I got this book through a giveaway from Zondervan. No expectations of a review, no money changed hands, none of that stuff. But I’m going to review it, because this book raises some interesting points that I think Christians are going to have to address and discuss. More and more people are doing church online. In SimChurch, Douglas Estes tries to define exactly what that means, and what it means for the church (and the Church, for that matter).
We’ve all been involved in a virtual world of some sort, whether we play online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft or simply hang out in a chat room. We interact with people in a space that is not physical — we’re not actually with the people we’re chatting with, you’re not really riding that unicorn getting ready to kill that ogre with your mace. That’s how we define a “virtual world” — it’s a world that does not exist physically, but is constructed so that people can gather there virtually, or electronically. How much we interact varies by individual; I know people who have more friends online than they do in real life, and interact with people more from the comfort of their desk chair than they ever would in a club. As these virtual worlds are constructed, the questions for the Church become “Should we attempt to introduce a Christian influence in these virtual worlds? And if so, how do we do that?”
There are certainly those who say that the Church should not waste resources on any type of “virtual world” ministry. Estes refers to Douglas Groothuis’ book The Soul in Cyberspace repeatedly in this book; Groothuis seems to be the chief opponent to virtual ministry, and Estes interacts with his arguments throughout SimChurch. I found this interaction quite valuable – Groothuis makes several good points, and Estes’ interaction with them is important in the discussion of virtual ministry.
One thing that Estes makes clear is that virtual ministry is not simply having a website or blog, or even podcast, for your church. The most important part of any ministry is building a community, and that is a vital part of virtual ministry as well. The biggest question that Estes attempts to answer in SimChurch is whether these communities formed in cyberspace constitute a church as defined in the Bible.
The most important consideration is simply what is meant by being “present” at a church service. Christ promises us that where two or three are gathered in His name, that He is there with them; does that include gatherings conducted via computer networks, as well as physical meetings? Estes introduced me to the concept of “telepresence” — “being present at a spatial or geographical distance through the help of technology.” (p. 63) The chapter on telepresence gets far more philosophical than I thought this book would ever get, with discussions of Descartes and Plato, but it’s important for us to really understand the concept of presence to really understand how a virtual church can work, and be a Biblical church. Once our definition of presence goes beyond physical presence, virtual church works.
There are problems with virtual ministry. When preaching to an avatar, for example, are you speaking to the virtual person or the real person behind the keyboard? How do you contextualize the Gospel when you have an 18 year old middle-class white male whose avatar is a 28 year old Hispanic woman? Which identity are you talking to? Of course, most pastors will agree that there are people filling physical pews in churches today who aren’t the people that their churches think they are; we all have secrets and masks. We all play roles. Digging through the layers of masks and deceptions to get to the real person underneath is a large part of ministry in the physical world; the virtual world makes this more important, and often more difficult, but it’s not a new problem. Virtual worship makes it easier for people to be passive observers rather than involved worshipers, but again that’s a common problem in even the most vibrant churches today.
The only “virtual church” I’ve ever attended was LifeChurch. I’ve attended a couple times – the services are good, the music is good, the preaching is Biblical and good, so I have no complaints about it. But virtual church isn’t my thing — I had a really hard time actually participating in worship online. It’s not limited to church, either — I downloaded Second Life a couple weeks ago, messed around with it for a little less than an hour, and uninstalled it. While I can spend hours playing an MMORPG like Champions Online or Guild Wars, the whole “virtual world” thing leaves me a little hollow. In Second Life, I keep wondering “What’s the point? What am I supposed to be doing here?” In virtual worship, I felt very disconnected from what was going on on my monitor.
That said, virtual churches are here, and they will continue to flourish – especially when physical churches aren’t doing enough to minister to people in their communities. Not every physical church should add a virtual campus to their ministry program, but more churches should be doing it than there are now. For every person who, like me, doesn’t feel comfortable worshipping in front of a computer monitor, there are people who will attend a virtual service in the privacy of their own home who would never show up at church on Sunday. We need to be reaching people where they are, and people are spending more and more time online. I personally see internet churches as more of an extension of a physical ministry than a stand-alone ministry (which is how Estes sees them), if for only financial support reasons, but I certainly think that virtual ministry is something that churches should be involved in.