Grace & Gigabytes Blog

Perspectives on leadership, learning, and technology for a time of rapid change

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Updated: Jun 13

How do you build relationships with those you never see?

It's a question that's key to navigating the Digital Reformation. With worship becoming a hybrid event, pastors and church leaders see and hear those attending in person. But unless the congregation gathers for online worship via Zoom (perhaps the ideal platform for small churches), the names, faces, and even the needs of those online remain unheard. This creates two tiers of church attendance: those who leaders and members know and recognize, and those who are yet unknown.

If we are to get to know our online neighbors, it's helpful to consider some broader worship attendance trends.

Christianity Today notes that regular church attendance in the United States has dropped from 34% of Americans to 28% of Americans. This decline in worship attendance paralleled a drop in religious affiliation. For the first time in our nation's history, the percentage of Christians has fallen below 50%.

There are far fewer church members and worship attendees today than there were at the start of the pandemic. In a related finding, Pew Research data tells us that just 10% of active church-goers plan to continue regular online church attendance. Thus, many of the faces we were accustomed to seeing before March 2020 haven't shifted to worshipping online, as some would expect. Rather, they've stopped attending altogether.

Amidst this decline in worship attendance, active members have started "church-hopping" online. According to a 2020 Pew Research Study, 59% of church-goers have attended worship at a congregation other than the one they attend most often. These figures suggest a continuation of a pre-pandemic trend first noted by the Barna Group: that many practicing Christians regularly attend two or more different congregations. Since the start of the pandemic, attendance at second or third congregations has typically been virtual.

These data suggest that many of those attending worship are not active or regular members of that congregation. They are church-hopping neighbors and guests, new faces whose identities are obscured behind the anonymity of YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook Live.

This may surprise some who imagined that online worship attendees are usually active church members. This may even frustrate those who imagined that lower in-person worship is explained by more frequent online attendance. The stark reality is that fewer people are coming to church. Those who are coming to church are less committed to a single congregation. And those who are resolutely committed to a single congregation are seldom worshipping online.

This reality calls us to consider how we might get to know our online neighbor. While there are few easy answers in digital spaces where we cannot see names and faces, there are a few hospitality practices that merit further experimentation. Specifically, we might:

  • Create accessibility across platforms. Everything a church does online should be seamless to access, easy to connect to, and consistently inclusive. For starters, church leaders should work to help guests access worship on the platform of their choice. Plug-ins and integrations (such as the Zoom Livestream for Facebook feature) make it easy to broadcast the same service or event on YouTube, Facebook, Zoom as well as your app and website. But it's not just about the platforms. It's also about inclusivity. Content should be accessible within one click of the church home page. Perhaps more importantly, live events should be captioned.

  • Strengthen words of welcome. Liturgy begins with a gathering, often in the form of words of welcome. Most congregations use these words of welcome specifically to greet guests in attendance. But too many congregations fail to greet guests who are gathered online. As the guest experience moves online, it is critical to specifically name, greet, and welcome online guests, those who are encountering the congregation for the first time.

  • Extend a specific invitation to connect. At some point in the welcome or the announcements, guests should be invited to connect with a pastor or church leader. Too often, this invitation is ambiguous, as in if you are new, fill out this form."Getting to know the online neighbor involves greater specificity. Why should visitors fill out the form? For prayer requests? To schedule a call with a pastor or join a mailing list? To request a new visitor kit? Having provided some specific reason to submit a visitor form, we must work to ensure the forms are easy to find. Utilize QR codes, link shorteners, or video overlays to connect visitors to a contact form as easily as possible.

The church visitor experience has gone online. We must now learn to welcome our online neighbors, recognizing that digital hospitality is now synonymous with hospitality itself. We will turn to these ideas, and more, in subsequent posts.


Ryan Panzer is the author of "The Holy and the Hybrid," available now for pre-order wherever books are sold.


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And just as everyone predicted, the pandemic arrived at an abrupt conclusion! Everyone returned to worship in person, and the church quickly returned to what it was on March 1st, 2020!...

