It's Easter; shall we gather at the desktops?

Times Staff Writer

If all goes well, the naked lady won't show up this morning when Pastor Craig Groeschel preaches his Easter service. But several cats will probably drop in. A horned dragon might perch on the crimson seats. There could even, perhaps, be an emu strolling in.

Groeschel will deliver his sermon in an Oklahoma City church. It will also be streamed over the Internet to the virtual world called Second Life -- a world populated by 5 million pixilated characters of every description.

In this three-dimensional metaverse -- a vivid, ever-changing universe created by gamers -- characters can buy virtual clothes from real-world manufacturers, hold virtual rallies for flesh-and-blood politicians, and now, increasingly, worship in sync with the congregations in bricks-and-mortar churches.

The fast-growing world of Second Life has developed a rich spiritual dimension in the last year, welcoming congregations of Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and numerous Christian denominations.

Groeschel's evangelical LifeChurch.tv is the latest entrant, and today will broadcast a live Easter service in its entirety. Gamers who teleport their Second Life characters (known as avatars) to the church's virtual campus can use mouse clicks to manipulate their alter egos into kneeling, swaying or raising palms to the heavens as Groeschel's fast-paced, MTV-style sermon flickers across the computer screen.

Skeptics suggest that believers could find more enriching ways to spend Easter Sunday than tapping out commands to make animated emus pray.

"It's like online sex -- it's satisfying in a weird way, I suppose

Some Second Lifers also find the idea of virtual worship odd: They would rather spend their online time flying, shopping for risque clothes, chasing gorgeous blonds or engaging in other activities they would never attempt in a world marred by gravity and cellulite.

"SL is supposed to be an escape from real life, not a cartoon version of real life," said the avatar Pixeleen Mistral, managing editor of the virtual world's newspaper, the Second Life Herald.

Then again, it's not all escapism: There are Al-Anon meetings in Second Life, and dances and bingo games -- and every manner of mundane daily activity, except perhaps the bathroom pit stop. While worship services may be a bit stilted online, veteran gamers say they can be surprisingly fulfilling. Communities as varied as Hare Krishna, Quaker and Mormon meet weekly for discussions, lectures, live streaming music and text-messaged prayer.

"It's obviously important for a small but significant number," said Yunus Yakoub, who's researching a doctoral dissertation on the religious dimensions of Second Life. Yakoub said he hears from several dozen avatars a week looking for information on virtual congregations.

Perhaps because all interactions are anonymous, conducted from behind facades, gamers say the spiritual conversations in Second Life tend to be more intimate and meaningful than the good-sermon-nice-weather exchanges that pass for conversation in real-world pews.

"We definitely feel the presence of the Holy Spirit there in Second Life," said Larry Transue, who runs the virtual Northbound Community Church, which is a ministry of the very real church of the same name, located in Thousand Oaks.

Transue does not view the virtual church as a substitute for the real thing. (That's why he's not hosting an Easter service today.) But he believes it can be an important supplement. And he hopes it can be a tool of evangelism, introducing nonbelievers -- through their avatars -- to the principles of faith.

New Jersey resident Nathan Schmalbach has been proselytizing on the virtual LifeChurch.tv campus since it opened for a test run a few weeks ago. Wandering through the online world, Schmalbach recently met an avatar who proclaimed his only faith was in evolution.

"We talked with him for a long time," Schmalbach said. "We really didn't get very far" -- but they did set up another appointment to meet. "Maybe we'll get him to a new perspective."

LifeChurch, founded in 1996 as an edgy, youth-oriented congregation, tacked .tv onto its name to refer to its website. As the church expanded, it built satellite campuses across Oklahoma and also in Arizona, Texas, Tennessee and Florida. Most Sundays, congregations in those far-flung locations gather in school auditoriums and watch a broadcast of the service.

Gamers who visit the Second Life campus will feel as though they're in one of those satellite sanctuaries. They will have their avatars take a seat in the auditorium and watch a live video feed of the service on large screens at the front of the virtual room.

The online setup cost the church between $5,000 and $10,000 in programming and other expenses, according to Bobby Gruenewald, another pastor at LifeChurch.

Gruenewald has not been able to track the total number of visitors to LifeChurch's virtual campus, which is on Experience Island. But a snapshot of traffic Monday showed 3,912 avatars teleported to the church -- considerably more than visited MTV's virtual Laguna Beach or Toyota's Scion City. (Of course, that same day, 8,693 avatars visited a coffee shop built to look like the set of Showtime's racy TV series "The L Word.")

The Easter service this morning will be an experiment -- and it carries some risks. "Griefers," or online vandals, have been known to disrupt church activities by manipulating their characters to streak nude through a chapel or belch loudly during meditation. There's also a danger that nonbelievers posing as Christians could engage visitors in text-messaged conversation and teach them false theology.

But in the end, Gruenewald expects great benefits when cats, emus and impossibly buff surfer dudes gather together to celebrate Easter. "This is definitely a messy frontier," he said.

"We certainly don't think we have everything figured out. But we're anxious to see what God's going to do with it."

stephanie.simon@latimes.com

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