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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Hybrid ministry: How to design a multi-site, multi-platform worship service

The most demanding role in any congregation may be that of the worship planner. Each week, the worship planner integrates unchanging aspects of the liturgy with a constantly changing and accelerating world, a task that was demanding enough before our churches went online.

Today, the worship planner is tasked not just with crafting a liturgy, but with balancing the needs of both in-person and online worship attendees. While there are many aspects of digital worship for the planning team to consider, three are particularly important for a multi-platform worship service attended simultaneously by online and in-person worshippers.

A multi-platform, hybrid service requires language that welcomes the online and in-person worshipper. The low-tech requirement of inclusive language is the easiest aspect of hybrid worship. Yet it is also the most critical. Without inclusive language, the online attendee will always feel like a second-tier attendee, one who has a back-row seat to an event taking place elsewhere. Each component of the liturgy provides an opportunity to extend hospitality to the virtual worship attendee. Everything from the greeting to the sermon to the prayers and announcements could include a word of acknowledgment and affirmation for those in physical and virtual space.

An inclusive greeting reminds all who are gathered that we are the church, wherever we find ourselves for the service. Inclusive and hospitable announcements include directions for connecting physically and virtually (Zoom links, URLs, QR codes, etc) to each aspect of the church's life together. Inclusive preaching and prayers specifically lift up the concerns of those who are gathered online, inviting virtual attendees to contribute prayer petitions.

The worship planner need not mention "digital" or "hybrid" in each piece of the liturgy. But the service necessitates a consistent thread of hospitable language. Each week, the worship planner should highlight where these threads will be most visible.

Hybrid worship also requires the creative use of transitional space. An in-person liturgy includes moments of stillness, waiting, and musical reflection. We pass the plates as we listen to special music. We process to the table for the Eucharist. In some denominations and traditions, we sit in revered silence until the liturgy begins. These moments may or may not transfer well to an online worship experience. But if we are seeking to do hybrid worship, where we build bridges between virtual and physical, we must address what these moments look like online.

The worship planner isn't so much tasked with eliminating these moments, so much as they are called to think about what they look like in cyberspace. Perhaps during the Eucharist, online attendees view a slideshow of images from the church's life together. Or during the offering, virtual worshippers could watch a video about the impact of tithes and offerings on the church's work in the community. Each week, the worship planner asks the question of what the transitional aspects of worship ought to look like online. Then, the planner considers how to adapt just one of these transitions to the needs and expectations of online worship.

Communion at the (pre-Covid) Episcopal National Cathedral. The YouTube stream includes beautiful shots of the cathedral's windows as music plays.

Lastly, a multi-platform, multi-site worship requires some meaningful involvement from the virtual body of Christ. If those who worship online are only offered the opportunity to passively watch a live stream, then they cannot contribute to the work of the people. 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.

When planning virtual worship leadership, start with small acts of involvement before designing more complex leadership roles. Simple involvement might resemble a prayer request submitted via SMS or social messaging, or an invitation to respond to the sermon via Facebook or YouTube comments. Once the worship planner establishes a pattern of virtual involvement, they might create opportunities for virtual worship leadership roles: lectors, cantors, presiding ministers, even preachers. Not every service needs a lector who records their reading offsite, perhaps at a location that complements the reading. Not every Sunday needs the prayers of the people read via Zoom. Still, the extent to which the worship planner creates opportunities for involvement is the extent to which worship becomes a truly hybrid experience.

The questions confronting today's worship planner are seemingly innumerable. There are questions of resourcing and staffing, software and hardware, production and distribution. In such a chaotic environment, one might lose focus on the art of liturgical development. By prioritizing inclusivity, transitional space, and involvement each week, today's worship planner can maintain a focus on liturgy - while leading through a period of acceleration and re-invention.


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