Grace & Gigabytes Blog

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

  • Ryan Panzer

If you've followed this blog or read "Grace and Gigabytes," you know that I'm an advocate of technology in the church, and you yourself are at least somewhat interested in the topic. In thinking about the church's digital (or, hybrid) future, it's interesting to consider what tools and tactics will help our communities to be more faithful, inclusive, and collaborative. But it's imperative to occasionally pause to ask the big question: What if the church shouldn't have a digital future?


What if the pursuit of Christian community in digital spaces is a fruitless pursuit of "relevance," a distraction from the true work of proclaiming God's word, administering the sacraments, and making Christ known to our communities?


"Analog Church" by Jay Y. Kim, which was published only two weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, presents a compelling critique of technology in the church, an argument borne out of the idea that so much of our technology is in service to relevance, as opposed to transcendence. The book suggests that every time we seek to use tech to reach more people, we lose focus on the local character of the church, sacrificing real connections for a shallow form of click-based community.


Jay Y. Kim argues convincingly that digital platforms cannot be the only location of Christian community. The corporate acts of singing, praying, and learning are fundamental to the Christian tradition. There is, in fact, something that we lose when prayers and hymnody, scriptures and teachings, are reduced to memes and posts on social media. There is something that we miss out on when church becomes a passive, consumer-oriented experience.

Yes, as a church leader I want to serve and reach as many people as I can with the gospel. This is true of most church leaders I have known. But often, the desire to "serve and reach as many as we can" in the digital age devolves into methods that essentially equate to "what's the fastest, most efficient way for us to get bigger?"
-Jay Y. Kim, "The Analog Church"

Still, I have questions. The author suggests that "digital" is by definition an antonym of "real," that our virtual connections are, in their essence, fake. I'm unconvinced. As Riverside Church Digital Minister Jim Keat has said, digital is not the opposite of real. Digital is the opposite of physical.


Can we know real people, can we connect in real places, can we learn about real things in a digital form of church? Of course we can.


For me, the question is not whether we should be using digital technology - the question is how we will blend the invitational character of the online world with the connective core of our face-to-face experiences.


To that end, Jay Y. Kim's work is indispensable. "Analog Church" gives us a set of signposts for navigating the potential and the pitfalls of church in the digital age. It warns us of church as a "consumer" experience, it steers us away from individualistic Christianity. It cautions us against reading scripture out of context, or only attending to fleeting aspects of a church's life together.


In this moment, so many of us are looking to the future, considering how the tech we have relied upon in the last 13 months informs our ministry and mission. I remain convinced that the best model for doing church is a blend of offline and online. For anyone who believes the same, "Analog Church" is simply a must-read.


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@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes"


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As church leaders, lay and ordained, staff and non-staff, we tend to see the value in remaining online in some form after buildings can safely and completely reopen. We've noticed the increased worship attendance that accompanies live-streamed services. We've heard from parishioners who moved away years ago but who have rejoined our faith communities virtually over the last year. And we've talked with friends who never go to church, but have tuned into our YouTube worship service for a few moments, or caught glimpses of a recent sermons on Facebook Live.


As leaders, we get it. The web is a mission field.


And with brand-new Gallup data showing that the majority of Americans are no longer members of a church, the importance of the web to the sustainability of our ministry cannot be overstated.


It's a different story in our broader church communities.


If our buildings haven't already reopened, they will soon, and we'll quickly hear from those who were burnt out of Zoom, those who were so ready to be back, who have no interest in ever again connecting with their church community online. They want to be "back," they want a return to "normal."


This creates an inevitable leadership tangle: the desire to be accessible, inclusive, and invitational in digital spaces, versus the reality of members who are burnt out on digital connection.

Getting started with hybrid ministry: A bit like climbing into a hang glider. On a cliff. Next to the ocean.

This tension isn't going to resolve itself, and it's not going to disappear anytime soon. Some will see the missional opportunity of further ministry work in digital spaces, but many will not. So before we get back into the rhythm of our analog church communities, before our time, energy, and resources are taken up by the realities of face-to-face gatherings, let's take a minute to talk with our congregations about hybrid ministry.


