Mark D. Roberts

Virtual Church: Challenge and Opportunity

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2009 by Mark D. Roberts


Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.


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The Challenge of Virtual Church: Introduction

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.


Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.


Could Virtual Church Be Real Church?

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.

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.

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.

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.

Could Virtual Church Be Real Church? Section 2

my last post I began to respond to those who might think that this
whole conversation about the reality of virtual church is just plain
ridiculous. “After all,” one might object, “how can ‘church’ that
exists only in the electronic world of the Internet ever be real?” I
began to answer this question by pointing to the fact that we
Christians do believe in non-physical reality. Moreover, it seems to me
that the question about whether virtual church is real or not is too
simplistic. It could be real in some ways, but not in others.

might sound odd, so let me provide a several thought experiments to
illustrate my point. Let’s say that on a given Sunday I go to an
in-the-flesh worship service at St. Mark Presbyterian in Boerne, Texas
(my home church, in photo to right) in the morning, and then log in to
a virtual church in the afternoon. Is there any way in which my
afternoon experience could be at least as real, if not more real, than
my morning experience? Perhaps.

Case #1

for example, that we have a visiting preacher at St. Mark. This
preacher turns out to be theologically bizarre and says things that
simply aren’t true, such as: “Jesus didn’t rise from the dead.” (I have
heard preachers say things like this, but not in my own church, thanks
be to God.)

Then, in the afternoon, a virtual church
preacher (representing some in-the-flesh human being who is providing
the words via the Internet) offers a theologically solid sermon,
proclaiming, among other things: “Jesus is risen!”

Which sermon was more real, the in-the-flesh but theologically false
sermon, or the virtual but theologically solid one? Perhaps it would be
better to say that both were real in a way. One was real in a physical
way, while the other portrayed spiritual reality more genuinely. Which
sermon would you rather hear?

Case #2

I attend St. Mark Presbyterian on a Sunday morning. On my way into the
sanctuary, I shake hands with an usher and receive a bulletin. In the
passing of the peace segment I say “May the peace of Christ be with
you” to a few folks. When the service is over, I avoid the fellowship
hall with its tempting snacks and friendly conversation, instead making
a beeline for my car. What I experienced was very much like what
millions upon millions of Christian experience every week in their
physical church. Surely this counts as real, yes? More real than
virtual church? Maybe. Maybe not.

Suppose further
that, in the evening, I attend a virtual church that includes a live
discussion group (a chat room). In this group, which is not itself
physical, real people communicate about real needs in their life.
Though they are not together in the flesh, their sharing is heartfelt
and genuine. The safety of physical distance actually allows some folks
to be more honest than they might be in “real life.” In the end, we
have a time of prayer together.

Was this real? Was
it more or less real than my relatively shallow experience in the
morning? Which experience of church was closer to the biblical ideal?

Case #3

when I attend St. Mark Presbyterian Church on a Sunday morning that
several friends give me hugs. (I can always count on my Down Syndrome
friend Adam to give me a big hug at church.) Then, in the afternoon, I
visit a virtual church where characters on the screen hug my character.

Which hugs were more real? Which hugs would you prefer?


three examples indicate, I think, that there are different kinds of
reality operating when we talk about church. They also suggest that we
should not too quickly dismiss the potential for virtual church to be
real in certain ways, even in certain crucial ways, even if it will
never be real physically. I would, for example, prefer the reality of a
truthful virtual sermon over an in-the-flesh but false sermon. But I
would not prefer the reality of a virtual hug over one that I can
actually feel with my body and return with my own arms.

reminded of an example I have used in my discussion of online church.
When I was pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I liked to meet
personally with members of the congregation for conversation and
prayer. Many people would come to my office and share their joys and
struggles. But some folks, especially men, were reticent to come in for
a personal visit. They preferred to email me. In many cases our email
exchanges would involve quite deep and vulnerable sharing. Sometimes I
would end one of my emails with a prayer. Sometimes, after engaging in
tender sharing through email with some man, I would run into him on
Sunday after church. There might be a moment of awkwardness, followed
by a handshake and “Have a good week!”

