In Defense of Virtual Church
Douglas Estes, author of SimChurch, responds to critics of online churches.

A myth is growing in some circles of the blogosphere that online church is not good, not healthy, and not biblical. If we read carefully the criticisms levied against internet campuses, they boil down to some very common and tired themes: Internet campuses and online churches are not true churches because they don't look like and feel like churches are expected to look like and feel like (in the West, anyway). Arguments against virtual church follow the idea that if it doesn't look like church, feel like church, swim like church, or quack like church, it's not a church. This may be a useful test for ducks, but churches are far more complex animals.

This myth is causing even open-minded people to have doubts about whether a church online can be ‘real.' Let's lay aside for a moment that nowhere in the Bible does it preclude online church, in any way. Let's lay aside the fact that church history almost nowhere would lead someone to conclude that a virtual church is not valid (the lesson of church history is that new formats for church always go through a period where they are attacked as invalid). Let's lay aside the troubling truth of the testimonies of meaningful community that are coming out of online churches. Let's lay aside the problem that most (all I've read) of the blogposts criticizing virtual churches are based on cultural factors, pop psychology, materialistic misreadings of a few New Testament verses, or worse, citations of famous pastors who have doubts.

An even greater concern is the proliferation of a related myth: The myth of the "virtual" church. As a result several of the churches who have launched virtual campuses are telling their pastors and people, "Don't use the word ‘virtual,' because people think it means fake." For the record, virtual doesn't mean fake, it means synthetic. In the long run, it doesn't matter whether church culture embraces or discards the word virtual, but we need to be accurate in our representation. Virtual churches are not fake churches; they are real churches that use synthetic space as a meeting place (or a synthetic medium as a means of building community). The ‘virtual' part of the term—which identifies where they meet—has nothing to do with the question of their realness or validity.

Now watch the sleight-of-hand foisted on an unsuspecting audience. We hear and read the myth that the reason why virtual churches are not real is because they don't have real community. Really? All this time I thought that church—and real, biblical community—had nothing to do with where a church meets. Isn't church supposed to be about people in communion with God rather than the building? Does it really matter where the church meets? Does it really matter whether a church meets in a bar (‘pub') in Portland, in a fancy stained-glass cathedral in Cambridge, under a banana tree in a jungle in Arusha, or in a synthetic space created on the internet? Can someone tell me why the cathedral (or the bar) has a privileged position for ‘real' community over the internet (or the banana tree)? Since when does the location of a church determine the quality of its community? Is the enlightened church in America really still stuck on buildings? To me, this is enough to doom the myth but there is even something more problematic.

October 22, 2009

Displaying 1–10 of 81 comments

Benjamin Faust

June 01, 2012  10:49am

Seven years ago, my wife and I discovered the Second Life (SL) virtual world. That's when SL was fairly new, and had a little over 60,000 members. At that time, there were lots of places and things in SL, including a "church" building that contained pornography; but there were no active Christian ministries, just like the beginning of radio, television, and the Internet, when pastors were too busy preaching about how evil they were to consider how they could obey the Great Commission through them. We knew God was leading us to start a ministry in that venue, so we started the first active church in SL, ALM CyberChurch. From the very beginning until now, we have made it clear that it was not intended to replace a physical gathering; however, we've had dozens of members or visitors who, due to various issues including serious physical handicaps, were unable to attend a physical service. For them, it was either come join us for a virtual service, or have no service at all; fellowship with Christians online, or fellowship with no Christians at all. Reaching just a few like that would be worth all the time and effort and criticism. A number of people have come to Jesus for the first time because they "accidentally" stumbled upon a service or group activity we were having in the virtual world, and were convicted and drawn by the Holy Spirit. Who knows if they would still be headed for hell if we had not obeyed God despite other Christians' insistance that we were doing something that was somehow evil. Then there have been the Christians who had backslidden, and had not attended a physical church in years, who, because it was easy and "safe" to attend, became part of our virtual services. One dear friend who fits that description left our services, with our blessings, because he had come back to the Lord, had grown strong in his faith, and knew it was time to return to the physical church (which, in this time zone, made it impossible to also be part of our services). He said this personal revival was a direct result of our virtual services, and their pointing him back to a real-life relationship with God. Then there is the average member who also is part of a physical church, but has made close friends in the virtual world and enjoys our times together worshiping God and studying His word in addition to their physical church activities. I've found that most people who support the idea that a virtual church is fake, have only a second-hand idea of what the virtual world is and how it works. People in a physical church often wear "masks" past which you cannot see. I've found that people are more likely to reveal their true selves in a virtual setting, which to them feels more safe and liberating, than in a physical setting. So while I make sure everyone involved knows that, if at all possible, they should be part of a physical gathering, saying a virtual church is impersonal and fake simply shows ignorance of the matter, and ignorance certainly makes it easy to believe things are evil that the Bible never says are evil, and to believe things that are completely untrue. Don't find yourself speaking and fighting against something God is doing because you "feel" as though it is wrong and can therefore come up with logical reasons you believe support that feeling. Just consider these things, and the fruit of this virtual ministry (and others), before condemning something that just might be the hand of God.

