Grace & Gigabytes Blog

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

At the time, the pastor's request seemed so altruistic, so indicative of what's good about the Christian tradition.

"We're recruiting new volunteers to take Communion to our shut-ins," the pastor said. "Since we haven't had enough volunteers these last few weeks, several of our shut-ins haven't been visited."

Here was an opportunity for church members to step up and live out their faith by taking the Lord's Supper to those who were physically unable to gather for Sunday worship. Here was a chance to demonstrate faithful discipleship, to demonstrate that those beset by disability and malady still mattered in the life of the faith community.

I sat in the pew. I nodded my head, hoping that someone would sign up via the bulletin board in the narthex. My thoughts turned to the coffee and donuts to come.

Such statements were a fixture of the church's previous operating model, a way of being in community that prioritized in-person gatherings as the only way of being included in the church's life together.

Such statements were a fixture when being a church goer meant being in the physical presence of other members, receiving the sacraments directly from the pastor. Such statements were common when those who could physically walk, kneel, eat, drink, hear, and speak were known as "members" or "worshippers." Such statements were prevalent when those who could not do those things were known as "shut-ins."

Prior to COVID-19, we didn't take a critical look at these statements. It's about time that changed.

To use a word like "shut-in" is to suggest that there is something meaningfully different or "other" about those physically, mentally, or spiritually unable to gather for worship or fellowship.

While it's been a useful organizing framework in managing church practices like visiting the sick and bringing the sacraments to the ill, it's a problematic label. It implies that in this sanctuary, within this house, we worship. At your house, where you are shut-in, you wait. It suggests that at this time and in this place, we experience grace. At another time and in another place, you receive the leftovers. It indicates that in this building on this date, we are community. In your building at a date to be determined, you are on your own.

Perhaps we didn't know any better.

Prior to the pandemic, who would have imagined that our church buildings would close for over one year, shutting all of us out from in-person worship, prayer, and sacrament? Who would have imagined that case surges and safer at home orders would shut all of us into our homes and dwellings, cutting us off from what had long defined life together in the Christian church?

The pandemic is an unequivocal disaster. Yet in the church, it has erased the hierarchy of the worshipper and the shut-in. As we connect to worship and with our communities through exclusively digital forms, the pandemic has put us all on equal ground.

Now, as vaccines roll off the assembly line, we can see glimpses of an eventual new normal. Our sanctuaries may not open as quickly as we would like, but they will open. In-person fellowship may not resume on a convenient timeline but it will resume. But if we simply go back to the way things were done, when we saw the in-person as the best or even the only way to be the church, we will have learned nothing.

The church's future is a hybrid of virtual and in-person connections, where there is no distinction or hierarchy between the two. In a hybrid ministry, there are no value judgments between the one who connects to a faith community through social media and the one who walks through the doors sanctuary.

If we are to live into this hybrid future, we can have no use for the "shut-in" label. If we are to achieve a hybrid Christian identity, we must work towards parity of experience. We must work towards equity.

As Christians, we will always visit the sick and injured. We will always bring the sacraments to those in need. But as a church, it's our responsibility not to see the sick, injured, and disabled as outsiders, as shut-ins. It's our calling to see them as equals, as collaborators in working towards the mission we share.

So when someone asks me where they should start in thinking about hybrid ministry, I won't tell them about Zoom or web cameras or websites. I'll talk them to think about inclusion, I'll talk to them about equity.

I'll encourage them to think about practices that build a bridge between the virtual and the in-person, that equally affirm the value and dignity of those who can physically gather and those who must gather at a distance.

I might say something about feasible technology use. But I'll always come back to the idea that the Holy Spirit gathers all of us to be in community together. The way we approach our eventual new normal will reveal whether all really means all. The way we approach hybrid ministry will reveal what we really believe about the priesthood of all believers that we know as church.


@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes," available now wherever books are sold.

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Church leadership circles are becoming apprehensive about the time demands of hybrid ministry. This is, of course, to be expected. While this season of prolonged physical distancing showed us how to be the church online, it hasn't taught us how to be the church online and offline, virtual and in-person, at the exact same time.

