By Laura Stephens-Reed
Two years ago the world locked down, seemingly overnight, due to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Many congregations went from having a website and a minimal social media presence, which sometimes included recordings or livestreams of worship, to creating online community wholly through previously utilized and new-to-them media. Churches pivoted again and again in the months to follow, with most holding some gatherings in person when it seemed safe to do so while retaining their increased online presence. Even now, a significant number of congregations continues to offer an online worship option.
Most experts agree that some version of hybrid (online and offline) church is here to stay even when the public health emergency ends. One of the reasons for this permanent shift is that smaller congregations realized they could have a bigger reach. Their modest worship videos appeared in YouTube lists alongside megachurches’ highly-produced services, and people from around the world could and did engage.
Another plus was that those who were homebound for whatever reason—including but not limited to illness, disability, or sensory sensitivities—found online church more accessible than its in-person iteration. A third positive was that some who have declared themselves done with the institutional church proved more willing to try out a virtual congregation where they could dip in their toes before committing either to physical presence or a particular set of beliefs.
There is a significant difference, though, between offering online church as a pandemic stopgap measure and permanently becoming a hybrid community of faith. While some congregations may choose simply to stream or upload worship going forward, the truly hybrid church cannot make the online aspect a mere add-on. It must pay attention to the bridging of online and offline participants such that they form a unified congregation. Here are some considerations for churches who want to create a joint online-offline congregation that fosters knowing, being known, and unity in service to Christ’s model for us.
Who are we?
It is imperative for all churches to know who they are and why they exist. What is their function, in other words, in the global body of Christ? For a church to be a truly hybrid faith community, this sense of purpose must be very clear. Online engagement must be situated as a way of living out the congregation’s purpose, and those who participate digitally need to be seen by the whole church as not just recipients of ministry but partners in ministry.
Becoming clear on congregational vision, then, is the starting place for developing hybrid church: to what future story is God nudging us based on prayer, pandemic gleanings, and a look around at the gifts and challenges of our larger area? How could a constituency inclusive of online contributors help us live into it? And who might feel drawn to and valued by it? Churches should be prepared to spend some time answering these questions, because they are foundational to making hybrid ministry sustainable.
What do we hold most dear?
Church values are shaped by many factors, including theology and the legacy of charter members as well as influences beyond the congregation. They boil down, though, to a church’s non-negotiables: this local body of Christ always/never does [this thing]. A congregation wanting to embrace a hybrid composition, then, needs to name clearly its values that are consistent across both online and offline spaces and consider what they mean for fully welcoming digital participants. This values exploration makes it possible for a church to plan for a hybrid ministry that sprouts from its DNA and to come up with the wording for signposts that potential constituents will use to decide whether to dip their toes into a community.
How do we structure our life together?
Lay minister and tech industry employee Ryan Panzer names four pillars for digital church in his book Grace and Gigabytes: questions, connection, collaboration, and creativity. How do we create a digital sandbox for people to experiment with big questions about life and about God? What would it take to build connection among online participants and between online and offline participants?
How do we invite not just passive consumption of worship and other offerings but actively encourage those joining by internet to share their ideas, gifts, and financial support toward the accomplishment of the church’s mission? How do we make the most of the opportunities for creativity that the web affords in ways that enliven the whole community and lock in faith learnings?
The goal is to make the congregation not just a jumble of online and offline parts but a fully functioning body that cooperates and innovates toward a shared purpose and future. At this juncture the more abstract purpose and values work gets translated into specific processes, platforms, and roles. There is not a one all-size-fits-all approach to any of these three pieces, as they need to reflect the vision and priorities the congregation has discerned.
How do we let people know what we’re doing and invite them into it?
The best of intentions and efforts will garner few results without thoughtful, consistent messaging. Communication gaps are common in offline life, and they will require that much more attention when bridging online and offline modes of being. That said, the internet offers a lot of tools that could benefit those who come to a church campus as much as those who interact with a congregation online, simply because most people already use email, social media, and other web applications to manage their lives.
Churches can assess what means of communications their current church constituents use and which apps connect most seamlessly with the online platform(s) they have chosen for engagement with online participants.
These are only the starting discussion points for congregations that want to become truly hybrid churches. Others will include dealing with resistance, planning for sustainable leadership, creating shared expectations across online and offline constituents, re-considering the concept of church membership, and thinking through embodied rituals like baptism and the Lord’s Supper for a hybrid congregation.
But these many factors are worth considering, because in this time of increased polarization, uniting those with a propensity to go online for church with those who attend in person offers a chance to strengthen the relationships among these parts to the glory of God.
Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama.