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The High Calling

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The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2009 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at Thank you.

The Challenge of Virtual Church: Introduction

Part 1 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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A month ago I did a blog series on the topic: Is Online Church Really Church? Inspired by a conversation at the Christian Web Conference in Southern California, I wrestled with the notion of whether or not online church (livestreaming of worship services, chat room small groups, social networking, etc.) is church enough to be counted as real church. If you want my answer to that question, you’ll just have to visit the series. As is typical for me, my answers to most questions tend not to be in short, sound-bite form.

Shortly after I finished my series on online church, I became exposed to a book that appeared to be on the same topic. SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World by Douglas Estes examines the relationship between church and the Internet. But, as it turns out, Estes and I were not talking about the same phenomena. Rather, he was focusing on virtual churches, that is, on so-called churches that exist, not in physical space, but rather in the electronic realm of the Internet.

I read SimChurch with great interest. (You can check out my brief review of this book and a Q&A with Douglas Estes here.) I was especially impressed by several aspects of this book and its author:

1. Estes explains virtual worlds and virtual churches with exceptional clarity. This is very helpful for those who, like me, know little about this subject.

2. Estes is a careful theologian with a solid biblical foundation.

3. Estes is not an ultra-cool virtual church guru with vast funds to play around with virtual church, but rather an in-the-flesh pastor of an in-the-flesh church of modest size and means.

4. Estes uses the topic of his book not only to talk about virtual church and its advantanges/disadvantages, but also to think creatively and critically about what it means to be church in the world of today and the future. In other words, Estes uses the reality of virtual church (pardon the pun) to deal with the theology of church, what scholars call ecclesiology.

And Douglas Estes is no mean theologian, by the way. On page 36 of his book, for example, he offers a brief definition of the church from a biblical perspective. These two paragraphs offer a superb summary of biblical teaching, one of the best I've ever read. You’ll find this sort of theological insight throughout SimChurch.

This book demonstrates one of the most significant challenges and opportunities presented by virtual church. It’s not the chance to create or utilize virtual church. Rather, it’s the occasion to think afresh about the church and what it means to be the church in this time of history. Even if you reject completely the validity or reality of virtual church, SimChurch will help you to think clearly about what the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be. So I’m going to spend a few days reflecting on virtual church in light of Estes’s book.

I realize, however, that some of my readers will think I’ve lost my mind. You yourself might be wondering: “How, in heaven’s name, could virtual church be real church? Why waste your time – and ours – focusing on such a crazy idea?” I hope by the end of this series you’ll know the answer to these questions. But I’ll begin to address them in my next post, by looking at the question of how virtual church could, in any sense, be real.

Could Virtual Church Be Real Church?

Part 2 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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Yesterday I began a blog series focusing on the challenge and opportunity of virtual church. This series will be, in part, a conversation with the book SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World by Douglas Estes. Virtual church, as I mentioned yesterday, is not the same as what I’ve called online church: livestreaming worship services, chat room small groups, podcasting sermons, etc. Rather, virtual church purports to offer a full church experience that is not dependent on a physical church, but is meant to provide a stand-alone, genuine church experience in a virtual reality world of the Internet.

Now I’m sure some of my readers may be thinking that this is some sort of bad joke. “Who in their right mind,” you might ask, “would argue that virtual church could ever be real? Why even bother with such silliness?” I’ll admit that, at first glance, the notion of virtual church being real seems outlandish. We’re talking, after all, about something that exists only in bits and bytes, only in programs and pixels. In virtual church, there is no in-the-flesh preacher, choir, band, or congregation. No sanctuary or worship center or house church with a physical world address. No actual hand-shaking or holy-kissing or laying-on-of-hands in prayer. No real water used in baptism or real bread in communion. Why, therefore, would anyone entertain the thought that virtual church could be real?

This post could quickly get lost in a hopelessly complicated conversation about the nature of reality. I don’t want to do this. I’ll leave ontology for another time. But I do want to make a couple of related observations.

