Virtually Reformed And The Reality of Church

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As technology advances the Church continues to evolve with it. There is a small but growing contingency setting out to define the frontier for the Church in the virtual world. Church online has moved beyond live online interactive broadcast worship. It now includes full church communities within Second Life and other similar virtual world platforms. I was able to get Neal Locke a current scholar completing his graduate work at Princeton Theological Seminary to help weigh in on the legitimacy of virtual world churches with respect to those with claims to the Reformed tradition of the Church. His guest post below is just a tip of the iceberg, and hopefully will open some eyes and spark some new creative thoughts for church leaders of the future.

As the proliferation of online communities like Facebook and Twitter continues to attract widespread attention and commentary, a more subtle revolution is taking place that will have more far-reaching consequences for church and culture—the advent of virtual reality.

Projections by researchers in the technology industry indicate that 80% of active Internet users and Fortune 500 companies will be engaged in some sort of virtual reality platform within two years.[1] Analysis of current participation shows that well over 100 million people already are.[2]

As people continue to migrate into these virtual worlds, they bring their institutions with them—in the prominent virtual reality world of Second Life, for example, there are already presences maintained by major universities, corporations, government agencies—and churches.  The legitimacy of churches that function entirely in online virtual worlds has been the subject of much debate in the past year, and this will no doubt continue for some time. Reformed churches, however, are confessional, and thus guided by our our confessions. This seems an appropriate place to begin when exploring the issue of churches in virtual reality: How do the confessions define church? What do they have to say about presence and worship that transcends presence? How do they speak to the church in the midst of cultural, technological, and social upheaval? The reformers who wrote the confessions—even those in the last century—likely did not anticipate the particular reason for which these questions are now being raised, and yet their work displays a remarkable understanding of human nature, society, and theology. In this way they offer both guidance and example for those who seek to be the church in the virtual world.

virtual-world-church2

To begin to explore these questions, I believe we need to take a look at different ways in which the Confessions describe or speak about the church, especially those ways that highlight a dualistic tension between two seeming extremes. This will be helpful in raising a wide variety of ways in which the Reformed heritage intersects and intertwines with issues surrounding churches in virtual reality. In addition, the classic Reformed “Marks of the Church” can be used to see how online churches measure up.  As the church in a virtual reality is further defined , a look at other distinguishing “marks” of the church hinted at, but not prominent in the Confessions can be read with an eye toward those that seem to hold particular promise for fresh expression in online churches.

For churches in virtual worlds, there are still many challenges, both theological and practical.  But the weight and thrust of the Reformed Confessions does not seem to condemn participation in them, nor does it seem to deny their legitimacy. In fact, the bold spirit of innovation in which many of the Confessions were written seems an argument in favor of new and experimental types of churches.

And yet, the Confessions do caution and admonish, striking a careful balance between a Roman church that refuses to be reformed, and Anabaptist churches who have gone too far. Perhaps this is the via media that Reformed churches in virtual worlds ought to seek out—not hanging back, but neither striking out empty-handed. Let them take the cherished Confessions along, freshly elevating neglected sections from newly digitized pages, but still finding familiar ways to proclaim the Word, administer the sacraments, and exercise discipline.

They will be a pixelated people, dispersed yet gathered, and visibly set apart by the God whose grace fills and transcends all of creation (including technology) to reach the elect in every time and place.

[footnotes]
1 Gartner Research, “Gartner Says 80 Percent of Active Internet Users Will Have A “Second Life” in the Virtual World by the End of 2011”; available from http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=503861; Internet; accessed 20 January  2010.
2 Kzero Worldswide, “Looking across the metaverses. Total registered accounts.”; available from http://www.kzero.co.uk/blog/?p=1832; Internet; accessed 20 January 2010.
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