Blessed are the Low-Tech, when it comes to hybrid ministry. For theirs is the opportunity to be truly collaborative.
It's an exciting moment. With vaccinations now available to all American adults, it seems as though our "new normal" is closer than we may have anticipated. Churches continue to reopen their doors and create plans for hybrid ministry, a way of being church that blends the connections of the digital world with the strong community of the in-person church.
At this moment, there's a widespread perception that large, high-tech congregations with healthy media budgets are at an advantage. It seems logical that building a bridge between the online and the offline requires a skilled media production with access to Hollywood-quality studio equipment. After all, high-tech churches are the congregations that can create the "best" viewing experience: clear audio, crisp video, snappy transitions. Moreover, these congregations won't require pastors to be both preacher and video director at the same moment. Freed from multi-tasking, we imagine these leaders to be in a more advantageous position.
But if we take a critical look at why we are called to hybrid ministry, we might discover the opposite.
Hybrid ministry isn't the process of using digital technology for it's own sake. Instead, it's a calling to find a way of being church that is more inclusive and accessible. It's a summons to be more intentionally communal.
For these reasons, high-tech churches are actually at a disadvantage.
They might have the resources to create a polished and professional streaming "product," compelling enough to rival most viewing options on Netflix or HBO MAX. Indeed, who wouldn't want to watch a video with the production quality of a Joel Osteen?
Yet here's the paradox. The more polished our church services become, the more "professionalized" they are likely to be. In that sense, high-tech expressions of church are not particularly inclusive. Rather than creating a collaborative experience of Christian community, they create another piece of content for the consumption of the masses. Rather than extending an invitation into the shared work of the people, they create an unintentional buffer - between those sitting in the pews - and those watching from their couches.
For three reasons, low-tech churches, or those without vast media budgets and dedicated production staff, are at an advantage in the hybrid church.
First, low-tech churches are more likely to use Zoom as a platform for online worship. YouTube and Facebook Live may be the most common platforms for worship, but they tend to require event software integrations like OBS. A more ubiquitous tool that requires no additional software, Zoom just requires a device with a camera (an iPhone suffices) and audio input (a simple USB microphone is sufficient). Zoom creates a bridge between online and offline because it welcomes multiple voices. It's the only tool where that natively supports virtual worship leadership, that comes with the built-in ability to welcome digital lectors, prayers, cantors, and preachers. It's also the only tool where one can see the faces of all who gather online!
Low-tech churches will also have less tech equipment. Less equipment means more flexibility in configuring a worship space. A tripod-mounted iPad takes up less space than a studio soundboard with a full HD camcorder. This makes it possible to "record" the service from the front row or the middle of the sanctuary, whereas high-tech churches tend to record from the far back. Lower-tech churches thus provide a front row seat to worship, while high-budget congregations provide a seat in the back row, looking in.
Finally, lower-tech churches are more likely to rely on one of the key "low-tech" fundamentals of hybrid ministry: using inclusive language. Without professional video, they'll be more likely to greet online viewers. They'll be more likely to include their concerns in the prayers of the people, to speak directly to the online experience as part of the announcements. When it comes to creating an inclusive experience of those gathered online and offline, our words matter far more than what's on our screens. Low-tech ministries will be that much more likely to pay attention to this key aspect of inclusivity.
In recent conversations, I've heard some of those who lead small, rural and low-tech churches express a certain amount of resignation. It seems, in some cases, that they have already given up on hybrid ministry in their context.
Here's hoping they will find the strength and energy to attempt it. Here's praying that they won't squander their innate advantage.
@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes"