Is Virtual Community True Community?

Last week at the National Pastors Convention, Shane Hipps sat down with the guys from Out of Ur and talked about community, based on his new book, Flickering Pixels.  (Full disclosure: Shane is one of my very best friends — we’ve known each other for 30 years — and I am a huge fan and proponent of his book.)

But in the video (below), Shane says that “virtual community ain’t community.”  John La Grou takes issue with this, using a very compelling anecdote from his experience at TED 2009 (color me jealous!!!).  Money quote:

Look.. I don’t know anyone who would argue that virtual community is a substitute
for physical community. Perhaps some of us need a book to remind them.
In this sense, he is a welcome voice. But, contrary to Hipps’ position,
I think virtual community establishes an authentic shared identity, a
sense of belonging, a shared history, and a sense of permanence. That
virtual community cannot offer physical gathering simply restates the

I tend to agree with John on this one.  I think Shane has overstated the case and thus undercut his argument (I should know, I make a living doing that! :-)).  I have been amazed of late how powerful Twitter is as a medium of connection with other human beings.  I have no experience with Second Life (and I don’t know that Shane does, either), but it seems to me to have that same potential.  Rob Brink’s essay in Youthworker Journal last summer convinced me that online gaming even has this potential.

I don’t think this blog has (yet) fostered a community, but I think Scot has done just that at Jesus Creed.  All this is dependent upon your definition of community, and Shane makes his clear in the video. 

So, what say you?  Is virtual community true “community”?

[UPDATE: Scot weighs in at Out of Ur.]

Video after the jump.

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  • Tony Arens

    Great post! Interesting thoughts – afer an intensive deep dive into social media and virtual community (in my 16th month of a huge web 2.0 project)the most critical lesson that I’ve learned is that if you can combine a virtual community with a physical asset (a physical location, shared service, common device, etc) you foster a level of responsibility on behalf of the participants. The physical catalyst in the formula requires people to be authentic, honest, civil, and really drives a desire for inclusion. From a business perspective, the key to monetization is the combination of virtual and physical…

  • I begin by questioning the assumption “true community” as does Joseph Myers (to a degree) in his book “The Search to Belong.” People will freely decide and define how they want to relate either in physical space of virtual space. The problem is not with the medium or the location, but with our categories of “true,” and “authentic” that we slap up there next to community. They are merely confessions of what we prefer.
    I like to think in terms of, “connectivity that gives life.” That can happen anywhere in a plethora of forms with or without the blessing or sanctioning of self-proclaimed authorities or specialists.
    Great conversation to be had.

  • Arthur Stewart

    I think “true” is the difficult word here – seems to draw lines, either/or, black/white.
    For the record, I am a major proponent of physical, same space community. We’ve had this conversation countless times with our blogger friends. Interesting, bloggers all want virtual community to be “just as real.” Those who make a living of advocating/teaching communities of various sorts (missional, neo-monastic, etc.) generally say it’s nor as legit.
    I think the better question is, “what advantage does a virtual community have over a physical one?” Certainly technology allows us to share ideas, conversation, hearts? from all over the globe (I am writing from South Africa). But is that advantageous? Is access the highest value?
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m postmodern through and through. I understand that our conception of space and time (and therefore presence) is different than our predecessors. BUT, there seems to be something so important about touch, about seeing eyes, about crying on another’s shoulder, about incarnating, that can’t be duplicated online. For me, the importance of these outweighs nearly everything else.
    I guess I’d say that virtual community is a form of community, but not nearly as deep as one can experience in person.
    Thanks for this topic. Looking forward to hearing from others.

  • Tony, I agree with you. I first experienced the phenomena of online community in an online bible study that Dr. Ralph Foster facilitated through his website. This was back in 1999, I think. He was way ahead of the curve with the Jesus Walk.
    I was amazed at how this group of 15 or 20 people became close. I was able to discuss things in my life that I’m not sure I would have spoken about with a physical group. The very anonymity made for some safety, I suppose. That may or may not be good, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that relationship actually occurred online.
    There is probably truth in your statement that deeper community occurs in person… but that shouldn’t diminish or devalue what happens online. It is “real” too.

  • i was just talking to my husband about this the other day. i told him that i stay at home all day, and if i didn’t have a way to connect online with friends who live far away, i would go crazy! it’s the only adult interaction/conversation i get, and it helps me not bombard my husband with details about my day the minute he walks in the door.
    i don’t know if i would say that new relationships i have formed through blogging are “true” community, but i am certain without a doubt that the virtual world helps me stay connected with people i rarely ever see face to face, based on geography.
    also, right now we are burned out from searching for a real community where we live. we’ve tried hosting variations of house churches 4 different times in the 5 years we’ve lived here, hoping each time that *this* will be it. we’ve tried “edgy” churches, but the people we encounter don’t seem to be interested in letting down the walls that really allow for “true” face-to-face community.
    so the relationships i have with friends in other states, people i’ve gotten to know through face-to-face experiences in various churches we’ve started/been involved with, certainly benefit and keep from getting stale through staying connected online.

