When I started writing "Grace and Gigabytes" in 2018, my goal was to convince church leaders to thoughtfully integrate digital technology with worship, formation, and faith practice.
Fast-forward to January 2021 (happy new year, by the way!), circumstance has made us all into digital experts, whether we feel like it or not! Ironically, the challenge for 2021 won't be to use more technology. Rather, we'll be tasked with staying connected to the best of digital ministry even as our church doors eventually reopen.
Now, I've repeatedly said that I am done making predictions about the COVID-19 pandemic. From my early April guess that we'd all be eating hotdogs at full baseball stadiums by August, to my recent conjecture that vaccine distribution would be rapid and efficient, I've proven to be a rather worthless prognosticator of late.
Still, if we work with the assumptions presented by Dr. Fauci and others on the COVID-taskforce, it's a safe bet that 2021 won't be an exclusively digital endeavor. At some point, we'll be able to welcome our communities back to our buildings, in a yet-to-be-determined format.
And as our doors slowly creak open, we can safely predict one constant: our faith communities will be thrilled to be back together. I imagine we'll see an outpouring of appreciation for in-person church assembly, the likes of which have not been seen since the invention of Sunday brunch and pre-NFL game Target runs.
Whenever "it" happens, and our eventual new normal will happen, our faith communities will exuberantly leave their Zoom calls and slam the lid of their laptops, running back to our church buildings faster than you can yell "coffee hour is back!"
With masks off and the coffee on, those in our churches will talk about how glad they are to have returned to "normal." We're back together - certainly, that means we can cut it out with all that online church business, right?
It is in these inevitable sentiments that we can identify the great change management predicament for today's church leader: how to retain all we've learned about digitally-integrated ministry, even as we enthusiastically look towards a return to in-person community.
It's clear that the digital ministry toolkits we've constructed these past ten months can be a significant asset in service to our mission. Digital tools allow us to connect with those who cannot physically gather in a sanctuary, they facilitate more consistent collaboration with the neighbor, they help us to expand our perspectives beyond insular-feeling conference rooms. Their real-time collaborative features promote agility and continuous optimization, preventing us from becoming stuck or frozen.
It's also clear that we've all expended considerable effort in assembling these toolkits. Pastors who told me they aren't "web people" have become highly capable producers of digital video. Church administrators who joked that they didn't know how to spell "iPad" have become masterful at capturing, recording, editing, and sharing audio and visual content. And we've all seen faith community members who have become more confident sharing their perspectives, articulating their stories, and asking the biggest questions of our shared faith journey.
The question then is how we might take the best of the experience of deep digital ministry and bring it with us into an eventual new normal when we can be together at last. This year on the "Grace and Gigabytes Blog," we'll explore this question together, providing a roadmap towards the church's hybrid future.
Generally speaking, hybrid Christian community is an expression of church that balances offline and online connection. More specifically, a hybrid Christian community remains rooted in Word & Sacrament as it pivots to fully embrace the digital age value of collaboration.
If we work together to strike the right balance between offline and online connection, our churches will be more collaborative, but they will also be more empathetic, diverse, and adaptive. If we don't find the right balance, two scenarios are likely. We might work too hard at retaining digital ministry, exhausting resources and ultimately burning ourselves out. Alternatively, we might give up on digital ministry altogether, forfeiting the missional opportunities that come with it.
Striking this balance won't be easy. It'll require constant attunement, refinement, and reprioritization in all aspects of church leadership. At times, this balance will demand difficult engagement with those who are ambivalent or outright hostile towards digital forms of ministry. Not only is this a process of technological experimentation. It is also an exercise in careful change management.
As I write this post, it is January 4th. Snow is falling. Cases are climbing. But a vaccine is here, allowing us to catch a glimpse of an inevitable yet unpredictable future. That glimpse is our first peak at the church's hybrid future. Let's work together to turn that glimpse into a vista, from which we can set our course. And let us greet this promising moment with creativity and hope.
@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church In a Tech-Shaped Culture," available now wherever books are sold.