Sacred Space in Cyberspace
“We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community.” – Dorothy Day
I am the Circuit Rider for The Beatitudes Society, but my tools are quite different than the well-worn saddle and leather-bound Bibles of my forebears.1 My tools are the currency of the online world – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Second Life. I enlist online resources that help clergy learn and act on pressing social issues and give them online places to meet and talk with other progressive faith leaders.
How does a seminary graduate end up as an online Circuit Rider? Answer: I genuinely believe in online community. Community is the common thread to all my work. I see it in practice at The Beatitudes Society. I also see it in practice as the pastor of an online church, Koinonia Congregational Church of Second Life.
Let me tell you about my church. Imagine a new town emerging on the outskirts of your city, a planned village filled with all manner of retail, rolling golf courses, night clubs, and civic arrangements necessary to organizing a small city. You’d also expect to find houses of worship where the new town’s citizens can connect with God and with each other. So it is with the new metropolis of the internet: churches are springing up every day online, and I am one of the ministers.
At our church this past Easter morning, for instance, folks wandered in, picked up their bulletins and settled into their seats. They chatted quietly about their lovely dresses and crisp Sunday suits while the music welcoming the Risen Lord floated lightly overhead. This group has been worshipping together for two years, and the joy was palpable. When it came time for the passing of the peace, people greeted one another from Germany, England, California, Mississippi, Georgia, and Toronto. They hadn’t traveled from those places; they were still at home in all those places, but making church online – worshipping, studying, praying, crying and laughing together from all corners of the globe.
Avatars and Atonement
Koinonia Congregation is an actual congregation meeting in online space – a virtual reality world de- rived from the revolutionary software program called Second Life, which allows users to socialize and use voice and text chat. Koinonia uses Second Life to create a safe environment where people can learn about the Christian faith and experience a loving Christian community.
Each week we meet for worship in the 3D rendered sanctuary where as avatars we gather for fellowship, prayer, music, and the preached Word.2 Opening its doors and heart to people of various theologies, sexual orientations, and faith experiences, Koinonia practices God’s extravagant welcome to all. Koinonia Christians celebrate the abundance of life and diversity of God’s people. The worldwide reach of Second Life gives Koinonia unlimited po- tential to connect with people who would never walk through the doors of a brick-and-mortar church. It provides a safe place for those who have been hurt or rejected by previous, earthbound communities of faith. (To see a YouTube video of Koinonia Church, visit our web site, www.koinonia-church.org. For further information about Second Life, see www. secondlife.com)
I have the best job in the world because I get to meet that long loneliness with a new kind of community.
As minister, I spend time at the church daily, meeting with folks who need prayer or an encouraging word. Visitors curious about Koinonia pop by daily and explore the grounds, where they can slip a prayer request in a dedicated mail box, light a prayer candle or sit in meditation in the gardens that surround the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired building. If you are ever “in-world” (the phrase Second Life citizens use to designate being logged into Second Life), stop by and I can give you a tour of the parsonage. Our church is not the only congregation in Second Life. You can wander into the neighboring cathedral of the Anglican church of New Zealand. You can visit a Presbyterian fellowship and find evangelical churches all around the cyber-landscape. The Unitarian Universalist worship space (www.fuucsl. org/cms) is one of the loveliest sacred sites in Second Life. You can also find mosques, synagogues, and Zen meditation gardens, support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, and hundreds of such fellowships offering real community online.
Soul and Circuitry
How did all this come to be, these myriad manifestations of faith communities online? What might seem like a dizzying techno-revolution, a break with the past, can actually be placed in the long history of evangelism. I see it in the tradition of the nineteenth century revivals and in the lineage of twentieth century preachers who, taking the Great Commission seriously, enlivened the radio and TV airwaves. But where we at Koinonia break with traditional evangelical practice and theology is with their drive to “produce” confessing converts who have made their “decision for Christ.” Instead of endeavoring to increase the rolls and move on to the next task or program, our focus is to gather as the visible Body of Christ and extend God’s radical hospitality to all who seek connection. What makes the internet fundamentally different from previous electronic evangelism is its potential for direct, one- on-one interaction between individuals, its potential for community– for koinonia.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “It is the curse and promise (of Christendom) that God’s people must dwell in far countries among unbelievers, but it will be the seed of the kingdom of God in all the world.” Bonhoeffer also says: “It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visible in this world to share God’s word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered and lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands, stand alone.”3 Bonhoeffer is right: isolated people long for community, whether they are locked away behind concrete and steel, or closeted and imprisoned by hostile social prejudice, shut away from loved ones. Preachers who find themselves self-censoring for fear of creating congregational conflict can be the most isolated of all. Today we have new tools to break through the isolation: the blessing of community is available online.
