Part 2 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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Yesterday I began a blog series focusing on the challenge and opportunity of virtual church. This series will be, in part, a conversation with the book SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World by Douglas Estes. Virtual church, as I mentioned yesterday, is not the same as what I’ve called online church: livestreaming worship services, chat room small groups, podcasting sermons, etc. Rather, virtual church purports to offer a full church experience that is not dependent on a physical church, but is meant to provide a stand-alone, genuine church experience in a virtual reality world of the Internet.
Now I’m sure some of my readers may be thinking that this is some sort of bad joke. “Who in their right mind,” you might ask, “would argue that virtual church could ever be real? Why even bother with such silliness?” I’ll admit that, at first glance, the notion of virtual church being real seems outlandish. We’re talking, after all, about something that exists only in bits and bytes, only in programs and pixels. In virtual church, there is no in-the-flesh preacher, choir, band, or congregation. No sanctuary or worship center or house church with a physical world address. No actual hand-shaking or holy-kissing or laying-on-of-hands in prayer. No real water used in baptism or real bread in communion. Why, therefore, would anyone entertain the thought that virtual church could be real?
This post could quickly get lost in a hopelessly complicated conversation about the nature of reality. I don’t want to do this. I’ll leave ontology for another time. But I do want to make a couple of related observations.
First, if you define reality in terms of physical presence in space, then, of course, virtual church isn’t real. But this definition of reality seems too narrow. Do my thoughts and feelings exist in space? No, but they are real. Does love exist in space? No, at least not the feelings of love. It’s difficult to say that thoughts and feelings exist in space unless you’re a die hard materialist, seeing everything in terms of configurations of brain molecules. Moreover, if you’re a Christian, then you surely acknowledge the reality of the Holy Spirit, a non-physical person of the Trinity. For a Christian, reality is clearly more than physical. We acknowledge and, indeed, celebrate the genuineness of non-physical, spiritual reality.
Second, it seems to me that talk of whether something is real or not is really too simple. In fact, there are different kinds and qualities of reality. There is physical reality and there is spiritual reality (which, by the way, I expect are not nearly as distinct as we might assume). There is fictional reality, such as Narnia, which can produce emotionally real feelings and intellectually real thoughts in readers and moviegoers who experience it. And then there’s the physical reality of New Zealand, parts of which look a whole lot like Narnai (and Middleearth, too). When somebody enters a virtual world online, it is real in a sense. In the flesh people watch real images on their computer screens. They feel real feelings. They think real thoughts. They make relationships that are variously real or fictional, depending on a wide variety of factors.
If you’ve read philosophical or psychological discussions of reality, you know that what I’m saying here is very simplistic (if not confused). But my point, simply, is that there are degrees and qualities of reality. Virtual church will never be real in the same way that St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, Texas (my home church) is real. But virtual church may be real in significant ways.
Thus, to deny the reality of virtual church is too simplistic. And to argue for the reality only of in-the-flesh church is also too simplistic. Part of what makes church real is the non-physical presence of the Holy Spirit. So I’m disinclined to get caught up in the argument about whether virtual church is real or not, as if there’s a singular nature of reality. Rather, I think we’d be well served to consider ways in which virtual church is real and ways in which it is not.
If what I’m saying here doesn’t make sense, I’ll provide several illustrations in my next post in this series.