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  3. The Christian Post
  4. Church on the Internet? Seriously?

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  • Simchurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World by Douglas Charles Estes (Paperback, 2009)!

It had been an uncomfortable and downright bizarre time of prayer. Bizarre like traditional African worship music played on electric guitar might seem to Westerners. Bizarre like the smells and bells in liturgical churches might seem to many Africans. Bizarre to me, but maybe not bizarre to God. The next day, during the morning worship to prepare our teams for day two, prayer time came and I prayed.

I prayed, standing, look- ing into the wall of sticks, shouting, and the only people who existed for an hour were God and me. This is true no matter the bibli- cal prooftexts used or the tradition cited; in fact, it must be true. It must be true because if we declare the church to be of God, then it must in large part be incomprehensible to people who cannot ever come close to understanding God. Anything of God is as much a mystery to us fallen people as the incarnation or creation. The church is a mystery; we do the best we can to recreate this mystery.

And we are blessed when we do Ps.

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Denominationalism, liturgical strictures, parachurch ministries, open versus closed Com- munion, and worship wars all derive more from our human attempts to formulate the mystery of the church in a reasonable way than from a biblical or divine precept. Some are better and some are worse, perhaps, but none is best. Virtual churches also must find their own way to do church, and do it well, in the new millennium. What will all of this mean for virtual churches, internet campuses, and other tech-heavy forms of church? What will it mean for their core practices?

Are vir- tual sacraments and other faith practices possible or valid or just inevitable? At the same time, virtual churches will have to answer some hard questions about their worship practices if they expect to minister shoulder-to-shoulder with churches in the real world.

Faith Ser vice Providers Virtual churches are slowly but surely coming out of their shells — the shells of the real-world traditions that launched them. We can see some parallels here with the Protestant Reformation. After the unforeseen but irreparable split with Rome, Luther and the early Reformers found themselves with a need for a new kind of church.

Working out a better, more biblical theology for the church was a high priority, but what they did not immediately seek to do was to recreate the church in its form from the ground up. Instead, most of the early Reformers borrowed the style, feel, rituals, and types of liturgies of Roman Catholicism. In Second Life, the Anglican Cathedral chose a cathedral rather than a tree house, a moonbase, or an aquarium for their meeting place because they felt that at this early stage in the process, people need to see an architecture they recognize as church.

Overall, it can be a good thing for most virtual churches to begin with their tradition. The negative, though, is that if over the long term, virtual churches only replicate real-world forms — and think and visualize in real-world terms — they will never grasp the potential of being the church in the virtual world. Frankly, I get sick and tired of that argument.

That no one will ever again be swallowed by a fish for three days and regurgitated to call Nineveh to repentance? What makes the church, the church — rather than a shrine, tem- ple, mosque, or geodesic dome — is its universality, its adaptability. The church is the church because God created it to be not an orga- nization built on culture or ideology but an organism made alive by the Spirit of God interacting with people. All things being equal, the church can exist anywhere that people can exist, but the same may not be true for many world religions. This is the reason why a virtual church is and can be a real, valid church of Christ: God is not constrained to any human definition of the real world or to any physical form of the church John Thus Christ is not prevented from exerting his power wherever he pleases, in heaven and on earth.

He shows his presence in power and strength, is always among his own people, and breathes his life upon them, and lives in them, sustaining them, strengthening, quickening, keeping them unharmed, as if he were present in the body. Virtual churches have a real opportunity to be the renewed church in perhaps the largest mission field in existence, and to reach into many hard to reach parts of the real world.

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How should the proclamation of the Word work in the virtual world? Right now, it seems that most virtual churches favor very short messages. When I ask virtual-church pastors, the reasons they give for this are a technological limitations and b the attention spans of virtual churchgoers. While brief teaching times may be a necessity at the beta stage while we wait for the technology to catch up with the vision, they could present a real weakness if it stays this way in the future.

Should virtual-church proclamation be driven by the atten- tion spans of multitasking computer users? While longer is not nec- essarily better, there is evidence that the nature of virtual worlds tends to encourage informational blurbs rather than the real com- munication and dialog necessary for the growth and discipleship of spiritually healthy people. If lengthy sermons are out for the time being at least , then vir- tual churches will have to envision a new way to encourage spiritual growth through proclamation.

Can virtual churches present multiple minimessages in one extended worship time, allowing people to come in and out as time permits? Can the decentralized nature of the medium allow for a shorter message with immediate small-group breakouts in the same ser vice, which people would participate in via avatar? Can virtual churches leverage technology to make the entire message participatory real-time polling, IM shoutouts, quot- able tickers , allowing greater length and greater depth?

Along the same lines, it seems likely the virtual world can let us reimagine our use of testimonies in worship. Most pastors recognize that some of the great- est testimonies are those given in the moment, in the rough, from the heart. For the most part, it is hard for real-world churches to take advantage of spontaneous testimonies unless they have spontane- ous services , but virtual churches can pretty easily implement such testimonies due to the peer-to-peer nature of computer-mediated communication.

Testimonies can be posted on the fly, even in the midst of worship or proclamation.

