Today a new community of the people of God has begun. We won’t find it on the streets of our cities. Many of us won’t even recognize it as a church.
We all know churches—some are traditional, some are modern, some are mega, and some are emergent. For all of their apparent differences, each of these churches is basically the same—variations on the physical church in the modern era.
Partisans of one of the 32 flavors of modern churches may protest, but at the end of the day, they all belong to similar faith communities in the real world. Each one has a building with a front door that you open; each one has people who shake your hand; each one has pastors, ministers, elders or leaders who proclaim God’s Word to you; each one is real, tangible, physically present. There are differences, but there are more similarities.
A change is occurring in the Christian church the likes of which has not happened for centuries. A new gathering of believers is emerging, a church not in the real world of bricks and mortar but in the virtual world of IP addresses and shared experiences. This type of church is unlike any church the world has ever seen. It has the power to break down social barriers, unite believers from all over the world, and build the kingdom of God with a widow’s mite of financing.
The Internet exploded onto the scene in the last decade of the 20th century. Already it is a mighty force. In 2007, the number of Internet users passed 1 billion for the first time. While this is only a little more than 20 percent of the world’s population, at no other time in history since the time of Genesis has more than 20 percent of the world’s population been in direct communication with each other. This statistic alone is theologically sobering.
Many colleges and universities offer virtual classes, and many of these institutions offer virtual degrees. Similarly, the business world has begun to embrace video conferencing and training webinars. And this is only the beginning. The church is sure to follow.
The future of the Internet lies not in its being a tool for e-mailing others, but in its being an immersive world where many people will spend as much time as they do in the real world. In the next few decades, the virtual world will equal or surpass the real world in its reach into and positioning in many aspects of our lives. For many people, the virtual world will be the world where they carry on more interactions and conduct more transactions than in the real world. It will be the place where they find love, soothe their feelings, make deals and worship.
At this point, most churches have merely stuck their little toes into the waters of the virtual world; they have a website with limited interaction, little more than a rudimentary, first-wave billboard. Some have caught the second wave and are a bit more advanced, offering a degree of interaction or spiritual instruction through blogs, downloadable teaching points or sermon podcasts. And a number of churches have prepared for future waves by creating worship experiences in the virtual world.
One such church is LifeChurch.tv, based in Edmond, Oklahoma. During its best weekend in 2007, LifeChurch.tv’s Internet campus boasted an attendance of more 1,400 people. Their Internet campus launched its first real-world missions trip in 2007. People who had met only in the virtual world joined to build up the kingdom of God in the real world.
Skeptics may wonder why a person would choose to attend a virtual church, or even whether this issue matters. They may feel that virtual churches are the same as radio sermons and TV ministries—a part of the modern church but not really all that different. They would be wrong. In contrast to radio and TV ministries, virtual churches are products of two inexhaustible torrents redirecting 21st-century human development: the exponential rate of technological growth, and postmodernism. The confluence of these two great streams is creating a fertile floodplane for virtual churches to grow in. These churches will not be shadows of real-world churches, recorded and podcast, but something entirely new.
For a growing number of people, especially individuals in the Millennial generation and beyond, virtual-world interactions can be far more authentic and far less awkward than real-world relationships, and for many younger people, interacting in the virtual world is the preferred method for social networking. As the virtual world becomes more and more actualized in the coming decade, more and more people will turn to it for everyday interactions, including the fulfillment of their spiritual needs.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that in the near future, real-world churches will cease to exist and all things spiritual will come only from the virtual world. This will never happen. What will happen is that segments of society will be members not just of a real-world church but also of a virtual church. They will first seek out spiritual experiences and conversations in the virtual world. The real-world church will change too, as the virtual-world continues to affect it.
A final thought. The Christian church is engaging far less than 1 percent of the 70 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. We have great work to do.
Adapted from SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World by Douglas Estes. Copyright 2009. Published by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan.