Over 5.2 million people are living the "second life" - in virtual reality, at least.
It's a 3D virtual world, once formless and now bustling with cafes, homes, offices, parks and nightclubs much like the real world; except Second Life is a world entirely built and owned by its residents. If it doesn't have what you're looking for, you can create it.
To some, it's a game and to others, it's an alternative life.
"A lot of people go to Second Life dissatisfied with their own current life," said Larry Transue, who recently joined the virtual world.
According to the program's creator, San Francisco-based Linden Lab, around 10 percent of visitors end up spending many hours a week living another existence, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Unfortunately, many of Second Life's residents seek out things contrary to a proper lifestyle, said Transue, whose avatar (virtual persona)'s first name is Ewan.
There's a lot of porn on the site, he noted. And because many believe they're engaging in improper behavior in a virtual environment, they do not think there are repercussions.
But there are consequences, said Transue. "They're having sinful thoughts."
Transue is a member of one of some 30 churches that were built in Second Life. Along with explosion of Second Life residents from 1 million to 5 million in the last six months, religious communities are making a stronger presence in the virtual world. Leaders of Christian, Jewish and Muslim sites estimate about 1,000 avatars teleport into churches, synagogues or mosques on a regular basis, according to USA Today. Hundreds more list themselves with Buddhist, pagan, Wiccan and other groups.
While many of the built churches are parodies such as the Church of Elvis, the Christian community is growing, said Transue. They even formed a virtual ecumenical group called Second Life Christian Leaders Association. Some in the group are evangelists who preach the Gospel and are secure in their belief that sin is sin, by persons or by pixels, and that Jesus saves online as well as anywhere, reported USA Today. Others in the association want to ensure churches there are truly serving the Lord, and billboards are in the works to draw people to those churches.
Transue estimated 10 of the current churches are "really dedicated to Jesus."
Northbound Community Church is one of them.
When Transue first entered Second Life, he created his avatar, built a virtual apartment for himself and searched for virtual work. But as he explored the virtual world, he saw a need to represent the Lord even in virtual reality.
"If I'm trying to live my life for the Lord through my real life, I should try to do that in this [virtual] world too ... and reach out to those lost in this environment," he said.
After talking to his real lead pastor, Ken Craft of NorthBound in Thousand Oaks, Calif., he started a virtual non-denominational church. Second Life's NorthBound has a worship pastor, podcast messages and even a women's ministry that meets weekly. It opened in February and has seen around 12 to 20 attendants so far.
This year, Second Life residents are celebrating Easter together for the first time since its creation in 2003. NorthBound and six other churches launched "Redemption Week 2007" tour on Palm Sunday and has seven different locations representing each day of Holy Week until Easter Sunday on Apr. 8. Each location consists of podcast messages, artwork and re-enactments of events from the life of Jesus up until the resurrection.
For Transue, Second Life is a mission field but it is not a replacement for the real world. Weekly services are held Saturday evenings at the virtual NorthBound church. Transue wants to make sure people are actively involved in a real life church on Sunday mornings.