Sunday, March 29, 2009

Keeping spirituality and community "real" in Second Life

A friend of mine recently asked me about ministry in Second Life. I wrote him back, and thought it would be interesting to share some of these reflections here, and with anyone who has an interest in ministry in Second Life.

Lately, Shane Hipps made quite a stir in the Internet Ministry blogosphere with a video in which he cast (very reasonable, in my opinion) doubt upon virtual communities in general - I have responded to his remarks here. I think that one way that he is missing the mark is in limiting his thoughts and vision on Second Life ministry to "website communities." Had he an idea of what is going on in Second Life, and in our group in particular, he perhaps would have found a better way of couching his critical remarks, without seeming to deny virtual communities altogether.

There are many opportunities for unique ministry in Second Life. But the platform has suffered under a lot of hype, and a lot of the "ministries" going on there have also sometimes been a bit blinded by hype - in my opinion - like any medium, it matures by people using it, making mistakes, and learning. The possibilities are very specific - but very, very rich - somehow people expect the unexpected there, and sometimes feel somewhat child-like - often with something of a sense of wonder - and that is a very fruitful attitude for encounters with God. Many I think discuss spirituality and God in SL in ways they never really would in situations with people they meet in "real life" - and the more embodied format makes them more inclined to "feel" the presence of the person they are talking with, and thus ... dwell on what's said a bit more than they would be likely to, say, in a chat room.

The challenge of Second Life is to make sure the community - and the spirituality - maintains a "real" character, past the initial, wonder-filled, dreamy contact. Because of the "virtuality" of things, credibility is an important issue. So ironically - some of the things that seem like they would be less important in a "game-like," "playful" atmosphere - like consistent, prolonged community contact, responsible teaching, and community moderation (taking people aside when they offend, or offer controversial remarks out of context that might take things off-track, etc. etc., and gently discussing with them the aims of the study, and their own thoughts and aims) are, in my opinion, even more important in Second Life ministry than in "real life." Because these communities have a strong "virtual" element, they are more vulnerable - the commitment, necessary for real spiritual community, is more difficult to achieve and maintain. Furthermore, not all with us should stay with us - many will be better served by real life communities if they can find them, and won't have the extra time for SL. Also, with the limited means of communication, Second Life is known for a lot of misunderstandings, and misunderstandings fostering yet more misunderstandings - leading to heated conflicts one is much less likely to encounter in "real life." Our own Bible study is much more open to these problems, since it is discussion-oriented and depends about 85% on the input of members in interpreting Scripture. Other ministries are more "broadcast-oriented" - simply gathering people together for a pre-recorded service in which responses are the occasional "amen" or, in a liturgical service, the responses in the service sheet. However, broadcast-oriented ministries are more like televised services - the services themselves don't do much to foster community. The community isn't formed without significant interaction amongst the members - and this interaction has a profound effect on the character of the community.

There is a lot of hype going on about "online ministry." I think it has an important place in the church, but will take time for churches to become acquainted with "what works" and what "is hype." The site I've found to be doing some of the deepest thinking on the matter, hitting real issues more often than going on about rather trite stuff - is http://reachingtheonlinegeneration.com. A good number of his articles show a serious engagement with online media, challenges involved, and actual strategies, in a manner that probes these things more deeply than most sources I have come across. Like many evangelism-oriented people, his background is Baptist, but he is very ecumenical. Paul doesn't have much experience specifically in Second Life, but those interested in doing ministry in Second Life will find many of his articles very applicable to the thought processes they will need to undergo in order to seriously engage Second Life as a platform for engaging in ministry.

2 comments:

Able said...

As so often seems to be the case, I would like to leave you with a couple of questions to ponder on in response to this post...

The post said "Our own Bible study is much more open to these problems, since it is discussion-oriented and depends about 85% on the input of members in interpreting Scripture. Other ministries are more "broadcast-oriented" - simply gathering people together for a pre-recorded service in which responses are the occasional "amen" or, in a liturgical service, the responses in the service sheet. However, broadcast-oriented ministries are more like televised services - the services themselves don't do much to foster community."

I would like you to consider:
a) Whether you think preaching is monologue or dialogue?
b) Whether there are times when preaching as monologue is perhaps more appropriate than dialogue or vice versa?
c) How preaching given as monologue is different to "broadcast orientated" ministries?
d) Whether monologue or dialogue is a more effective form of communication and through which media.

I could go on. But certainly what makes the difference in a virtual community is commonality, depth / level of communication, shared history and this is supported by dialogue in fellowship.

Anglican Ecumenical Bible Study in Second Life said...

An initial response should be to point out T.S. Eliot's essay Tradition and the Individual Talent ... I would strongly encourage all who have a bit of interest in literature and academics to read this seminal essay.

It would then need to go on discussing Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the "dialogical" - one can read a bit about it here.

Both of these have been very important in Christian thought, especially regarding engaging tradition, and the Bible.

For a different tack, see Alistair MacIntyre's book After Virtue. Unfortunately I'm gonna have to stop here since otherwise I'd be writing pages & pages. Perhaps more on the difference "broadcasting" & conversation later.