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 move-ment against which Estes writes. Rather than writing an introduction or an ode to virtual churches, his defense of the same comes off as, well, defen-sive. He rarely quotes specific arguments against the validity of virtual churches (pull-ing 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 implication that we (the apparently anti-virtual church crowd) are dropping the ball on the Great Commission is a little underhanded and ultimately specious. It would serve Estes' argument better to simply suggest that it's possible some people might be better reached in a virtual church than in a real-world church. He does make this argument later in the book, but he doesn't do himself any favors with what he must hope is his audience: real world Christians wondering about virtual world ministry.
One of the first protestations that critics of virtual churches are alleged to bring up is the necessary use of avatars. For the uninitiated (a group that has shrunk considerably in the wake of James Cameron's blockbuster film), an avatar is an online "you" that you control in the virtual world. Estes admits up front that most people create avatars that are little like themselves. The first-blush reaction to widespread avatar use is that it is too easy for congregants of a virtual church to hide their "real" selves behind their avatars. Indeed, how is a pastor to minister to a congregant who presents as half-man, half-bull? As Estes is quick (and correct) to point out, though, we all use avatars in our real lives’the "us" we create for the world to see. This practice could be said to be especially prevalent in churches. Virtual churches simply admit that a ubiquitous real-world practice occurs while real-world churches pretend it doesn't.
When Estes' discussion turns to the administration of the sacraments and church discipline, though, he paints himself into a bit of a corner. By making the administration of each a constitutive part of what makes a church legitimate, he forces himself to find ways in which virtual churches can administer the sacraments, for one, in a "real" way (mostly involving pilgrimages to real-world churches). It would seem to be a better route, however, to attempt to argue for a redefinition of church: that where the preaching of the gospel is, there the church is. By holding to a historical definition of "church" in a decidedly nonhistorical context, Estes makes the sacraments into a ponderous chore rather than the glorious grace they are meant to be. With regard to discipline, Estes finds himself in a similar place. My own tradition, Anglicanism, does not consider discipline a necessary mark of the church, but many other traditions do. Once again, by insisting on a measure of church discipline, Estes (whose church is loosely connected to the Baptist tradition) makes his argument harder to win.
Confronted with such issues, Estes seems to cheat. He offers alternatives of varying worth, but doesn't argue for one over another. He asks lots of rhetorical questions, often ending sections with several in a row, without ever answering any of them. Beyond being a tiresome technique, it's only a surface profundity without any substance underneath.
I never would have thought that virtual churches were "real" or "legitimate" churches, although any opportunity for people to hear the gospel is some small victory. The preaching of the gospel is rare enough in real-world churches that its presentation anywhere should be celebrated. By writing his book in defensive response to a perceived critique, Estes has weakened what could have been a powerful story of gospel witness in a new environment, and he could have interacted with old definitions of church for a new world, rather than allowing the virtual church to simply "be" church in a new way.