So, what was
more real? What was a more authentic experience of church? I would
never say that our face-to-face interaction on Sunday wasn’t real, even
though it was superficial. But I would say that, in many ways, our
email conversation was more real and closer to what we’re supposed to
experience in church.

Now I’ll lay some of my cards
on the table right now and say that I would prefer face-to-face
conversation that is also open and honest. Speaking for myself, I’m
much more drawn to physical church than virtual church. But I’m also
compelled to admit that sometimes relationships mediated through the
Internet are deeper and truer than face-to-face relationships. And,
given the fact that I believe the Holy Spirit can be present in a real
though non-physical way, I’m open to the possibility of virtual church
being real in ways that count, even though it can never be real in some
ways that also count.

A Case for Virtual Church

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:

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)

has also kept up with the internet population boom; more than two
trillion dollars changed hands over the internet in 2007. (p. 18)

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)

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)

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.]

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.

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.

Is Virtual Church Enough? An Existential Response, Section 1

my last post in this series I made what I consider to be the strongest
case for virtual church. It is based on the fact that millions of
people spend a substantial chunk of their lives in Internet-based
virtual worlds. If Christians want to reach these people with the love
and truth of Christ, then we need to be substantially present in these
worlds. We need, in a nutshell, virtual church.

Yet is virtual church enough? Can it satisfy the biblical and
theological requirements for what a church ought to be? Would we ever
be able to say to somebody, “As long as you’re involved in a virtual
church, that’s all that’s necessary. You don’t need to feel obligated
to be connected to some sort of physical church as well.”?

can imagine situations in which I might say something like this. It
would be to people who, for various reasons, are precluded from
participating in physical church. They might be in a place where they
are physically removed from other Christians, for example. Or they
might have some sort of physical condition that requires they stay away
from other people (a Bubble-Boy experience). But these people are
clearly exceptions to the rule, representing far less than 1% of all
possible churchgoers. Thus, I cannot imagine saying to someone who is
fully able to participate in physical church, “Don’t worry about it.
Your virtual church experience is enough.”

As you know
if you been following this series, I have not denied the reality of
virtual church. It is real in many ways that matter. But, by
definition, it always lacks one crucial dimension of reality, namely,
physicality. In virtual church, people don’t gather in the same
physical space. They don’t sing songs together in the same room. They
don’t see each other with their eyes, or hear each other with their
ears, expect, perhaps through digital media. People in virtual church
never shake the hand of their pastor. They never hug their friends.
They never actually receive the elements of the Lord’s Supper from
another human being, and have that person say to them directly, “This
is body of Christ, broken for you. This is the blood of Christ, shed
for you.”

Yes, I’m aware that some of these
experiences can be approximated online. And I acknowledge that certain
aspects of Christian fellowship may even be stronger online than in the
flesh, because some folks feel more freedom to share openly when they
are not physically present with people. But I believe that what happens
when Christians come together in physical space is essential to the
full experience of church.

Let me put it this way. I
believe that a person can experience much of what church is supposed to
be in a virtual church. And I believe that a person can experience much
of what church is supposed to be in a physical church. But I do not
believe that a person can experience everything church is supposed to
be without being physically present with other Christians. Thus the
potential for church to be fully real is there for physical church, but
not for virtual church. No matter how wonderful and authentic a virtual
church experience might be, it is never able completely to be church.

Is Virtual Church Enough? An Existential Response, Section 2

my last post, I suggested that, though virtual church has many
benefits, a personal cannot experience everything church is supposed to
be without being physically present with other Christians. Thus the
potential for church to be fully real is there for physical church, but
not for virtual church. No matter how wonderful and authentic a virtual
church experience might be, it is never able completely to be church.

