Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

Today this website is a “stop” on a blog tour for a new book, SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World, by Douglas Estes (Zondervan, 2009). This book offers an in-depth analysis of so-called “virtual churches.” We’re not talking here about what I’ve called “online church,” namely, real world churches that use the Internet to livestream their worship services and foster various kinds of web-based community. Rather, SimChurch focuses on “churches” that exist in virtual worlds made possible by the Internet. It seeks to answer such questions as:

What does it mean to “do” church in the virtual world?
Are Internet campuses just niche ministries or the next step in the multisite revolution?
Will virtual churches be individualistic or actually encourage families to worship together?
Can a virtual church be a missional church?
Is it even possible or healthy to “be” the church in the virtual world?

I offered to be part of the SimChurch blog tour because I’m interested in the impact of the Internet upon the church and its mission. I must confess, however, that when it came time actually to read this book, I felt pretty cranky about having committed to do so. I was prepared to read some trendy, theologically-lightweight effort by some ultra-cool author with an utterly unrealistic and unbiblical view of the church and world. (Well, okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. But I was genuinely unhappy about having to read SimChurch.)
Then I began reading. My attitude quickly changed. First of all, I learned a lot from this book about virtual worlds on the Internet.  I have not been into gaming or virtual reality programs such as SimCity. And I have never visited a virtual church (though I now intend to do so). Estes’s descriptions and explanations helped me to understand “worlds” that I had never explored.
Second, I soon discovered that the author of SimChurch is an articulate, thoughtful, theologically-probing pastor and scholar. His two-paragraph description of the church in the New Testament (p. 36), for example, is perhaps the best short piece I’ve ever read on this topic . . . and I’ve read plenty of brief definitions of the church, as you might imagine. Estes’s theological discussion is always responsible and engaging. I’m not at all sure I agree with him on many points. My personal jury is still out. But I am deeply appreciative of his careful, biblically-grounded effort.
I think SimChurch is a very important book.  In fact, I’ve already recommended it to several friends and given copies to several of my colleagues. My reason for regarding this book so highly is not because I think virtual church is terrific. As I said, I’m still mulling this over. But SimChurch challenges Christian leaders to think carefully both about the Internet and its challenges/opportunities, and also about the Church. This book provides an excellent case study in ecclesiology. As you’ll see below, Douglas Estes thinks of his book in these terms as well.
I realize there are quite a few Christian leaders who are deeply concerned about the negative impact of the Internet on Christian fellowship and discipleship. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I am sometimes one of these critics. But I also believe we need to think much harder about the relationship of the Internet and the church, and to do so in profoundly biblical terms. Whether you agree with Douglas Estes or not, he models the kind of theological reflection that is desperately needed in our day.
So, on to my question for Douglas Estes and his answer.
My Question for Douglas Estes
One of the things I so appreciate about you and your writing of this book is that you are not just some really cool virtual pastor with all sorts of technological resources at your disposal and few responsibilities outside of the virtual world. You are a pastor of a flesh-and-blood church. Moreover, your church isn’t a wealthy megachurch with vast resources to facilitate exploration of virtual church. As near as I can tell from your book and your church website, you are pastoring a church of moderate size and moderate resources. This gives you a lot of credibility in my book. Too often, it seems to me, the leading spokespeople for new waves of church life seem utterly disconnected from the reality of most churches, and thus their discussion is of limited value to ordinary churches and ordinary church leaders.
You make a strong case for the Church, broadly defined, to be present with people in virtual worlds. You spell out the vast opportunities in this endeavor. You mention at least some of the risks. You are clear that what you’re advocating goes far beyond having a church website and podcasting sermons, or even livestreaming worship services. Okay, I’m with you so far. But what would you recommend for the average leader of the average church? (By average I mean “ordinary,” not “of modest ability”!) As you know so well, the typical pastor already has more to do than is humanly possible, even with divine help. So what, if anything should that pastor do with the ideas in your book? What should leadership boards of average churches do? You talk about hiring iPastors (p. 178). That’s all well and good. But most churches I know have been laying off key staff people. My own church, for example, recently lost a children’s director and hasn’t been able to replace her for financial reasons. This is an essential position, but we’re not sure if and when we’ll be able to hire somebody. This is the reality in which most church leaders live these days, as I expect you know all too well. So, again, my question, phrased a little differently: What does your book have to offer to the typical leader (pastor, elder, deacon, etc.) of the typical church?