First, if you define reality in terms of physical presence in space, then, of course, virtual church isn’t real. But this definition of reality seems too narrow. Do my thoughts and feelings exist in space? No, but they are real. Does love exist in space? No, at least not the feelings of love. It’s difficult to say that thoughts and feelings exist in space unless you’re a die hard materialist, seeing everything in terms of configurations of brain molecules. Moreover, if you’re a Christian, then you surely acknowledge the reality of the Holy Spirit, a non-physical person of the Trinity. For a Christian, reality is clearly more than physical. We acknowledge and, indeed, celebrate the genuineness of non-physical, spiritual reality.

Second, it seems to me that talk of whether something is real or not is really too simple. In fact, there are different kinds and qualities of reality. There is physical reality and there is spiritual reality (which, by the way, I expect are not nearly as distinct as we might assume). There is fictional reality, such as Narnia, which can produce emotionally real feelings and intellectually real thoughts in readers and moviegoers who experience it. And then there's the physical reality of New Zealand, parts of which look a whole lot like Narnai (and Middleearth, too). When somebody enters a virtual world online, it is real in a sense. In the flesh people watch real images on their computer screens. They feel real feelings. They think real thoughts. They make relationships that are variously real or fictional, depending on a wide variety of factors.

If you’ve read philosophical or psychological discussions of reality, you know that what I’m saying here is very simplistic (if not confused). But my point, simply, is that there are degrees and qualities of reality. Virtual church will never be real in the same way that St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, Texas (my home church) is real. But virtual church may be real in significant ways.

Thus, to deny the reality of virtual church is too simplistic. And to argue for the reality only of in-the-flesh church is also too simplistic. Part of what makes church real is the non-physical presence of the Holy Spirit. So I’m disinclined to get caught up in the argument about whether virtual church is real or not, as if there’s a singular nature of reality. Rather, I think we’d be well served to consider ways in which virtual church is real and ways in which it is not.

If what I’m saying here doesn’t make sense, I’ll provide several illustrations in my next post in this series.

Could Virtual Church Be Real Church? Section 2

Part 3 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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In my last post I began to respond to those who might think that this whole conversation about the reality of virtual church is just plain ridiculous. “After all,” one might object, “how can ‘church’ that exists only in the electronic world of the Internet ever be real?” I began to answer this question by pointing to the fact that we Christians do believe in non-physical reality. Moreover, it seems to me that the question about whether virtual church is real or not is too simplistic. It could be real in some ways, but not in others.

This might sound odd, so let me provide a several thought experiments to illustrate my point. Let’s say that on a given Sunday I go to an in-the-flesh worship service at St. Mark Presbyterian in Boerne, Texas (my home church, in photo to right) in the morning, and then log in to a virtual church in the afternoon. Is there any way in which my afternoon experience could be at least as real, if not more real, than my morning experience? Perhaps.

Case #1

Suppose, for example, that we have a visiting preacher at St. Mark. This preacher turns out to be theologically bizarre and says things that simply aren’t true, such as: “Jesus didn’t rise from the dead.” (I have heard preachers say things like this, but not in my own church, thanks be to God.)

Then, in the afternoon, a virtual church preacher (representing some in-the-flesh human being who is providing the words via the Internet) offers a theologically solid sermon, proclaiming, among other things: “Jesus is risen!”

Question: Which sermon was more real, the in-the-flesh but theologically false sermon, or the virtual but theologically solid one? Perhaps it would be better to say that both were real in a way. One was real in a physical way, while the other portrayed spiritual reality more genuinely. Which sermon would you rather hear?

Case #2

Suppose I attend St. Mark Presbyterian on a Sunday morning. On my way into the sanctuary, I shake hands with an usher and receive a bulletin. In the passing of the peace segment I say “May the peace of Christ be with you” to a few folks. When the service is over, I avoid the fellowship hall with its tempting snacks and friendly conversation, instead making a beeline for my car. What I experienced was very much like what millions upon millions of Christian experience every week in their physical church. Surely this counts as real, yes? More real than virtual church? Maybe. Maybe not.

Suppose further that, in the evening, I attend a virtual church that includes a live discussion group (a chat room). In this group, which is not itself physical, real people communicate about real needs in their life. Though they are not together in the flesh, their sharing is heartfelt and genuine. The safety of physical distance actually allows some folks to be more honest than they might be in “real life.” In the end, we have a time of prayer together.

