Book Review: SimChurch

October 21, 2009 — 6 Comments

SimChurchJust this weekend I completed reading SimChurch by Douglas Estes.  For those of you unfamiliar with this new movement, the idea of online church is not just putting a recording of your church service online. Instead, it is actually conducting an entire live church service online, complete with worship, teaching, offering, fellowship, and possibly even communion and baptism.  This can include both churches with Internet campuses and those who conduct services in virtual worlds, such as Second Life. The author tackles questions surrounding the validity of online church and asks some tough questions.  He ends the book by challenging online churches to break the mold and attempt to do things that no physical-world church can.

If you have read this blog before, you know that I have been a critic of online church. However, as a lover of technology and the Internet, I am always open to thinking in new ways about things and want to see how technology can be used to share the message of Christ.  But I am also a realist: I know that just because we can do church online does not mean that we should. So I read this book with an open mind and heart – looking for new ways of thinking about online church.

Some highlights of SimChurch for me included:

  • a definition of virtual church as “a virtually localized assembly of the people of God dwelling in meaningful community with the task of building the kingdom.”
  • the author taking on those who would use the church as described in Acts 2 as a way to discredit the virtual church.  The early church existed at a special time in history and we will never fully be able to recapture it.  Churches today cannot expect to do everything that the Acts 2 church did.
  • the discussion of how our Western worldview clouds our understanding of “presence”.  Defining presence as the location of our bodies is not a God-given or Biblical idea.
  • a challenge to Christians to be ever vigilant on how we conduct ourselves. Since everything we do virtually is recorded in some way, we should be completely transparent about our online lives. Identity and authenticity will be key issues in the virtual church.
  • to be seen as real churches, virtual churches must begin to offer communion. The exact methods as to how to do it must be worked out by each individual church within their traditions and understanding.  Baptisms should also be offered.
  • The online church will need to leverage their strengths to do things that physical-world church cannot do (or at least cannot do well).

Douglas Estes is a supporter of online church and in this book he makes a very good case that it is important that these churches continue to move forward and meet the challenges they will face head on. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and was encouraged to think deeper about online church.

Unfortunately, I am still not convinced that the participation in a church service accessed over the Internet and mediated via a computer is the same as actually attending a church physically.  In my experience, the types of worship, fellowship, and community experienced online is anemic compared to what one can get by fully participating in a physical-world church (not to mention the issues with communion and baptism). Now this would not be a big issue to me if it were not for the fact that these online churches never encourage those participating online to find to a physical-world church. I was hoping that SimChurch would address this question, but it did not.

Now let me reiterate, I believe it is imperative that Christians take to the Internet as a mission field and learn to understand it well. I wouldn’t spend so much of time helping churches do this if I did not feel it was important. Using the Internet should be an integral part of a church’s ministry. And being there to meet with and minister to those in the virtual world should be part of what they do. And yes, even providing the ability for someone to experience a church service online can be part of the ministry – but it should be made clear that every believer needs to find a physical community to be a part of as well.

Overall I think that SimChurch does a great job of exploring online church and its implications. If you are looking for a deeper understanding of this phenomenon, then I recommend this book.  And if you never have participated in an online church service, I encourage you to do so at the now over forty different Internet campuses available.  Just remember to also attend church in “real life” as well.

Dave

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Online ministry researcher and educator. Associate Professor and Director of Innovation for the Crowell School of Business at BIola University. Author of Ministry in the Digital Age.

6 responses to Book Review: SimChurch

  1. Excellent post. Fair and balanced perspective.

    In time, I believe we will look back at the decisions made on these issues as the turning point in outreach oriented church communications.

    God Himself will show us what’s best.

  2. Thanks for the review, Dave!

  3. Dave, thanks for posting the review. Like you I’m skeptical that a virtual church can really function as God intended the body of Christ to function. I’ve blogged about it too:

    http://blog.ourchurch.com/2009/07/08/online-church-online-sex/
    http://blog.ourchurch.com/2009/07/09/online-church-spiritual-fast-food/

    However, I’m always interested to hear another perspective on the topic. I received a copy of SimChurch. Haven’t started into it yet, but your post renewed my interest to get to it ASAP.

  4. Hi Dave,

    I’m a member of an online community of faith. We use the word “church” in our title (1st Presbyterian Church of Second Life) but we are still, like you, struggling with questions of what that actually means (and also how it fits into our denominational heritage and polity) before we consider ourselves a full fledged “church.”

    Here’s where I agree with you:

    “I am still not convinced that the participation in a church service accessed over the Internet and mediated via a computer is the same as actually attending a church physically.”

    I think they are very different. They will *always* be very different due to the inherent difference in the two mediums. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that one is better or worse than the other.

    I also agree with your next statement, but allow me to modify it, and add to it:

    “The types of worship, fellowship, and community experienced online **can be** anemic compared to what one can get by fully participating in a physical-world church (not to mention the issues with communion and baptism).”

    The asterisks indicate my modification. I would also add that conversely, in my own experience, the types of worship, fellowship, and community experienced in a physical world church can be quite anemic compared to what one **can get** by fully participating in an online church.

    One problem I have with much of the discussion surrounding the issue of online churches is that the harshest critics (compared to which you are very fair, balanced, and open minded–and I appreciate that) are also the most unwilling to experience online worship for themselves.

    This makes disagreeing with them kind of like disagreeing with a blind person about what color an elephant is.

    If you haven’t had the experience yet, I’d encourage you to do so as you tackle this issue. There are, of course, “good” and “bad” churches online just as there are in physical space. I can recommend the following ones, though (which you can find via google search or through search in second life itself):

    1. Koinonia Congregational Church (meets Wednesdays @ 8pm Central time)
    2. Anglican Cathedral of Second Life (various meeting times throughout the week)
    3. Church of the Dawntreader (meets Tuesdays @ 9pm Central time)
    4. 1st Presbyterian Church of Second Life (meets for prayer service Sundays @9pm Central time)

    You would be enthusiastically welcomed at any of the above, and would find plenty of conversation partners for an in depth and honest exploration of what it means to be a virtual church.

  5. “Now this would not be a big issue to me if it were not for the fact that these online churches never encourage those participating online to find to a physical-world church.”

    You had me until this quote. I have been a part of an online worshiping community for a number of months and find that it is a great expression and connection for me. But, I also know that most if not all of us also have real world churches that we are actively engaged in.

    One of the benefits for me with the online service I attend is it allows me to interact with and worship along side of people who have very different theological views than me. We would probably never attend a similar real world church but we do in the online world. I find myself challenged by and engaged with people I wouldn’t normally interact with.

    I appreciate your write up. My book is being delivered by Amazon today.

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  1. Discussions Continue About SimChurch | Greg Atkinson - October 29, 2009

    [...] Book Review of SimChurch at Dave Bourgeois’ blog, Lessons from Babel [...]

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