I’m not quite sure if Douglas Estes, who makes a strong, persuasive case for virtual church in SimCity,
agrees or disagrees with me here. I think he disagrees, but I’m not
positive. Nevertheless, his fine book shows, even in its effort to
defend virtual church, some of the inherent inadequacies of virtual
church. This is evident, for example, in Estes’ chapter on
“WikiWorship” (pp. 103-134). There, he devotes considerable space to
explaining how people might participate in the sacraments of communion
and baptism in a virtual church. In several of Estes’ own scenarios,
some sort of physical relationship with other people is required. Thus
these are not fully virtual experiences. The options Estes presents for
fully online communion and/or baptism are laden with difficulties, as
Estes’ own critique shows. To be sure, some of what the sacraments
signify can be experienced through the Internet alone, but something
will always be missing: physicality, materiality, full human contact.

makes strong arguments in support of the notion that water is not
really necessary for baptism, or real bread and liquid for communion. I
know this might sound crazy, but if you read Estes’ book, as I have
suggested, you’ll be impressed with his points.

I think he underestimates the extent to which the power of the
sacraments lies, in part, in their materiality. Communion, for example,
isn’t just a chance to signify and remember Jesus. It is an opportunity
to experience and solidify that memory through consuming actual bread
and drinking actual juice or wine. Baptism, when experienced by one who
is old enough to understand what’s happening, involves physical
sensations that amplify the spiritual meaning. When one goes down under
the water and then comes up, there is an experience of something like
dying and rising, and this experience simply cannot be duplicated
emotionally through something one watches online.

if one baptizes oneself in real water which participating in some
virtual ceremony, though the water is real, that person will never know
what it’s like to receive baptism. Rather, his or her experience will
be that of doing it to him or herself. And this, I suggest, is
theologically suspect and subjectively inadequate.

soon as one solves the sacrament problem for virtual church by coming
up with some physical church experience, then that makes the case:
virtual church is not enough.

To this point, I have
been making an existential argument for the inadequacy of virtual
church, based on the experience of the sacraments. I recognize, as
Estes rightly points out in his book, that Christians believe many
different things about the sacraments and experience them in widely
different ways. Yet one thing all Christians have had in common, at
least until very recently, is the conviction that the sacraments
necessarily include material elements and happen (almost always) in the
context of physical Christian community.

If you take
away materiality and physical community from the sacraments, you may
have something that approximates them. You can still remember the death
of Christ. You can still celebrate that fact that a believer dies to
sin and is raised to Christ. But something profound is missing,
something which, I believe, is not just optional, but essential to a
full experience of church.

In my next post I’ll suggest a theological reason why I think virtual church can’t ever quite be fully church.

Is Virtual Church Enough? A Theological Response

my last post in this series I offered an existential response to the
question: Is virtual church enough? I suggested that when you take away
the physical aspect of church, something essential is missing. I
supported this contention more intuitively and emotionally than
theologically. Now I’d like to muster some theological support.

would begin by pointing to some of the most formative truths of the
Christian faith. God created the physical world and called it good.
Physicality is not an inessential vehicle for spirituality, but is part
and parcel of what matters to God and to us. This is why, in the end,
God doesn’t incinerate the universe and take believing souls to heaven
with him. Rather, God renews and restores his creation. There will be a
new heaven and a new earth. The basic facts of creation and new
creation suggest that physical life is extraordinarily important.

the clincher, it seems to me, is the Incarnation. Christians believe
that in order to save people and renew the cosmos, the very Word of God
became human. And not just apparently human, as the Gnostics believed,
but really and fully human. The Incarnation underscores the fundamental
value of the material world and physical human existence. It was not
enough for God simply to shout from Heaven: “I love you. I forgive
you.” Rather, God chose to be born in a human baby, live a human life,
and die a truly and horribly physical death on the cross.

who advocate the adequacy of virtual church wouldn’t disagree with
anything I’ve said here, at least they wouldn’t if they’re orthodox
Christians. But they don’t seem to see how the value of the material
universe, combined with the fact of the Incarnation, suggest that
non-physical, non-incarnational church could never be quite enough.

where my theological and existential arguments against the adequacy of
virtual church converge. Christian theology says stuff matters;
Christian experience says stuff matters. Sure, you can have lots of
authentic experiences of church in virtual worlds. I fully expect that,
in time, thousands of people will become genuine Christians through
virtual church experiences, thanks be to God! But for these folk to
fully experience what church is meant to be, at some point they’ll need
to gather with other believers.

