I've started connecting a few ideas, and this might turn into a major project, or it might end up as idle speculation. So please excuse this brain dump, and let me know if any of the threads lead you somewhere.
Thread 1: June 1995, Spokane, Washington
I was at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association at the Internet booth. Ed Krol, author of The Complete Internet User's Guide and Catalog, was there, along with a few other Internet experts. (Ed's book had one short chapter on the World Wide Web, which was too new to be considered more than a curiosity at publication time. By 1995 it was starting to dominate the Internet.) There was a PC there with WinSock, a little program for connecting PCs to the Internet, and we were showing off the UUA's new website. I was also trying to get people in UU young adult groups to give me their groups' contact information, so I could add them to the directory on my website, uuyan.org. But mainly we were trying to teach people about the Internet, in particular that it existed and that we believed it was the future.
A minister came up to the booth and, with stars in his eyes, he explained his idea for a virtual church, based on a MUD (Multi-User Dungeon, a precursor to Wizards of Warcraft, only with text descriptions instead of any graphics.) People would enter the virtual church, chat with one another, "sit down" in their virtual pews, "listen to" (read) his sermon, and then have a virtual coffee hour. We nodded and smiled and tried not to discourage him too much. The idea of a virtual church was a good one, as was the idea of combining online community with spirituality. But the only thing we knew about doing it was this: every idea out there sounded incredibly dull and completely unworkable.
Thread 2: Today
We've learned a lot about building community online. We have yet to build an online community which can replace physical community for most neurotypical people. But we've learned how to integrate physical communities with online presences. Facebook is primarily a place for connecting with people you know from the physical world. My church's CyberCoffeeHour is a valuable extension of the physical church.
We've also learned what online communities are good for that physical communities aren't. They can gather quickly and allow geographically diverse people to work for a common cause. Like real communities, they can be hard to build, but once successful are self-sustaining. And they can allow coordination over both time and space. Consider Wikipedia. Clay Shirky describes it as a coral: the living part is a tiny community of cells living on, and growing, the coral skeleton that builds up over generations. Consider StackOverflow.com, which has quickly grown into the best Q&A site for programming questions. The secret to its success is learning from past online communities to see which behaviors are toxic and which are beneficial. Then they applied techniques from video games and previous online communities to encourage beneficial behaviors and dissuade toxic ones.
Time and space are weird in cyberspace. You can engage and continue small conversations that last years-- such as adding the latest information to an old StackOverflow question. You can play a game against a pre-recorded opponent, as if it were happening right now. You can do things that are physically impossible in a real-world collaboration.
Online we have computers to filter and analyze human activity, to provide greater insight and discoverability. Data mining, Page Rank, collaborative filtering. Letting computers do the number crunching and the data visualization, giving the illusion of artificial intelligence by leveraging human intelligence.
Unlike 1995, there is now a great deal of knowledge about what works and what doesn't online. Not just how to build a thriving online community, but what sorts of things can be done with an online community, and what sorts of things can't be done.
Thread 3: The Purpose of a Church
The other problem with the man's vision in 1995 was that his idea of a church was centered around a church service: sitting in pews at a designated time and listening to a sermon. Since then I've learned a lot about the purpose of a church. As an atheist, and having grown up in a church full of atheists, I've never saw it centered around God. Ever since Darwin, intellectuals have predicted the imminent demise of religion. After all, once you are immersed in a workable theory of bottom-up creation, the notion that the universe started with the most complex, sophisticated being who worked his way down to muck and chaos seems absurd. Right? So clearly, as more people became educated, they will reject religion. Obviously.
Obviously this hasn't happened in the last 150 years, and it isn't likely to happen any time soon. There are even (gasp!) religious intellectuals in the world today. And there are even, believe it or not, churches full of atheists. What are they doing?
Rev. John Cummins, minister emeritus at my church, said his job was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. That's as good a description as I've heard. A good church is a self-help group for both the troubled and the complacent. It's a meta-charity: it connects people to good works, including charities. And unlike a charity, when you tire from volunteering, or the mission is complete, the community is still there. And it's there to get you ready for the next mission.
Or to put it another way: a church is a self-sustaining way to organize people to be healthy and do good. People join because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and a good church delivers on that promise. It inspires people to be the best people they can be.
Bringing it together: the virtual church
Imagine a virtual community that comforts and sustains people. One that's organized around the desire to be part of something bigger than one's self, which engages people and inspires them to be their whole selves. An online community that values introspection, deep listening, thoughtful dialogue, and meaningful action to improve the world. A community that is connected to real-world churches and organizations. Which leaves the things best suited for physical communities to the physical communities. And which lets people do what people are best at, while bringing in computers to do what they are best at.
What would this look like? I don't know yet. But we have the tools to bring it together in a way that we didn't used to. This would be something less than an exclusively online community, but something more than an electronic extension of brick-and-mortar churches.
Part of the success of Stack Overflow and Wikipedia is that they have rules to limit their scope. This keeps them honest, and keeps them from dissolving into flame wars. There's no Stack Exchange site for solving the world's problems, because Stack Overflow and its sister sites limit themselves to answerable questions. Wikipedia doesn't need fact checkers with Ph.D.s because it has strict citation requirements. When you open things up too much, it becomes hard to keep focus. And it's exactly when people open up and let themselves be vulnerable-- the time with the most potential for spiritual growth-- when people are most likely to misunderstand each other and end up hurting each other. We know how to handle this in the physical world. (Some of us, at least.) We have yet to learn how to handle this online. That's one reason we haven't seen a virtual church yet.
I also take inspiration from the Quakers. They make decisions by consensus. This is unwieldy unless you have some ground rules. Rule #1: consensus is for matters of conscience, not opinions. You delegate the decision of what color to paint your church. This is a lot like the limits on online community topics. Rule #2: the spiritual community is more important than the decision. You can't build consensus if people aren't willing to listen to one another. Put another way: the decision is the byproduct of healthy spiritual engagement. Just as Wikipedia the encyclopedia is the byproduct of Wikipedia the community. Just as the large coral is the byproduct of the living coral. What open source software calls meritocracy looks a lot like what Quakers call consensus.
So where would we take this? The hard part is taking online tools that work well for limited discussions and focused collaboration (preferably on topics that don't encourage flame wars) and opening them up to self-sustaining, enriching community organizing. With ties to real-world communities to help people engage each other as people. Allowing collaboration and engagement across expanses of time and space. In some ways we're no closer than we were in 1995. And yet it might be time.
What do you think? Blog, tweet, post, or email me your ideas (firstname.lastname@example.org) for how this could happen-- or how this is happening. I don't have comments up here yet, so comment wherever you found a link to this.
[Update 2/8/2013: I've had some more thoughts.]