Grace & Gigabytes Blog

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

Updated: May 17

How does a hybrid ministry involve online worshippers as many return to in-person services?


This is a crucial question for today's church leader. Failing to involve online attendees creates a second-tier virtual worship experience. Those gathered face-to-face join together for liturgy, or the work of the people. Those gathered online sit and watch. There is also a practical layer to this question. The more we can involve in worship leadership, the less that pastors and church staff must manage.


We must consider, then, the ways that worship leadership might become a hybrid of online and offline.


First, virtual lectors could read the scriptures. Some congregations utilized virtual lectors during the lockdown, inviting members to record lectionary readings at home and submit them for use in the service. Some even staged recording sessions in the sanctuary, recording the reading at the pulpit on a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon.


In a post-pandemic church, a virtual lector is one who reads from elsewhere, their lesson spliced into the service through recorded digital video, a projector, and a screen in the sanctuary. While anyone can use a smartphone to record themselves reading, a next-level usage of virtual 'lectoring' solicits readings from interesting backgrounds and locations. Reading from Genesis about care for creation? Record the reading from a lakeshore. Reading from John about the vine and the branches? Record from a garden (or wine cellar!). Creatively applied, the virtual lector role demonstrates that God is always on the move, at work in the community!


Next, present the prayers of the people with virtual presiders, alongside a digital invitation for prayer concerns. Of all worship roles that can be led by a member or congregant, presiding over the prayers of the people is the most theological significance. The prayers of the people acknowledge the lived experience of the community, handing over to God the concerns and celebrations, the joys and sorrows of our life together. Presiding over these prayers synchronously and virtually through a platform like Zoom acknowledges that the community is far more expansive than those gathered in the sanctuary.


As a next-level tactic, gather prayer requests through text messaging or even an anonymous, virtual drop-box. Prayers of the people in the sanctuary often create space for some to vocalize their prayer requests (or in many churches, stand in awkward silence). Digital apps lift up the prayers not just of those who are gathered physically and who are outgoing enough to vocalize their prayer requests. Rather, these resources share with the presider the raw and real prayer needs of the ever-expansive body of Christ.


Then, expand the voices proclaimed from the pulpit with virtual preachers. This is a method of preaching quite different from the video sermons found in megachurches. We don't need to beam-in a virtual Rick Warren! Instead, we need to provide opportunities for our faith community to articulate their lived experience of God in their lives, in the context of that week's narrative themes.


Virtual preachers can be one individual who records an entire sermon and then plays a video on Sunday. But that's not the best of use this role. In "Grace and Gigabytes," I write about the importance of collaboration in the digital age. Nothing affirms the importance of collaboration in a faith community like collaborative preaching. Invite parishioners to prayerfully consider a simple question or two about their faith experience. Encourage them to record a 30-60 second video response. Then, edit those responses together for inclusion in the sermon.


While virtual leadership roles are important, not every Sunday needs a virtual worship leader. Not every church needs to implement virtual volunteers. There are other ways of building the bridge between online and offline worship.


But opening up leadership roles to those gathered via a screen makes a strong statement: that this congregation truly welcomes all people, that God's work in the world extends far beyond the walls of the sanctuary.


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@ryanpanzer, the author of "Grace and Gigabytes," speaks regularly on hybrid ministry and the role of technology in the church. To book a workshop with Ryan, submit the form at https://www.ryanpanzer.com/speaking, or text (608) 561-1167‬ for more information.

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We need innovation in the church. Everyone knows it. Increasingly, everyone says it.


But what does "innovation" actually mean in the church? Is it just solving old problems with new methods? Is it solving new problems with processes from the worlds of business and technology? Or might it be something else?


Scott Cormode addresses these questions in more his highly practical, accessible guide to innovation, "The Innovative Church: How Leaders and their Congregations Can Adapt in an Ever-Changing World."


Check out the video review from our YouTube channel, or read below for more on this book!

"Christian innovation cannot be exactly like secular innovation, yet Christians can learn from secular innovators."

I would describe Cormode's work as a must-read for churches who know they need to change. It features practical models that align with innovation best practices of the corporate world, yet are skillfully adapted for church contexts. For example, Cormode pays specific attention to "Human-Centered Design," a process similar to Design Thinking. In his descriptions of the process, Cormode instructs the church leader on how to brainstorm, prune, prototype, and test with an emphasis on the Spirit's work in a context.


I was particularly drawn to the book's emphasis on practices and narrative. The objective of Christian innovation is not the pursuit of relevance, nor is it an attempt to attract young people. In order to reach "the smartphone generation," we don't need to invent something from scratch. With innovation, we're not trying to create new things, launch new programs, or start a new marketing campaign.