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November 13, 2010  1:02pm

@ Travis I agree with what you said earlier in the discussion about not polarizing this issue. We need to be careful not to 'throw the baby out with the bath water'. Though I wouldn't agree that virtual church is the 'ideal' place to develope fellowship as the body of Christ, I see some benefits that need to be considered. For example, online church might be a good way for unchurched people who are uncomfortable with the traditional church atmosphere to start experiencing the love of Christ. Some connection, whether virtual or face to face, is better than none at all. I do think, however, that eventually, that person would need to meet with others in person. It seems similar to the problems of online dating relationships. The closer two people get to each other, the deeper the need is to see each other face to face. In the same way, I don't believe that the deepest level that we would want to see in the body of Christ could be experience via internet.

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Timothy Stevens

November 15, 2009  1:24am

Well Is not radio or television "church" a (relatively speaking) primitive,yet primary development from what Paul alludes to as the church in someone's house. This is quite "green" technology after all.In primitive radio or television "church" the shut-in may sing-along and listen to the sermon. In essence this is church by extension in abstentia. Laterhe/she may send in an offering or ask for prayer or even receive Jesus Christ if this is the pressing need of their heart. Now the advancement in technology grants an interaction in a virtual world. The logistics have changed from horse and buggy days where church was stained glass not monitor glass but the hunger and spiritual need that might attract someone to a gospel relevant program where the same gospel is preached as in churches is never antiquated. In fact the effort to attend a virtual church would affirm and define probably more precisely the hunger quotient of that participant than to attend a brick and mortar church as a routine tradition. The question is not the geographical route to "church" even through cyber space but the meeting with God and the level of God filling versus the emptiness of religious activity. I do not see any justification to knock any means whereby a person may be blessed by God. This could serve to clandestinely be an "underground" church for millions beyond North America who are denied the freedom to congregate in the name of Jesus Christ.Why should overly indulged North Americans complain? This is a missionary opportunity as I see it Those who do this see beyond their four walls. I attend a church( not in a church building) with only 20-30 people. We have canvassed local areas but it certainly is not a "pop" fire starter or Holy Ghost convicting of sin_ "I must get to this church now and repent" movement.Is virtual church a convicting force or salt and light? It could be all these or nothing. But both the producers and participants are meeting, the one with an empty glass– the other with the water of life to fill up the empty heart.

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Pastor Ed

November 05, 2009  2:55pm

Wow. It occurs to me to ask, are we all Christians here, or have a few pot stirrers snuck in? When the disciples caught some fellow preaching the gospel who hadn't been ratified by Jesus, they wanted to stop him. Jesus said leave him be. Facebook has Christian Church Online, along with a few others. At CCO Christ is preached each Sunday, and that, along with other subjects the 335 members, so far, bring to the table are discussed. It is ministry. Of course we can't hold hands, share physical communion, but we do pray for one another, commisserate with, share the gospel with one another. The love is real. Be at peace, my friends, it's all about love, and God is crazy about you.