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Already, many virtual churches that use the internet-campus approach use interactive forums dur- ing worship services. The nature of the virtual medium encourages interactivity more than real-world churches probably could imagine especially in light of the fear of public speaking. Mostly because of the limitations of technology or the infrastructure of a virtual church, many virtual churches seem to struggle with praise times in their current beta ver- sions.

There is also the real fear that it will feel weird for people to sing along to a computer screen. Over the years, I have noticed more people taking part. What will really make the difference is when the technology is fast enough that you can hear other people singing in the background a feedback loop , just like in the real world. In contrast to this is LifeChurch. At the time I visited their internet campus, they had two options. The Abba Father Inter-Continental Internet Church does the same thing, liturgically speaking, offering text-based worship services somewhat tailored to hundreds of different people groups.

Still, it does raise the question, Is there a better approach to virtual-church praise than dialing in one of several optional channels with streaming praise media?

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What new forms of praise will virtual churches generate? What types of spiritual disciplines will flourish in virtual churches? Since everyone agrees that prayer has no geographical or spatial requirements, it seems to be an obvious strength of virtual churches 1 Tim. In the years since its creation, i-church has found prayer to be a central part of its virtual worship. To see how this works, we can compare it to real-world practices; small-group prayer times often feel more personal and far more powerful than reading large prayer lists in the church bulletin or other less intimate situations.

It is quite possible that prayers in virtual places will be reprayed for days, weeks, or years to come — in this sense, quite a magnification over most real-world possibilities. Please pray for my family before leav- ing!

The more prayer, the better 1 Thess. The spiritual discipline of prayer is a great example of some simi- larities between worship in the virtual world and worship in the real world. Virtual-church pastors can integrate spiritual disciplines that require a physical component, such as fasting, Bible study, solitude, and confession, into a virtual-world church just as easily as real-world church pastors can.

Church on the Internet? Seriously?

The same will be true in virtual churches. One spiritual practice that may be hurt by virtual churches is the practice of honoring the Sab- bath. While I suspect that the decline in observing the Sabbath has more to do with culture than technology, it seems to me that virtual churches will have to work even harder than real-world churches to disciple their attendees in this area.

During the last half of the twentieth century, many Western church leaders spent a great deal of time engaged in futile debates over music styles in worship services.

"Why SimChurch?" - Douglas Estes

As visual representation, photonic, and holographic technologies create augmented worship worlds for real-world churches, virtual churches could lead the way in inventing fresh visual styles for worship. Here I am speaking of far more than just video content though that is a start. Each week, a virtual church could choose to worship in a different envi- ronment catacombs for a series on faith, outer space for a series on evangelism and enhance the proclamation of the Word through faith- empowering visual displays — the ultimate stained-glass experience.

The virtual world has the ability not just to produce images but also to immerse worshipers and create discipleship opportunities in a visual expression of faith as if every worship experience were in the Sistine Chapel. Protestants such as myself may end up envious of Enos Andel reflects on the power of visual worship at an Orthodox church in Second Life. Reformatting Rituals As virtual churches find their own voices for worship, one concern plagues their progress and their acceptance by many ordinary Christians: can or should a virtual church perform ordinances or sacraments in a virtual world?

I believe this concern has become an unnecessary sticking point in the discussion of virtual churches, and unfortunately has become something of a rallying cry for those opposed to the idea of virtual churches as authentic expressions of church. We might expect Christians from denominations with so- called high or structured views of the sacraments such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy to be hesitant to embrace communion in virtual churches,12 but even Christians coming from denominations with so-called low or relaxed views of the ordinances often raise this issue.

When the subject of virtual churches comes up, the first question I am always asked is, Are virtual churches real? A worthwhile read for anyone interested in real ministry and real connection in the virtual world. SimChurch is the first book I've read on the virtual church that makes theological sense. Douglas Estes challenges entrenched ways of thinking about what it means to be the church in light of his positive assessment of virtual congregations. Since their inception, virtual churches have generated a good deal of discussion about their strengths and weaknesses.

While SimChurch tackles most of the major issues, I thought it would be good to list other voices in this discussion. If you know of a great article that deals with internet churches, please email me for consideration of inclusion in this list. Since many people ask, "What exactly is a virtual church? Links or SL locations are listed below. Do you know of a virtual church?

If so, please email me for consideration of inclusion on this list. I would love to hear from you. Douglas Estes challenges entrenched ways of thinking about what it means to be the church in light of his positive assessment of virtual congregations.

While this book makes some controversial points, at the very least it raises provocative questions as it attempts to shift the burden of proof to the defenders of traditional models of church. Whether you're a tech expert or a skeptic, SimChurch does a masterful job of bringing everyone into this important conversation. Regardless of where you find yourself on these issues, it's critical we ask ourselves what online community and virtual environments can mean for our churches.

Step into SimChurch and begin exploring new dimensions of ministry. Privacy Policy. Reviews Insightful Estes offers the most even-handed, informed, and insightful overview to date of what virtual-world ecclesia means not only within its own confines, but also to ecclesia in the physical world. Brilliantly Connects the Dots If your church is even thinking about starting an internet campus or has one already , this book should be required reading.

Raises Provocative Questions Christian theology has yet to take full stock of the emergence of virtual worlds together with its promises and perils for the church. A Masterful Job Whether you're a tech expert or a skeptic, SimChurch does a masterful job of bringing everyone into this important conversation.