Was this real? Was it more or less real than my relatively shallow experience in the morning? Which experience of church was closer to the biblical ideal?

Case #3

Suppose when I attend St. Mark Presbyterian Church on a Sunday morning that several friends give me hugs. (I can always count on my Down Syndrome friend Adam to give me a big hug at church.) Then, in the afternoon, I visit a virtual church where characters on the screen hug my character.

Which hugs were more real? Which hugs would you prefer?


These three examples indicate, I think, that there are different kinds of reality operating when we talk about church. They also suggest that we should not too quickly dismiss the potential for virtual church to be real in certain ways, even in certain crucial ways, even if it will never be real physically. I would, for example, prefer the reality of a truthful virtual sermon over an in-the-flesh but false sermon. But I would not prefer the reality of a virtual hug over one that I can actually feel with my body and return with my own arms.

I’m reminded of an example I have used in my discussion of online church. When I was pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I liked to meet personally with members of the congregation for conversation and prayer. Many people would come to my office and share their joys and struggles. But some folks, especially men, were reticent to come in for a personal visit. They preferred to email me. In many cases our email exchanges would involve quite deep and vulnerable sharing. Sometimes I would end one of my emails with a prayer. Sometimes, after engaging in tender sharing through email with some man, I would run into him on Sunday after church. There might be a moment of awkwardness, followed by a handshake and “Have a good week!”

So, what was more real? What was a more authentic experience of church? I would never say that our face-to-face interaction on Sunday wasn’t real, even though it was superficial. But I would say that, in many ways, our email conversation was more real and closer to what we’re supposed to experience in church.

Now I’ll lay some of my cards on the table right now and say that I would prefer face-to-face conversation that is also open and honest. Speaking for myself, I’m much more drawn to physical church than virtual church. But I’m also compelled to admit that sometimes relationships mediated through the Internet are deeper and truer than face-to-face relationships. And, given the fact that I believe the Holy Spirit can be present in a real though non-physical way, I’m open to the possibility of virtual church being real in ways that count, even though it can never be real in some ways that also count.

A Case for Virtual Church

Part 4 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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In my last two posts I explained that virtual church, in my opinion, is “real” in many ways that count. Therefore it’s not crazy to consider the possibility that virtual church is something worth doing, at least by some folks who might be called to it. In this post I want to begin to make a case for virtual church.

This case rests on recognition of the extraordinary power of the Internet, both now and especially in the future. I expect that most of my blog readers would grant this premise, given the fact that you are reading these words because of the Internet. But, frankly, I think it’s easy for us to underestimate how the Internet is changing and will change our world, especially if you’re not heavily involved in social networking or virtual reality gaming.

Let me cite some of the claims made by Douglas Estes in SimChurch. These seem right to me, and I am inclined, at any rate, to trust Estes’ scholarship:

In 2007, the number of internet users passed one 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. (p. 18)

E-commerce has also kept up with the internet population boom; more than two trillion dollars changed hands over the internet in 2007. (p. 18)

To grasp the magnitude of what is happening, it is vital that we see the internet not as a technological tool but as a paradigm shift in the way the world interacts on a fundamental level. (p. 19)

[T]he internet is causing a paradigm shift a hundred times greater than that of the mobile phone. (p. 19). [MDR note: Mobile phones connected to the Internet are now stretching its reach and, for many, becoming the principal way they connect online. Photo: a cell phone from the 1980s. Times have changed.]

The future of the internet lies not in its being a tool for emailing 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. (p. 20)

Of the one billion people online, an estimated seventy million are already regular participants in virtual worlds, and that number continues to grow dramatically. . . . And the sobering statistic: while no one knows exactly how much time residents spend in virtual worlds, a large percentage spend twenty or more hours per week, and many spend much, much more. (p. 20) [MDR note: At the moment, I don’t want to get bogged down in whether this is good or bad. I want simply to acknowledge that it is.]

For a growing number of people, especially individuals in the Millennial generation and beyond [born 1980 and after], virtual-world interactions can be far more authentic and less awkward than real-world relationships, and for many younger people, interacting in the virtual world is the preferred method for social networking. (p. 27)

The Christian church is engaging far less than 1 percent of the seventy 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. (p. 29). [MDR note: This assumes that the church is not reaching these seventy million offline, an assumption that is surely not quite true.]

