Entering the Virtual Church: An Interview with Douglas Estes (Part 3 of 3)
If you could pinpoint (1) the best thing done by the emerging virtual church and (2) the biggest mistake made what would they be?
At this stage in the life of virtual churches/internet campuses, I think the best thing they have done is to try to push the boundaries of where the church should go and what the church should do responsibly. So many ‘movements’ in the modern church approach their movement as the answer to the problems plaguing the church; it seems as if proponents of these movements feel their type of church is superior to other forms of church (often for all people). In contrast to this, most virtual churches seem very respectful of the ecclesiastical shoulders on which they stand. To me, this is a very good indicator of the health and potential longevity for internet churches.
In thinking through the biggest mistake of internet churches, I’m going to answer this question in an unexpected way. I think the biggest mistake they have made is not a spiritual mistake but a PR mistake. Many movements and new forms of church that the world has seen have started due to conflict and/or buzz. Because virtual churches have tried to remain respectful (and I applaud them for that), they are losing the PR battle. While I do NOT think iPastors should wage a PR battle, I do think they can work harder to demonstrate the importance and necessity of their type of ministry.
You mention that the “next big things” may be “iPastors”. What kind of person do you imagine would become an iPastor? How will churches train these people to pastor in the virtual world or should it be something that comes more or less “naturally” where if a church has someone ready for such a role they plug him/her in?
My friend Brian Vasil at Flamingo Road Church I think has the best pulse on this. He has argued that being an iPastor is 90+% the same as being a regular pastor. The only thing that is changing is context. Is a rural senior pastor the same as a megachurch staff pastor? Both are shepherds, proclaimers, care-givers, disciplers, followers. The biggest and only real difference is context. An iPastor needs—maybe—a little more tech and cultural savvy than an average pastor, but after that, an iPastor just needs to proclaim the Gospel, disciple others, and shepherd folks into better relationship with God. I can’t emphasize enough that we cannot make the cool name or the newness of the idea change what it means to be a pastor, regardless of context.
Again, as far as training, the best thing is to train iPastors as any other pastor would be trained. Again, Brian Vasil has said very accurately that, in essence, you can readily teach a person with the heart of a pastor the technological information but it’s much harder to teach a person with tech skills to have the heart of a pastor. One is a learned skill set and the other is a calling. We cannot confuse the difference. So churches should find people called of God to be a pastor, and send them for a whatever-length crash course on emerging technology. That’s the best place to start.
And no, I do not recommend just plugging people in the church who are in the technology ministry into an iPastor role. Many of those people are chosen because of their excellence in technology, but an iPastor must first be excellent in pastoral ministry. The church can always recruit tech-savvy folks to assist the iPastor, but not vice-versa.
For many the idea of bringing the gospel into China, or Iraq, or Afghanistan seems overwhelming. Do you envision the virtual church as being able to spearhead global missions into these parts of the world in ways that “normal” missionary strategies cannot?
Yes, but it’s not a magical solution. First, people in these areas must have reliable high-speed access. Many places don’t seem to have that at this writing, although it is fast coming, especially in areas that will skip landlines in favor of wireless technology. There also are language and culture issues that greatly come into play.
One thing that is certain is online missions makes connecting much easier than before. It won’t necessarily make community, discipleship or evangelism easier, but it will make the connections to allow those types of things easier. If used properly, the internet will redefine missions and even church planting just as it has redefined business practices and even ‘where’ stores are.
As the church moves into the virtual world do you think that the seminary (1) should and (2) could follow? What would the benefit be of a seminary hosting classes in Second Life (if any)? If you envision something like this happening to you see it as current seminaries like Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, Dallas Theological, or Western or do you think that these will be virtual seminaries with no brick-and-mortar counterpart?
By all indications, the seminary already has followed. Many seminaries offer online classes. The move from ‘online’ to ‘virtual’ is merely incremental. In fact, the seminary has embraced a form of telepresent education for decades if not longer: education by extension. While I will not argue why they should follow, let me give you my opinion why they will follow: economics.
Every seminary that I know of struggles to pay the bills. And so, if a seminary can costs by having students meet online without a (significant) loss of quality in education, they will. And while virtual education will have both positives and negatives, overall, there will not be a significant loss in quality. Here’s why. Right now, seminaries as well as secular colleges and universities are moving more and more to the adjunct model to cut costs. Let’s say there is a famous professor of theology at South Park University named Sean McKing. Let’s also say there is a seminary in southern California named Faller Seminary. Faller, faced with cost increases but needing to add more classes (aka revenue) to remain competitive, can either do one of several things: a) Faller can go out and hire a full-time professor; b) Faller can hire a traditional adjunct professor (much cheaper); or c) Faller can hire Prof McKing to virtually teach a class at Faller (cheapest). When I say ‘virtual’, I’m not talking about chat rooms or email; I’m talking about full-size, fully-interactive Skype-type sessions where the class and the professor can both see, here, and communicate with each other as if they were all the same room (and technically, as I explain in SimChurch, they are). If Faller hires McKing, enrollment in the class will go up because people will have heard of McKing versus a new full-time professor or a no-name adjunct (I’m a no-name adjunct, so all the hard-working adjuncts out there, please don’t take that personal). For those who have been to a pastoral Simulcast a la Willow Creek, just realize this is quite doable as a two-way, not just as a broadcast. One of the negatives will not be so much student-professor interaction, it will be a consolidation in education, similar to what is going on right now in the media. Fewer professors will teach more people at a lower cost. I don’t see how that cannot be the future of the seminary given the West’s economic situation.
So this increasing virtualization of seminary education will be driven by business and secular universities, but it will trickle down rapidly into seminaries. As a result, virtual education will come from the major seminaries, not from internet startups. The reason is branding; these large seminaries have well-pruned brands that students will flock to. They will get the best virtual professors. The fact that students can stay at home or take the class in China will just accelerate this.
Finally, let me be clear for readers that I am not advocating that seminaries do this—there are trade-offs—I am just pointing out what seminaries will increasingly do over time. Anyone who doubts can look at the incredible societal shift that has occurred in the first 15-20 years of internet permeation into culture; the next 20 years will surely be equally transforming.
I know this is a bit of a broad question, but what do you see in the immediate future for the virtual church?
I think that we are in a ‘recession’ or ‘bear market’ for internet ministry right now. Most pastors I talk to are trying to figure out how to pay their church’s huge mortgage without laying off staff, not start new ministries that conventional-Christian-wisdom sees as … at best confusing. This is the nature of all new revolutions; there are leaps forward and then steps back. I think whenever the Western economies move towards growth again churches will begin to increasingly start new ministries such as internet campuses. I think you’ll slowly see more and more virtual churches launch, until the next big wave comes in the digital revolution. When this next wave comes (I would guess 5-10 years), you’ll see a very high percentage of churches feel the need to keep pace with the world around them who will already have embraced virtual workplaces. Yes, there are trade-offs, but I for one cannot wait to see some of the powerful ways the people of God will use technology to reach the world for Christ.