...This is what I would have written, had my predictions from the early days of the pandemic materialized. As we now know all too well, the disruptions of 2020 persist. As cases of the virus ebb and flow, economic uncertainty takes hold. And as individuals and families return to their normal weekly schedules, church attendance is no longer routine. By some estimates, at least 1 in 4 active church-goers are still missing from the pews.

The church continues to navigate uncharted territory as it emerges from a pandemic, addresses economic turmoil, and seeks to make sense of its new normal. Today's church leader faces innumerable questions and challenges. The location of Christian community is among the most perplexing of these concerns.

Should we, as church leaders, continue to offer online worship? Or does online worship incentivize members to avoid their communities, passively consuming church from the comfort of home? Should we continue to invite members to Zoom into gatherings? Or does digital access diminish the quality of the gathering for all involved? Should we encourage our communities to return to the localized experience of church we knew before the pandemic? Or should we seek to discern what it actually means to be a "hybrid" church?

These are the questions I couldn't stop thinking about when I began work on my latest book. Written for church leaders, staff, board and council members, and church attendees everywhere who are short on time and energy, it is a book about sustainable and purposeful ministry in our new normal.

In "The Holy and the Hybrid," I present hybrid ministry as a practice of utilizing digital spaces to extend an invitation to Christian community, and utilizing analog gatherings to equip communities for discipleship and service. Far from a summons to be "always-on," this model of hybrid ministry is rooted in purpose and a commitment to community.

Based on countless conversations with church leaders, researchers, and digital ministry experts, the book traces the evolution of hybrid ministry from the first days of the pandemic. I contrast the three models of church we have collectively experienced since March 2020: entirely analog, entirely virtual, and a hybrid of online and offline. I explore the strengths of each model, providing specific ideas and change management practices that will resonate with the post-pandemic church.

Available now for pre-order, "The Holy and the Hybrid" arrives wherever books are sold this September!

Praise for The Holy and the Hybrid

“Two decades and one pandemic into a religious reality dramatically changed by digital technologies, social media, and the new modes of communications they have prompted, Ryan Panzer’s The Holy and the Hybrid advances an essential conversation for church leaders and communities responding to the ministry needs of the digitally integrated world. An important exploration not only of communication practices required for meaningful ministry engagement today, but also a guide to innovative structural changes that will encourage and support revitalized ministries, The Holy and the Hybrid should be on every pastor’s, priest’s, and lay minister’s digital or old-school wooden desktop.”

—Dr. Elizabeth Drescher, adjunct associate professor of religious studies, Santa Clara University; author of Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones

“The coronavirus pandemic required us all to examine our way of life. What was essential? What could be modified? While we all scrambled with that in some way, churches and ministry organizations had the challenge of sharing the gospel and cultivating faithful community when most of the traditional communal practices of church were considered unsafe. In The Holy and the Hybrid, Ryan Panzer analyzes the emotions that came with the pandemic but also helps us learn and grow from the ways in which we had to adjust. Covid-19 forced us to examine the ‘that's the way we've always done it’ mentality in our churches and to look at how technology and digital practices can help our churches in their mission of sharing the gospel and cultivating faithful community. This book is not a ‘how to do’ but a ‘how to think about’ our ministry, allowing the logistics of tech-enhanced ministry to meet the culture and context of each congregation. The Holy and the Hybrid is a roadmap, or perhaps a GPS, pointing us to where the church can go in this next era of our ministry lives together.”

—Ross Murray, deacon, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; vice president, GLAAD Media Institute; founding director, The Naming Project; producer, Yass, Jesus! Podcast; and author of Made, Known, Loved: Developing LGBTQ-Inclusive Youth Ministry

“In this timely book, Panzer skillfully identifies and interprets the moment we are in. With one foot in the church and one in the tech industry, he speaks with a hybridized authority that few of us can muster. The Holy and the Hybrid offers a feast of insights that will be beneficial to a wide range of church leaders navigating monumental cultural changes.”

