13 Mar SimChurch – Book Review
Being the Church in the Virtual World
Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2009
256 pages, $16.99, paper.
Reviewed by Mark R. Teasdale
E. Stanley Jones Assistant Professor of Evangelism,
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary,
In SimChurch Doug Estes takes as his basic assumption that the world has moved into the digital age, bound together by technology.
This technology, mostly visible in the internet, is transforming the next generation of inhabitants of planet Earth such that they can easily cross traditional boundaries of geography, language, and time through social networking and virtual reality. Indeed, Estes argues that technology has reached the point that we can speak of a “virtual world” that people can inhabit as fully as they can inhabit the “real world.” Given this state of affairs, which Estes insists is current rather than something to prepare for in the future, Estes calls the church to marshal its forces immediately so that it can provide a significant ministry presence in this virtual world. The reasons for this ministry are twofold. First, “the virtual world is by far the largest unreached people group on the planet,” thus beckoning the church to hear the Macedonian call coming from them to share the gospel (29). Second, if it does not embrace and engage in this world as fully as possible now, it will be left behind as the population of the world becomes ever-more oriented toward living substantial portions of their lives in virtual worlds. This would put the church at a huge disadvantage in being credible to people in the future.
Drawing from his own research and experience as a pastor, as well as the experiences of well-known virtual churches (e.g., Lifechurch.tv, Church of Fools, Flamingo Road Church, i-church, Anglican Cathedral, St. Pixels), Estes sets out to address the reasons why many Christians are hesitant to respond to this call for the church to enter the virtual world. He explains early on that he will seek to address these concerns three ways: theologically, missionally, and ethically. In the theological sphere he discusses “the nature, purpose, possibilities, and limitations of virtual churches” (29). Missionally, he focuses “on the role of avatars, on virtual spirituality and ministry, and on development of community in a virtual church” (29). Ethically he addresses “the question of virtual identity, personal holiness, and the dangers and limitations of niche ministries” (29). Throughout the book, in addition to addressing these issues, Estes helpfully includes several insert pages that explain the technological terminology, along with the basic ethical concerns surrounding the technology. These are useful for those unfamiliar with this technology and/or the lifestyles connected to the digital age.
The book is surprisingly rich, taking seriously questions of ecclesiology, sacramental theology, pastoral care, congregational leadership, and Christian witness. It also includes sections that survey, albeit too briefly, biblical and historical sources that the church might bring to bear in making sense of the possibility for ministry in virtual worlds.