  • I have to agree with Kristi above – in some ways virtual community is the only community available. Moms these days do not live in family compounds or villages. We are isolated to our homes and looked down upon if we abdicate responsibility and ask others to care for our kids. This is an isolation that has never occur before in history. I try to go to “moms groups” but it really is just far too painful of an experience just for the sake of warm bodies. The virtual world is where I an escape the confines of toddlers and my isolated modern American home. Taking that even further, when I was placed on bedrest and physically could not leave the house, Second Life was my social life. Going to an online coffee shop, sitting there with a character representing me, looking at other representations of people, and chatting about life, philosophy, religion, movies or whatever was community no matter what others may argue. Sure I would be the first to admit to the differences between the me I project to the world online and the “real” me, but those are issues that exist even outside the virtual world. So I really don’t care if virtual community is better or worse than physical community, sometimes it is the only option.

  • Tony,
    I love you but don’t you read my blog anymore?? 😉
    Here’s my lengthy response to Shane Hipps (be sure to see my lengthy response to Zach Lind, one of Shane’s flock, in the comments):
    And I really appreciate what everyone, especially Kristi and Julie, have said here.
    Steve K.

  • Tony, good to see conversation on this, and thanks for the link. We’ve never physically met, but I know much about you from our past communications, our years of wrestling with the merits of Emergent, and more. Meeting you physically will enhance the relationship, but that meeting will not be the start of our “community.” We entered into a community relationship from the very first virtual communication – a relationship that has sustained through many years.
    Shane’s definition of spiritual community is that you’re “in” or “out” of our community based entirely on your physical proximity to “us.” I don’t resonate with that at all. It feels creepy and exclusionary. It sounds more like a “clique” than a spiritual community.
    Forty writers (Scot McKnight, Rex Miller, Michael Lissack – the “father” of emergence theory, etc.) made a compelling case for the merits and limitations of virtual-ecclesial community in the Wikiklesia Project ( I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to buy the 500 page anthology – all proceeds go the “Not For Sale Campaign – ending slavery in our time.”

  • cp

    I think virtual community in the form of forums, facebook, etc., tends to be a platform for gossip, ranting and stalking; not so much true depth. In terms of community, I don’t have the wherewithal to check a site daily to form connections, but I’m sure some people do.
    Email connections are quite different–one on one; one message intended for one person. But then, two people isn’t much of a “community”.
    I’m a big fan of the real deal.

  • Hello everyone, great conversation.
    I must agree with Zack and Shane on this matter, virtual community is one but not the other. Zack is right, face to face community is so important to Christian living, and living in community is hard. Church communities are made up of all types of personalities, and living in authentic Christian community takes hard work, discipline, patience, love, kindness, understanding, devotion and commitment. In contrast, It’s very easy to find people like you on the internet, that’s why sites like facebook, myspace and twitter grow, and for that matter, die out so fast.
    I think we can all agree that “virtual communities” have their place, and that they can certainly be meaningful on some level. We can also agree that it is not a substitute for real community because it is something different than real community, they are not the same. One thing I learned from Shane Hipps’ first book is that we critique far too soon, we must first seek understanding. Before so readily accepting new technologies we should first understand how they work and what they can do to us.
    I live in Pennsylvania and go to a Mennonite church. I also know many Amish. An interesting fact about Amish is that they do accept new technologies, they just do it really slowly. Before accepting a new technology they prayerfully contemplate and consider how this new thing will affect their way of life, their community and how it will change them. Let’s not fool ourselves, technology, including “virtual communities,” are neither good nor bad, but they are not neutral!

  • I am one of the leaders of a church plant in Second Life, been active now for some 2 years. I would argue we are seeing a shift from where being present being only a physical experience to one that will include electronically generated presence. It will become more the norm that community is possible without ever actually meeting. The ascendancy of facebook, the expectation of convenience, the ubiquity of mobile technology all point towards a growth in the acceptance of non-physical community.
    We need to carefully think about how to make this virtual community a valid, inclusive and significant experience.
    I recently wrote on my church plant experience on by blog at:

  • Effie

    Being a Christian and being a resident of Second Life for almost 2 years, I think gives me great perspective on this topic. First (with no ill-will meant), if someone hasn’t experienced a virtual life, I find it difficult that comments can be made on something one does not understand. Interaction may be through a means other than physical (Isn’t a telephone call the same idea?); however, every avatar (your person in the community) has a real life person with real life feelings behind every keyboard.
    Many people in Second Life use the community for a need they have in real life. I have many friends with life-threatening illnesses. They use Second Life to take their mind off their issues in real life. They also become part of support groups in Second Life. They have people they can lean on without having to go through the agony of leaving their house. I also have friends with disabilities, horrible real life situations (abuse), and friends that are extreme introverts in real life.
    Second Life is not a replacement for real life, but it can be a great vehicle for adding to it. But, we need to keep in mind that Second Life is very much like real life in the fact that you make choices about your path in life. Just like in real life when you walk down the street or turn on the television, you may see or encounter someone that does not fit into your Christian values or is pretending to be something they are not. The virtual community has its ups and downs just like real life… the virtuality is only a vehicle to a new community that is world wide and it adds another dimension to your community in life.
    PS One of my best friends in real life, I met first in Second Life. She’s now a part of both my real and virtual lives. So, how important is that virtual community to who I am today… VERY!

