Grace & Gigabytes Blog

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

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Let's talk terminology.

In church leadership circles, we hear the words "digital" and "hybrid" with increasing frequency.

Often, they are used interchangeably. Occasionally, they are used in conjunction: "our digital-hybrid ministry offers..." As with any ministry model, there will be some ambiguity and overlap in their definitions.

But digital is not synonymous with hybrid. These are qualitatively different models, with vastly different implications for a congregation's resources, staffing, and ministry philosophy.

Prior to the pandemic, as many as 50% of congregations were analog churches. Without a website or presence on social media, they lacked the capacity, let alone the motivation, to collaborate with online communities for the sake of mission.

But many churches with some digital presence were actually analog. Their websites and digital content existed for one purpose: to bring people somewhere else. In this way, the websites of the analog church functioned as high-end billboards, directing users to buildings for synchronous gatherings, such as worship and Christian education. A church does not become a digital ministry simply by having a website or social media. It becomes a digital ministry by gathering around the Word of God in digital spaces.

Digital ministry, then, is about access to the grace of God, as experienced through digital forms of community. Livestream worship services are the definitive marker of the digital church. Book discussions via Zoom, board meetings via teleconferencing, and conversations on social media further illustrate life in a digital ministry. This was the model that 96% of pastors implemented during the pandemic, particularly during the lockdowns of spring and summer 2020, a time when there were few viable alternative models. Digital ministry, then, exists whenever web-based tools are used to gather the faithful around the Gospel message.

As lockdowns have eased, some have assumed that ongoing live streaming represents hybrid ministry. If a congregation gathers in the pews and on Zoom, for example, then it must be hybrid.

It's not quite that simple.

Hybrid ministry exists wherever bridges are built between online and in-person participants. To be a hybrid ministry is to create opportunities for collaboration, online and offline. A ministry can only be hybrid when online participants are actively involved in the work of the people.

Sitting passively in one's living room while watching a YouTube stream is not hybrid worship. Listening in on a Zoom conversation is not hybrid church leadership. Recording a Confirmation podcast is not hybrid Christian education.

To practice hybrid ministry is to create opportunities for those online to collaborate with, and even to lead, those gathered face-to-face.

Not every ministry needs to be hybrid. There will always be a place in the church for digital or even analog ministries. Hybrid ministry is a model that requires considerable inventiveness and careful resource allocation. For example, a hybrid ministry will likely use Zoom for worship. It's the only platform that allows for contribution and collaboration. A hybrid ministry also requires someone (ideally not the pastor) to cultivate digital conversation, intake prayer requests, and moderate the chat.

But the congregations that succeed in implementing hybrid ministry will remember something that digital and analog churches may tend to forget: that the grace of God abounds, that the Spirit is truly present wherever we are located, each and every moment of the day.

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Updated: Oct 13

"How exactly will this grow our church?"

When church councils evaluate spending and investments, this is among the most frequently asked questions. Trained in a culture where growth is synonymous with effectiveness, today's council members often want to see the straight line from budget items to more members. This mindset aligns with the widespread equation for church growth that Andy Root critiques in The Congregation in a Secular Age:

Members + Programs = More Members.

According to this pervasive logic, the programs within a church exist to prime, or to increase the number of members. Digital ministry is, by extension, one such program, the objective of which is to continuously accelerate church growth.

As our buildings continue to reopen, council members will evaluate digital or hybrid ministry with this same framework. How will spending on apps like Zoom, Slack, and Vimeo bring more people to our congregation? How will investment in technologies like video conference rooms, PTZ cameras, and shotgun microphones increase our membership rolls?

Today's church leader could follow this line of questioning to build a case for digital ministry investment. There is data, after all, indicating that 50% of churches saw an increase in attendance during Spring 2020, a season when most congregations were testing online worship for the first time. And while online worship attendance has dipped since its pandemic peak, many congregations continue to see video views that outnumber pre-pandemic worship attendance.

But maybe focusing on church growth isn't the best way to convince your council to invest in digital ministry.

What if digital ministry is not about growth, but is instead about faithfulness?

What if hybrid ministry, which integrates the online with the offline, is less about increasing our numbers and more about sharing our faith stories?

