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Virtual Community as Real Community: A respone to Shane Hipps by Douglas Estes

Categories Theology Guest Posts

More about SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual WorldLast month on the Out of Ur blog, Shane Hipps shared in an impromptu interview at NPC what he believes to be severe problems with labeling online connections as “virtual community” (view post). Scot McKnight raised some questions (view comments); Anne Jackson mostly defended (view comments). Not to mention Shane’s clarifications. As much as I tremendously respect Shane, I feel I cannot let his fundamentally flawed assertions (and assumptions) about virtual community go unchallenged.

First, let me tell you what meaning virtual community has for me: on the one hand, I seldom participate in any type of virtual community. I’ve attended a number of virtual churches, but for the sake of my marriage I’ve stayed away from World of Warcraft, and I don’t blog, Twitter, or yet do much else online as far as community goes; on the other hand, I’ve spent the last year asking some hard questions about virtual community for my forthcoming book, SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World (Zondervan, 2009). Hard questions that started not by what I felt community to be, but hard questions that came out of my readings of the Fathers, church history, theology, and philosophy as they relate to community.

Let me start with a pointed critique of Shane’s criticisms of virtual community. He lists four necessary ingredients at the beginning of the interview, the first three of which he argues are lacking or absent in virtual community:

1) Shared History: The primary reason there is no obvious shared history in virtual community has nothing to do with the nature of virtual community; it has to do with the current infancy of the medium virtual community is presently tied to. Shane’s criticism is like saying the church was impoverished as a community in A.D. 38 since it had no clear shared history (not counting the history of God’s people up until the life of Christ). But my parenthetical aside makes my point: Christian virtual communities absolutely do have a shared history; they share the same history as any group of Christians under any label or name have shared for the last 2000 years (or far longer if we count the full history of God’s people). To deny virtual Christian communities this shared history would be the same as denying it to house churches, missionary organizations, or any other group working for the cause of Christ.

2) Permanence: Like the first one, the primary reason virtual community has no permanence has nothing to do with the nature of virtual community, but the infancy of the medium. In the next generation, virtual community will become as “permanent” as any type of physical community. Without playing languages games, it’s hard to find “permanent” community anyway. Nations aren’t permanent, and neither are churches. In fact, as a Protestant pastor I watch all the time as church planters plant churches or multisite campuses only to see some of them close up shop a year later because they didn’t have enough customers. How permanent is that? But we wouldn’t criticize the planting team’s efforts as being not real (problematic, yes). Even more so, I personally have a pretty big problem with this ingredient of community from a biblical standpoint.

3) Proximity: Some think this is the Achilles’ heel of virtual community, but not really. For example: It is incorrect to assume that virtual community is either/or. Virtual community is community that takes place primarily in the virtual world, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have physical aspects. To argue Shane’s point is akin to saying that physical community isn’t real community if parts of that community take place in the virtual world. Sorry, but just because I email (virtually communicate with) people in my physical church community doesn’t say anything about the validity or realness of the community I share with those people. For another: Critics suggest that dealing with people in the virtual world is more limited or more broken than dealing with people in the physical world—but I must assume said critics have never pastored a church or worked extensively with people. The fact that someone can experience incredible highs and lows of relationship in both physical and virtual environments strongly points to the legitimacy of both forms of community.

4) Shared Imagination of the Future: Since Shane admitted in the interview that virtual communities may have this, and in fact, this could be their strength, I’ll let his own words stand.

Given this is a blog, space prohibits my response to so many other problems that seem apparent to me in Shane’s arguments. Allow me, though, to hit on two more underlying flaws that Shane’s assumptions are rooted in.

One fundamental flaw I hinted at above is that I’m not convinced these four ingredients or many of the other statements are necessarily related directly to biblical community (whether ekklesia or koinonia). They seem to be more Shane’s assumptions of what he deems to be important aspects of healthy community.

There is a greater fundamental flaw: Shane seems unaware how steeped his view of community is in modernist philosophy. Few Westerners realize their view of community is shaped as much or more by thinkers like Rene Descartes than a “purely” biblical viewpoint. In fact, many people are unaware that in the 17th century, Descartes had already considered virtual existence (of a sort). His conclusions gave the Western world a strictly rationalistic viewpoint—one that in many cases strongly contrasts with a theistic or biblical worldview.

Shane’s metaphor of virtual community as a one-stringed guitar is misplaced. Physical community is a six string acoustic guitar, whereas virtual community is a six string electric guitar. Nothing sounds as sweet to most ears as the note from an acoustic instrument, but there are those people who like the distorted sounds of an electrified axe. There are some who will hate the one, and some who will prefer the other. Both have strengths and weaknesses. But both are in their nature and essence real community.

Still, just because Shane’s arguments appear on shaky ground doesn’t mean his concerns are. His concerns are critically important if we want virtual community to be as “real” as physical community. Proponents of virtual community need to take these kinds of observations to heart to create the most viable, meaningful, and yes, healthy, virtual communities possible.

Douglas Estes is Lead Pastor of Berryessa Valley Church, San Jose, California, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Western Seminary-San Jose. He received his PhD in Theology from the University of Nottingham, UK. He is the author of The Temporal Mechanics of the Fourth Gospel (Brill, 2008) and SimChurch (Zondervan, 2009).

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