  • The most basic form of community, in my experience, is “family”, which cannot be virtual. It implies a much deeper proximal, personal and physical connection. It seems that in a Christian paradigm, “family” is expanded to those who we join by way of the cross. We can’t be proximal and personal to all believers, but we can, should and must be proximal and personal to some believers.
    Furthermore, as Christians we are supposedly incarnating in our “communal” lives the relationship that the persons in the Trinity have with one another. Again, this cannot be virtual. A virtua, online, texting, etc. community is not in reality any sort of community.
    Lastly, I believe that believers should be partaking of the Eucharist (communion, Lord’s Supper, et al) regularly. This is the living out of that community in the “real world” (what a scary distinction that we have to make these days!). One cannot “virtually” partake of the Eucharist. Christ said to “take and eat”, not “take and think” or “pretend to take and eat”.
    “Virtual reality” is truly an oxymoron. “Virtual community” is a distraction from true community and (more importantly) “communion”. I’m with Shane on this one.

  • jon

    Excellent discussion all! I agree with those who see the two as complementary: virtual community and physical community each have their advantages, and focusing on one at the expense of the other loses a lot. The technology triumphalism of many of the Wired crowd is as disrespectful to those who prefer the physical world as the denigration of virtual community is to those who are equally or more comfortable in online space. And I think Effie makes an excellent point that those who condemn virtual community without having deeply experienced multiple communities risk missing essential elements that are very hard to describe without experiencing them first-hand. Unfortunately, this attitude is the norm for many of the opinion-makers in the press and politics, and our society suffers a lot.
    One aspect I didn’t see anybody else mention is generational issues. Broadly speaking, millennials are far more likely to have grown up with virtual community as an important part of their life than older people. I’m increasingly viewing older generations’ deprecation of and attempts to limit this new world through a lens of colonialism: minimizing the value of “other” cultures through lack of understanding while exploiting the natural resources.

  • “Is virtual community true ‘community’?”
    in a word, yes.

  • Being a Dutch pastor and blogger myself, I am very interested in this conversation. I am writing and experimenting with this issue as well. I think the virtual community isn’t virtual in the sense that real people are communicating with each other. Real people communicating in a virtual place – that’s what is making it both: virtual and true (or real). For us, Dutch people, it is much easier to realize that, because we use English words for the internet-thing and Dutch words for the real thing. We use the word ‘chat’ only for chatting-on-the-internet and the word community only for community-on-the-internet. So maybe you, English and American people should think of some new words for the new things (you could borrow some old Dutch words…;-))
    Keep on the good conversation!
    Boele P. Ytsma

  • Effie

    Boele, I like your comments. You added a smile to my day.
    One thing that Boele’s comments sparked for me is that it is REAL people communicating in a virtual place. And, that communication is not necessarily by keyboard. SL (Second Life) supports voice and groups also use Skype to communicate. It is very similar to a personal telephone call.
    SL has Bible study groups. One who’s info I’m currently looking at meets every Saturday evening and the activities include: sharing the gospel, bible study, encouraging one another in the Lord, questions and answers, and prayer. Also, anyone is welcome. Isn’t this what a Christian community is about?
    Just some more food for thought. 🙂

  • I experience real community online. I also experience real community offline. Personally, I have no desire to replace physical community, it’s essential. However, my online community is a group that accomplishes each of the following:
    authentic shared identity, a sense of belonging, a shared history, and a sense of permanence
    Relationships both on and offline require time investment. Unless you’ve invested time and energy in online community, don’t tell me it can’t happen. I already know it can. 🙂

  • I am continually surprised at how many self identified post moderns insist on taking an either-or position on such things.

  • What is “true community” anyways? For some people, indeed virtual relationships would not be “community” for them. For other people, virtual relationships can indeed be “community” for them.
    At the heart of “community”, is communication and conversation, which build a relationship & friendship. I’ve been in geographical proximity with a number of people, and many of those people have stayed superficial in relating. And as such, I do not consider that “community” in the full sense of how I use that word. Where virtual relationships have been most meaningful for me is how they provide a good introductory connection and bridge to “real-life” relationships, and/or also keep me connected with people I know in “real life.”

  • Since we are speaking, I suppose, of Christian relationships and therefor Christian communities, there is something I have not heard in the comments, sacrificial love. What sets physical and virtual communities apart is the ability to sacrifice for the other. As long as this is true, virtual communities will always be a pale shadow of authentic phyical Christian Communities.