Cyber-church: Online evangelism for the digital age

A different kind of evangelism is changing lives in the world of cyberspace.

Outside the Second Life Seventh-day Adventist Church. (Photo: Second Life)

Imagine your typical church service. There might be a welcome, prayer and a few songs. A children’s story preludes a sermon and everything concludes with a benediction. Now, imagine experiencing all of this without leaving your bedroom. No—it’s not Hope Channel or FaithFM. It’s church, but unlike anything you’ve experienced before.

It’s called Second Life, an online world where players can create virtual representations of themselves. It differs from other online virtual simulations, such as the popular video game The Sims, in that each virtual character on the site is actually controlled by a real person. Freely accessible to anyone with a computer and internet access, activities include exploring the world, building, shopping, trading virtual property and services with other virtual residents, and participating in individual and group activities. And one of these individual and group activities includes participating in a church service.

“The development of online virtual worlds created a new space that allowed people from all over the globe to meet and connect,” says Bob Curtice, project coordinator for Second Life from the USA. “But it wasn’t long before a few Seventh-day Adventists entered this particular virtual world and had the idea of a mission outreach effort.”

In September 2010, the “Bible Prophecy Island” project began, with three members of the “Adventists of Second Life” group starting the first Seventh-day Adventist Church in Second Life. Regular weekly church services have been continuing ever since for online members from Australia, Brazil and the US. In 2011, the group successfully applied for Global Mission Project funding, using the money to expand the church.

Inside the Second Life Seventh-day Adventist Church. (Photo: Second Life)
Inside the Second Life Seventh-day Adventist Church. (Photo: Second Life)

“This church is unique because it can support up to eight services conducted in different time zones each Sabbath,” Mr Curtice explains. “In one of the US services, we’re currently showing a live broadcast from Granite Bay Adventist Church (California) every Sabbath morning.”

However, the Second Life Adventist Church is more than just a different way of doing church; it’s an evangelism effort that has the potential to reach thousands of online players.

“Of the regular participants in our weekly Bible studies and church services, more than half aren’t members and are searching for Jesus,” Mr Curtice says. “Use of translator tools allows people of different languages to communicate in real time text chat. People who are homebound found that they could have a home church, be active members and participate in a real way. The church members conduct prayer groups, Bible studies and story hours.”

And this technology hasn’t just impacted non-Adventists. Zilkron Ahren, an Adventist lay preacher in Brazil, was in a car accident that left him mostly paralysed, with only one hand partially useable. But when he was shown the Church project on Second Life, he was able to preach again for the church service held in Portuguese.

The virtual world has also made a difference in the lives of theology students at Avondale College of Higher Education (NSW). In 2011, Northern Australia pastor Daniel Matteo, then a theology student at Avondale, joined the Second Life site and became actively involved with the virtual Adventist Church project.

“Someone emailed me about Second Life and said that they wanted to put together an Adventist church,” Pastor Matteo says. “They’d constructed a building and were having regular services but were struggling to get pastors to preach, so I organised a roster.”

After preaching regularly, including running evangelistic seminars on topics such as spiritualism and Revelation, Pastor Matteo had an idea—could he use his sermons in Second Life as an addition to his studies?

“I still had to work in a local church but the preaching and Bible studies I did in Second Life contributed to my studies,” he says.

Senior lecturer at the time, Dr Murray House, says it provided the students with extra opportunities.

“Jesus’ commission means that wherever people are found—even in a virtual world—we are to make every effort to reach them with the gospel message.”

“Students could practise their preaching on this and it gave them an opportunity to attempt real preaching scenarios,” he says. 

Despite the evangelistic efforts, however, all Adventist participants are acutely aware of the dangers of the online world.

“It is a ‘second life’, and in some cases replaces people’s real lives,” explains Pastor Matteo, adding that he wouldn’t be joining the site again. “It’s addictive, and can be potentially destructive.”

Mr Curtice agrees, saying that addictions to gaming and “role play” games should be taken seriously.

Second Life is a virtual world and, as such, it allows people in it to have full expression of what is on their mind, for good or bad,” he says. “That is what makes its strongest points and its weakest one.” 

But although Second Life is not ultimately a wholesome environment to spend a lot of time in, the blessings coming from this unique ministry are too good to give up. In May, the first baptism resulting from the project took place at Georgetown Adventist Church in California. A man had been attending the virtual church for the past three years, and felt impressed to go back to his hometown and study for baptism.

“We would never encourage people to join the site for the sake of it,” says Pastor Matteo. “The point was to make connections that then transitioned into real life connections through other forms of social media. There were people playing for 12–18 hours a day, and the fact that we could take a moment to minister to them was great.”

A member of the Second Life Seventh-day Adventist Church is baptised in real life in California. (Photo: Bob Curtice)
A member of the Second Life Seventh-day Adventist Church is baptised in real life in California. (Photo: Bob Curtice)

Mr Curtice also adds that online evangelism should never replace evangelism in the “real” world.

Second Life is only a place where people in significant numbers are found,” he explains. “Consider it a ‘world’ city in which you will find people from all countries of the real world interacting with each other 24/7. Many of those people would never go to a real world church. However, they might consider checking out a presentation in which their real identity is hidden, to see what it is.

“I see evangelism there as a tool, one more in our hands to reach people wherever they are. Most of the people currently attending the USA church group services are non-Adventist or estranged Adventists who want to return to the Church. Often they don’t feel they can go to a local church but the gospel works on their hearts with what is presented, linked with the online Bible study courses in the island website.”

Pastor Jeff Parker, director of Youth Ministries for the Australian Union Conference (AUC), was involved with Second Life from 2010, and gave his testimony in the 2011 report.

“I have one unchurched person who has come to our service every week for six months now, and is starting to really understand who Jesus is and also what we teach as Seventh-day Adventists,” he wrote. “Another lady has cerebral palsy and cannot get out of bed so she would never have had an opportunity to come to church in real life. I’m so excited about this outreach method, which has already impacted so many lives. Would we have reached as many with traditional methods of evangelism?”

As those involved speak about their experiences, it’s easy to see how this simple idea was transformed into an evangelistic purpose. That, say the members, is the beauty of media: anything can be used in order to connect others with God.

“Our key Bible text is Mark 16:15: ‘And He said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature,’” says Mr Curtice. “Jesus’ commission means that wherever people are found—even in a virtual world—we are to make every effort to reach them with the gospel message.”

NOTE: Second Life, like most of the internet, is a secular environment, with some content rated 18+. Adventist Record recommends exercising a degree of caution and common sense if participating in forms of online evangelism.

For more information on the Church’s involvement with Second Life, contact the Greater Sydney Conference.