Twitter, Facebook, Second Life – I know, it seems overwhelming, and maybe even distasteful. Just when you might have recovered from your technology allergy and started using email with enthusiasm, now we get all these new “social networking” tools and you hardly know where to begin. But these are the tools in my “saddle-bag” along with my brand new iPhone. We call this “Web 2.0,” where relation- ship trumps one-way, passive transmission of online information. Web 2.0 refers to the evolution of web- based communities, including social-networking sites, wikis, video-sharing sites, and blogs. People are seeking “connectedness,” and these Web 2.0 tools make that possible.
Although we are still learning what exactly it means to be church online we are blessed with the capability now to create a participatory space for Christians and seekers, for the un-churched and de-churched to worship and to extend God’s gracious welcome to all who come near. And what may appear to be play-acting is for many in fact a very serious and faithful act of worship and community.
Referring to Christian scholar Phyllis Tickle’s remarks about the internet, host Krista Tippet said recently on her PBS show Speaking of Faith: “She said every time one of these kids logs on, they step through the back of the closet into Narnia. And they live with ideas of different levels of reality. There’s virtual reality and this reality, and that they all have some substance, and that they don’t have cognitive dissonance about taking all of that seriously.”
I have found this to be absolutely true, but with one caveat: The folks participating in online church are by no means exclusively kids, youth, or twenty- somethings. The people who call Koinonia Congregational Church their spiritual home are young, old, black and white, American and European, gay and straight, and representing a spectrum of differently-abled bodies. One parishioner who has worshipped at Koinonia for nearly two years is a grandmother who lives alone and has experienced more than forty surgical procedures. Though home-bound, she finds solace in a living Christian community that daily prays with her, visits with her, and worries about her when she is not around. One young woman, a lesbian living in a small southern community, came to Koinonia with deep wounds inflicted by her home congregation. Finding a church in her hometown was hard. In our church, she has found love and acceptance. Here she has found a deep connection with God and peace with herself.
Real Tears of Joy
In the earliest days of this church’s formation, a nineteen-year-old woman found the community she needed when she was dislocated from her family of origin. She had relocated across the country with her fiancé who was now stationed in Iraq, and at Koinonia she made a new family. The space was virtual, but the community was real. As a community, we prayed and waited for the safe return of her beloved. When news of his return reached Koinonia, we cried. I cried real tears of joy for her joy.
I know Koinonia online sounds weird – I hear it all the time. People tell me that it’s not real church if it’s not real brick and mortar. But my hunch is most Christians would agree that a building is not the church either. The community of believers is the real temple, the real church (2 Corinthians 3:16, Ephesians 2:21). Biblically speaking, the Christian holy place is as omnipresent as the ascended Lord. Church happens in spirit and reality inside God’s people, for that is where God lives.
Sure, big questions about online spirituality persist: Does this sort of community privilege mind over body? What about the digital divide – are we creating a new system of exclusion? Another big one – what about the sacraments? Without bread and wine and water, are we church? Or is online church a new “outward and visible sign” for an inward and invisible truth?
There are no ready answers – yet. But over time and through the constant cycle of action and reflection, the church has a new and extraordinary opportunity to grapple with what it means to live a sacramental life in cyberspace. Funny thing is, this grappling is nothing new to people of faith: many of these same questions about the nature of sacramental life perennially confront us in our local “traditional” communities.
In his study of base communities of Latin America, Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church (Orbis, 1986), Leonardo Boff wrote, “Grace and salvation are always expressed in sacramental form. They do not come like a bolt from the blue. They find their path to the hearts of human beings through all manner of mediations. The mediations can change, but grace and faith cannot.”4
Whether it’s a face-to-face encounter with a witnessing Christian, a life in a well-established and traditional church, or via the airwaves of radio and TV, or in a Sabbath gathering of 3D avatars in Second Life, the belief that the Holy Spirit can work in and through any vehicle is what compels me to create, participate in, and sustain online Christian community.
Kimberly Knight received her Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. She also has a B.A. in religious studies from Georgia State University. Before enterting seminary she worked nearly five years as a public school activist in Atlanta and served as the technology specialist for The Neighborhood Charter School. She, her partner, and their two children are active members of Kirkwood United Church of Christ in Atlanta.
The Beatitudes Society develops and sustains a national network of progressive Christian leaders who advocate for justice, compassion, and peace; reclaim a Christianity that welcomes all people, especially those at the margins; articulate a Christianity that dares to speak and act for our fragile planet and our most vulnerable citizens.
In Second Life, an avatar is the computer user’s representation of herself in the form of a three- dimensional model or figure.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (Harper and Row, 1954), p.18
Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church (Orbis Books, 1986), p. 17.