Take a Cruise on the Ship of Fools

[1] I wonder if church can be “church” if you are not face to face with other people gathered to be together as a believing community. I wonder if being together, physically together is mandatory for “church”? If your first reaction is to say being physically present is mandatory, then www.shipoffools.com is not church.

[2] But wait a minute, since when does our faith rely on the physical location of our bodies?

[3] How many times have I been physically in “church” but mentally somewhere else? (Like the last bad sermon I endured.) How many times have I sat in a pew and felt more alone in church then when I was getting my morning coffee at Caribou just moments before? How many times have I become distressed at the ways in which our churches exclude people who don’t know the house rules; when to stand, what hymn book to use, when to respond to the liturgy, when to say “amen” and when to be silent?

[4] Aren’t there ways other than being physically present that we connect to the people we love and progress on the relationships we value?

[5] Of course being “body in front of body” has its advantages, but it’s not the only valued communication methodology, and it has never been the only mode. From the time humans learned to write, we have passed letters of value. Enter the printer, the phone, video, beepers, cell phones, oh, and of course the web. It seems that we humans gravitate towards anything that might aid us feeling connected to the ones we care about.

[6] So the question worth our attention is to ask if being “church” can involve all these non-face-to-face forms of communication and do so without loosing the values of community and faithfulness that we hold dear? Another way to put it is to wonder if the church can use technology in ways that hold as much meaning as our traditional face to face gatherings?

[7] I know my answer to these questions. You, of course will have to make up your own mind.

[8] In the process of arriving at your answers to the question of what makes church and what is something other than church, take a close look at the Methodist Church’s experiment with www.shipoffools.com. In their own words, here is their mission: “Welcome to Church of Fools, the UK’s first web-based, 3D church, which opened as a three-month experiment on May 11th. Church of Fools is an attempt to create holy ground on the net, where people can worship, pray and talk about faith.”

[9] The church is partly intended for people on the edges (and beyond) of faith, so please be aware that the language and behavior in church is often colorful and occasionally offensive. Church of Fools is currently not suitable for children.

My Cruise

[10] My task was to spend some time poking around the ship and report back what I have seen. Here’s my cruise journal:

Day 1:

[11] Upon beginning my voyage, I went to the home page of www.shipoffools.com and was struck with the word “fools.” I know it says somewhere in the Bible not to use that word, but I kept on reading. My second impression was how much of the text used sarcastic and edgy, even derogatory humor. Words like loonies, bells n’ smells, and the Biblical Curse Generator caught my attention. But I kept on reading. What I wanted to do was to simply go to what they call “church.” So I clicked on the 41,000, go to church button and it took me to a strange white page titled, “Church of Fools.” I read the house rules, and gave a sigh of relief to know that I wouldn’t be entering another AOL chat-room-like Christian debate environment, and then clicked on the “enter church” button. I was quickly told to download and install a shockwave plug-in, which I did, and then I had to find my way back to the “enter church” link.

[12] Upon clicking on “launch church” the shockwave applet began to load. I was quickly told that the church was full, but I could continue on anonymously. Then I became a see-through little person, grey and ghost-like and I could walk around the church, but couldn’t talk to anyone. Hmmm, feeling anonymous and ghost-like might be a familiar experience for those in our congregations.

[13] Soon I was walking around, bumping into other animated people who represented real people across the world directing their animated person around a sanctuary. The sanctuary was complete with an organ, an altar, pews to sit on, a place to kneel and even icons for your viewing. The graphics are awesome from a technical point of view. The creators of this environment are very skilled. It felt like I was playing an online game only in a church sanctuary. The web design of the overall site takes a while to get used to as the navigation changes from area to area. But the skilled use of flash and shockwave give the site a WOW factor of 10. As I couldn’t talk with anyone as a ghost, I left fairly quickly, hoping to get in on another day.

Day 2:

[14] I found out I had to register to post on the discussion boards. This was a painless process, but it took some time before I received my OK to participate. (One can read all the posts without registering, however one has to register to participate.) Once able to post, I started reading. There are discussions titled; Hell, Purgatory, Heaven, All Saints, (which is a place for prayer requests) and many more. The posts ranged from some incidental chatting to some serious questions about God, Jesus and the church. It was apparent to me that these boards are monitored and “pruned” when needed. I also spent some time in the Café which is a real-time chat engine.

Day 3:

[15] I went to church. I could select my gender, choose from 10 body types, and give myself any name I wish. I chose the name “Dude.” As I directed my character around the church I started to chat with those around me. As silly as it may sound, I found that the small animation really helped me feel like I was talking with real people and holding genuine conversation. I knelt and prayed, looked at the icons, and then found my way to a lounge like space downstairs called the archives. There were lots of people chatting, both standing and sitting on couches. I engaged in a conversation where one person was expressing sadness over a recent event in Iraq. That conversation ended with one person offering a prayer for peace.

[16] Then I walked over to an area with couches and asked those around me, “Do any of you think this is a meaningful experience?” Quickly people started to respond. Then someone with the word “warden” after his name asked me why I asked the question. I responded that I am interested with users’ experience and if this was simply recreational or if there was a level of meaning taking place. What ensued was a fascinating 20 minute discussion about how users come here to not feel alone, to talk about their struggles in faith. Some responded that they were here to primarily help those who might need a caring conversation. The “warden” participated for a while, and then must have figured I was not going to cause any trouble and disappeared. After a little digging, I found out that the site has volunteers who function as wardens who have the power to “smite” anyone anywhere interacting at SOF. (This means booting misbehaving visitors off the site for 24 hours or for good.)

