Rituals and Pixels: Experiments in Online Church
In this article, Simon Jenkins describes how Church of Fools, an online church service and community, came into existence.
The idea for Church of Fools stemmed from two separate projects. The first was Ship of Fools, a net magazine run by theology graduate students (Jenkins 2008). What started as a magazine meant to satirize and ask questions of the Christian faith quickly turned into a tight-knit community. The readers of the magazine were able to post threads on a virtual bulletin board. Jenkins began to question whether Ship of Fools would translate as an online church, but ended up deciding that there needed to be a visible “space” in which to meet (2008).
In 2003, The Ark, an internet reality gameshow, was launched. The project brought together 12 contestants, each assigned a role of a biblical character. They lived on a virtual ark for 40 days and nights and had to solve problems, complete tasks, play games, and overcome crises (Jenkins 2008). As time went on, the contestants became emotionally attached to their online avatar. Each Sunday, the characters took their avatars to a virtual Chapel. In 2004, the chapel was detached from The Ark and renamed Church of Fools (Jenkins 2008).
Church of Fools was originally a three-month experiment. The creators wanted to “find out if online church [was] a viable way to ‘do church…’ create moments of genuine depth and spirituality, helping people feel they were connecting with God, themselves and others… [and] break down the barriers people have about going to church” (Jenkins 2008).
People were able to attend the weekly online church services as an online character. Avatars were able to gesture and exude body language during sermons, such as shaking hands, pulling out hair, blessing themselves and clapping. They communicated with each other through text bubbles (Jenkins 2008).
One of the most powerful experiences of Church of Fools occurred during the Lord’s Prayer. People were able to simultaneously type their version of the prayer. A BBC journalist wrote, “these people are praying together, and that is as real as if they were standing in the same room. That they are in a dozen different towns and countries seems a trifling matter” (Jenkins 2008).
Overall, Church of Fools was a very successful experiment, with people from around the world coming together to praise Christ. Even people who had previously caused trouble within Church of Fools came to respect the church. Many people wrote in with positive experiences, such as a visitor from North Carolina. “I have a friend who had a crisis this week. No way would he ever go to a real church. But he went to yours and said his first prayer in many years. You are providing a valuable site for him and others who might never go to a traditional house of worship” (Jenkins 2008).
Jenkins S, 2008, ‘Rituals and Pixels. Experiments in Online Church,’ Online - Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet, http://www.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/archiv/8291/