If they don’t, they will miss things about church that require physical presence. In my series dealing with online church
(Internet-based experiences of physical church, such as streaming of
worship services), I asked a number of questions I’d like to ask again:

You could virtually observe a mission trip without being part of it,
even supporting it financially. But how could you embrace orphans or
build homes for the homeless if you’re not physically present?
• How can you lay hands on the sick and pray for them virtually?
• How can you actually embrace those who are weeping?
• How can you bring a meal to a person who is house-bound? (It wouldn’t
be quite the same to order take-out and have it delivered to their
home, would it?)
• How can you visit those who are in prison?
• How can you offer food to the hungry?

By pointing to the necessary inadequacy of virtual church, I’m not
thereby saying Christians shouldn’t mess with it. Quite to the
contrary! Here’s where I agree most strongly with some of the
conclusions of Douglas Estes in SimCity:

It seems to me that real-world churches will
accomplish ministry objectives that virtual-world churches and internet
campuses will struggle to accomplish, just as virtual-world churches
and internet campuses will accomplish ministry objectives that
real-world churches will struggle to accomplish. . . . I also believe
that the more each type of church steps into the other type’s world,
the more unity and cooperation there will be. (p. 224)

Some physical churches do have a substantial online or virtual
presence. And some virtual churches also have some kind of physical
community. I wonder if, in the future, the Church of Jesus Christ
wouldn’t be best-served by intentional partnerships between virtual and
physical churches. Virtual churches could do what physical churches
struggle to do, such as reaching people who spend much of their time in
virtual worlds. Physical churches could do for virtual churches that
they could never do themselves without having a physical aspect:
provide contexts for real people to gather in real space for
flesh-and-blood community and full-orbed sacramental worship.

Could Virtual Church Enhance Physical Church? Surprising Confirmation from the Pew Research Center

The Pew Internet and American Life Project,
a project of the Pew Research Center, has just released the results of
a fascinating and timely study on the Internet and its effects on
American social life. This study, called “Social Isolation and New
Technology,” suggests that fears of the Internet taking away from
face-to-face socializing are unfounded. In fact, according to the Pew press release:
“People who use modern information and communication technologies have
larger and more diverse social networks.” Thus, the findings of the Pew
study “These new finding challenge fears that use of new technologies
has contributed to a long-term increase in social isolation in the
United States.”

The lead author of the study, Prof. Keith Hampton, observed: “This
is the first research that actually explores the connection between
technology use and social isolation and we find the opposite. It turns
out that those who use the internet and mobile phones have notable
social advantages. People use the technology to stay in touch and share
information in ways that keep them socially active and connected to
their communities.”

There is much in this study that is fascinating and relevant to my recent consideration of virtual church. For example:

Some have worried that internet use limits people’s
participation in their local communities, but the Pew Internet report
finds that most internet activities have little or a positive
relationship to local activity. For instance, internet users are as
likely as anyone else to visit with their neighbors in person. Cell
phone users, those who use the internet frequently at work, and
bloggers are more likely to belong to a local voluntary association,
such as a youth group or a charitable organization. However, we find
some evidence that use of social networking services (e.g., Facebook,
MySpace, LinkedIn) substitutes for some neighborhood involvement.

There is much more here to ponder. You can read or download the entire study from this webpage.

If the Pew report is anywhere near to true, then this should allay
fears, including my own, about the potential negative impact of virtual
church. It seems quite possible that a person’s participation in
virtual church not only wouldn’t detract from his or her involvement in
physical church, but that it might actually enhance or promote it. Of
course the Pew study is just one research project. Many more will
follow, I expect. But these results are encouraging.

And, in fact, consistent with some of my own observations. I have
noticed, for example, how teenagers who in a former day would have
relatively few relationships because they are shy now have an
opportunity to make friends and stay connected with these friends
through social media. I have also seen how these teenagers can use
their online relationships as a base for in-the-flesh relationships. A
shy person can build friendships through Internet social media, and
then gain the confidence to be with these friends in person.

The fact that people want and need to be with people in the flesh
is, I think, a fact of basic human nature. Internet relationships, no
matter how real and genuine, will never fully satisfy the human need
for relationship. Thus the Pew findings are not altogether surprising
to me, though they contradict much of the popular wisdom from the
anti-Internet folk.