Will church go the way of the bookstore?

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…in the Meantime author, David Lose, asks if churches and bookstores are on the same path:

When I read an article by Seth Godin on the woes of book publishers recently, I couldn’t help but think about the similarities between the situation he describes and the challenges facing our congregations.

His summary statement of the problem is striking:

…the challenge the big book publishers are facing is that a perfect industry is being replaced by one filled with chaos and opportunity.

What does he mean by “perfect”? Simply that book publishers – and the stores that depended on them – enjoyed a monopoly on the means of producing and selling books. As he writes,

Limited shelf space plus limited competitors plus well-understood cost of creation and production meant that stability reigned. The industry was polished and understood.

For three hundred years or so, book publishing had nothing in common with technology businesses where the underlying economics of the business were questioned regularly.

Substitute “church” for “book publishers,” make just a few contextual adjustments, and you’re almost there. We, too, operated within a near “perfect” industry in that as long as a significant percentage of people went to church we enjoyed something of a monopoly. While we might have competed with ourselves (Methodist vs. Lutheran vs. Presbyterian, etc.), our culture placed a high value on church attendance – think of the “blue laws” that governed most states. This ensured that we had very little competition on Sunday mornings. For that reason, for about three hundred years or so (at least in this country), we in church leadership also had little reason to question our practices.

Read more here.

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Bill Dilworth
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Bill Dilworth

The problem with "virtual community" like Second Life, it seems to me, is that it deals only with the exchange of information, and filtered through artificial personas, at that. People are not just the information that can be communicated through the pretty clumsy avatars available on the web. We are not disembodied information, or intellect, or even spirit. Virtual reality seems as much of a community as the books in a library are, or the letters in the post office - potentially useful for evangelization or keeping in touch with someone, as you say, but equating it in any way with the Church is a stretch.

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Caoilin Galthie
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Caoilin Galthie

Good question Richard, and thank you for actually visiting our blog to see what we are up to rather than dismissing out of hand. The reason we state what you quoted on our blog is that there are those in Second Life who role play clergy, and if someone is taken in by that and believes the person really is a clergy person, then great harm can be done. Additionally, many people in Second Life form partnerships and some consider them to be marriages and like to have them in virtual church settings. The statement on the blog is simply to indicate what we are about and that we do not role play church or role play being clergy. It is also a response to another Anglican group that has presumed to represent in Second Life the real life Anglican Communion.

Having said that, I will agree with you that what we do in Second Life cannot be a replacement for church in "real life", but it can definitely be a supplement to or perhaps a door to the church. For some it is the only healthy way for them to engage with and connect with a Christian community.

Most of us are very involved in real life communities and what we do in Second Life is a part of our life as Christians. One member, who is very active in her real life congregation, is unable to leave the house during the week due to family obligations, and yet is able to engage in prayer and Bible study with fellow Christians using the technology.

Just as important, I have found in my 4 years of experience in Second Life, there are many people who use Second Life who find the idea of darkening the door of a brick and mortar church to be terrifying or downright difficult for a variety of reasons. Some deal with physical or emotional health issues (virtual worlds draw many people on the Autism spectrum) and find the accessibility of virtual worlds to be invaluable ways to connect to a larger world. There are huge LGB and Transgender communities in Second Life that are valuable for people who cannot be out in real life for a variety of reasons or who are testing the waters in a safe environment. One of the focuses of our St Matthew's group and several other Christian groups is to provide an avenue to connect to the church for people who have been alienated from the church or who see the church as hostile to them. This is very big in the transgender community. When we connect with people who don't have a real life church home, we do try to help them find one, using tools such as the Believe Out Loud website.

For those of us in the Anglican tradition, the inability to celebrate the sacraments is certainly a part of what it means to be church that is missing in the virtual world setting. Even if one of us were a priest, we still could not celebrate the sacraments. But that does not mean that we can or should give up on an emerging technology to form Christian community in the ways that we can, nor should we abandon a tool for evangelism and mission to the forces of consumerism and self-gratification that are so rampant in both real and virtual worlds.

Second Life will have it's day, but the door has been opened to forming and maintaining relationships through non-physical connections. Would any of us consider a friend who moves away but who we keep in touch with through phone calls, emails or online chats to be any less of a friend? And how would we respond if that friend asked us to pray with them while on the phone? How many of us consider those we only know through the blogosphere but with whom we have lively discussions in comments to be friends or fellow Christians who we care about?

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Richard E. Helmer
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Richard E. Helmer

But does it substitute for in-the-flesh human contact and community?

From the St. Matthew's website:

What We Are Not

We are very intentional in maintaining a presence in Second Life which is true to our individual calling to ministry in Real Life.  We do not “play church” or pretend to receive or administer sacraments.  The roles we undertake and the forms of prayer we use are those which are appropriate for laity who wish to pray together.  Since all of our worship leaders are lay people in Real Life, we do not assume clergy titles or vestments, nor participate in Second Life “weddings” or other forms of role play.

Our building is a “chapel” vs. a “church” for the same reason.  We do not presume to represent in an official way any Real Life religious denomination or province in Second Life other than as individual members of our respective faith traditions.

I would argue that brick and mortar may not be essential for church, but in-the-flesh human contact ultimately is. No matter how good the technology gets, virtual worlds are, by definition, just that.

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Caoilin Galthie
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Caoilin Galthie

New technologies are not limited to simply adding a few bells and whistles to the brick and mortar experience. Some of us are reaching into new frontiers and being church in virtual worlds, and leaving the brick and mortar behind all together.

http://stmatthewsbythesea.blogspot.com/

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Richard E. Helmer
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Richard E. Helmer

Not many brick-and-mortar bookstores anymore, but people still read.

Fewer brick-and-mortar churches, but people will still pray and gather in community.

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