Mark D. Roberts

Part 1 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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A month ago I did a blog series on the topic: Is Online Church Really Church? Inspired by a conversation at the Christian Web Conference in Southern California, I wrestled with the notion of whether or not online church (livestreaming of worship services, chat room small groups, social networking, etc.) is church enough to be counted as real church. If you want my answer to that question, you’ll just have to visit the series. As is typical for me, my answers to most questions tend not to be in short, sound-bite form.
Shortly after I finished my series on online church, I became exposed to a book that appeared to be on the same topic. SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World by Douglas Estes examines the relationship between church and the Internet. But, as it turns out, Estes and I were not talking about the same phenomena. Rather, he was focusing on virtual churches, that is, on so-called churches that exist, not in physical space, but rather in the electronic realm of the Internet.
I read SimChurch with great interest. (You can check out my brief review of this book and a Q&A with Douglas Estes here.) I was especially impressed by several aspects of this book and its author:

1. Estes explains virtual worlds and virtual churches with exceptional clarity. This is very helpful for those who, like me, know little about this subject.
2. Estes is a careful theologian with a solid biblical foundation.
3. Estes is not an ultra-cool virtual church guru with vast funds to play around with virtual church, but rather an in-the-flesh pastor of an in-the-flesh church of modest size and means.
4. Estes uses the topic of his book not only to talk about virtual church and its advantanges/disadvantages, but also to think creatively and critically about what it means to be church in the world of today and the future. In other words, Estes uses the reality of virtual church (pardon the pun) to deal with the theology of church, what scholars call ecclesiology.

And Douglas Estes is no mean theologian, by the way. On page 36 of his book, for example, he offers a brief definition of the church from a biblical perspective. These two paragraphs offer a superb summary of biblical teaching, one of the best I’ve ever read. You’ll find this sort of theological insight throughout SimChurch.
This book demonstrates one of the most significant challenges and opportunities presented by virtual church. It’s not the chance to create or utilize virtual church. Rather, it’s the occasion to think afresh about the church and what it means to be the church in this time of history. Even if you reject completely the validity or reality of virtual church, SimChurch will help you to think clearly about what the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be. So I’m going to spend a few days reflecting on virtual church in light of Estes’s book.
I realize, however, that some of my readers will think I’ve lost my mind. You yourself might be wondering: “How, in heaven’s name, could virtual church be real church? Why waste your time – and ours – focusing on such a crazy idea?” I hope by the end of this series you’ll know the answer to these questions. But I’ll begin to address them in my next post, by looking at the question of how virtual church could, in any sense, be real.

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