There has been a fair amount of conversation floating around the web lately regarding the proposed validity of “virtual church.” Doug Estes, author of the book Sim Church, posted a defense of virtual church on the Out of Ur blog. Scot Mcknight chimed in on his blog. Nick from the Nick and Josh podcast asked me to take part in a little conversation about the matter. Bob Hyatt has provided the most thoughtful push back on this issue, raising questions that the most notable proponents of virtual church seem to just push aside, as to not even acknowledge Bob’s effective critique.
It’s been great to read all the varying opinions while processing this issue. It’s an issue that clearly exposes a fundamental shift in the way the usefulness web has altered the way we perceive and experience relationships. Through it all I’ve found a little bit of a change of heart in how I view the validity of virtual church.
I do believe that this push for the validation of virtual church truly comes from good intention and a longing to serve the needs of others. Doug Estes seems to be coming at this from a more evangelical strategy. For him it seems to be a matter of simple math. There are millions of people who spend 40 plus hours surfing the web each week and how can we convert them while not requiring them to actually join a local church community. As if encouraging folks to go to a join a local church community is a cruel “colonization” of a lost soul. It’s an argument that says that the conversion experience should be one of ease and convenience. This begs the question, is the Gospel message itself one of convenience?
But there is another aspect of this that I hadn’t really considered before until I began a back and forth with Kimberly, a pastor of the virtual church Koinonia found in the virtual, web based world of Second Life. You can read the back and forth here. The blog comments led to a video chat between myself and Kimberly that gave me a more full understanding of what this community is all about. Koinonia is a small community of folks where more than half of the congregation are GLBT. They have found something profound in their experience in Koinonia that they simply haven’t found in “first life” church communities. While many members of Koinonia do participate in first life church community, there is an aspect of this virtual church that serves the desperation of folks who’ve been deeply wounded by their previous church experience. In many ways, it serves as a spiritual triage for folks who’ve no where else to go. As a pastor, Kimberly comes along side these folks and enforces to them that they are accepted and loved by God and the community. As you might imagine, this very well may be the first time a congregant of Koinonia has ever experienced such a feeling. As a white, married, heterosexual male, I could never pretend to understand the obstacles that gays have experienced in the Church so I regret that my previous critique of virtual church never really took this into consideration. I can say with great confidence that the (C)hurch is much better off with the Koinonia community doing what it does. If Kimberly senses that one of the congregants is hoping for a first life community that resembles their experience at Koinonia, she does what she can to research and help them find a local community for them to try out.
The overall fear I still have is that while these kinds of options can be very helpful for folks, we are not paying attention to the way the web is altering the way we fundamentally view relationships. We can all agree that our most important, meaningful relationships are at their best when physical proximity is an essential value. We don’t talk about virtual parenting or virtual marriage as valid forms of relationships. I think the same should be said for the Church. The web burns into our conscience an ethic that if we don’t like something we can just delete, unfollow, or edit out of our lives. It sells us the notion that we deserve an experience that is 100% deferential to our preferences. While I don’t desire to argue over the semantics of what is and isn’t church, I still believe the push back on the unblinking acceptance of virtual church is very much needed.