Douglas’s Answer
Many thanks for the comments and the question. To me, your question on the blog tour is probably the most important. First, for your readers, you’re correct in saying that I’m a normal pastor of a normal church with normal issues. Being in the San Francisco Bay area, we have tremendous struggles with reaching people, not to mention normal things most churches struggle with like having enough nursery workers or just paying our bills. The current economic downturn has been a killer for us, too. Since we have no suitable children or youth space (basically just a sanctuary), we were in the process of building an educational wing but that has been super-hard going in this climate and we’ll be lucky if we can afford the shell when (and if) we break ground later this year. As the pastor, I’m both chief cook and bottle washer. I say all this because I am keenly aware of the struggles of normal churches.
So what does my book have to offer the typical leader of the typical church? I believe it offers three things.
First, at the very minimum, I believe that my book will challenge its readers on what being and doing the church really means (in any place or medium). As I was writing SimChurch, I realized early on that this book either could be a fluffy, descriptive discussion of what’s going on right now with online churches or it could really try to break some new ground and get at the church in a whole new light—a light that would cause people to refresh their biblical understanding of church. SimChurch has only been out a month, and yet already there have been a few people who have come out saying “I’m not going to read the book because I don’t agree with it … the church is [insert some descriptors that have something to do with their feelings but no rooting in Scripture and little or no rooting in church tradition].” I intentionally wrote the book using the paradigm of virtual churches to challenge and refresh our view of the church. This was a sub-text, not the main idea, but my hope is that it will do just that.
Second, I believe SimChurch will start its readers dreaming about what God can do through them through the internet. As I was writing the book, a few of the tech-oriented folks in my church were like, “Pastor, what can we do to make our own virtual church?” I didn’t have an answer, and I still don’t (not fully, anyway). Like you, we also really want to hire a kid’s director or kid’s pastor way before an iPastor, too. But what it did was start us thinking about a whole lot of things. Dreaming about what bigger things God can do is always a good thing. Most of the greatest church and missionary movements in the history of the church started with dreamers dreaming of what could be. If I can encourage that, we might be on the verge of something important.
Third, I hope SimChurch will get the typical leader of the typical church to start laying the groundwork for the church of tomorrow, today. Here’s my fear: When you look at other revolutionary technologies in the 20th century, the church is either nowhere to be found or way, way behind. What if a group of average churches in LA had decided to open a movie studio in 1920? Or at least lay the groundwork for it? If there was an MGM with a C. S. Lewis approach to storytelling today, how different would our world be? So, while I recognize that the typical leader of the typical church may not be able to launch a virtual church today, they could lay the foundation today for what God can do through their ministry tomorrow. And this is just as important, by the way. The virtual world is still in its infancy; now is the time for the church to engage before it is too late.
To bring this all around, let me answer a question you didn’t ask: “As a pastor of a typical church, will I start a virtual church?” The honest answer is: “I don’t know. I know we want to. Probably one day. But I also know that the dreaming has caused us to start thinking more deeply about how to make our regular church a better church, too. So we are dreaming and laying the foundation for the next big thing God has in plan for us, preparing to be faithful to his call, and praying for whatever world it may lead us into.”
Conclusion
I want to close with a note about Douglas Estes. I have not met him, though I hope to do so someday. I checked out his bio at his website and found a couple of surprises. For one thing, Douglas earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry. He worked in the field of analytical chemistry and co-authored two winning NASA contract proposals. You don’t find that in the average pastoral bio. But I was even more impressed by the title of his first book: The Temporal Mechanics of the Fourth Gospel: A Theory of Hermeneutical Relativity in the Gospel of John (Brill, 2008). You don’t find that in the average pastoral bio, either. Don’t worry, though. SimChurch is an engaging read. You don’t need a degree in theology in order to understand it.
If you’re looking for more discussion of SimChurch, check out these stops on the blog tour:

BibleDude.net
Returned Sheep
The Digital Sanctuary
Church Relevance
Tall Skinny Kiwi
Captain’s Blog

At some point I hope to put up further thoughts about SimChurch and the ideas contained therein. For now, let me simply reiterate my appreciation for this book and my recommendation that you read it.

Disclosure: I did receive a complimentary, advance copy of SimChurch. Otherwise, I am not being compensated for this review. If you purchase a copy of this book by clicking on a link in this review, Amazon.com will credit about sixty cents to my Amazon Associate account, which I will donate to some Christian ministry.

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