Oct 31, 2011

Review - SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World (Part 1 of 2)

SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World asks very good questions but (in my mind) comes to the wrong conclusions.

To summarize Estes, he claims that virtual worlds (such as Second Life or World of Warcraft) are real places where people increasingly live, work, play, and interact. As such, they are also a space where the Church needs to go to evangelize and disciple. This includes planting virtual churches. As opposed to more broadcast methods of ministry (think televangelism or podcasts), Estes claims that the richness of interaction afforded by current technology lets us do (at least nearly) everything a local church needs to do. In some cases, he claims we need to develop new ways of "doing church" that are better suited to this new medium that may even be better than real-world churches. In the process, he touches on topics such as presence and community, the mediated nature of technological connections (e.g., via avatars), "lifeblogging," online worship, church authority, online sin & accountability, and virtual communion and baptism. He is honest in pointing out the problems, such as with communion and baptism, but remains very optimistic about doing virtual church and how it can be a significant part of the Church Universal. 

The Nature of Church
In one sense, I agree that someone can set up a streaming website or a virtual world, call it "church," so that something called "virtual church" can exist. In the same way, someone can set up an organization, rent a building, and call it a "church" even if it is not really one. My issue is whether or not this is a valid instance of a local or "particular" (in PCA language) church (small "c"). Estes asks this question directly and (rightly) looks for a definition of what is a particular church. However, his definition, "a localized assembly of the people of God dwelling in meaningful community with the task of building the kingdom" is broad enough to include groups that are not churches. He admits it is "loose" but this is really the heart of the matter - is the definition of a particular church broad enough to encompass virtual church?

In my tradition, we recognize three "marks" of the church: preaching the Word, administering the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper), and church discipline (correcting us from sin). It is possible to record a sermon and broadcast it on the internet, but the other two are an issue. Further, I think one mark left off is to have a loving community (which some may argue is included in the others), and this one is also suspect to me in a virtual church.

As for the sacraments, he spends a whole chapter going over how they could be done in a virtual church. My argument against every option he brings up to do these is that it fails to include the physical nature of what's going on (by having an avatar perform the action rather than doing it with your real body), the community aspect (when doing them without others of the congregation present), or the administration by someone ordained to give them (when doing them without an ordained minister present with you).

As for church discipline, I imagine this is quite difficult. I could see a virtual church that strives to do it, but as that world is far more etherial than our own, and people can log off anytime they get uncomfortable, it would be very difficult to confront someone "in person" without them simply choosing to ignore you. In the real church, we literally know where you live and can come visit and confront you in person. In a real geographic community you may rub shoulders on occasion. If a virtual church required some way to contact you outside your voluntarily coming to their virtual location, then perhaps it is possible, but I am doubtful. 

As for community, I think the author has low expectations. Yes, a form of community can form completely online, but is that form of community sufficient for a local church? Again, I can log off whenever I choose, and so can others. If our only contact was through the online realm, we have no way to connect otherwise. I was thinking about this aspect recently after our local church's worship service. I have a hard time believing that you can have real community when your kids are not running around with the kids of others, when you can't share a cup of coffee and some snacks in person, when you can't give a real hug or sympathetic look, and when you can't even bring someone a casserole when they have a birth or death. I don't think we can discount the many passages that refer to a desire to see people face-to-face.

I have more to share, but this is long enough and I'll save it for another time.

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