There are certain theological problems associated with virtual gatherings for worship, fellowship, and service, namely those associated with anthropology (sacraments) and ecclesiology (what makes a church a church, as well as matters of polity). Mark Brown contemplates, ―Can we truly be an Anglican Church if we never offer the dominical sacraments?23 As the operation of baptism and Eucharist remain a mystery to some, the actualizing of these rites becomes problematic. For those churches who embrace believer baptism, there is no concern. Many of these same churches dismiss the necessity of Holy Communion, lifting the hearing of the Gospel above the communal meal, supplemented by fellowship in multiple forms. However, in light of their theology, the more traditional churches face a strategic problem about the dispensation of the sacraments. As Brown ponders, ―Do we re-write our theology and re-define our laws to accommodate the new reality?24
The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary states, "In the NT 'worship' still means primarily to 'bow down' but the word also translates Greek terms signifying service or piety…Indeed, the entire institution [after Christ's resurrection] of Temple, priesthood, sacrifice and cleansing ritual became obsolete. Rather, the church itself, that is, all the believers, was at once temple and priesthood, inhabited by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19; Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Pet. 2:9)."25 As a body of believers meet in virtual space, worshiping God with a unified voice, it can be assumed that they too are likely to be ―inhabited by the Holy Spirit. In Luke 10:27, Jesus calls us ―love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind…(NRSV). Worshipping in a metaverse church is the embodiment of the Great Commandment. It should come as no surprise that God would be among them as they gather in his name.
Sacramental rites, according to Estes, can be addressed virtually. He argues that people are drawn physically and emotionally to the Communion experience but that nowhere in the Bible is that theologically justified.
One thing that is indisputable is that the Bible never puts forward any rules governing the physical or spatial requirements for the Lord‘s Supper (except for the broken bread and imbibed wine, of course). More specifically, the Bible never puts forward any rules that determine what makes Communion "real." Its singular concern seems to be the spiritual condition of the partakers. This is true of the writings of the early church fathers as well. As a result, many groups in church history have tried to fill in and codify the missing "requirements" themselves, which is always a recipe for disaster. But it is this very thing, this lack of objective rules or limits (as Calvin suggested about the nature of the church), that makes the Lord's Supper the remembrance of and thanksgiving for a sacrificial savior sent from a living and active God, rather than a ritual for a mute idol. In light of this, it seems that there is nothing inherently unbiblical about observing Communion in a virtual church, though there will be a great deal of discussion over the actual practice of Communion in the virtual world.26
Estes is a brave person to so brashly attempt to debunk what he silently identifies as the folk practice of a ritual physical Communion, taking the theological approach of the spiritual rather than the physical necessities of transubstantiation. Additionally Este states, "the Bible never sets any rules outlining the physical or spatial requirements for baptism (not counting water), or any guidelines as to what makes baptism ―real" (save perhaps confession as a precondition, and the invocation of the Father, Son, and Spirit as the seal); the Bible is far more interested in highlighting the spiritual aspects of baptism and its significance for believers.27 Even more traditional theologies allow for believer baptism in light of Paul (of whom there is no recording of a baptism; Acts 22:6-21) and the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43). As such, Estes illustrates the means by which the metaverse church can, and by his assessment should, practice sacramental rites, "When a virtual church abstains from observing ordinances, it raises questions about its validity as a church."28 With this statement, he has perhaps identified the largest hurdle to the validity of the metaverse church.
