I cross the threshold of the sanctuary. It’s a Baptist church, but not like you’d expect. From the glass windows to the padded pews, everything is constructed of pixels. This is a digital church. And just to see if it’s possible, I’m about to be baptized.
Second Life is an online “multi-verse” (as opposed to a universe) that contains millions of residents from around the globe. Virtually anything you can do in your first life you can do virtually in your second. Take a college math class. Hold a business meeting with your colleagues. Go on a date, get married – and divorced. You can even go to church.
After a sermon, the altar call is given. People run down the aisle. Through my laptop speakers, I hear the congregation singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Some kneel, others dance. Some raise their hands, others bow their heads.
I follow the pastor to the baptistery. We pass the pulpit, upon which rests a Bible that contains dozens of languages and translations. We pass the offering plates, where avatars donate Second Life currency. I click myself into the turquoise pool before the pastor dunks me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The congregation claps and says “Amen.”
I have been digitally ana-baptized.
But does it “count”? Virtual ecclesiology raises a number of questions. Can Christians experience authentic community, or koinonia, in a simulated environment? Jesus says, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15). Should this exclude cyber worlds? What about the Lord’s Supper? Can digital wafers invoke the remembrance of Christ’s body? Can pixelated cups hold his blood?
Some think so. For the sick, disabled, or geographically distant members of a church, Second Life offers a way of participation without requiring physical presence. More than watching television or holding a phone conversation, this new form of technology allows for dynamic, environmental interaction. A digital means of grace – glitchy though it can be.
Others have their doubts. For them, a cyber-service is nothing more than regurgitated Gnosticism – a separation of flesh and spirit in which true discipleship, genuine worship, and authentic community cannot be achieved. Besides, Jesus came to earth as a person, not a pixel. Christ was no ghost hovering over the surface of the sea (Luke 24:37). No avatar appeared in the upper room (John 20:24-29). No, Jesus became real flesh, real blood, and real bones. He didn’t send a representation of himself; Christ sent himself. You could watch him eat a tilapia burrito. You could put your finger in his side.
Regardless of our opinions, one thing is certain: church is always changing. Whether in underground Roman catacombs or re-appropriated pagan temples, Christians have worshipped God in the least likely of places. God tethers himself to people, not places, for “where two or three gather in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). Here’s the bottom line: We don’t serve a stationary Savior. Christ is on the move.
The question is, are we going to follow him?