SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World by Douglas Estes (Review)

As an aside, I’ve just added a Books & Resources section that has a brief bibliography of books that address technology and faith.

SimChurch by Douglas Estes

Recently, Douglas Estes posted on CT’s Out of Ur, Cynthia Ware’s Digital Sanctuary, and a few other blogs, giving a preview of the issues he covers in his new book SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. However, his arguments in those posts weren’t very well developed, and many commenters pounced.

I’m happy to say that the book is quite a bit deeper in its explanation and arguments, and Estes has produced a fairly thorough account of what is happening, where it appears to be headed, and the myriad issues that need to be sorted out.  His book  interacts with much of the recent literature in the areas of online religion and online identity, and argues that the church as a whole needs to do more to reach those who live much of their live online.

Regardless of anyone’s opinion about it, the online church model appears to be here to stay just as the mega-church and multi-site video campus models before it. Whether we believe online church is “real” or not, it is a real issue that needs real engagement (especially when the NYTimes covers it). My goal here is to point out the areas of the book where I felt Estes answered some of the tough questions and which areas will still need further biblical and theological engagement to help the church as a whole understand it.

Well-Covered and Helpful Areas

The Mission Field – Estes does a good job of portraying the online world as a vast mission field, full of real people interested in spirituality. Several times he points out the spurious churches that already exist online and urges church leaders to plant orthodox there as well.

Participation vs. Decentralization – Estes devotes an entire chapter to discuss how the internet allows church to be more participatory, but eh also points out that some people have used that to glamorize a complete decentralization of church authority. Estes values the participatory church, but warns against decentralization and unhealthy for any church – online or offline.

Surfacing a Host of Issues – Estes brings up dozens of important issues, some that mirror traditional churches and some unique to the online world. These include problems with niche marketing in online churches, how families can participate in online church, church discipline, issues of sin and gray areas (men with female avatars), how to encourage people to engage physically in a virtual world, how churches should budget for online pastors and virtual campuses, and so on. He leaves almost no stone unturned, and the final few chapter of the book suggest several areas ripe for ministry and outreach.

Survey of Literature – As mentioned, Estes interacts with many of recently published works in the area of online religion. However, he regularly refers to “my research on blogs and forums” without naming the blogs or their authors. This was probably to avoid controversy and divisiveness, but it means he rarely interacts directly with those who discount the online church model.

Areas Where More Development Is Needed

Second Life vs. Streaming churches – Much of the book seemed to be addressing virtual worlds like Second Life, which seems to me to be more of a mission field dealing with issues like misrepresentative avatars. But the newer trend seems to be the video streaming campus model that uses things like live video chat small groups. This seems to be closer to what many would call a normative church experience since it is so close to the video campus model.

Moving from Mission to Ecclesiology – Most readers will agree with Estes that the online world is a place in need of missionaries, but making the case for online church as normative is the tougher sell. Ecclesiology is a notoriously difficult subject for Protestants especially when confusing statements like “We need to stop doing church, and start being the church” are thrown about so often today. Estes’s main line of reasoning is that there is nothing in Scripture or church history that explicitly prohibits online church and that “church” is not defined by location, but as the gathering of those who worship in Spirit and Truth (appealing to passages like John 4:21-23 and Matt 18:20). It’s not a bad start, but 20 pages just didn’t have the depth needed to make the move from the universal spiritual church to a concept of “local/virtual” churches.

The Meaning of Online Presence – As one who spends a lot of time online, I looked forward to the discussion of how to understand what it means to be present online. However, this chapter didn’t quite make the connection for me.

Estes argues that we in the West have a misunderstanding of “presence” rooted in our non-Biblical Platonic and Cartesan dualism. He counters that the Bible contains several places in which someone is “present” without being physically present, such as God’s presences and Paul’s statements like, “Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit.” (1 Cor 5:3 cf. Col 2:5).

But at this point, I felt like there was a disconnect in explaining in how the Scriptural concept of spiritual presence relates to modern technological tele-presence. I buy the idea that there is a sense of “presence” distinct from physical presence in Scripture, but tele-presence is different than spiritual presence, right? I can see the analogy, but I didn’t quite understand how I should distinguish the two. Also, I was surprised that the Incarnation of Christ was not really addressed here when the chapter title was “The Incarnational Avatar.” If  the fullest revelation of God came in the flesh-and-blood physical incarnation of the Son of God in history, can we say that all non-physical presence is equally meaningful or desirable?

The Sacraments – Estes mentions that the first question people ask him about online church is, “How do you do communion?” He gives the issue a fair amount of treatment, but there were two areas where I felt the discussion was still lacking.

First, when discussing communion, he seems to only address the memorialist position. Although he does mention that some traditions feel it is important for church leaders to distribute the elements, he did not mention any sense of Christ’s real presence in the elements. Estes is very open about his Free Church leanings, but I was disappointed that he didn’t really interact with the sacramental views of the Reformers.

Second, I was surprised that he did not embrace what he called avatar-mediated virtual Communion (where a person’s virtual avatar consumes virtual bread). In the chapter on “presence” he argues that Hebrews 10:25 (“let us not give up meeting together”) does not require a physical meeting, but then in the communion discussion he argues that all references to communion do in fact require physical bread and drink. This leads him to embrace a view in which online participants consume elements they prepare themselves or receive from their church. I tend to agree that communion should involve physical elements, but this line of reasoning seemed inconsistent to me.

Evaluation

Again, I think Estes does a good job of surfacing many of the issues with online/virtual church and putting them all in one “place” (ha). He makes it clear that people online are seeking out ways to connect to and express faith and that orthodox Christians should be involved in reaching them. However, for those who are decidedly against online services altogether or those who believe that the online ministries should function like missionaries or parachurch organizations, funneling people toward physical churches, I’m not sure SimChurch will be enough to convince them that online churches should function as permanent church communities.

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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/.

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