For starters, let's share the message widely that in the transition to safely reopning our buildings, we'll continue to prioritize digital accessibility. Not everyone is comfortable returning at the exact time, and with herd immunity still months away, there's no magic date on the calendar where we can snap back to the church we were. We'll continue to have cameras in the sanctuary and Zoom dial-ins for meetups because nobody should have to trade their comfort and safety for the right to participate in our community. As we journey towards the other side of this pandemic, let's communicate that we are making digital a highly visible and widespread priority.


By communicating that we are staying connected online during this time of transition, we set the foundation for the future of hybrid ministry: that our commitment to inclusivity is only as great as our commitment to ministry in digital spaces.


Not everyone is comfortable attending an analog church. Not everyone is available to be present in a building at a specific time. And while those of us who are temporarily-able-bodied may not experience any issues with walking into a church, let's remember that steps, sidewalks, and stained glass create physical barriers to some, spiritual and emotional barriers to others.


Some will push back. The conversation on inclusivity in the near-term and long-term won't be enough, and they won't care much about the opportunity to extend the reach of the church.


You can probably already guess who that will be within your community. They'll say things like "it's fine to be online, but I don't want to see cameras in the sanctuary. I don't want to have to join any Zoom calls. This is my church, and I want it to go back to normal. Is this really where we are going to spend our money?"


We need to talk to these individuals, and listen to their concerns. These ideas likely don't come from an opposition to hybrid ministry - but from frustration with a year of widespread sacrifice and ever-present social distancing.


Perhaps the best way to talk with and listen to these individuals is not to ask for their opinions on the use of technology in the church. We don't need to give them access to a physical suggestions box, because we don't need to give them an outlet for their complaints.


What we should do instead is to ask them to think about the future of the church. We might ask them to think about what it means that 50% of all Amercians are no longer church members, that entire Christian denominations may disappear within our lifetime.


Then, we should ask them to think about who we are called to be, and what God is calling us to do. In other words, we should ask them to reflect on our church's mission.


If we get too technical with these conversations, if we get stuck on "what we do" instead of "why we do it," we are unlikely to get anywhere. But if we invite our communities to reflect on the future of our ministry, and how we can sustain our shared sense of connection and service for another generation, we may find that we're all more willing to change than we might like to admit.


We don't need to persuade everyone, we may not need to persuade anyone. We simply need to show up for the conversation, to share that hybrid ministry matters, to facilitate a dialogue on where God is calling us next.


Because this isn't a conversation about cameras, social media, or computers. This is a conversation about our future, about whether all that is great about our church community will be available to a new generation.


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@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes."

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  • Ryan Panzer
"When Grandma spoke of God and Jesus, it all seemed much simpler. She didn't have a basement stocked with supplies; hers was a Jesus of whom you could talk, rejoice, preach, and prophesy... If I loved Jesus, I loved him in the way I loved my mother's family: from a distance, out of duty. I didn't dare admit it... but what was there to love in a Christ who would destroy the world?"
-Katie Langston, "Sealed"

Katie Langston's memoir "Sealed: An Unexpected Journey into the Heart of Grace" (Thornbush Press, April 2021) is a story of the dynamism of faith. Describing Langston's upbringing in a conservative Mormon family, the memoir recounts what it was like to grapple with doubts and uncertainty in a culture that tolerated neither.


"Sealed" is not the only story I have recently read of a conservative Mormon family. Like so many others, I recently read Tara Westover's explosive memoir "Educated."


But if the power of Westover's memoir came from shocking events and profoundly unique characters, the power of Langston's memoir emanates from its relatability. Langston's is a story of what it is like to navigate family conflict, of what it is like to wrestle with the tensions between the simplicities of childhood faith and the complexity of lived experience.

"Sealed" is available wherever books are sold on April 6th, 2021

So many spiritual stories end with deconstruction and fragmentation. It seems like much of what has been written about the Mormon tradition depicts an abandonment of the faith.


But "Sealed" is unique in that it ends with a reconstructed spiritual identity that affirms what remains useful, even enlightening, from one's past. It is a book that invites us not to critique, but to connect, a book that reminds us that the life of faith is not about categorical breaks with one's past, but about continuously hearing God's irresistible and ceaseless call. Affirming the simultaneous gifts of tradition and of transformation, Langston's memoir is a thought-provoking read for those who want to understand the complex, evolving, and perpetually moving journey that is the life of faith. It is an important contribution to understanding America's dynamic spiritual landscape.


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@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes"


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@ryanpanzer

Leadership developer for digital culture. Author of "Grace and Gigabytes," now available wherever books are sold.

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