Rev. BK Hipsher 

Who says virtual church isn’t “real” ministry?  This month marks the two-year anniversary of a virtual congregation that I have served since its birth: Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life <>.  I am an ordained minister with the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) denomination, and Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life is my main ministry supported by the real life Sunshine Cathedral in Ft. Lauderdale.*

Second Life <> is a virtual world based on highly evolved gaming technology.  People interact through “avatars” that are created and named by each person.  The service is free to join, as is creating an avatar.  Once you are in Second Life, there are thousands of places to visit including resorts, stores of all kinds, clubs, and twelve step meetings, as well as churches, synagogues, mosques, Shinto temples, Buddhist ashrams, and any other kind of faith community you can imagine.

Each week we offer a worship service experience for anyone who would like to attend.  Often we have folks from multiple countries, from time zones spanning 12 hours or more, representing various Christian denominations and other faith traditions. The service consists of readings, prayers, music, and a short reflection offered by the Virtual Chaplain of Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life, CristoferAslan Muircastle. . . ME! The service is broadcast in audio form, and all readings, prayers, reflections, and announcements are also presented in text format for those who do not have speakers.

Before you judge this ministry too harshly -- as some have -- consider that each and every avatar is animated by a living, breathing human being.  The people who show up at Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life are not playing a game. Often they are taking a few minutes out of a busy life to listen to music, hear the readings, participate in the prayers, and visit with their fellow attendees after the service.  (Avatars use text chat to converse.)

Often I am asked to engage in private conversation about pastoral matters.  These conversations are often intense, intimate, and of a deeply spiritual nature. The interaction between my avatar and others is real even if the physical body is not present. The same kinds of pastoral needs manifest themselves in Second Life as they do in real life.  People often need to talk about a spouse who is ill or has died, a sick child, a personal health problem, the loss of jobs or homes, or perhaps just need to be assured that God loves them.

This ministry is deeply satisfying for me.  As I prepare the reflection each week, it gives me an opportunity to read scripture and speak about how that text interacts with our daily lives.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet people I would never have known.  I’m able to bring a service to those who don’t have access to progressive theology or perhaps who have mobility challenges that prohibit them from attending real life services.  Ministry in Second Life is not intended to be a substitute for real life faith community.  Rather, it is intended to give people an opportunity to come back to a welcoming faith community and encourage them to reach out and become connected with a real life faith community.

Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life is currently making plans to host another MCC congregation for a book study of Karen Armstrong’s new book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.”  It also will host the Theologies Team of Metropolitan Community Church, which will facilitate a conversation called, “Who is Jesus?”  We dream of a day when Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and other faith traditions have groups that meet in this one facility.  We are just beginning.
You are warmly invited to attend a service sometime soon.  We meet each week on Saturday at 2pm SLT (Second Life Time) which is the equivalent of Pacific Time in the US.  This translates to 5pm EST in the US.  Just go to <> and create an avatar.  Once there go to Orpheum Island 34/80/23.  Or you can search my name “CristoferAslan Muircastle,” and I’ll be happy to teleport you to the correct location.  Be sure you have speakers and come a bit early. I’m always there to welcome those who may be new to Second Life.  We’ll look forward to seeing you soon!

Rev. BK Hipsher, ‘06 is currently a candidate for Doctor of Ministry degree at Episcopal Divinity school working in the area of virtual church and online ministry. She is ordained in Metropolitan Community Churches and serves Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life.

Sunshine Cathedral <> is a Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) congregation that is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Spirituality located in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, and the Chief Programming Minister, Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin, and myself are all alumni/ae of Episcopal Divinity School.

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