Beginning in March 2020, we've been learning that we can be a virtual preacher, and that we can be a videographer, but not all at once. We've been discovering that can be an online facilitator, and that we can be a digital content creator, but not simultaneously.

The closing of church buildings during the pandemic has allowed to live in to many different roles. Still, it's unlikely we would have learned to use all this technology if we were still attending to busy Sunday mornings, complicated volunteer schedules, and the logistics of worshipping in a building filled with dozens or hundreds of people.

So what will it look like when we reach an eventual new normal, when buildings begin to re-open? Will we find a way to balance the time demands of digital ministry with the realities of leading our faith communities face to face? Or will the allure of face to face connection cause a retreat from virtual spaces?

Recognizing that those entrusted to us live in an online world and that this online world is replete with explorations of faith and spirituality, we would be wise to not unplug completely. But without additional staff headcount, without new budget allocations for IT support or worship production, we'll need to be selective about where we spend our time.

Hybrid ministry, then, is a process of selective unplugging, of using the technologies that are most important at forming our communities for lives of faithful service.

I'm a technology enthusiast, a former Google employee whose view of technology is rosier and more optimistic than some. But even I know that even the best technology has its limits. That's why I'm such a believer in Cal Newport's work on Digital Minimalism, the philosophy that reminds us to only use the technologies that align with our purposes. To Newport and other digital minimalists, technology is a resource in service to our values, we ourselves are not tools in service to technology!

“Digital Minimalism A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
― Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

As church, our purpose in the digital age is to gather and equip Christians for lives of faithful service and shared discipleship. The most dynamic hybrid faith communities will thus use technology that gathers, technology that equips, and technology that promotes collaboration.

As faith leaders, our task isn't to be always on all digital channels and all apps at all times. Rather, our calling is to be intentional about very specific uses of tools that gather, equip, and collaborate.

These three categories of technology in a hybrid ministry context afford us the ability to be selective. If we identify the best technologies aligning to each of these practices, we can unplug from the rest, saving ourselves money, but most importantly, conserving the energy and focus of our leadership teams.

Technologies that gather are particularly visible in public worship. With worship, we should only use the technologies that promote an equitable gathering experience for those worshipping in the sanctuary and those worshipping via a connected device. Many churches produced a recorded worship experience during the pandemic. While some ministries may have the capacity to continue recording, editing, and broadcasting a polished service, most will move towards worship live streaming.

In our services and through our gatherings, we should plug into the technologies that allow those connecting online to feel immersed and included. An iPhone with a USB microphone, mounted in the front row, streaming to YouTube may prove far more valuable than a Hollywood-style streaming camera affixed to the back row of the balcony. In our gatherings, our primary commitment is to inclusivity, not to studio quality!

We will use technologies that equip primarily in faith formation and Christian education. With our teaching, we ought to only use the resources that transfer theory into practice. Here, the focus isn't as much on hardware or software, but on content.

Christian educators, especially during COVID, have a gift for producing considerable volumes of content: blogs, social posts, podcasts, videos, etc. But all of this content creation is time and resource intensive. In a hybrid ministry, Christian educators determine one or maybe two types of categories that facilitate spiritual practice. A youth group might find that guided prayers and meditations on Instagram Stories or IGTV do just that, whereas a senior's group might prefer a discussion on a Facebook wall post. Whatever you teach, whatever content you produce, make a commitment to minimalism and consistency. Share relevant content through the most appropriate channel on a predictable cadence - and then, share no more.

Finally, we will use technologies that facilitate collaboration throughout our ministry, but primarily in church leadership and administration. From Google Docs to Slack and Microsoft Teams, there's no shortage of "real-time" collaboration software to choose from.

As a member of my congregation recently pointed out, the more collaboration software we introduce, the more diluted our efforts, the more difficult it is to truly collaborate. In church leadership, we should regularly reflect on the purpose of our collaboration. Do we want tech that helps us to share the work of administrative tasks? Or do we want to use tools that promote asynchronous or virtual contributions to projects? Prioritize one method of collaboration, and select a tool that aligns with that specific use case. But start with specificity, with precision. Should the need arise, we can always add more collaborative technology.

