First Steps Towards Virtual Incarnation
(Grove Pastoral Series, P112)
What is it that constitutes 'church'? Is it simply any gathering of believers — in which case, is a Christian youth group playing football in the park 'church'? Or does church necessarily include some form of corporate worship?
These are just a few of the questions that arise in my mind when considering the concept of online church, and similar questions are raised by Mark Howe as he explores the concept in this booklet. Thousands of churches have websites, of course, but for most these are purely informational: an online version of the parish magazine, a virtual doorway to the offline church, or a tool for evangelism and mission. Some are interactive, with forums and chat rooms; but few would consider their websites to be a substitute for 'the real thing', let alone the real thing itself.
Enter St Pixels, www.stpixels.com. Mark Howe is one of the site's programmers and a member of its management team. For Mark and many others at St Pixels, this is no church substitute: this is church. It has as varied and disparate a congregation as any other but has no physical location other than that of the servers that host the site. This means that St Pixels not only faces a new set of problems in terms of pastoral care and relationships but also offers powerful and dynamic new advantages: suddenly people can 'go' to church without leaving home, and people thousands of miles apart physically can be active members of the same congregation, participating in virtual services and online study or discussion groups.
As I write this review it's a year since my wife, Sue, and I left St Matthew's, Yiewsley, the church where she had been Priest-in-Charge then Vicar for a total of five years. Her new role takes her to a different church most weeks and, for me, attending church together is more important than attending the same church every week. Yet this leaves an immense gap, with no local church community that we can say we belong to. For me, that gap has been largely filled by another online community, a community that I and several other members who — for a variety of reasons — don't attend physical church, have now come to regard as our church: we reflect upon our faith journeys, share problems and jokes, seek mutual understanding, discuss all sorts of things and hold one another in our thoughts and prayers. For us, as for St Pixels, online church is no theory: it is reality.
A two-page introduction describes St Pixels' emergence from Church of Fools (an online church experiment run by the Ship of Fools in 2004), offers a brief overview of Christian discussions around the subject to date, then picks up "Robert Warren's functional definition—where church is the intersection of community, worship and mission" (p. 4) to provide a framework for the rest of the book, using the chapter headings 'Online Community', 'Online Worship', and 'Online Mission' followed by a final chapter asking, 'But is it Church?'
Each chapter takes specific examples from the community's actual experience to place St Pixels under the spotlight, highlighting and probing such issues as identity, trust, power and leadership as well as the community's ability to welcome newcomers and respond to leavers.
Unsurprisingly, this is a case study that raises more questions than it answers. It fits the Grove Books self-effacing catchphrase — "Not the last word... but often the first" — perfectly, effectively paving the way for more in-depth discussions: important and worthwhile reading for anyone wishing to explore the concept of church in our increasingly online-oriented society.
Phil Groom, February 2008
Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.Grove Books