—Michael J. Chan, executive director for Faith and Learning, Concordia College, Moorhead, MN

“Part memoir, part manual, this readable book will help readers make sense of their own journeys into hybrid ministry—the places where the physical and the digital offer both old and new ways of doing ministry. Panzer is both committed to digital ministry and aware of its limits, which makes this book an honest and helpful guide for readers reflecting on how God is calling them to design the next chapter of ministry in their own settings.”

—Dave Daubert, pastor, Zion Lutheran Church, Elgin, IL; lead consultant, Day 8 Strategies; and author of Becoming a Hybrid Church

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More eyeballs equal more profit.

That's the business model for today's social media landscape, where companies like Meta (f.k.a. Facebook) and Twitter capitalize on our attention and focus. That's not to say our relationship with social media companies is entirely one-sided. Users of social media sites do, in fact, derive benefits: connection, community, and even friendship. And there are obvious benefits to Christian communities, particularly during a pandemic. Through social media, we can continue to proclaim the Word and gather communities for service and fellowship, even when it is unsafe to gather in large, public assemblies.

Still, there is something unsavory about the attention economy. The more time we spent on social media, the more social media companies profit. This creates an obvious incentive for tech giants to continue to commodity our focus. Non-chronological news feeds, infinite scrolling, and suggested posts have turned social media apps into a form of slot machine, where each scroll of the feed and refresh of the page rewards our minds with a fresh hit of dopamine. It seems that each year, social media companies find a new gimmick to keep me on their sites for longer. This partially explains why Facebook's average revenue per user (ARPU) has increased by over 600% since 2011, with Mark Zuckerberg now making an average of $32 per each American Facebook user each year.

With new user adoption slowing, there are signs that we are leveling off in our daily usage of social media. These trends will lead the Zuckerbergs of the world to find more hacks for keeping us on the site, viewing content and videos but also clicking sponsored posts, reading comments and stories but also seeing highly targeted adverts.

This creates a dilemma for today's church leader. How do we convene online community when doing so fills the coffers of Facebook and Twitter? How do we gather online community around the Gospel when the risks of excess time online are thoroughly-documented?

We might answer this question by arguing that it is unethical for churches to congregate on social media sites. This perspective, known as the "Luddite" position, ignores the reality of relationships formed on these sites. As a consequence, Luddites miss a prime opportunity for ministry in a digital age.

Similarly, we might answer this question by stating that digital should just be a means of church communication. This perspective was the implicit standard in the prepandemic church. However, social media should not be viewed as just another bulletin board, pointing to an experience of church that happens offline. For better or worse, digital spaces are the meeting grounds for Millennials and Generation Z. This requires us to take seriously how to establish and strengthen relationships online and offline.

There is a better way for today's church leader. Rather than dismissing social media outright, or relegating it to the role of a high-tech bulletin board pointing to offline spaces, we ought to address the attention economy through practices of faith-based, digital Sabbath.

A faith-based digital Sabbath is an online experience that disrupts the noise of digital life through the integration of scripture, reflection, and prayer. This might take the form of a scrollable Instagram post, an email newsletter, or a standalone app. It might appear as a video reflection, a podcast, or a blog post. Regardless of format, faith-based digital Sabbath invites social media connections to pause, to recenter ourselves on God's Word, and to radiate God's grace and mercy outward.

Secular digital Sabbaths exist. The Calm app is one of my favorites. But it is only through a faith-based digital Sabbath that we can regain a sense of self-awareness that makes us more present to ourselves and the needs of our neighbor.

Through the combination of prayer and practice, we turn our attention away from the self-centeredness created by the news feed and hear how God is calling us into concrete acts of service for the good of this world. It is only through a faith-based digital Sabbath that we can break the cycle of mindless social media scrolling, reorienting ourselves to God's work in our lives so that we may live lives of faithful discipleship.

Faith-based digital Sabbath will not change the steady growth of the attention economy. But the combination of scripture, reflection, and prayer gives us a momentary reprieve from its advance. As we partake in this experience of God's rest, we cease to become a commodity, even if momentarily. We are formed, instead, for Christian community.


For some of my favorite examples of a faith-based digital Sabbath, check out:


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