I’m not an expert in the sociology of technology, so I can’t demonstrate that what Estes has written is true. But from what I have read and from what I have observed, I think he basically correct. And this presents the church with a major challenge and opportunity: How are we going to reach the seventy million virtual earth-dwellers with the Gospel? How are we going to reach the multiple millions who will join the virtual world in the future?

Perhaps the most obvious answer to these questions is that the church, broadly defined, needs to be present in the virtual worlds. We Christians need to be with the people who spend so much of their lives there.

Now, I suppose one could object that virtual reality itself is so full of sin that no Christian should rightly go there. This would be like an argument against going to strip clubs to reach people who frequent them. Surely we need to reach the folks who spend a chunk of their lives in strip clubs, but, for the most part, we should do this in other venues. I would be surprised if many Christians would make the argument that we should have strip club churches to reach strip club patrons. But I would also be surprised if many Christians would make the argument that online virtual worlds are so much like strip clubs that Christians should simply avoid them.

From my perspective, by far the most powerful case for virtual church points to its evangelistic potential. Though Jesus probably didn’t imagine that the “all nations” of which Christians are to make disciples would someday include online virtual worlds, the inner logic of the Great Commission compels us to seriously consider how to reach potential disciples who “live” substantially in these worlds.

Is Virtual Church Enough? An Existential Response, Section 1

Part 5 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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In my last post in this series I made what I consider to be the strongest case for virtual church. It is based on the fact that millions of people spend a substantial chunk of their lives in Internet-based virtual worlds. If Christians want to reach these people with the love and truth of Christ, then we need to be substantially present in these worlds. We need, in a nutshell, virtual church.

Yet is virtual church enough? Can it satisfy the biblical and theological requirements for what a church ought to be? Would we ever be able to say to somebody, “As long as you’re involved in a virtual church, that’s all that’s necessary. You don’t need to feel obligated to be connected to some sort of physical church as well.”?

I can imagine situations in which I might say something like this. It would be to people who, for various reasons, are precluded from participating in physical church. They might be in a place where they are physically removed from other Christians, for example. Or they might have some sort of physical condition that requires they stay away from other people (a Bubble-Boy experience). But these people are clearly exceptions to the rule, representing far less than 1% of all possible churchgoers. Thus, I cannot imagine saying to someone who is fully able to participate in physical church, “Don’t worry about it. Your virtual church experience is enough.”

As you know if you been following this series, I have not denied the reality of virtual church. It is real in many ways that matter. But, by definition, it always lacks one crucial dimension of reality, namely, physicality. In virtual church, people don’t gather in the same physical space. They don’t sing songs together in the same room. They don’t see each other with their eyes, or hear each other with their ears, expect, perhaps through digital media. People in virtual church never shake the hand of their pastor. They never hug their friends. They never actually receive the elements of the Lord’s Supper from another human being, and have that person say to them directly, “This is body of Christ, broken for you. This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Yes, I’m aware that some of these experiences can be approximated online. And I acknowledge that certain aspects of Christian fellowship may even be stronger online than in the flesh, because some folks feel more freedom to share openly when they are not physically present with people. But I believe that what happens when Christians come together in physical space is essential to the full experience of church.

Let me put it this way. I believe that a person can experience much of what church is supposed to be in a virtual church. And I believe that a person can experience much of what church is supposed to be in a physical church. But I do not believe that a person can experience everything church is supposed to be without being physically present with other Christians. Thus the potential for church to be fully real is there for physical church, but not for virtual church. No matter how wonderful and authentic a virtual church experience might be, it is never able completely to be church.

Is Virtual Church Enough? An Existential Response, Section 2

Part 6 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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In my last post, I suggested that, though virtual church has many benefits, a personal cannot experience everything church is supposed to be without being physically present with other Christians. Thus the potential for church to be fully real is there for physical church, but not for virtual church. No matter how wonderful and authentic a virtual church experience might be, it is never able completely to be church.