Day 4 and following:

[17] In the following few days I popped on to explore other areas of the site. The Ark, much like the church, uses the same type of animation, only in addition to other users, there are computer generated biblical characters. These characters want to tell you their story, why they are important in the bible and what they are up to as they sail on the Ark. I personally had conversation with the Apostle Paul, Sampson, Noah, and Jesus. I had another WOW factor of 10. What a creative way to help people learn some basic information about biblical characters.

[18] As a part of my task to explore this site, I enlisted the help of a 20-year-old collage student and a 16-year-old high school student. Both individuals are well wired and familiar with web communications. Both are Christian people who are established in their faith beliefs. I asked them both to spend four to six hours on the site and here is their feedback.

[19] College Junior, 20 years old, male, whose name is Will.

[20] Although I was unable to visit the actual church I found Ship of Fools to be a contemporary community of faith. SOF is faced with the problem of developing a community without physical presence. I do not believe they can overcome this roadblock and create the same type of community that is experienced at worship centers around the world. But creating a “same type” community is not their goal. SOF has created a new breed of worship that is fun and revolutionary. I can honestly say that I will spend more time on SOF because it is a no hassle, easy way to fit worship into my busy life. SOF has gone the extra mile with its humor and I am glad to see the lack of American conservatism that is often attached to religion. I never felt that SOF or the Methodist church was pushing my thoughts, or asking for money. I felt free to browse at my own leisurely pace. Ship of Fools is leading the path in the right direction toward a new generation of faith.

To see Will’s full report go to www.stoneswillcry.com/ship/shipmain.htm

[21] High School Junior, 16 years old, female, named Callie.

[22] After leaving church the last weekend unhappy with the sermon, this would have been the perfect place to go to straighten out my thoughts or share my opinion with the members of Ship of Fools and ask their opinions. I’d imagine the site isn’t completely for everyone but I loved the fact that it was a great welcoming to people with a more lighthearted faith needing a release from those of a stricter belief system who feel as though laughter is a sin. Not that the site doesn’t take God seriously, just that it offered a very down-to-earth look at different aspects of faith.

To see Callie’s full report go to www.stoneswillcry.com/ship/shipmain.htm

Concluding thoughts:

[23] 1. There is a temptation to think that SOF is an attempt to replace church as we know it. I resist this either/or kind of thinking and I would suggest it’s more helpful to think in terms of both/and. It is clear to me that some of the folks on SOFs actually meet face to face and have found ways of gathering together and attending different worship experiences. Rather than a replacement of local church experience for those who are already involved in a congregation, SOF is attempting to reach those “on the edges” and provide a place where faith discussion can begin and possibility grow into something new.

[23] 2. Technology can be used creatively for the sake of the Gospel. There are powerful ways to engage people through the use of technology. Why does the church so often resist this opportunity? SOF is an example of using the very best technology to encourage faith conversation. (And they do so in a playful way!) Too often we leave the best of technology to those who might use it for selfish gain, or we (the church) are so far behind on our own technical learning curve that when we use technology it is outdated and of questionable quality. I say, “Claim the very best technology for the very best reason; the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

[24] 3. Let’s admit that we would be most comfortable if everyone who wants to discover, nurture, and discuss faith would simply walk into our local congregations. It is in our local church gatherings that we who have been raised in the faith feel most welcome. However, depending on which statistics you read, as many as one out of two of our households in the United States have no congregational faith tradition. They are not likely to walk into our churches and join. This is where efforts like SOF can reach those who have either already given up on church or have no foundation or history in a faith community.

[25] 4. Our world is wired. More homes than not have computers and web access, or soon will. Broadband is sweeping our homes and communities. Generationally speaking, our less-than-25 year olds have never not known email, webs and IMs. This is not the case in some socioeconomic communities, but the growth of web connectivity is accelerating. I challenge our church to wonder if our attempts at using this technology for the sake of the Gospel is acceleration

[26] 5. Community is both at the heart of our faith gatherings and being challenged at every turn with our infatuation of being both independent and consumers. The challenge of building communities online is more similar than different when compared to face to face communication. We need to engage people before they make commitments and commitment is a required element of community. In some ways the example of SOF being available on demand, 24-7 has some definite advantages. Obviously the sense of distance and the freedom to simply turn the computer off and walk away are huge challenges for online community building.

[27] 6. Communities online are possible and powerful. Again, we live in a world where people fall in love online, take their degree work online, buy their groceries online and participate in research and discussion around issues important to them online. But community building strictly online is a new science. It is clear that we value the “personal” word in personal computer. Computers have been marketed to the person rather than to the community. We are at the learning leading edge of discovering how to make meaningful connections that are sustainable in this mode of communication. And like any leading edge, it’s time for investment and experimentation.

[28] 7. What are we as Lutherans going to do with the tools of technology? Could it be our time to invest in a mission outreach online filled with all the imagination, challenges and opportunities? I for one would love to see our church launch into a serious attempt at forming faith communities using computer aided communication. The possibilities are endless as are the risks. I wonder what our ship would look like if we took this mission seriously?

Final thoughts:

[29] Ship of Fools is way out in front of the church community in investing and experimenting with the use of technology to communicate and engage people in faith conversation. They have addressed some of the needed safeguards to keep the conversation within some wide boundaries. They have made use of some very talented technicians with imagination to create some fascinating environments for conversation to take place. It is significant to me that this site engaged me, at 46 years of age and my two young researchers in a different and significant ways. SOF is not afraid to name the disconnects within our current church / faith culture, and they do so with a slightly bent sense of humor. I’m still stuck on the word “fools”, but the little animated gif that has two people in a boat rowing in opposite directions sheds a light of truth in my view of our Christian church efforts. And finally, as to the question of community, time will be the judge of their success; however I applaud this effort for the sake of the Gospel.

[30] Ready for a cruise?