Mark D. Roberts

Part 4 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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In my last two posts I explained that virtual church, in my opinion, is “real” in many ways that count. Therefore it’s not crazy to consider the possibility that virtual church is something worth doing, at least by some folks who might be called to it. In this post I want to begin to make a case for virtual church.
This case rests on recognition of the extraordinary power of the Internet, both now and especially in the future. I expect that most of my blog readers would grant this premise, given the fact that you are reading these words because of the Internet. But, frankly, I think it’s easy for us to underestimate how the Internet is changing and will change our world, especially if you’re not heavily involved in social networking or virtual reality gaming.
Let me cite some of the claims made by Douglas Estes in SimChurch. These seem right to me, and I am inclined, at any rate, to trust Estes’ scholarship:

In 2007, the number of internet users passed one billion for the first time. While this is only a little more than 20 percent of the world’s population, at no other time in history since the time of Genesis has more than 20 percent of the world’s population been in direct communication with each other. (p. 18)
E-commerce has also kept up with the internet population boom; more than two trillion dollars changed hands over the internet in 2007. (p. 18)
To grasp the magnitude of what is happening, it is vital that we see the internet not as a technological tool but as a paradigm shift in the way the world interacts on a fundamental level. (p. 19)
[T]he internet is causing a paradigm shift a hundred times greater than that of the mobile phone. (p. 19). [MDR note: Mobile phones connected to the Internet are now stretching its reach and, for many, becoming the principal way they connect online. Photo: a cell phone from the 1980s. Times have changed.]
The future of the internet lies not in its being a tool for emailing others but in its being an immersive world where many people will spend as much time as they do in the real world. In the next few decades, the virtual world will equal or surpass the real world in its reach into and positioning in many aspects of our lives. For many people, the virtual world will be the world where they carry on more interactions and conduct more transactions than in the real world. It will be the place where they find love, soothe their feelings, make deals, and worship. (p. 20)
Of the one billion people online, an estimated seventy million are already regular participants in virtual worlds, and that number continues to grow dramatically. . . . And the sobering statistic: while no one knows exactly how much time residents spend in virtual worlds, a large percentage spend twenty or more hours per week, and many spend much, much more. (p. 20) [MDR note: At the moment, I don’t want to get bogged down in whether this is good or bad. I want simply to acknowledge that it is.]
For a growing number of people, especially individuals in the Millennial generation and beyond [born 1980 and after], virtual-world interactions can be far more authentic and less awkward than real-world relationships, and for many younger people, interacting in the virtual world is the preferred method for social networking. (p. 27)
The Christian church is engaging far less than 1 percent of the seventy million people who are active in the virtual world. This means the virtual world is by far the largest unreached people group on planet earth. (p. 29). [MDR note: This assumes that the church is not reaching these seventy million offline, an assumption that is surely not quite true.]

I’m not an expert in the sociology of technology, so I can’t demonstrate that what Estes has written is true. But from what I have read and from what I have observed, I think he basically correct. And this presents the church with a major challenge and opportunity: How are we going to reach the seventy million virtual earth-dwellers with the Gospel? How are we going to reach the multiple millions who will join the virtual world in the future?
Perhaps the most obvious answer to these questions is that the church, broadly defined, needs to be present in the virtual worlds. We Christians need to be with the people who spend so much of their lives there.
Now, I suppose one could object that virtual reality itself is so full of sin that no Christian should rightly go there. This would be like an argument against going to strip clubs to reach people who frequent them. Surely we need to reach the folks who spend a chunk of their lives in strip clubs, but, for the most part, we should do this in other venues. I would be surprised if many Christians would make the argument that we should have strip club churches to reach strip club patrons. But I would also be surprised if many Christians would make the argument that online virtual worlds are so much like strip clubs that Christians should simply avoid them.
From my perspective, by far the most powerful case for virtual church points to its evangelistic potential. Though Jesus probably didn’t imagine that the “all nations” of which Christians are to make disciples would someday include online virtual worlds, the inner logic of the Great Commission compels us to seriously consider how to reach potential disciples who “live” substantially in these worlds.

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