I’m not quite sure if Douglas Estes, who makes a strong, persuasive case for virtual church in SimCity, agrees or disagrees with me here. I think he disagrees, but I’m not positive. Nevertheless, his fine book shows, even in its effort to defend virtual church, some of the inherent inadequacies of virtual church. This is evident, for example, in Estes’ chapter on “WikiWorship” (pp. 103-134). There, he devotes considerable space to explaining how people might participate in the sacraments of communion and baptism in a virtual church. In several of Estes’ own scenarios, some sort of physical relationship with other people is required. Thus these are not fully virtual experiences. The options Estes presents for fully online communion and/or baptism are laden with difficulties, as Estes’ own critique shows. To be sure, some of what the sacraments signify can be experienced through the Internet alone, but something will always be missing: physicality, materiality, full human contact.

Estes makes strong arguments in support of the notion that water is not really necessary for baptism, or real bread and liquid for communion. I know this might sound crazy, but if you read Estes’ book, as I have suggested, you’ll be impressed with his points.

Yet I think he underestimates the extent to which the power of the sacraments lies, in part, in their materiality. Communion, for example, isn’t just a chance to signify and remember Jesus. It is an opportunity to experience and solidify that memory through consuming actual bread and drinking actual juice or wine. Baptism, when experienced by one who is old enough to understand what’s happening, involves physical sensations that amplify the spiritual meaning. When one goes down under the water and then comes up, there is an experience of something like dying and rising, and this experience simply cannot be duplicated emotionally through something one watches online.

And if one baptizes oneself in real water which participating in some virtual ceremony, though the water is real, that person will never know what it’s like to receive baptism. Rather, his or her experience will be that of doing it to him or herself. And this, I suggest, is theologically suspect and subjectively inadequate.

As soon as one solves the sacrament problem for virtual church by coming up with some physical church experience, then that makes the case: virtual church is not enough.

To this point, I have been making an existential argument for the inadequacy of virtual church, based on the experience of the sacraments. I recognize, as Estes rightly points out in his book, that Christians believe many different things about the sacraments and experience them in widely different ways. Yet one thing all Christians have had in common, at least until very recently, is the conviction that the sacraments necessarily include material elements and happen (almost always) in the context of physical Christian community.

If you take away materiality and physical community from the sacraments, you may have something that approximates them. You can still remember the death of Christ. You can still celebrate that fact that a believer dies to sin and is raised to Christ. But something profound is missing, something which, I believe, is not just optional, but essential to a full experience of church.

In my next post I’ll suggest a theological reason why I think virtual church can’t ever quite be fully church.

Is Virtual Church Enough? A Theological Response

Part 7 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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In my last post in this series I offered an existential response to the question: Is virtual church enough? I suggested that when you take away the physical aspect of church, something essential is missing. I supported this contention more intuitively and emotionally than theologically. Now I’d like to muster some theological support.

I would begin by pointing to some of the most formative truths of the Christian faith. God created the physical world and called it good. Physicality is not an inessential vehicle for spirituality, but is part and parcel of what matters to God and to us. This is why, in the end, God doesn’t incinerate the universe and take believing souls to heaven with him. Rather, God renews and restores his creation. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. The basic facts of creation and new creation suggest that physical life is extraordinarily important.

But the clincher, it seems to me, is the Incarnation. Christians believe that in order to save people and renew the cosmos, the very Word of God became human. And not just apparently human, as the Gnostics believed, but really and fully human. The Incarnation underscores the fundamental value of the material world and physical human existence. It was not enough for God simply to shout from Heaven: “I love you. I forgive you.” Rather, God chose to be born in a human baby, live a human life, and die a truly and horribly physical death on the cross.

Those who advocate the adequacy of virtual church wouldn’t disagree with anything I’ve said here, at least they wouldn’t if they’re orthodox Christians. But they don’t seem to see how the value of the material universe, combined with the fact of the Incarnation, suggest that non-physical, non-incarnational church could never be quite enough.

Here’s where my theological and existential arguments against the adequacy of virtual church converge. Christian theology says stuff matters; Christian experience says stuff matters. Sure, you can have lots of authentic experiences of church in virtual worlds. I fully expect that, in time, thousands of people will become genuine Christians through virtual church experiences, thanks be to God! But for these folk to fully experience what church is meant to be, at some point they’ll need to gather with other believers.

