Grace & Gigabytes Blog

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

Updated: Feb 12

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.

Hybrid Church: A Bridge Between the Online and Offline

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.

Our most widely-used digital technologies are built upon a collaborative foundation. This likely does not surprise you. We share docs, we comment on slides, we send direct messages and post to group channels, and all of this is part of a typical, digital age day-in-the-life.

Yet implicit in the adoption of real-time collaborative technologies like Google Docs, Microsoft Teams, Slack, and others is an accelerating commitment to egalitarian participation, to the flattening of hierarchy. While the impact of digital technology on our culture is broad and diverse, the impacts on leadership is pointed and decisive: we expect opportunities to meaningfully contribute, we insist on opportunities to frequently participate, we demand collaboration. The story of the digital age is a rapidly unfolding march towards more collaborative forms of leadership in organizations, in government, and particularly in the church.

Some institutions have been more adept at pivoting towards more collaborative and shared forms of leadership. The technology industry in particular has made a commitment to busting bureaucracy, leveling hierarchy, and creating collaborative feedback loops throughout its teams.

As a former Googler employee, I recall filling out countless surveys asking me if various processes at the company were becoming too hierarchical and thus having a negative effect on my productivity. At every tech company I’ve worked for, bureaucracy and hierarchy have been viewed with more hostility than any possible external competition!

Churches, often seen by those on the outside of organized religion as excessively hierarchical, have been slower to adapt to the new cultural norm of shared leadership. Even the most technologically sophisticated congregations operate from a “sit and get” model, where members of the church are relegated to consumers or viewers with checking accounts.

While many have predicted that the mass adoption of digital tech in religious institutions will be the next big wave of reform in Christian practice, I would argue differently. To truly connect to a tech-shaped culture, our churches don’t actually need to use more technology. Instead, we need to think deeply about how this technology changes what it means to lead in this digital age. That’s the real revolution about to take place in the church.

2021 affords churches innumerable opportunities to test new approaches. Let the coming year be a time of change and innovation in leadership. This process of innovation can be simple. Invite more communal feedback and input, from inside and outside the congregation. Be intentional about establishing pathways to involvement, for guests and members alike. Most pressingly, reevaluate your mission and vision in light of the significant challenges this year has wrought, and let the reevaluation take place in community.

Google Docs and other forms of collaborative technology have indeed initiated a great leadership revolution. Shared leadership is an idea whose time has come. May it’s implementation be atop our church’s New Year’s Resolutions for 2021.


@ryanpanzer is the author of “Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture,” a book that explores how our digital culture continues to reshape the practices of Christian Leadership. For more on the book, check out the full-length trailer!

5 views0 comments
  • Ryan Panzer

Updated: Feb 12

Think back to February 2020. Your experience of church was decidedly analog. Aside from some media-savy evangelical and "ex-vangelical" movements, most religious organizations had yet to see the value in digital connection. Estimates vary, but it's assumed that more than half of all churches didn't have a website. Most weren't on social media. Many didn't have internet in their buildings.

Throughout COVID-19, we've learned what it means to worship, learn, pray, and practice our faith online. Our most pressing question is no longer how to "do" church online. While there are still incremental improvements to be made, most churches have risen to meet this season of digital distribution. Rather, all church leaders must now engage the question that lies just on the horizon, of what it means to be a "hybrid" church. Now is the time for church leaders to determine what it means to be a ministry that blends the online with the offline, the virtual with the face-to-face.

In response to this pressing question, authors Dave Daubert and Richard E.T. Jorgensen produced an accessible and compelling guide, "Becoming a Hybrid Church"($11.99 USD, available from Day 8 Strategies). Taking a collaborative approach, the book includes recommendations for hybrid worship, stewardship, spiritual practice, and other aspects of Christian ministry, alongside discussion starters and prompts for further discernment.

Daubert and Jorgensen's work is compelling in that it casts the church's digital vocation not as an "add-on" or "extra." For the authors, digital ministry is essential to Christian practice in a tech-shaped culture, one that church leaders ignore "at their own peril."

Accordingly, their ideas go well beyond superficial suggestions to add a dial-in to a meeting or position a web camera at the back of the sanctuary. Instead, their ideas are grounded in the conviction that there ought to be parity between the online and offline experience of church, that digital and face-to-face expressions of Christian community should afford equal levels of connection to God and to one another. This moment demands considerable thoughtfulness and intentionality, with collaborative processes inclusive of both lay and ordained leadership.

"Becoming a Hybrid Church" is at the leading edge of a new movement within the Christian tradition. Savvy church leaders would do well to actually use the conversation guides that conclude each chapter, just as they would do well to put many of the tactics explored within this book into practice. But as a church, we need more than the implementation of these ideas.

We need church leaders to share their experience in moving towards hybrid ministry. As you begin to discern what it means to be a hybrid church, as you begin to launch practices that will build the bridge between online and offline forms of Christian connection, you ought to consider sharing your stories. Document your findings. What works? What flops? What facilitates authentic connection, what facilitates meaningful faith practice? As I read this important work, my hope is that more church leaders will use it as a jumping-off point for sharing their own ideas. With the hope of widespread vaccinations in the coming months, the "new normal" of hybrid church is just around the corner. This moment needs our experiences and stories, shared publicly for the benefit of the broader church. Daubert and Jorgensen have teed up the conversation starters. It's up to all of us to engage the conversation.


@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture."

150 views0 comments