Instead, we're trying to reintroduce a timeless identity, to reshare an ancient narrative. With innovation, we reimagine the traditions of the faith for a contemporary context. Christian innovation is fundamentally connected to the historical practices of the faith: prayer, lament, hospitality, generosity, and others. For Cormode, the Christian innovator skilfully initiates the processes of discernment and human-centered design in the context of traditional practices. The result of this process is a set of new approaches to ancient practices that "make spiritual sense" of the "longings and losses" in our world.


Cormode's work is theologically grounded in the action of God. It is ultimately God who acts, God who creates. As innovators, we are here to water, to nurture, to give thanks for the ways in which God is always speaking a renewing word of life into this world. As leaders, it is not our task to come up with brilliant ideas. It is our calling to discern what God is up to, to listen to the longings and losses of our community, and to empathize. Joined together with the ceaseless creative work of the triune God, our innovative work may yet resonate with an ailing and divided world.


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@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes"

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Blessed are the Low-Tech, when it comes to hybrid ministry. For theirs is the opportunity to be truly collaborative.


It's an exciting moment. With vaccinations now available to all American adults, it seems as though our "new normal" is closer than we may have anticipated. Churches continue to reopen their doors and create plans for hybrid ministry, a way of being church that blends the connections of the digital world with the strong community of the in-person church.


At this moment, there's a widespread perception that large, high-tech congregations with healthy media budgets are at an advantage. It seems logical that building a bridge between the online and the offline requires a skilled media production with access to Hollywood-quality studio equipment. After all, high-tech churches are the congregations that can create the "best" viewing experience: clear audio, crisp video, snappy transitions. Moreover, these congregations won't require pastors to be both preacher and video director at the same moment. Freed from multi-tasking, we imagine these leaders to be in a more advantageous position.



But if we take a critical look at why we are called to hybrid ministry, we might discover the opposite.


Hybrid ministry isn't the process of using digital technology for it's own sake. Instead, it's a calling to find a way of being church that is more inclusive and accessible. It's a summons to be more intentionally communal.


For these reasons, high-tech churches are actually at a disadvantage.


They might have the resources to create a polished and professional streaming "product," compelling enough to rival most viewing options on Netflix or HBO MAX. Indeed, who wouldn't want to watch a video with the production quality of a Joel Osteen?


Yet here's the paradox. The more polished our church services become, the more "professionalized" they are likely to be. In that sense, high-tech expressions of church are not particularly inclusive. Rather than creating a collaborative experience of Christian community, they create another piece of content for the consumption of the masses. Rather than extending an invitation into the shared work of the people, they create an unintentional buffer - between those sitting in the pews - and those watching from their couches.


For three reasons, low-tech churches, or those without vast media budgets and dedicated production staff, are at an advantage in the hybrid church.


First, low-tech churches are more likely to use Zoom as a platform for online worship. YouTube and Facebook Live may be the most common platforms for worship, but they tend to require event software integrations like OBS. A more ubiquitous tool that requires no additional software, Zoom just requires a device with a camera (an iPhone suffices) and audio input (a simple USB microphone is sufficient). Zoom creates a bridge between online and offline because it welcomes multiple voices. It's the only tool where that natively supports virtual worship leadership, that comes with the built-in ability to welcome digital lectors, prayers, cantors, and preachers. It's also the only tool where one can see the faces of all who gather online!


Low-tech churches will also have less tech equipment. Less equipment means more flexibility in configuring a worship space. A tripod-mounted iPad takes up less space than a studio soundboard with a full HD camcorder. This makes it possible to "record" the service from the front row or the middle of the sanctuary, whereas high-tech churches tend to record from the far back. Lower-tech churches thus provide a front row seat to worship, while high-budget congregations provide a seat in the back row, looking in.


Finally, lower-tech churches are more likely to rely on one of the key "low-tech" fundamentals of hybrid ministry: using inclusive language. Without professional video, they'll be more likely to greet online viewers. They'll be more likely to include their concerns in the prayers of the people, to speak directly to the online experience as part of the announcements. When it comes to creating an inclusive experience of those gathered online and offline, our words matter far more than what's on our screens. Low-tech ministries will be that much more likely to pay attention to this key aspect of inclusivity.


In recent conversations, I've heard some of those who lead small, rural and low-tech churches express a certain amount of resignation. It seems, in some cases, that they have already given up on hybrid ministry in their context.


Here's hoping they will find the strength and energy to attempt it. Here's praying that they won't squander their innate advantage.


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@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes"

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