One of the unforeseen consequences of the coronavirus pandemic was the creation of the hybrid church experience.
You may be wondering what a hybrid church is?
A hybrid church is a blending of the in-person and digital experience of the church into something new. It seeks to provide the same message and user experience regardless of how the participant engages the good news.
Because physical gatherings were discouraged, even the most technology-resistant congregation eventually embraced some form of digital delivery of its services.
Most people anticipated that when churches reopened, in-person attendance would surpass the digital experience.
But now that churches are once again meeting in person, some interesting trends have emerged.
EMERGING TRENDS CONCERNING THE HYBRID CHURCH EXPERIENCE.
Some individuals who attended in person are currently staying at home and prefer a digital experience. There could be many reasons. Some may be unable to attend due to illness, family obligations, work schedule conflicts, or financial reasons. Finally, some may fear another outbreak of the disease.
Some individuals whose first experience of a church service was online have not yet attended a physical gathering. It may be that they do not feel comfortable coming in person. Or perhaps, they are waiting for a personal invitation and connection. Maybe they are a significant distance from the church they connected with online and are uncomfortable with the churches in their area. In addition, they might have had a bad experience with a church in their past.
Some individuals prefer the hybrid church model. They want to have the option to choose every week whether to attend physically or digitally.
I have experienced this firsthand at my local church. We ran digital worship services and zoom meetings for small groups by necessity when the pandemic struck.
Everyone said they were tired of zoom meetings. But when our campuses reopened, some small groups opted to continue meeting by zoom. You may have experienced something similar.
Even more surprising was the number of small groups that offered a combination of in-person and zoom sessions. I’ve had a wonderful experience providing tech support for a weekly hybrid small group meeting.
Love it or hate it, the hybrid church experience is here to stay.
Live streaming has become increasingly popular, according to a recent Ministry Brands poll. Over half of respondents say their churches didn’t utilize live streaming before the pandemic but now do, and a third say they did use it before, but its usage has increased. Moreover, regardless of congregation size, 93 percent of participants believe live streaming will be important in the future.
Digital streaming reached a significant number of people who did not regularly attend a church.
According to Lifeway Research, 45 percent of Americans watched an online service during the pandemic, including 15 percent who do not regularly attend church.
Most of us would gladly fund any effort to reach 15% of the population not currently engaged in our churches. I’m sure that you would be happy with that opportunity.
If the church abandons its online presence, we will miss out on the opportunity to engage with new people and build stronger relationships with those already in our online communities.
At the same time, we cannot neglect the overall experience of the people who attend our physical campuses regularly.
So, if the hybrid church is here to stay, how do we proceed?
Here are five general principles that will serve us well as we navigate this experience. These principles are the byproduct of a life in ministry, my observations and experiences as an employee in two start-up businesses, and a desire to love others well.
5 Principles to help us respond to the rise of the hybrid church experience.
1. Change is constant, and resistance is futile.
I heard the phrase RESISTANCE IS FUTILE for the first time on Star Trek in describing the Borg.
WE ARE THE BORG. LOWER YOUR SHIELDS AND SURRENDER YOUR SHIPS. WE WILL ADD YOUR BIOLOGICAL AND TECHNOLOGICAL DISTINCTIVENESS TO OUR OWN. YOUR CULTURE WILL ADAPT TO SERVICE US. RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.
But I experienced this futility of resistance firsthand as a new employee at Hypermart, a joint operation of Walmart, the retailing behemoth, and the Cullums Brothers, the grocery powerhouse, joined forces to form Hypermart. (Which later became the Walmart Supercenter.)
They both had very different approaches to business. During the first six months, the accounting system we used to record sales, losses, wages, and expenses changed several times. It was a shambles. I quickly realized that resisting the constant changes was pointless.
My willingness to adapt to change enabled me to rise within the company. It also increased my love and passion for beta-testing software.
I often laugh when I consider the number of technological advances that came to society and church initially opposed and are now widely used. (Ask an older person about the overhead projector wars of the early 1980s.)
The church has weathered thousands of years of cultural changes and has adapted to meet the needs of those it serves. We can do no less in our generation.
2. The good news of the gospel is sacred, but the methods used to deliver it are not.
Christianity’s central message has not changed. God’s unconditional love for us is made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul believed that he might win some by becoming all things to everyone (1 Corinthians 9:22). It didn’t modify the core of what he was saying. But he was willing to cite their poets (Acts 17:28), discuss their philosophies (Acts 17:18), and interact with them to spread his faith.
Paul shows us that we don’t have to be rigid in how we convey information. Paul shared his faith while in jail and shipwrecked on an island. He took advantage of every opportunity to share his faith, and so should we.
3. Rebranding is a Necessity in a Post-Christian Culture.
It may be difficult for some to accept, but we are living in a post-Christian culture.
Christianity is no longer the dominant force in our society. As a result, we can no longer assume that people understand our values, culture, and worldview.
You can wring your hands in despair or be eager at the opportunity to explain what you believe and why.
Some individuals’ only interactions with Christianity are with the self-righteous, hypocritical, and hate-filled loud-mouths on social media who skipped the chapter on loving others as Christ loved us.
These same people are frequently surprised to learn that I am a Christian. Not because I have abandoned my faith, but because I am willing to love them unconditionally.
Rebranding can bring clarity to a church’s message. Not only for the community at large but the church as well.
Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that we are a people called to extend unconditional love, grace without shame, and respect for all of God’s creation.
Rebranding has the potential to correct misconceptions and misrepresentations about the church in the local community. In addition, it can help the community understand that the church can be a force for good.
I have written about Rebranding Christianity previously.
4. Guests and members should be able to switch between digital and physical presentations seamlessly.
There must be a balance between the digital and real worlds for churchgoers to feel welcomed and involved no matter how they interact with the church.
Although it adds more effort for the digital and physical teams, preparing and executing the presentation together can help the church consistently and powerfully present the gospel.
Of course, we want to see people gather together, but that result will not happen without sustained excellence in both realms.
Imagine that an in-person and digital attendee met for lunch and shared the same overall message and experience. And then they were able to invite others to experience the message either way.
Can you get excited?
5. Innovation is messy, but we can learn from our mistakes and try again until we succeed.
I am not advocating that we abandon tried-and-true methods. New and old wineskins are sometimes required for storing and pouring different types of beverages. Regardless of whether or not the wine is served, it is still wine.
We will make mistakes, but we can learn from them.
We need ministers who are willing to experiment, fail, and try again, and we need churches that are willing to welcome these innovators.
We need to be advocates for those who have yet to come.
The hybrid church experience is here to stay.
Would you consider sharing these principles with your leaders and discussing how you can become all things to all people that you might win some?
Someday, you may be a member of the First Hybrid Church of your city. Will you be prepared?