How does a hybrid ministry involve online worshippers as many return to in-person services?
This is a crucial question for today's church leader. 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. There is also a practical layer to this question. The more we can involve in worship leadership, the less that pastors and church staff must manage.
We must consider, then, the ways that worship leadership might become a hybrid of online and offline.
First, virtual lectors could read the scriptures. Some congregations utilized virtual lectors during the lockdown, inviting members to record lectionary readings at home and submit them for use in the service. Some even staged recording sessions in the sanctuary, recording the reading at the pulpit on a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon.
In a post-pandemic church, a virtual lector is one who reads from elsewhere, their lesson spliced into the service through recorded digital video, a projector, and a screen in the sanctuary. While anyone can use a smartphone to record themselves reading, a next-level usage of virtual 'lectoring' solicits readings from interesting backgrounds and locations. Reading from Genesis about care for creation? Record the reading from a lakeshore. Reading from John about the vine and the branches? Record from a garden (or wine cellar!). Creatively applied, the virtual lector role demonstrates that God is always on the move, at work in the community!
Next, present the prayers of the people with virtual presiders, alongside a digital invitation for prayer concerns. Of all worship roles that can be led by a member or congregant, presiding over the prayers of the people is the most theological significance. The prayers of the people acknowledge the lived experience of the community, handing over to God the concerns and celebrations, the joys and sorrows of our life together. Presiding over these prayers synchronously and virtually through a platform like Zoom acknowledges that the community is far more expansive than those gathered in the sanctuary.
As a next-level tactic, gather prayer requests through text messaging or even an anonymous, virtual drop-box. Prayers of the people in the sanctuary often create space for some to vocalize their prayer requests (or in many churches, stand in awkward silence). Digital apps lift up the prayers not just of those who are gathered physically and who are outgoing enough to vocalize their prayer requests. Rather, these resources share with the presider the raw and real prayer needs of the ever-expansive body of Christ.
Then, expand the voices proclaimed from the pulpit with virtual preachers. This is a method of preaching quite different from the video sermons found in megachurches. We don't need to beam-in a virtual Rick Warren! Instead, we need to provide opportunities for our faith community to articulate their lived experience of God in their lives, in the context of that week's narrative themes.
Virtual preachers can be one individual who records an entire sermon and then plays a video on Sunday. But that's not the best of use this role. In "Grace and Gigabytes," I write about the importance of collaboration in the digital age. Nothing affirms the importance of collaboration in a faith community like collaborative preaching. Invite parishioners to prayerfully consider a simple question or two about their faith experience. Encourage them to record a 30-60 second video response. Then, edit those responses together for inclusion in the sermon.
While virtual leadership roles are important, not every Sunday needs a virtual worship leader. Not every church needs to implement virtual volunteers. There are other ways of building the bridge between online and offline worship.
But opening up leadership roles to those gathered via a screen makes a strong statement: that this congregation truly welcomes all people, that God's work in the world extends far beyond the walls of the sanctuary.