Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Book Review - SimChurch

SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World is a new book written by Douglas Estes and published by Zondervan. Estes, an adjunct professor of New Testament at Western Seminary-San Jose and lead pastor at Berryessa Valley Church in San Jose, CA, is taking his new book on a blog tour today (for a list of tour sites see below). It is my privilege to host one of the stops along today's blog tour here at Returned Sheep.

Before reading this book I had no real awareness of the virtual church world that exists online. My assumption was that the virtual church was made up of various church websites and presence on social media sites. Estes provides this helpful statement and definition of what is and what is not a virtual church.
"A virtual church is not a website (building or place), a podcast (ritualized institution), or a blog (fellowship or activity). A virtual church is a place where people professing to have faith in Jesus Christ gather regularly to be in meaningful community appointed to build up the kingdom -- or more specifically, a virtual church is the confessing people gathering in a synthetic world."
The key words in Estes' definition are "meaningful community". Can Christians gather in an online, virtual world and truly find meaningful community in such a way that it not only mirrors the real-world church, but that it actually possess all of the necessary marks of a healthy church.

Estes says about his book that in writing it he expects that it will raise more questions than it will answer. In reading this book I found myself pondering some of those questions, trying to arrive at what I would consider to be a helpful answer. Fortunately for me I had an opportunity as a part of this blog tour to ask the author a question about his work.


“In your chapter entitled WikiWorship you mention that the church in the virtual world is in some sense still a ‘beta version’ methodologically speaking. In the software world developers and programmers have to prioritize which concerns must be addressed for their next release. What would you say are the top priorities for the health and development of the virtual church that are needed for it to move from a ‘beta version’ to say a more stable SimChurch 2.0?”



Thanks for the insightful question. You are touching on one of the areas of the book that I wrestled with: How to write it with vision but without trying to predict the future. But your question is a good one, because instead of saying what it should or will look like in the future, we can just suggest what bugs need the most attention. I’ll answer from a top-down perspective, since I’m not a virtual church pastor myself.
Here are my personal top three:
#1 Increase Interactivity and Community. This is the most important fix that needs to take place, although to a large degree, virtual churches are at the mercy of current technological limitations. This is also #1 because ‘lack of community’ seems to be the biggest argument mustered against virtual churches (although elsewhere on the blogtour I have argued why this is a straw-man argument). The problem with this argument is that we have to remember how little community was possible on the internet just ten years ago—and how much more community will be possible in just ten years from now (not to mention twenty or thirty). Having stated the issue, let’s talk about how this can work. First, churches need to have an honest assessment of whether the thing they call their ‘internet campus’ really even is that. As I mention in SimChurch, just because a church podcasts and calls it an internet campus doesn’t mean it is an online church (or anything close). So there are going to be some churches that, for a variety of reasons, will provide little or no community. This won’t work for any biblical/church-historical definition of church. Beyond this, churches that have community and meet online (in synthetic space) need to work diligently to build community in all areas of church life. This includes: making corporate worship times fully interactive, developing a strong small groups system, and connecting folks that are geographically close in the physical world when possible. Finally, let me say that one of the problems here is that a normal brick and mortar church can have very poor community (meet only once a week, impersonally) and still be considered a church with community, whereas a virtual church can meet every day and still have critics call it ‘fake’ just because of its ‘building’ (synthetic space).
#2 Better Proclamation of the Word (aka Preaching). My experience is that there are several weaknesses with the teaching aspect that is currently offered in online churches. This is due to several factors: technological limitations, expectations/assumptions about the virtual attendee, and style of the virtual church, to name three. It may also have to do with changing church culture; and I recognize that some of the virtual church folks I know wouldn’t agree with me on this one. Still, shorter messages with more dramatic video content is not, overall, a good thing. To become more effective, virtual churches must not simply reach people—they must disciple people, and a stronger emphasis in that direction is needed. This doesn’t mean four hour-long sermons, but it does mean a more growth-oriented content that could include: short-but-more-focused teaching time, teaching break-out and discussion time (much more possible online than in real-life), or greater frequency of teaching throughout the week (here an average virtual church could one day be more successful in many areas of discipleship than an average brick and mortar church).
#3 Much Greater Involvement & Membership Transparency. This is another issue that critics of virtual churches like to mention (anonymity of attendees), but it’s both a straw-man argument and a result of current technological limitations/internet culture. No virtual church wants unbridled anonymity. What needs to happen is three things: First, a virtual church needs to create some type platform for validation of membership just like eBay, Facebook, or other popular website. This validation can be optional, but it allows people to choose whether to interact with validated members or not. Second, the pastors and leaders need to be fully validated, fully viewable, and fully accessible. The current (negative) trend of megachurches not listing their staff info and emails on their websites is not going to cut it in the virtual world if you want people to become validated. Third, virtual churches need to encourage their people to validate. This would involve several levels: maybe some will only want to have a real name, nothing else; others may want to have photos, city location, pets’ names, and much more. Especially in 3D platforms of today and tomorrow, when we can see, hear, and talk to people who may have a toaster-oven avatar but we know really is a real person named John who is a 40 year old single lawyer with a Boston Terrier residing in Modesto, CA, then any issues of the ‘reality’ of virtual church community will evaporate (for non-Luddites). In fact, virtual churches can one day have more validated people than most/all brick and mortar churches—which will lead to deeper levels of interaction and community.
Douglas Estes

Intrigued? I hope so. Even for those of us who have yet to stick our toe into the virtual church waters this book was well worth reading. Look for SimChurch at your local Christian bookstore or buy it online at your favorite online book retailer.
Be sure to visit the other blog sites participating today in the tour.

Happy reading!
[Note: My copy of SimChurch was provided to me for review by Zondervan]

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  1. What a great question and response! I appreciate how you've identified some of the 'issues' in the beta version, and Douglas provided some really great, practical steps to deal with those issues.

    I am not a virtual church leader (as in 'Internet Campus Pastor'), but I do see my blog/website growing more and more into a community of believers. So this has really given me lots to think about related to how I 'minister' to people through my community.

    Dan King

  2. Eric,

    Thanks for taking part ... for the record, I didn't really know much about online churches either before I wrote this book! It just seemed like a chance for a phenomenal opportunity to expand its reach around the world.

  3. Did you see this post on Justin Taylor's blog? It's unbelievable...and astute.


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