Churches of virtual believers, Part I

No Tony Campolo sermon would be complete without his pulpit-shaking gestures of inspiration and exasperation, punctuating litanies of not-so-subtle digs at U.S. foreign policy, Hollywood, Wall Street and the Religious Right.

As he ended one recent oration, the sociologist, urban activist and evangelical gadfly fell to his knees, hands raised to heaven.

"I believe Americans must heed this call and turn away from our wicked ways," said Campolo, who made headlines counseling President Bill Clinton. "We need to turn away from sexual promiscuity, turn away from the consumeristic materialism, turn away from our failure to pay attention to what we have done collectively to poor and weak peoples around the world. ...

"Then, let our prayer be that God will hear from heaven, forgive our sins and heal our land."

Many of the faithful said "amen," lifted their hands or made the sign of the cross.

Then Campolo froze for a moment, as an hourglass icon hovered in the Romanesque arches of the Church of Fools, the world's first 3D, interactive, virtual church.

This kind of thing happens when traffic jams the Internet.

The computer-generated "avatar" looked like Campolo and he was delivering a Campolo sermon entitled "Why Many People in the World Hate America." But Campolo was not controlling his own computer image, since the site's webmasters were not sure he could master the technology needed to preach online -- line by line, gesture by gesture.

Actually, Campolo was at a clergy conference in St. Simons Island, Ga. But he stayed on the telephone with his Philadelphia office staff, which communicated with the Church of Fools in Liverpool, England, through an online instant-messaging program, while one of site's creators controlled the "pixilated preacher." The question-and-answer session was especially tricky.

"I wanted Tony to be animated, because that's the way he is -- live," said Stephen Goddard. "I have known him for years and I know his gestures and style. I was sure I could get our Tony to preach like the real Tony."

The experimental site -- -- opened its doors on May 11, with help from the Methodist Church of Great Britain and others. The pilot project ends this weekend (Aug. 8) and the future is uncertain. Goddard said he is confident they can keep the doors open -- but not as often. The Church of England is also poised to open a digital church of some kind.

So far, volunteers have donated the time and expertise needed to create and run Church of Fools, with most of its $30,000 budget being used to purchase the bandwidth needed for interactive services. Goddard said the goal is to raise $300,000 to cover the next three years and to expand -- hopefully including churches in America, China and elsewhere.

It is hard to picture what happens in a "virtual church" without images on a screen. At any one time, 35 worshippers can sign in and create characters that stand, sit or kneel. They can whisper or talk to nearby worshippers, slip into the church crypt for discussions or linger at icons in prayer. Another 1,500 can take part as silent ghosts. Campolo packed the pews.

Participants sang along as the organ played through their speakers, typing phrases from the hymns that seemed meaningful. During the July 28th service, one warden led the global flock in prayer, giving thanks for computers, satellites, bloggers, online friendships and their virtual church.

"Help us to use our networks to do good things," she said, "to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with you, our God, and to be good neighbors online and off."

One thing visitors cannot do is jump the virtual altar rail. Early on, an avatar called "Satan" stormed the pulpit and cursed the Anglican bishop of London. That wasn't cricket. Wardens now have the power to smite the rowdy.

"It only took a day or two to discover that there are lots of people who could not resist the chance to scream 'wanker!' in a church sanctuary," said Goddard. "Actually, all that cursing was a good sign. It told us that we didn't have the usual holy club in the pews. This wasn't going to be just another safe Christian crowd."

NEXT WEEK: Is an online church a "real" church?