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Ephrem Hagos

November 02, 2009  2:30am

Since the church which Jesus Christ himself built is synonymous with his divine identity as the "Son of the living God", i.e., immortal (Matt. 16: 13-28),revealed and still active at his perfect and diacritical death on the cross (John 8: 21-28; 14: 15-21; 19: 30-37; Rev. 21:22), for true worship of God (as he is: Spirit) and without any frontiers whatsoever (John 4: 21-26), the virtual church works for me! PRAISE THE LORD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Jessica Edwards

October 30, 2009  7:45am

I would like to offer a differing perspective. Online church has saved my soul. Truly, that is not too strong a phrase. I am not a scholar, but I have been a seeker for most of my life. I have been an active participant in brick and mortar churches, but I never was able to make the leap of faith from seeker to disciple. In February 2008, in what could only be the work of the Holy Spirit, I was led to an online church called St. Pixels. ( St. Pixels has many components. There is a chat room area which has both social areas (the porch and the bar) and worship areas (the sanctuary.) Every day at 9 pm British time, there is a service. There are services held at other times during several other days of the week. Obviously, sacraments (baptism, eucharist) cannot be served in a virtual manner. However, worship can and does take place. There is a congregational leader. The service consists of hymns or songs, a reading from Scripture, a sermon or message preached from a virtual pulpit, and prayers led both by the congregational leader and the community. If these components of worship were held in a brick and mortar church, would this be considered a worship service? Of course! Therefore, it is difficult for me to say that this does not meet the criteria for worship. God is clearly present! His Word is proclaimed. Prayers are offered. Furthermore, the church does not consist solely of worship. If it lacked a cohesive community, then I believe we would be justified in calling into question the ecclesiastical nature of it. However, members spend a great deal of time in fellowship in "the porch" or "the bar." We come to know one another well and to share in joys and sorrows of our community. Members also participate in blogs, in which they talk about things of a personal nature. There is a "discuss" stream, in which larger, more generalized discussions (including the notion of whether or not we are a "real" church) are discussed. Bible studies are held, both in real time in the chat room, and through discussions on Biblical verses and books in the discuss forums. Many members have met face to face. We are a truly international community, although the majority of the members are from either the UK or the USA. We have members in Australia, France, Africa, India, and South America. We have telephone meets. In terms of serving one another, obviously casseroles are difficult. However, cards and gifts are mailed between members. We minister to one another. One of our beloved members, who was part of three generations who worship at St. Pixels, died earlier this week. The community is in mourning, but we have gathered together to support her daughter. Hundreds of prayers have been said. Fellowship and support have been extended to her daughter and grand daughter. Gifts have been sent. Telephone calls have been made. Members have discussed flying to be there with the family. These are real relationships that develop. Hundreds of hours have been spent getting to know one another. We are truly not strangers; we are brothers and sisters in Christ. While I have heard the words of the Good News proclaimed from pulpits in churches across the country, it was not until I heard it proclaimed at St. Pixels, and felt it extended through the support of the online community that I have come to true faith and experience of grace. It has been at St. Pixels that I have come to understand the Good News. A pastor (a flesh and blood pastor, from Illinois) met me there and heard my questions and searching. Thank God that he felt the call of John Wesley to preach the gospel throughout the world. He has spent literally thousands of hours in pastoral counseling via the medium of the internet. In the age of the virtual world, time and space have less meaning than they used to. If I am not mistaken, it is possible that this is also a feature of the heavenly Kingdom. This pastoral rela

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Seth Ehorn

October 28, 2009  10:19am

What a sad, sad reality. Vampire Christians: they want the blood, but not the body!

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Greg Arthur

October 26, 2009  5:47pm

One point that may have been missed in all the comments is that the article was intended to debunk some myths about virtual church not defend it, but editors changed the title. That helps a bit, however, if people are giving these particular straw man arguments against the virtual church their ecclessiology isn't particularly well defined anyways. The whole issue of the legitimacy of virtual church surrounds authenticity and community. The synthetic nature of gathering over computers isn't wrong because of its form, it is just too limited to be the full and beautiful bride of Christ. Dave's last comments here are a bit snarky (I can say that because he is my friend) but they are accurate in their message. Any virtual church will miss out on an opportunity to have real community. It can be a tool to supplement or enhance a relationship, but it is just no substitute for living life together.

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Dave Terpstra

October 26, 2009  5:00pm

This article is easily the sloppiest thinking posted on Ur (at least since my last article).

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Dave Terpstra

October 26, 2009  4:29pm

Doug, One day, when you die (hopefully decades from now), I will attend your virtual funeral. No really. I will totally log in and offer your family the comfort of my virtual presence. I know how much my typing will mean to them in a moment of loss. How the sound of my voice over the internet will comfort them in their grief. How my emoticons will bring a smile to their faces in the midst of tragedy.

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