What is “Real” Church?

I’ve heard the critique dozens of times in some form or another. They all boil down to just about the same statement, “Your little group in Second Life is not real church.” Really? Reeeeaaally?

Let me contextualize my current musing. I recently saw a friend’s status on FB lifting up a concern about how institutional church folk often label Emergent church as “not real church”. Now, I am a fan of Emergent church, maybe more than a fan, I guess I could be called emergent if I were into labels. I was surprised by the irony of some folks within the Emergent church movement claiming, quite self assuredly, that our church is not real church. This conversation happened back in October 2009 as a result of a podcast over a Nick & Josh.

What I find ironic is how often I hear the same said about Emergent church by those safely ensconced in the conventional church paradigm. I find it more than a little puzzling that the very folks who are called “unreal” by the institutional church and her guardians are so comfortable defining their way as real and others as not.

So what is “real” church?

Part of answering this question for me always begins by looking at what church was in the first century.

Whattaya think?



  1. spiritstirrer

    “Real” church is a community of the baptized who gather consistently to worship God and be empowered by sacrament to be about God’s kingdom in the world. It is an institution (Christ himself called it forth) and also a movement (Christ himself sent it out into the world). This community is always becoming Christ’s incarnation in the world.

    Is a church in SL, real church? It could be . . .

  2. Kimberly Knight

    That is a great summary – and leaves open many manifestations of the gathered body. I wonder – is it church if the gathered are a mix of baptized and considering baptism?

    We are definitely gathering consistently, for worship, fellowship and support in times of crisis. Being separated by great geographical distance we lack the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism and we are still struggling to discern what we believe about sacraments in a virtual space. Gratefully, that opens up a whole theological can of worms about what we believe the Eucharist is (what ARE the elements?) and in what proximity do we need to be to one another or the elements for it to be “real”. Baptism is not something we play act either – but the sacrament of community and the word are definitely present.

    Leonardo Boff keeps my heart and mind company when I wrestle with this, which I do on a regular basis. I am blessed to have to check my theology with some frequency. Thank goodness I am comfortable living with and in the questions.

    Thanks for stopping by and joining the conversation!!

  3. spiritstirrer

    I think it is still church, as long as those who call the gathering are the community of the baptized for the purposes spoken about previously.

    The issue of sacraments is an important one because at their core is the incarnation of grace. So they need to be “sensed” and the community needs to be bodily gathered around them . . .

    What if the Christian community on SL does not reflect the fullness of the church but instead is an expression, an extension of the gathered community elsewhere?

    This extension primarily exists for the purposes of discipleship, accountability and pastoral care. So it is an extension of church but is not Church?

    Another way of looking at it is that the community that gathers on SL is an avatar (a representation) of the incarnate meeting that is called the church. This does not make it “unreal” just not bodily and as long as the message proclaimed is the “good news” then it is an extension of the body called the church.

    Still thinking . . .

  4. Kimberly Knight

    I think these are the most helpful, faithful and intelligent arguments for “not church” that I’ve heard.

    I particularly like the SL community as an avatar. That makes me return to a comment by Phyllis Tickle at Emergence Now – she was talking about avatars and in the end she lifted up the question “which is real?” This is a complex question of soul vs. embodiment that I raise in my next post in fact 🙂

    So glad to be in thoughtful conversation with you.

  5. Dan Ross

    The word “church” in koine Greek means group or crowd. The same word we translate as “church” in the Bible is used to describe the mob in Ephesus that is angry at Paul in Acts 19.

    In today’s world “church” can mean a gathering of people, worship, a building, an organization, etc.

    I think the best definition of “church” and is consistent with the early church is a group of believers that gather and where the Word and Sacraments are rightly proclaimed.

    While I have no doubt that the Word can be rightly proclaimed in an online community, I don’t think that one of the main parts of the Sacraments can be.

    Baptism (whatever theological/denominational background) is usually seen as an act that offically welcomes somebody into the visible Church. And should be done in a corporate community.

    Communion is a major issue. Communion is about togetherness – not just with God but with each other. An online “community” is a community based in isolation. Everybody is alone at their own computers or other devices and are only connected through the internet. Much of the intimacy of community is lost because of this. People live in isolation of one another with no interaction besides what is allowed – individuals control how interaction is allowed, even deciding when interaction will be allowed by logging-in/on to the community and deciding when to terminate communication by loggin-out/off.

    Instead of having a very organic and natural community what arises is a very unnatural and very structured (in terms of the individual being in complete control of how or if to interact with the community).

    I think that kind of goes against one of the basic things a church is supposed to be – a community of believers.

    Those are my thoughts.

  6. Dan — no offense, but…spoken like someone who hasn’t ever spent much time communing with others in virtual worlds. But correct me if I’m wrong. 🙂

  7. Kimberly Knight


    I have to say there is a deep connectivity and community that really happens in our online church. In fact the very isolation that many feel in this age of computers is alleviated by our community. There are many who are shut-in, or rejected out-right from brick and mortar churches who find what they so desperately long for. We have very real connections to one another and are blessed to be able to create community where one was lacking. I am sure that the folks who have been gathering every week for three years – praying for one another, rejoicing with one another and even crying together would tell folks this is most definitely a real connection – a real community.

    And as for organic – our community has grown very organically and not by some pre-determined book for order. We have been able to practice radical hospitality in ways that sometimes flesh and bone, doors and locks, doctrine and polity prevent.

    I would like to invite anyone who has not spent time in an online church to give it a try before dismissing it as not real community.

  8. The link pointed to one of our podcasts, I just wanted to point to this one too – http://thenickandjoshpodcast.com/2010/02/27/ep-141-kimberly-knight-church-in-second-life/

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