Incarnation and the Technology of Virtual Worlds

Christmas-2008-webcam

This Christmas was special for our family as we celebrated not only the birth of our Lord, but the birth of our first child. Unfortunately my entire family couldn’t be together, because my sister was visiting my brother in Hawaii. So we hooked up webcams and, when the time zones aligned, we watched each other open gifts from 4,000 miles away. There were some technical hiccups, but it was fun and much better than not seeing one another at all.

This combination of new life and new technology brought to mind the wonder of Incarnation and its relation to technology, specifically the technology of virtual worlds (facebook, twitter, tokbox, etc.) that we now regularly inhabit.

As those who bear the imago dei, our acts of creation reflect God’s acts of creation. God created the physical world from nothing, and we create technological and virtual worlds from what he has made. It seems then that there is a relationship between Christ taking on his physical creation in the Incarnation and the Church taking on our technological creations.

Christ entered into the physical world he created, and
we should enter into the virtual worlds we’ve created.

In the past few years, the term “incarnational ministry” has been used to describe ministry which goes into the cultural worlds people inhabit just as Christ came into our world to redeem us. Wearing an Abayah to reach an Arab culture, learning a child’s interests, or holding outdoor church services for the homeless are examples of incarnational ministry. Paul also gives us an example of incarnational ministry with policy of being a Jews to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles.

Just as the Incarnation can be applied to entering into cultural worlds, it can also be applied to entering into virtual worlds. For those who already spend a significant amount of time online, this will often be more like “relational evangelism” where we simply share the love of Christ with those around us (my friend Rick Smith does this particularly well). Others may create entire ministries with the goal of reaching people online (another friend Tim Kimberley does this well at helives.com where he counsels 1000s of teens). In both cases, the idea is to reach people where they are and bring them into relationship with the Father.

Christ affirmed the importance of the physical world, and
we should affirm the importance of the physical world.

Although it seems clear that we should work to reach people who are online, the permanence of the Incarnation teaches us another important lesson about virtual worlds.

At the Incarnation, the Son of God became fully divine and fully human for all eternity. When he returns one day to build a new earth, he will still be a physical human being, albeit with a glorified body. Sometimes, the afterlife is pictured as a place in the sky with disembodied souls playing harps, but that’s not the biblical portrait. The final destiny of humanity is not a purely spiritual heaven, but a physical earth free from the destructive effects of sin with Christ walking among us.

Since the telos (goal, purpose, destination) of Christ’s work is the physical world created through him, I believe the end point of our ministry should also be the physical world. After all, incarnation literally means “embodied in flesh.” This is not to say that very deep levels of community don’t happen in the virtual world or that the virtual worlds cannot enhance or contribute to relationships, but to affirm with John that face-to-face reality is the “fullness of joy,” the final destination.

There is of course no clear cut way of defining exactly how and when to make this happen, but I do believe that some practical steps can be taken. If I spend a significant amount of time communicating with someone online, I like to meet them in person if possible [Rhett Smith has also made this a goal]. I also encourage people I meet online to attend a local church or community of believers whenever possible. There are certainly exceptional circumstances when physical presence it not possible, such as Paul’s inability to come to Rome but we should still “long to see” one another just as Paul longed to see the Romans.

So, if the Lord tarries until then, I hope next Christmas I can see my family face-to-face.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

4 thoughts on “Incarnation and the Technology of Virtual Worlds”

  1. Thank you for your great post!

    I found you via Rhett Smith’s tweet about you (just today)… it must have been a great lunch indeed.

    I appreciate your perspective about virtual relationships and the importance of interjecting one’s physical presence into the equation. The whole picture (which includes the physical world) is messier, but its also more real.

    My online friends never irritate me like small group / ministry team friends do. But then I seldom have occasion to work out God’s grace on them either.

    Thanks again for your thoughts. I’m glad to add you to my reader.

    Dawn Carter

  2. Dawn,
    Thanks for your kinds words! I too have found that offline relationships tend to be more challenging which inclines me to think they have more of the “whole picture”…

  3. John –

    Hey thanks for the shout out! ha,ha.

    As someone who spends much time connecting with both people online, and those in the “real” world I spend much time thinking about these topics. Both the advantages and dangers of building “virtual community.” {I use the term “virtual” very loosely as the lines are starting to blur between online and offline.}

    One thing you can never do online is hug someone. There is no way. Nor can I hold someone’s hand why I pray with them about their dying father who isn’t a Christian. There is something to be said for physical touch. Even today.

    Like one of Rhett’s goals – I to would enjoy meeting as many people I meet online in “real” life. Look them in the face, eat a meal with them, hear {and listen} to their story – in other words talk more to them then 140 characters at a time.

    For me, I view these social networking TOOLS as just that – tools. Tools to build bridges, connect, network, brainstorm, etc. But for now, I never want it to just “stay there.” This is especially important with these online churches we are seeing so many of today.

    My danger is that people will never leave their house – ever. They will never have the awesome privilege of sharing their faith with someone, with going on a mission trip {not that you can’t have mission “trips” online} but holding a hammer in their hand as they sweat. Or connecting with other believers in REAL life. {again I use the term REAL very loosely”}

    I just want people, myself included, to live life with others. To have friends. Because when hard times come, and they will, it’s not my online friends who are going to come to my house to be with me, to bring me meals, to pray with me, etc – it’s going to be the friends that I am “doing” life with. And that is what I want for everyone.

    Thanks for thinking through these issues as well!

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