St Pixels: Church of the Internet clicks into gear

 Online church St Pixels enters an exciting phase this Easter with the launch of a new church environment and a ground-breaking service for BBC Radio 4's Sunday Worship. Although not yet in full 3D, St Pixels, a project supported by the Methodist Church, now has many features of the final version. 'You enter by selecting how you want your cartoon "avatar" (or character) to look - hairstyle, shape of nose, skin colour and clothes,' explains Simon Jenkins, one of the St Pixels development team. 'You can even wear sunglasses or smoke a pipe.' Once inside the church, visitors can talk to each other, enter different rooms, take part in worship or Bible study and listen to a sermon illustrated by pictures. "So far we've created a very high-quality chatroom," said Jenkins, editor of Christian webzine Ship of Fools. "We can show images and play music, hymns and sound effects. Until now, St Pixels has been meeting on the equivalent of website bulletin boards, so going "live" in this way is a huge step forward. And there's the 3D church to come, of course." St Pixels has about 1,500 registered users. More than 600 different people enter the church's website each day. Most members describe themselves as Christian and some are already leaders in traditional churches. For others, St Pixels is the only point of contact with organised religion. "People join for a variety of reasons,' says Mark Howe, one of St Pixels' programmers. 'We are accessible for those who cannot leave home due to infirmity or young children. It's also convenient for people whose working life does not fit with local church services - or who live far from a physical church. Members take part in discussions, pray for each other and play games - as well as worshipping together. Many travel considerable distances to meet "in real life"'. St Pixels is the successor of Church of Fools, launched as a three-month pilot project in 2004 by Ship of Fools. "In developing St Pixels our first priority was to resist hackers and trouble-makers,' explains Simon Jenkins. 'Deliberately, we have not rushed into a fully 3D environment. Instead we have produced our own customised chatroom from scratch which allows for presentations, preaching, music and sound effects - for a worshipping community. "Without the vision, support and encouragement of the Methodist Church, this new adventure would have been impossible. We're especially pleased that Methodism has caught the vision of creating genuine Christian community on the Net.' "The full 3D environment is on its way - but the St Pixels team are aware of unsatisfying experiments conducted on 3D 'superworld' Second Life. 'It's very easy to do either chaos or dictatorship on the Internet, but Christian community calls for something more subtle,' explains Mark Howe. 'Virtual worlds like Second Life don't provide the tools needed to nurture inclusive corporate worship and there are too many gangs on the Net whose main intent is to disrupt. Technology and spirituality need to interact at every stage in the development process." St Pixels will be the focus of BBC Radio 4's Sunday Worship on Sun 15 April when more than 20 members will meet for the first time in Manchester. It is the first time the BBC have run a service with a 'virtual' church. "Christians are increasingly creating churches in many different forms, from traditional ways through to things as yet unimagined," said Rev Jonathan Kerry, Coordinating Secretary for Worship and Learning in the Methodist Church Connexional Team. "St Pixels is one of these new ways of being church, allowing Christians to gather online to worship God, support each other and pray for the world. The Methodist Church is delighted to have been able to sponsor it, and we hope that it will continue to thrive as a place for Christians of all traditions to meet."

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