Estes, Douglas. SimChurch: Being the Church in theVirtual World. Zondervan, 2009, 256 pages.
Of all the books I have read in preparation for a class next month on Church in the Age of Facebook, this is the one I was most pre-disposed to disagree with and perhaps even dislike. Although I am a strong proponent of the use of new media for communication, I have generally had a bias against the idea that online communities could authentically host “church.” I think my doubts about “SimChurch” are probably especially related to the high view of the sacraments I hold as a Lutheran Christian, but I also think I simply don’t understand—and have not participated in—simulated worlds enough to have a warm or favorable sense of them.
I find myself surprised, and in awe, because not only has Douglas Estes won me over, at least to the point of recognizing that the church needs to offer some kind of virtual church in the present era, but he has actually won me over so completely that I am already trying to envision how our church might better do mission starts in the virtual world, and how my denomination, the ELCA, can direct mission developer energy in that direction. In the same way that J.W.C. Dietrichson followed the Norwegian settlers to the new world in order to organize them into churches, it is incumbent upon us as Lutherans to figure out how to be with people on this new, growing frontier.
Which is not to say that I agree with Estes on all points. I still think offering the sacraments in a virtual context, no matter how you slice it, is questionable. But it is part of the strength of Estes’s book that instead of investing too much time into the “whether” of the sacraments online, Estes devotes attention to best practices given that churches online will need to do something. His outline of four different ways to do communion (Symbolic virtual communion, avatar-mediated virtual communion, extensional virtual communion, or outsourced virtual communion) offers an analysis of the range of options. Furthermore, his sense that “virtual sacraments [may] reinvigorate the use of sacraments in real world churches” is undoubtedly correct, because everything about the virtual world and the avatar experience can, experienced properly, reinvigorate real world practice.
I think I also have been won over by Estes because he has done his homework, and actually is able to engage both biblical theology and ecclesiology in order to make his argument. Often, in order to discuss, for example, what church actually is, he takes us back to the letters of Paul, in order to get clear on what Paul actually meant by ecclesia. “It is fair to say that Paul believes himself to be part of these local churches, even though he may not be geographically close… Paul does not appear to view geography or space as a factor that can limit his participation in the church.” Similarly, he is conversant with some of the classic literature in ecclesiology, and points out that “’our concept of the Church is basically influenced by the form of the Church at any given time.’ It will be tempting for many moderns (and those foreign to the culture of the virtual world) to reject the authenticity of virtual churches simply because they are not forms of church that they are accustomed to.”
Furthermore, it is the overall awareness raising he accomplishes in the book that blows me away. “The Christian church is engaging far less than 1 percent of the seventy 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. Simon Jenkins, one of the founders of Church of Fools, remarks that ‘it’s like someone has created a new town and no one has thought to build a church there. It’s almost scandalous.” “One thing virtual churches could use is good, healthy, constructive dialog with real-world churches—and not being looked down upon the way just about every new group of churches has been looked down upon throughout church history by more traditional forms of church.”
Estes has also done his homework experientially. He’s been to the churches in the virtual world and attended their worship and participated in community. Some of the ones I found most intriguing I provide links for here:
http://secondlife.com/ This is the virtual world he refers to most often, and on Second Life, he is especially favorable towards the model of church on offer by the Anglican Cathedral on Second Life, which has a blog: http://slangcath.wordpress.com/about/
http://www.stpixels.com/intro-welcome This is the continuing iteration of what started as the Church of Fools, a mission experiment by the Methodist Church.
http://lifechurch.tv An Internet based church with real world and virtual world manifestations
Estes considers each of these, in some form or another, to be a real, and surprisingly a “local” church, inasmuch as local is defined not by geography, but by the fact that they are a group belong together and presided over by Christ.
Midway through the book, Estes admits, “If we want to reach people in the virtual world, we have to reach avatars, even though the whole avatar thing gives a lot of church people the willies.” That is very true, and even understated. I think a main reason why my own denomination has virtually no virtual presence is that either we just don’t get it, we don’t think it matters, or we have some kind of cultural aversion to it. Maybe tons of Lutherans are on Second Life and they just aren’t talking about it, but it seems to me it is simply a cultural context distant from most of our leaders, and possibly members. So being present there is truly a mission issue for us of major proportions. It means crossing a cultural frontier, learning a new language, in fact learning a new way of being and being present—as an avatar. And as Estes explains in an excursus on pages 94-95 of the book, we cannot go there in order to just invite online avatars to attend our real churches. We need to be church there, for them, where they are.
Hear this call to action: “The church is poised to fail big-time—to drop a ball of monumental proportions. Here’s how it will play out. As tens of millions of people flock to virtual worlds, traditional Christians who fear change in the church at large will see alarmist headlines about the virtual world and will dismiss the virtual world as one big sinful fantasy, as being not real. They will turn the virtual world over to its own devices, and tens of millions of people—with no true ethical compass—will embrace greater free agency and then write their own rules on what is right and wrong… the solution that many church leaders may propose is either to warn their followers away from the virtual world or to speak ex cathedra from their real-world churches. As history demonstrates, neither of these will work. The solution is quite simple. If we want to reach a world for Christ, to turn it away from sin and selfishness back to real freedom and true peace found only in God, we’ll make it happen only by planting churches in that world, to reach and sanctify its people (1 Peter 2:9).”
Estes offers a comparable challenge for leaders of virtual churches. “How will they do ministries that appear to be impossible (or at a sever disadvantage) in the virtual world—ministries such as social, helps, or mission ministries?” Estes hints that these churches may already be accomplish some of these ministries simply by being virtual churches. Many virtual churches are attended by marginalized groups—people with phobias, autism, Tourets, or other special needs that makes it difficult for them to attend real world church. However, since virtual church is a gated community at least in the sense that only those with the technology and know-how to set up an avatar and be there can attend, virtual churches will have to give more than average kinds of energy to trying to be the hands and feet of Christ not just online but in the real world.
I hope this gives readers a sense of why this book is so important, so powerful, and so timely. It’s definitely the most transformative book I’ve read in the past few years, and I am incredibly surprised to admit that.