The Christian church is engaging far less than 1 percent of the 70 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, says one pastor.
Douglas Estes, a pastor from San Jose, Calif., has no vested interest in virtual or internet churches – a relatively new phenomenon – but given the large "unreached" population on the internet, he says he has a desire to see healthy churches proliferate "regardless of context."
Although he leads a brick and mortar church (Berryessa Valley Church), Estes defends virtual churches against critics in his newly released book, SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World, maintaining that they are real churches with real people.
He summed up his argument in a recent post on Christianity Today's Out of Ur blog: "People are led to believe that members of online churches all connect to their video-game church as anonymous zombies in a Tron-like world. Supposedly these virtual (fake) Christians never really know each other, it's all a facade, and that this is the sum and total of a virtual church.
"The real truth is that every virtual church I've ever attended has flesh-and-blood people in virtual (real!) community with other flesh-and-blood people whose primary meeting place is in synthetic space."
In recent years, Christians have begun to take on the internet by building church communities in virtual worlds like Second Life and The Sims and launching internet campuses where anyone from around the world can join weekend worship services live on the Web. The growth of virtual worshipping communities, however, has sparked debates on whether such churches are effective and biblical.
A major argument against internet churches is that they lack physical contact, Estes pointed out. But that same argument could be made against megachurches and any other church, for that matter, where people never really touch or come to know each other, he argued.
Virtual churches, critics say, also don't have real community.
Estes, however, pushed back by pointing out that church isn't about where it meets. "Isn't church supposed to be about people in communion with God rather than the building? ... Since when does the location of a church determine the quality of its community?"
"Virtual churches may meet for services in the virtual world, but they are not the one-dimensional illusion that critics like to easily prop up so as to knock down for their friends to applaud," he maintained. "And here's the irony: Even as virtual churches seek to create community in both virtual and physical space, so too do their critics use virtual space when it is convenient for them in their brick and mortar ministries."
Bob Hyatt, pastor of the Evergreen Community in Portland, Ore., didn't buy Estes' argument.
He stressed, "It's not where we meet, but that we meet," according to his post on Out of Ur.
"And whether people are actually meeting together – that is, whether you and me watching the same video stream, silently reading the comments in the chat room as we sip our individual portions of grape juice and eat crackers, rises to the level of 'ecclesia' and the picture of Acts 2:42 – has yet to be determined.
"In other words, I have yet to be convinced that simultaneity equals community," Hyatt stated.
Hyatt has major concerns over the threat virtual churches or video venues represent to the overall "maturity of the Body of Christ." A virtual church, he contended, fails to engage in discipleship and leadership formation as well as church discipline.
"The worship, equipping, and discipling ministries of the church simply can't take place through the internet. Pieces of them can, but eventually the jump has to be made," he said. "A truly biblical Church requires that we heed the biblical call of Hebrews 10 to not give up gathering together and being present to one another in real, actual life."
For Estes, as long as the people of God are meeting together for the purpose of glorifying Him, it's a real church. And in the end, he believes a local church could not really reach the whole world. Virtual churches, however, will have that kind of reach, he says in his book.
Notably, Estes doesn't believe virtual churches will or should replace real-world churches. Both accomplish ministry objectives that the other cannot. But he hopes that in the future, real-world churches will adopt more virtual elements and virtual churches will create real-world ministry teams to reach people in the real world and in the virtual world. Moreover, he hopes people will view virtual churches not as a form of church different from real-world ones, but see both as just churches.