General Assembly 2008 Event 3013
A dragon, an angel, and a bug-eyed monster sit down in a Unitarian Church….
No, it's not the opening to a really bad joke. It's just another Thursday night service at the First Unitarian Church of Second Life (UUSL), which celebrates its fifth anniversary next month.
Five years after it first went online, UUSL now serves over 600 members, putting it firmly in the ranks of the largest UU congregations. It's been profiled in UU World, attracted members from every corner of the globe, and it’s already on a second building, having outgrown the first one.
The looming challenge in their future? Making themselves an official IRL—that is, In Real Life—UU congregation.
That's the next step, according Eric Burch of Rockville, MD, and Catherine Lilly of Northhampton, MA, who came to GA on Friday morning to tell us how they keep the chalice burning in Second Life, a three-dimensional virtual world ("massively multiplayer online game," or MMOG in Internet parlance). Burch noted wryly, "If you look in the index, you'll find that this is the only workshop at this GA listed under 'denominational growth.' This is a new way to spread our message."
A Canopy of Light
Burch and Lilly's slide show gave the audience a tour of the online church. The setting is a gazebo set in the woods, topped with a stained glass cupola letting in filtered light. Underneath, rows of pillows face a large rock, where the pulpit and chalice flank a waterfall flowing into a small pond. (This is UUSL's second church building; they outgrew the first one, a smaller version of this one, some time back. As often happens in meatspace—that is, real-world—churches, the old facility is still used as a chapel for small gatherings.) There's also a conference center – though staff retreats have also been held at beach resorts with no strain on the budget.
This UUSL sanctuary hosts regular worship services every Thursday night at 9:30 ET/6:30PT; and on Saturday mornings at 9:00 ET/6:00 PT. (The difference in hours accommodates attendees from Asia and Europe, many of whom are experiencing Unitarian Universalist worship for the first time via UUSL.)
First Mission In Cyberspace
Burch views UUSL as the church' first mission in cyberspace. He notes that Second Life is the largest MMOG in the world, with between 50,000 and 60,000 people online at any given time. It's also the only one that allows users to generate their own content. The basic service—which is all that's required to make full use of the UUSL sanctuary—is free to users; but Burch cautioned that accessing Second Life is difficult without high-speed Internet access, and that the service runs best on newer computers.
It's a busy and growing world. Volvo, Ben & Jerry's, and Circuit City are among hundreds of companies, large and small, that have a presence there. Burch's employer, IBM, runs an online store with two sales employees online 24/7; large computer systems have been bought there, entirely through virtual interactions. Several universities offer teaching campuses in Second Life; and many companies are using it for corporate trainings.
And there's a lively community of churches serving this global community. The UCC, Friends, and Catholics all have similar Second Life churches, as do many other denominations. There's even a UU ministers' association that meets in Second Life, which has been very supportive of the UUSL congregation. (Several of the ministers are church members.)
The Question of Virtual Worship
Burch and Lilly emphasize the value of a cyberspace church to a wide variety of people who aren't able, for a wide variety of reasons, to attend a real-life church. Disabled people, those who can't get to a real-life church, and parents with children at home are all well-served by having online access to community and worship. The fact that most of the worship occurs in text makes it accessible to the deaf, and to people whose English isn't very good. (Some foreign attendees use computer translation to understand the services.) Some members join distant members of their families – even though they live far apart, they attend church together once a week. Others are members of very large real-life churches who enjoy the greater intimacy of the UUSL community. And a few appreciate the anonymity of Second Life.
Still, the character of the worship experience is necessarily different. The homily is a pre-written text post, which the group reads through together and discusses. "The post-homily discussions are where the real magic happens," says Burch. There's also music and shared readings – it's all very much like a regular UU service.
But Burch gets asked: "How do you establish community when you can't see or touch somebody? It turns out that, over time, things do work. The people I've met in SL – I know their phone numbers, I can call them up. I can collaborate on presentations to our denomination, but not really meet the person until two days before we give it." He quotes UU minister Sarah York, who wrote of "the holy intimacy of strangers." It's sometimes easier to open up to someone who doesn't know you—you can drop barriers and be who you really are.
And dropping barriers, says Burch, is the main point of online worship. UUSL overcomes geography, ability, economic status, age, and social identity. Burch mentioned a friend for whom Second Life meant she got to be "something other than 'the lady in the wheelchair,'" and in the process discovered dimensions to herself that she might never have found within the constraints of her life as a disabled woman.
UUSL doesn't intend to replace a real church experience. In fact, Burch and Lilly emphasized the role it plays in acquainting people with UUism who might not have encountered it otherwise. The site makes it easy for members to find information on real-life congregations in their area – and according to the speakers, some have.
The church leaders are also trying to define a role for themselves within the larger UU. To that end, they formally passed bylaws in May, and began registering voting, pledging members. As of Friday, the count stood at 37, with more joining daily; the hope is that a significant number of the church's 614 e-list members will eventually take the step. The leadership group includes a couple of ordained UU ministers who are guiding their process.
They're also collecting pledges. So far, there's about $1000 in their coffers—but nothing to spend it on. (Real-life churches will envy the spectacular church facility they've built with very little overhead and almost no maintenance.) Someday, Burch and Lilly hope, some of that money will go to pay UUA dues. They're also looking for cross-promotion from UUA websites—and perhaps the opportunity to help various districts set up online meeting spaces and facilities of their own within Second Life, which could be useful for trainings, committee meetings, and so on.
Having established themselves over the past five years, the organizers of UUSL are now hoping for some guidance and support from the UUA. One big question is: what district would they belong to? (The most intuitive answer: the same one the Church of the Larger Fellowship belongs to.) Having pioneered a new world, built a church, assembled a congregation, and taken the first steps toward organizing and financing themselves, they're now asking: What's next? Do we buy our own island? Found our own town? Take the UUSL model to Teen Second Life (an alternative Second Life for people under 18) and set up a youth church there?
With five years of history behind them, the future seems limitless.
For more information on the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Second Life:
From inside Second Life: contact Etaoin Barcelona or Sofia Freenote "Unitarian Universalists of Second Life." It's free to join.
Reported by Sara Robinson, edited by Jone Johnson Lewis