Erickson's last function of the church is social concern. Like Jesus, we are called to care for those who cross our path, offering compassion to believers and non believers alike, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sorrowful, etc. Social concern includes also speaking out on matters that are unjust or unrighteous. In Erickson's words, "Social concern includes the condemning of unrighteousness as well. Amos and several other Old Testament prophets spoke out emphatically against the evil and corruption of their day. John the Baptist likewise condemned the sin of Herod, the ruler of his day, even though it cost him his liberty… and eventually his life."29
In a sense, the metaverse church is one result of social concerns called out in the spirit of Amos in the real world. In the metaverse, you represent yourself in whatever form you choose: male, female, mammal, reptile, amphibian, bird, insect, object… even as a blade of grass! Race, gender, class and other sociological groupings have no influence over the ministry to this special group of souls as Christians offer hospitality regardless of appearance.30 All are heard, felt, represented, acknowledged and engaged in the virtual world. Yet, the mission field remains in its infancy. As Ailsa Wright states, "With such a range of Christian people available in-world, it should be possible to bring some together … to begin to create resources which help Christians to understand more about how biblical truth applies to virtual life. There is an opportunity to begin to engage with the less pleasant side of SL and to seek to change it for the benefit of residents."31 Rev. Craig Groeschel of LifeChurch has taken some mission steps in Second Life by inviting pornography users into the conversation with a partnership with XXXChurch. Various other churches have raised real money for Haiti, Catholic Charities and other charitable agencies. The potential for organized mission is there, but remains largely untapped.
These four church functions, although simplistic, outline the basic charge of every Christian church, or rather, the believers who are the church. They also give us outline for church function that the metaverse church often meets, and has a responsibility to meet in the future.
Erickson's four functions can and do manifest in the metaverse. With new studies conducted daily, we are discovering people are connecting in unexpected meaningful but non-physical ways. The metaverse church may take any number of forms: mission, para-church, worship community, or church. This form seems to be determined by calling and purpose. As the lines between parachurch and church continue to blur (an example perhaps being campus ministries of Campus Crusade for Christ that hosts 100 or more students at any given worship service, dispatches students on mission, and prayerfully supports evangelism) the metaverse church may step into the world in a new form: the metachurch.
Erickson writes, "In biblical times the church gathered for worship and instruction. Then it went out to evangelize. In worship, the members of the church focus upon God; in instruction and fellowship, they focus upon themselves and fellow Christians; and in evangelism, they turn their attention to non-Christians. It is well for the church to keep some separation between these several activities. If this is not done, one or more may be crowded out. As a result, the church will suffer, since all of these activities, like the various elements of a well-balanced diet, are essential to the spiritual health and well-being of the body."32 Not all people called to ministry in the virtual world are gifted with organizational skills. Some simply know how to share the gospel. It is unfortunate that some lack the skills to make Erickson‘s vision of a healthy body come true. However, his vision is ideal for the health of the metachurch. Were those with a calling to serve in a virtual capacity supported by the wider church community, their callings and ministries would produce much fruit. The time is drawing near where the traditional church must decided to recognize the validity of calling of this form of ministry.
Next Wednesday: "Conclusion"
Previous Posts in the Series:
Part 1: "Second Life in the Metaverse Church"
Part 2: "Defining 'Church' and the Virtual World"
Part 3: "Church in the Metaverse-- Examples"
Part 4: "Theology in Virtual Practice-- The Anglican Cathedral-- Evangelism and Edification"
23 Brown, 7.
24 Brown, 7.
25 Stephen Benko. 1995, 1996. "Worship", In The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtemeier with Society of Biblical Literature (New York: HarperCollins, 1995, 1996), 1226.
26 Estes, 117.
27 Estes, 125.
28 Estes, 117.
29 Erickson, 350.
30 Mark Brown states in his article "Christian Mission to a Virtual World", page 4, "…Internet World Stats show that internet user growth over the past 7 years in Africa has been a staggering 880%, in Asia it has been 347% and the Middle East a massive 920%. This will no doubt continue to grow with such innovative products as the $100 laptop developed by MIT Media Laboratory and with the cost of technology continuing to fall."
31 Wright, 28-29.
32 Erickson, 349.
A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
Wherever Two or Three are Gathered in My Name, I Am Virtually There: Ekklesia in the Metaverse Church #5
by Lara Zinda