In a hybrid ministry, less technology creates more impact. When we choose simple uses of technology that equip, gather, and collaborate, our communities are more likely to embrace the church's digital future. Moreover, our communities are more likely to join in living into our shared mission. When we overburden our faith communities with apps and hardware, subscriptions and services, we're that much more likely to desire a return to the "good 'ol days" of February 2020. As we look towards an eventual new normal, when the doors of our sanctuaries creak open, let us begin to unplug from that which is superfluous, so that we can connect where it matters most.


@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture," available now wherever books are sold.

"So, what technology should we continue using? You know, after we get back to normal?"

It's a question I regularly hear while talking digital age ministry with church leaders, one that ministry professionals are asking with increasing frequency. Implicit in the question is a desire to jettison some, if not most, of the tools and digital resources that allow us to continue being church during a time of digital distribution. I can empathize with the sentiment. For many pastors, priests, and deacons, it's difficult enough to film, edit, and broadcast a single worship service. It's unfathomable for them to think about managing all of this technology while also proclaiming the Word and administering the Sacraments at an in-person service.

Also buried in the question is an assumption that faith communities inevitably will return to where they were in February 2020, that 18 months of virtual-first faith practice will somehow not change what it means to be a Christian in a post-pandemic reality. Surely we can all empathize with this mindset. Who among us doesn't long for a return to vibrant in-person community, to seeing our friends and neighbors, to communion, to coffee hours, to what we once knew as Christian fellowship?

One possible answer to this question would be to continue using all of the same technology we're using to bring church to those staying safer at home. Keep the Zoom licenses, continue the platform subscriptions, and stay the course. As an alternative, we could stop using technology altogether, recognizing that the future of Christianity is not exclusively digital, and therefore we ought to put our focus on in-person connection.

Yet the best answer to the question of what technology we should continue using is nuanced.

Faith communities should continue using some, but not all, technology. Churches should celebrate a return to in-person connection, when available, but not think of face-to-face as the only authentic expression of church.

In fact, the best way to answer this question is not with a categorical list or blanket rejection of technology, but with two subsequent questions:

  • What are the technologies that can equip our communities for lives of faithful service?

  • And what technologies facilitate collaboration in our life together?

These questions should be top of mind because they remind us to focus on digital minimalism, to only deploy those technologies that align with our mission and values.

There is little purpose in a church continuing to use a specific piece of technology if it doesn't equip our faith community for acts of Christian love and service to a hurting world. If a technology isn't actively used for teaching, preaching, praying, proclaiming, encouraging, or empowering, it functions as little more than an online bulletin board. If a digital tool doesn't facilitate discipleship, disconnect.

But when we think about this question, we might realize how our usage of Zoom has brought together diverse cross-sections of our community to engage issues of justice and learning, how our posts to Instagram Stories have introduced moments of sacred pause and prayer into the frenzied world of social media. It's likely that we can identify which technology is equipping our faith communities in the here and now. These represent the first set of technologies we must keep.

Name the technologies that equip, find the technologies that form faith. Keep them, grow them, invest in them.

The second question, of which technologies facilitate collaboration, reminds of us of the inherent risks with unplugging completely, namely, the lost opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ wherever there are hands and feet to be found.

If a piece of technology allows us to broadcast but not to work together, to sermonize but not to serve as a community, then it's of little value to a missional faith community. When thinking about how technology facilitates collaboration, we might recognize how much of collaboration is tied up with listening. We might see how texting has allowed us to listen more intently, how Tweeting has enabled us to widen the circle of voices that we're listening to, how podcasting has enabled us to hear the most thoughtful voices on the future of Christianity.

As with technologies that equip, know what technologies that help us to collaborate in being the church together. Throw out the technologies that allow us merely to "watch" church so that we might prioritize the tools that convene our community for mutual acts of service.

Which technologies equip? Which help to collaborate?

The way we answer these questions represents our path to hybrid ministry, an expression of church that is simultaneously online and offline, that is equally inclusive of the virtual and the on-site experience. If we engage these questions thoughtfully, we may even find that we need less technology than we anticipated. We may even find that new IT staff and budget commitments are unnecessary.

Tools that equip. Tools that collaborate. In a digital age ministry, these are the tools that we cannot do without.


@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes," available now wherever books are sold.

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