SimChurch is a book by Douglas Estes of Western Seminary (San Jose, CA) and Berryessa Valley Church (San Jose, CA) that explores the answers to the question, “what does it mean to ‘do’ church in the virtual world?” I had an opportunity to ask Douglas Estes a question of my own:
What are the main advantages that a virtual church has that a brick and mortar church doesn’t?
Here is what Douglas said:
The average Christian in our world today is only vaguely aware of the coming role of the internet in being and doing church, and many are stuck on the questions of whether a virtual church is even real, or possible, or just a glorified video game. Most people can think up disadvantages (whether accurate or not), but if they see me praising the virtual church … it may seem crazy to them! Or cause them to wonder how much of my retirement I have invested in Google, Apple or Second Life.
To answer your question, we need an honesty-check: Are we willing to admit that any and every type of human church has both advantages and disadvantages? That traditional Lutheran churches and conservative Baptist churches and überhip ‘contemporary’ non-denominational churches and every other imaginable type of churches have strengths and weakness? I meet a surprising number of church-leader people who can’t wholeheartedly say ‘yes’ to that question. They’re convinced their version of the church is the one that God has blessed. If we can admit that all churches found in our world today have advantages and disadvantages, then here are three of the top advantages I see of virtual churches:
First, the most obvious is the increased reach a virtual church can offer as a congregation of believers. When I say reach, I don’t mean it will help Glory Church have more tithers members around the world. I mean that it will allow churches to reach areas where a brick and mortar church has a harder time reaching. We in the U.S. forget that our particular culture makes brick and mortar churches much more accessible than almost any other world culture (for a variety of reasons). In fact, virtual churches will not just increase reach in communist countries, but also post-Christian societies, cultures torn by war, isolated regions of our world, or places inhabited by busy upper-middle class workaholics. Part of this reach, I hope, will be within our own Western world—where being a Christian may one day have more to do with regular virtual connections with our church co-laborers and a lot less to do with one day a week performances.
This leads to a second big advantage of the virtual church: Its ability to redefine and even reform what church means in many parts of the world. Myself, I’m a pastor of a typical brick and mortar church in the US. If I had to pick one model to describe our church, it would probably be contemporary-attractional (though we subvert this at times). I say this because like most churches we are locked into Sunday performances; no matter how much I talk about being a follower of Jesus is more than this, actions do speak louder than words. Some folks would like to get rid of my kind of church to set up something communal but what the church needs (as always!) is some reformation, not destruction (as razing all our buildings to all meet in communes or homes would surely lead to). All this to say: The coming of the virtual church can retrain Christians in thought and practice to understand that church is not so much about a place or building but about the people who are connecting with the purpose of building up the Kingdom. (I see lots of people on blogs defend virtual churches by stating that church is the people … but this is inaccurate. The church is the people united by the presence of Christ on mission for the Kingdom. Just a few Christians hanging out at Seattle’s Best for coffee does not make a church, even if God may be there with them). So the virtual church can reform the church at large by reminding the church at large of the true nature of community (without demolishing the church at large, as some alt-church movements desire).
Third, and the thing that I am actually the most excited about, is the advantage the virtual church has to push margins. I need to say up front that I do not consider myself a margin-pusher, a radical, or anything close to that (far from it, actually). I’m just not wired that way. But as I was writing SimChurch, I really was struck by the testimonies of folks in virtual churches … and began to realize that many of these folks are marginalized-by-society people. And then I started to read a few Christian “trolls” (shouldn’t that be an oxymoron?) who would respond to blog posts about internet churches, implying that people who can’t or won’t go to a brick and mortar church are somehow lesser, weirder, weaker in their faith, or some other implicit negative descriptor. To be fair, many of these comments were not mean-spirited as in the political blogosphere, but there definitely was a strong undercurrent of ‘if you can’t go to a brick and mortar church, then there’s something wrong with you.’ To be honest, this torqued me quite a bit and got under my skin. Yes, a lot of testimonies from virtual churchgoers that I saw, read, heard, or heard about are in fact from people the world would write off—but why would the church do this? Just because a person feels uncomfortable in a Western-style brick and mortar church makes them unworthy of Christian community? If you met me in person, you’d know I’m not a bleeding-heart anything but to know that a real church with a real community could reach real people that Christ died for—people who have been marginalized by both society and church culture—does something for me. The church I pastor is an urban church, and I honestly know it will be very hard for us to reach the many marginalized people who walk past our church each day because they just don’t ‘fit in’ (and no amount of convincing myself they should fit—or simplistically thinking we just need to love them more—will cause that to happen). But a virtual church can reach them. And I applaud them for that.
For more insights on the pros, cons, challenges, and peculiarity of doing virtual church, read SimChurch.
Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of SimChurch.