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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Time for a change: Talking to your church about hybrid ministry

As church leaders, lay and ordained, staff and non-staff, we tend to see the value in remaining online in some form after buildings can safely and completely reopen. We've noticed the increased worship attendance that accompanies live-streamed services. We've heard from parishioners who moved away years ago but who have rejoined our faith communities virtually over the last year. And we've talked with friends who never go to church, but have tuned into our YouTube worship service for a few moments, or caught glimpses of a recent sermons on Facebook Live.

As leaders, we get it. The web is a mission field.

And with brand-new Gallup data showing that the majority of Americans are no longer members of a church, the importance of the web to the sustainability of our ministry cannot be overstated.

It's a different story in our broader church communities.

If our buildings haven't already reopened, they will soon, and we'll quickly hear from those who were burnt out of Zoom, those who were so ready to be back, who have no interest in ever again connecting with their church community online. They want to be "back," they want a return to "normal."

This creates an inevitable leadership tangle: the desire to be accessible, inclusive, and invitational in digital spaces, versus the reality of members who are burnt out on digital connection.

Getting started with hybrid ministry: A bit like climbing into a hang glider. On a cliff. Next to the ocean.

This tension isn't going to resolve itself, and it's not going to disappear anytime soon. Some will see the missional opportunity of further ministry work in digital spaces, but many will not. So before we get back into the rhythm of our analog church communities, before our time, energy, and resources are taken up by the realities of face-to-face gatherings, let's take a minute to talk with our congregations about hybrid ministry.

For starters, let's share the message widely that in the transition to safely reopning our buildings, we'll continue to prioritize digital accessibility. Not everyone is comfortable returning at the exact time, and with herd immunity still months away, there's no magic date on the calendar where we can snap back to the church we were. We'll continue to have cameras in the sanctuary and Zoom dial-ins for meetups because nobody should have to trade their comfort and safety for the right to participate in our community. As we journey towards the other side of this pandemic, let's communicate that we are making digital a highly visible and widespread priority.

By communicating that we are staying connected online during this time of transition, we set the foundation for the future of hybrid ministry: that our commitment to inclusivity is only as great as our commitment to ministry in digital spaces.

Not everyone is comfortable attending an analog church. Not everyone is available to be present in a building at a specific time. And while those of us who are temporarily-able-bodied may not experience any issues with walking into a church, let's remember that steps, sidewalks, and stained glass create physical barriers to some, spiritual and emotional barriers to others.

Some will push back. The conversation on inclusivity in the near-term and long-term won't be enough, and they won't care much about the opportunity to extend the reach of the church.

You can probably already guess who that will be within your community. They'll say things like "it's fine to be online, but I don't want to see cameras in the sanctuary. I don't want to have to join any Zoom calls. This is my church, and I want it to go back to normal. Is this really where we are going to spend our money?"

We need to talk to these individuals, and listen to their concerns. These ideas likely don't come from an opposition to hybrid ministry - but from frustration with a year of widespread sacrifice and ever-present social distancing.

Perhaps the best way to talk with and listen to these individuals is not to ask for their opinions on the use of technology in the church. We don't need to give them access to a physical suggestions box, because we don't need to give them an outlet for their complaints.

What we should do instead is to ask them to think about the future of the church. We might ask them to think about what it means that 50% of all Amercians are no longer church members, that entire Christian denominations may disappear within our lifetime.

Then, we should ask them to think about who we are called to be, and what God is calling us to do. In other words, we should ask them to reflect on our church's mission.

If we get too technical with these conversations, if we get stuck on "what we do" instead of "why we do it," we are unlikely to get anywhere. But if we invite our communities to reflect on the future of our ministry, and how we can sustain our shared sense of connection and service for another generation, we may find that we're all more willing to change than we might like to admit.

We don't need to persuade everyone, we may not need to persuade anyone. We simply need to show up for the conversation, to share that hybrid ministry matters, to facilitate a dialogue on where God is calling us next.

Because this isn't a conversation about cameras, social media, or computers. This is a conversation about our future, about whether all that is great about our church community will be available to a new generation.


@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes."

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