October 22, 2009
In Defense of Virtual Church
Douglas Estes, author of SimChurch, responds to critics of online churches.
A myth is growing in some circles of the blogosphere that online church is not good, not healthy, and not biblical. If we read carefully the criticisms levied against internet campuses, they boil down to some very common and tired themes: Internet campuses and online churches are not true churches because they don’t look like and feel like churches are expected to look like and feel like (in the West, anyway). Arguments against virtual church follow the idea that if it doesn’t look like church, feel like church, swim like church, or quack like church, it’s not a church. This may be a useful test for ducks, but churches are far more complex animals.
This myth is causing even open-minded people to have doubts about whether a church online can be ‘real.’ Let’s lay aside for a moment that nowhere in the Bible does it preclude online church, in any way. Let’s lay aside the fact that church history almost nowhere would lead someone to conclude that a virtual church is not valid (the lesson of church history is that new formats for church always go through a period where they are attacked as invalid). Let’s lay aside the troubling truth of the testimonies of meaningful community that are coming out of online churches. Let’s lay aside the problem that most (all I’ve read) of the blogposts criticizing virtual churches are based on cultural factors, pop psychology, materialistic misreadings of a few New Testament verses, or worse, citations of famous pastors who have doubts.
An even greater concern is the proliferation of a related myth: The myth of the “virtual” church. As a result several of the churches who have launched virtual campuses are telling their pastors and people, “Don’t use the word ‘virtual,’ because people think it means fake.” For the record, virtual doesn’t mean fake, it means synthetic. In the long run, it doesn’t matter whether church culture embraces or discards the word virtual, but we need to be accurate in our representation. Virtual churches are not fake churches; they are real churches that use synthetic space as a meeting place (or a synthetic medium as a means of building community). The ‘virtual’ part of the term—which identifies where they meet—has nothing to do with the question of their realness or validity.
Now watch the sleight-of-hand foisted on an unsuspecting audience. We hear and read the myth that the reason why virtual churches are not real is because they don’t have real community. Really? All this time I thought that church—and real, biblical community—had nothing to do with where a church meets. Isn’t church supposed to be about people in communion with God rather than the building? Does it really matter where the church meets? Does it really matter whether a church meets in a bar (‘pub’) in Portland, in a fancy stained-glass cathedral in Cambridge, under a banana tree in a jungle in Arusha, or in a synthetic space created on the internet? Can someone tell me why the cathedral (or the bar) has a privileged position for ‘real’ community over the internet (or the banana tree)? Since when does the location of a church determine the quality of its community? Is the enlightened church in America really still stuck on buildings? To me, this is enough to doom the myth but there is even something more problematic.
People are led to believe that members of online churches all connect to their video-game church as anonymous zombies in a Tron-like world. Supposedly these virtual (fake) Christians never really know each other, it’s all a façade, and that this is the sum and total of a virtual church. The real truth is that every virtual church I’ve ever attended has flesh-and-blood people in virtual (real!) community with other flesh-and-blood people whose primary meeting place is in synthetic space. Note I said primary! Because every virtual church I’ve encountered has worked very hard to put into place ‘regular’ aspects—from baptisms to small groups to mission trips—in order to help build real community across the board. Critics aside, no virtual church I’ve ever met is trying to be virtual-only (not that that would be wrong, but it would be like starting a church in a building and only being the church in that one building—why would you do that?). In fact, the average virtual church works harder at this than the average brick and mortar church. Virtual churches may meet for services in the virtual world, but they are not the one-dimensional illusion that critics like to easily prop up so as to knock down for their friends to applaud. And here’s the irony: Even as virtual churches seek to create community in both virtual and physical space, so too do their critics use virtual space when it is convenient for them in their brick and mortar ministries. (Just don’t tell those folks the discussion created by their blogs are real, not fake).
In this myth, critics single out the lack of ‘physical contact.’ But isn’t that why God invented megachurches—so we could avoid physical contact? So that people could go to church ‘together’ but sit so far apart as to never touch or physically know each other? Of course, I’m largely kidding, and come to think of it, this happens in my small brick and mortar church, too. In fact, as technology improves more and more virtual churches have physical aspects—you can see, hear, talk to and talk with others folks from your virtual church. But here’s the most cool thing: I know someone who comes to my church every Sunday and is not physically present; I can’t touch him, can’t hold him, can’t hug him, can’t greet him with a holy kiss, but thank goodness, He’s there and in community with us. We mustn’t judge the realness of a church’s community with God (or people) based solely on select physical criteria.
The good news for the world today is that virtual churches, Baptist churches, banana-tree churches, underground churches, Lutheran churches, communal churches, house churches, and yes, even tragically-hip Pacific Northwest alternative ‘pub’ churches are real churches. You may not want to meet in synthetic space—and I would not want to meet in a bar—but it doesn’t change the fact that when the people of God meet together for the purpose of glorifying Him, it’s a real church. Online churches are real churches with real people in real relationships with a real God simply meeting in synthetic spaces.
A full report on the virtual church phenomenon, and its implications for traditional churches, can be read in the fall issue of Leadership Journal.