If they don’t, they will miss things about church that require physical presence. In my series dealing with online church (Internet-based experiences of physical church, such as streaming of worship services), I asked a number of questions I’d like to ask again:

• You could virtually observe a mission trip without being part of it, even supporting it financially. But how could you embrace orphans or build homes for the homeless if you’re not physically present?
• How can you lay hands on the sick and pray for them virtually?
• How can you actually embrace those who are weeping?
• How can you bring a meal to a person who is house-bound? (It wouldn’t be quite the same to order take-out and have it delivered to their home, would it?)
• How can you visit those who are in prison?
• How can you offer food to the hungry?

By pointing to the necessary inadequacy of virtual church, I’m not thereby saying Christians shouldn’t mess with it. Quite to the contrary! Here’s where I agree most strongly with some of the conclusions of Douglas Estes in SimCity:

It seems to me that real-world churches will accomplish ministry objectives that virtual-world churches and internet campuses will struggle to accomplish, just as virtual-world churches and internet campuses will accomplish ministry objectives that real-world churches will struggle to accomplish. . . . I also believe that the more each type of church steps into the other type’s world, the more unity and cooperation there will be. (p. 224)

Some physical churches do have a substantial online or virtual presence. And some virtual churches also have some kind of physical community. I wonder if, in the future, the Church of Jesus Christ wouldn’t be best-served by intentional partnerships between virtual and physical churches. Virtual churches could do what physical churches struggle to do, such as reaching people who spend much of their time in virtual worlds. Physical churches could do for virtual churches that they could never do themselves without having a physical aspect: provide contexts for real people to gather in real space for flesh-and-blood community and full-orbed sacramental worship.

Could Virtual Church Enhance Physical Church? Surprising Confirmation from the Pew Research Center

Part 8 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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The Pew Internet and American Life Project, a project of the Pew Research Center, has just released the results of a fascinating and timely study on the Internet and its effects on American social life. This study, called "Social Isolation and New Technology," suggests that fears of the Internet taking away from face-to-face socializing are unfounded. In fact, according to the Pew press release: "People who use modern information and communication technologies have larger and more diverse social networks." Thus, the findings of the Pew study "These new finding challenge fears that use of new technologies has contributed to a long-term increase in social isolation in the United States."

The lead author of the study, Prof. Keith Hampton, observed: “This is the first research that actually explores the connection between technology use and social isolation and we find the opposite. It turns out that those who use the internet and mobile phones have notable social advantages. People use the technology to stay in touch and share information in ways that keep them socially active and connected to their communities.”

There is much in this study that is fascinating and relevant to my recent consideration of virtual church. For example:

Some have worried that internet use limits people’s participation in their local communities, but the Pew Internet report finds that most internet activities have little or a positive relationship to local activity. For instance, internet users are as likely as anyone else to visit with their neighbors in person. Cell phone users, those who use the internet frequently at work, and bloggers are more likely to belong to a local voluntary association, such as a youth group or a charitable organization. However, we find some evidence that use of social networking services (e.g., Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn) substitutes for some neighborhood involvement.

There is much more here to ponder. You can read or download the entire study from this webpage.

If the Pew report is anywhere near to true, then this should allay fears, including my own, about the potential negative impact of virtual church. It seems quite possible that a person's participation in virtual church not only wouldn't detract from his or her involvement in physical church, but that it might actually enhance or promote it. Of course the Pew study is just one research project. Many more will follow, I expect. But these results are encouraging.

And, in fact, consistent with some of my own observations. I have noticed, for example, how teenagers who in a former day would have relatively few relationships because they are shy now have an opportunity to make friends and stay connected with these friends through social media. I have also seen how these teenagers can use their online relationships as a base for in-the-flesh relationships. A shy person can build friendships through Internet social media, and then gain the confidence to be with these friends in person.

The fact that people want and need to be with people in the flesh is, I think, a fact of basic human nature. Internet relationships, no matter how real and genuine, will never fully satisfy the human need for relationship. Thus the Pew findings are not altogether surprising to me, though they contradict much of the popular wisdom from the anti-Internet folk.