Digital ministry connects with those who are physically, mentally, or spiritually unable to attend in-person worship or face-to-face faith formation, and countless congregations have stories of how they have reignited relationships with former members who moved away. Church leaders have stories of how they have provided pastoral care and spiritual counseling to congregants who continue to feel anxious and isolated. They have experiences of how a conversation, or a blog post, or a podcast has resonated with an unchurched Milllennial, one who still doesn't plan to attend worship, but appreciated the grace inherent in the message. They can tell you about how they became reacquainted with someone who was an active youth group member before leaving the church for several decades, or how they started conversations with nursing home residents who for years had felt isolated from their church community.

These are the stories that reveal the importance of digital ministry, and these are the stories that today's church leader needs to bring to the council. These are the perspectives that the treasurer needs to hear before finalizing the budget and signing the checks.

According to Pew Research, 28% of Americans (and 21% of mainline Protestants) have felt their faith strengthened as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. While it's difficult to isolate a causal factor in this data, the combination of global crisis plus the ease of accessing church content and community undoubtedly contribute to these trends.

Nobody knows how the pandemic will end. Nobody knows when the pews will fill up to their pre-pandemic levels, or whether online worship participation will remain a fixture in the congregation's life.

All we have for certain are the stories: the lived experiences of those who encountered the grace of God while navigating a time of global crisis.

How do you convince your church council to pay $30,000 to boost your WiFi speeds or $5,000 to set up a video-equipped classroom? You share how these investments have connected the community to a God who tends to show up, not just in our building, but wherever we are gathered. You tell a story of a God who is faithful in both sacred space and cyberspace.

When we stop seeking the connection between programs and members, between technology and growth, the digital church becomes more than an investment. It becomes a community.

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Updated: Oct 13

The week of the 2016 election, I noticed an alarming statistic. Exit polling indicated that over 80% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump. How could the vast majority of white Evangelicals turn out for a candidate with a documented history of marital infidelity, divorce, and misogyny?

As Kristin Kobes Du Mez explains in her book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2020), the results of the 2016 election were readily predictable. Du Mez argues convincingly that America's Christian Right has long compromised its values and integrity in seeking to achieve and consolidate power. Trump's electoral win was simply the latest milestone in the Christian Right's decades-long quest for cultural power.

But this is not a book about the 2016 election, or Donald Trump. To Du Mez, these are symptoms, not causes. Du Mez's narrative traces the origins of the Christian Right all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt. But the book largely deals with Vietnam and the Cold War, and how they gave rise to a patriarchal, militant, and hardline conservative American Christian movement. The resentment that captured the White House for Trump largely emerged in response to the military defeats and cultural compromises of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

The scope of the narrative is impressive. Du Mez addresses over 100 years of American political and religious history, tracing compromises and clashes that formed the political juggernaut that the Christian Right has become. At the core of the narrative are detailed profiles of key figures who may be unfamiliar to those who have not explicitly studied this history: Phyllis Schlafly, Tim LaHaye, and Pat Robertson, among many others.

Stylistically, the book is likely to appeal to progressive Christians, while repelling white Evangelicals who most need to understand this history. Du Mez's frequent use of quotation marks, though perhaps grammatically accurate, implies a tone of condescension towards evangelical "leaders," "churches," and "movements." While the author's critiques are directed towards the leaders of the conservative Christian movement, the book at times reads like a polemic, with little empathy towards individuals and families compelled or coerced by political opportunists like Jerry Fallwell Jr.

The book makes clear that America's Christian history could have traveled a different path. The 1990s saw the emergence of movements like Promise Keepers, organizations that countered the Right's militant political tendencies with a call to approach relationships with compassion and even tenderness. Pivoting away from militarism, Promise Keepers adopted athletics as the prime metaphor for faithful Christian living. In the 1990s, then, white Evangelicals could have chosen for its values family, faith, and football instead of militant masculinity. Regrettably, hardline conservative pastors like Mark Driscoll emerged to push the objectives of the movement back towards growth, power, and cultural influence.

Nevertheless, these examples remind us that there is nothing inevitable about the trajectory of Christianity in America. While 2016 and 2020 represent a nadir in our nation's religious history, we have the choice to travel a different way. The expansion of Trumpism and Christian Nationalism may be predictable, but its victory is hardly inevitable.

If we are to choose a different way, we need to know our history. Progressives and conservatives alike would do well to carefully read "Jesus and John Wayne," to know the facts and to study the ideas of the movement's leaders. It is only by doing so that we might become more capable at differentiating the call of God from the unvarnished pursuit of relevance.

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