Review of SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World, by Douglas Estes, Zondervan, 2009, 256 pages (paperback), $16.99
In his book SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World, Douglas Estes gets defensive about an accusation that no one seems to be leveling. I, for one, was only peripherally aware of the “virtual world” before picking up Estes’ book. As a member of the clergy, I didn’t really know that there were virtual churches in virtual worlds, much less was I aware of some movement to classify such churches as “not real,” the movement against which Estes writes.
Rather than writing an introduction or an ode to virtual churches, his defense of the same comes off as, well, defensive. He rarely quotes specific arguments against the validity of virtual churches (pulling most of the critique from only two sources outside of general anecdotal “evidence”) and puts his reader in mind of Queen Gertrude’s observation: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” SimChurch, though, provides an introduction to the virtual church despite itself.
The first point that Estes is at pains to make is an important one and well made: Virtual churches are not the same as church websites. My brick and mortar church has a website, on which we publish sermons, prayer lists, sign-up sheets, schedules, and so forth. This does not make us a virtual church. To borrow Estes’ vernacular, it simply makes us a real-world church with a website.
A virtual church proper is a church that exists in the virtual world. That is, a church that exists in a world that exists exclusively online, such as Second Life or even World of Warcraft. This distinction is important to Estes, as it should be. It is the first place virtual churches apparently come against resistance. Everyone knows real-world churches should have websites, and isn’t that enough of an Internet presence? Estes argues that it isn’t, and to illustrate he makes a comparison with which real-world evangelists are sure to take issue.
Estes likens the virtual world to a new landmass discovered off the coast of Africa. “Wouldn’t we plant churches there?” he asks. By ignoring (at best) or shunning (at worst) the virtual world, Estes claims we are making no attempt to reach this new continent full of souls in need of the good news of Jesus Christ. A large fallacy exists in this argument, of course: The citizens of this newly discovered land (the virtual world) are also citizens of a known territory (the real world).
The Rev. Nick Lannon is curate of Grace Church Van Vorst in Jersey City, New Jersey.