Stephen Garner just gave me a heads up on a provocative article entitled: There is NO virtual ecclesia. In it Bob Hyatt, an emerging church pastor from Oregon argues that failed claims that televangelism would create an electronic church that could reach the masses applies to much of the hype surrounding online church experiment.
While he argues some interesting and valid points about the limits of mediated church experiences and that online communities can not fully replace embodied care and interaction he seems to assume that offline churches always provide the social accountability and garner the spiritual investment of its members. He claims the virtual ecclesia is lacking because it is missing: the sacrament, discipline and accountability, service and equipping. However from my 13 years of research I would say that while it is not a given, that these aspects can be and are being integrated into many religious communities online. It is what people bring to the table and their level of creativity and investment online or offline that makes a gathering true ecclesia or not. The article is definitely worth a read and would like to hear others thoughts.
Also check out Shane Hipps interview at the National Pastor's Convention in San Diego (Feb 2009) discussing his views of "virtual community" and opinions on Second Life Church.