Is ‘Virtual’ Church ‘Real’ Church?


The debate over the legitimacy of virtual church vs. traditional church has heated up at Out Of Ur over the past couple weeks.  (Dr. Mark Roberts has a series of posts as well.)

I’ll be honest and admit that I have at times been too critical and skeptical of the “virtual church” movement.  I see the value of utilizing technology for connecting with fellow believers in online kingdom fellowship, but have typically seen the shortcomings as outweighing the positives.

But I’m trying to give the cyber church proponents a fair hearing. Here’s an article worth checking out by Douglas Estes called In Defense of Virtual Church from Out of Ur.  Estes is the author of a new book on the subject called Sim Church: Being the Church in the Virtual World. He begins his article saying:

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.

He goes on to present a defense for virtual church and claims to address the arguments of cyber church critics who, according to Estes, base their arguments on “cultural factors, pop psychology, materialistic misreadings of a few New Testament verses, or worse, citations of famous pastors who have doubts.”  His case was impassioned yet seemed to avoid the real ecclesiastical issues at stake.

Bob Hyatt, one such critic of virtual community, responded to this piece with his own sharp critique called Virtual Church is STILL a Bad Idea. He reminds us of some of the other “essential ingredients” of biblical community that virtual church cannot accommodate:

Let me ask very plainly:

What do we call a church that not only fails to engage in, but makes a practical impossibility, the idea of church discipline? How will discipline happen in Second Life/Internet/Sim Church, where anonymity reigns and screen names and identities are changed with a couple clicks?

What do we call a church that not only fails to engage in, but makes a practical impossibility, the equipping ministry of the church? What about discipleship and leadership formation? How does one become an elder in a virtual church? What do we call churches without biblical eldership?

Can true community be mediated by a screen, or is it forged in the times at table, bearing one another’s burdens, serving the poor and one another together, at weddings and funerals, births and deaths … all the stuff that happens when I turn the screen off?

I am trying not to take sides on this one, and hoping there is a third, mediating way forward that harnesses the power of online networking for the benefit of doing ‘real’ community together.  Is this an either-or or a both-and debate?

I believe there is great value in utilizing the internet for connecting, communicating, educating and more.  Facebook, for example, is my primary communication tool for youth ministry.  I am actually part of the Woodland Hills Bridge online community — though not an active participant.  I consider myself part of the Jesus Creed community of readers and fellow bloggers where I benefit daily from the conversation there.  But these don’t and can’t replace more face-to-face, intimate fellowship I am made for and God’s church is designed to provide.

So, while I whole-heartedly endorse online modes of Christian community as additional manifestations of so-called “church”, I’m not comfortable yet with the notion that virtual should completely replace more traditional, “face-to-face” church gatherings — whether they be in a cathedral, pub, or living room. But this article by Douglas Estes is a great introduction to the cyber church mission and movement.

So, what do you think of online church?  What kinds of online community do you personally benefit from? What are the pros and cons and limitations of online community?

One Comment Add yours

  1. Second George says:

    I believe that we are accountable for our actions in the virtual world. Sin is alive there. But the light of Christ shines through in any world. Certainly there is meaninful Christian fellowship and worship of the Creator of All Things (physical and virtual) taking place in the virtual world. Personally, I see the physical connections in the natural world as intrinsic to our faith. But woven together, these worlds can compliment eachother in a way that honors God. I feel like it is both/and.

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