I have been participating in a group blog discussion around Shane Hipps book, “Flickering Pixels”. I had too much to talk about in the official blog post, so I split the ideas and made it into two posts. One idea, about the inadequacy of virtual communities among Christians is the official post for the Church Crunch blog. The second idea about reaching out to non-Christians through media, especially virtual communities is posted here. I would recommend going to go read the church crunch post first. Then read this one.
Throughout this book, I have had a criticism that Hipps is either idealizing the world of the past or rejecting the reality of current culture. I think that is again part of the problem with this chapter. I agree with many of his limitations of virtual community. But in the context of evangelism and interaction with a non-Christian world, rejection of virtual communities eliminates a major avenue of outreach.
There are many experiments with virtual church, from Lifechurch to Northpoint’s new project. These projects have been started, not with the assumption that they are going to deconstruct the church into a new disembodied reality, but that they are going to reach people that were not being reached with physical buildings. A recent study by Hartford Seminary about mega-churches said that approximately 25 percent of all mega-church attenders were people that had not recently attended church if they had ever attended church. An additional 40 percent of church attenders had started attending after a physical move that prevented them from attending their previous church. So the majority of people attending mega-churches are not being “stolen” from other churches but are actually people that might not have gone to another church. It is not clear that those numbers will also be true of virtual church communities, but it is too early to really tell what the long term impact will be. My guess is that for many people the virtual church will be a supliment to their current physical church, not a replacement.
Historically every major change of theology around ecclesiogly has had a strong reaction against it. But most of those changes, in hindsight had the hand of God on them. There was real reformation, revival, outreach, or renewal that came about as the change. I think we should pay attention to Hipps warnings, especially his warning that a small amount of virtual community may be just enough to prevent people from reaching out for a deeper and better biblical community. But if we trust that other Christians are working to strengthen the church and not destroy the church, if we pray for the efforts of people that are attempting to follow God, even if it is through methods that we are not sure we agree with, and we trust that Christ will protect and defend his church against any serious problems then why should we not experiment. After all, if God is not building the church then those that labor, labor in vain.