I’ve found the fourth great book during my summer reading.

simchurchSimchurch is the first book I’ve read on the virtual church that makes theological sense. Although the theology isn’t deep it’s deep enough to sway even the most die-hard skeptic of the virtual church – if they keep an open mind (something hard for many church goers to do these days).

Most people in the west have trouble swallowing the fact that virtual churches can provide the same depth of community as do non-virtual churches.  When westerners think of “church,” try as hard as we may, we subconsciously think of a place- and for some people a particular building rather than a gathering of Christians.  This taints our understanding of presence and community. We equate place with a building.  But if church isn’t a place but a gathering then there is no reason the virtual church can’t be thought of as a real church.

If we can think of the church, not as place, but as a gathering of Christians for the task of building the Kingdom then presence and community are understood in a different light and the virtual church becomes a possibility. A church is more about “who”, “what”, and “why” the people have gathered. “Where” a church gathers has never been important theologically.  Thus when a group of Christians gather in one place to worship under the Lordship of Jesus they are the church in community- even if the place is in virtual space.

Since the issue – “can a virtual church provide real community” – is at the heart of most people’s objections to the virtual church, the author gives us three different examples of the virtual church.  The author suggests that watching a streaming worship service on a computer doesn’t provide community since you are watching the service alone. Many churches provide such a service but it isn’t the kind of worship that provides the possibility of community or presence. You are an observer and nothing more.

Then he gives two examples of virtual churches where participation, community, and presence are possible on different levels because you are not alone and you can actually participate in the experience.  Lifechurch.tv   provides a minimal level of participation, but not much community because you can shout in the lobby but you can’t actually disrupt the worship service. It’s more than mere observation because you are not alone and you can interact on a minimal level, but it’s short of real community.   But at the Anglican Cathedral in Second Life you could actually disrupt the worship service and you could be asked to leave, because you are really present, and others are really present, and the pastor is really present (avatars of course). Thus, participation, community and presence are possible.

He then says something that blew me away – he says that the vast majority of people today have at least one if not more Avatars (hope I don’t have to explain that one to you but if so hit the link). Email is the basic avatar. If you have email, you have an avatar.

If we can agree that some form of authentic community and presence is possible in the virtual church, the real question becomes “Are we ready for the day when we can walk into virtual space without our Avatars?” Shades of the Matrix Reloaded. I wrote about the beginnings of this in my book Growing Spiritual Redwoods when I wrote about the Virtual Church of the Resurrection.  I guess it boils down to this – is virtual space a fed or a trend? And if a trend what are the implications for Christian ministry?

I haven’t finished the book yet, but if the second half is anything like the first half I may have to create an Avatar.

My parting thought -Is it possible that some Christians may find more community in a solid virtual church than many Christians are finding today in the non-virtual church? Chew on that one for a while. I know I’m going to.

Bill Easum