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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Shut-ins and Shut-outs: Why Inclsuion is Key to Understanding the Church's Hybrid Future

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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