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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Learning to Unplug: Why Less Technology Creates More Impact in a Hybrid Church

Church leadership circles are becoming apprehensive about the time demands of hybrid ministry. This is, of course, to be expected. While this season of prolonged physical distancing showed us how to be the church online, it hasn't taught us how to be the church online and offline, virtual and in-person, at the exact same time.

Beginning in March 2020, we've been learning that we can be a virtual preacher, and that we can be a videographer, but not all at once. We've been discovering that can be an online facilitator, and that we can be a digital content creator, but not simultaneously.

The closing of church buildings during the pandemic has allowed to live in to many different roles. Still, it's unlikely we would have learned to use all this technology if we were still attending to busy Sunday mornings, complicated volunteer schedules, and the logistics of worshipping in a building filled with dozens or hundreds of people.

So what will it look like when we reach an eventual new normal, when buildings begin to re-open? Will we find a way to balance the time demands of digital ministry with the realities of leading our faith communities face to face? Or will the allure of face to face connection cause a retreat from virtual spaces?

Recognizing that those entrusted to us live in an online world and that this online world is replete with explorations of faith and spirituality, we would be wise to not unplug completely. But without additional staff headcount, without new budget allocations for IT support or worship production, we'll need to be selective about where we spend our time.

Hybrid ministry, then, is a process of selective unplugging, of using the technologies that are most important at forming our communities for lives of faithful service.

I'm a technology enthusiast, a former Google employee whose view of technology is rosier and more optimistic than some. But even I know that even the best technology has its limits. That's why I'm such a believer in Cal Newport's work on Digital Minimalism, the philosophy that reminds us to only use the technologies that align with our purposes. To Newport and other digital minimalists, technology is a resource in service to our values, we ourselves are not tools in service to technology!

“Digital Minimalism A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
― Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

As church, our purpose in the digital age is to gather and equip Christians for lives of faithful service and shared discipleship. The most dynamic hybrid faith communities will thus use technology that gathers, technology that equips, and technology that promotes collaboration.

As faith leaders, our task isn't to be always on all digital channels and all apps at all times. Rather, our calling is to be intentional about very specific uses of tools that gather, equip, and collaborate.

These three categories of technology in a hybrid ministry context afford us the ability to be selective. If we identify the best technologies aligning to each of these practices, we can unplug from the rest, saving ourselves money, but most importantly, conserving the energy and focus of our leadership teams.

Technologies that gather are particularly visible in public worship. With worship, we should only use the technologies that promote an equitable gathering experience for those worshipping in the sanctuary and those worshipping via a connected device. Many churches produced a recorded worship experience during the pandemic. While some ministries may have the capacity to continue recording, editing, and broadcasting a polished service, most will move towards worship live streaming.

In our services and through our gatherings, we should plug into the technologies that allow those connecting online to feel immersed and included. An iPhone with a USB microphone, mounted in the front row, streaming to YouTube may prove far more valuable than a Hollywood-style streaming camera affixed to the back row of the balcony. In our gatherings, our primary commitment is to inclusivity, not to studio quality!

We will use technologies that equip primarily in faith formation and Christian education. With our teaching, we ought to only use the resources that transfer theory into practice. Here, the focus isn't as much on hardware or software, but on content.

Christian educators, especially during COVID, have a gift for producing considerable volumes of content: blogs, social posts, podcasts, videos, etc. But all of this content creation is time and resource intensive. In a hybrid ministry, Christian educators determine one or maybe two types of categories that facilitate spiritual practice. A youth group might find that guided prayers and meditations on Instagram Stories or IGTV do just that, whereas a senior's group might prefer a discussion on a Facebook wall post. Whatever you teach, whatever content you produce, make a commitment to minimalism and consistency. Share relevant content through the most appropriate channel on a predictable cadence - and then, share no more.

Finally, we will use technologies that facilitate collaboration throughout our ministry, but primarily in church leadership and administration. From Google Docs to Slack and Microsoft Teams, there's no shortage of "real-time" collaboration software to choose from.

As a member of my congregation recently pointed out, the more collaboration software we introduce, the more diluted our efforts, the more difficult it is to truly collaborate. In church leadership, we should regularly reflect on the purpose of our collaboration. Do we want tech that helps us to share the work of administrative tasks? Or do we want to use tools that promote asynchronous or virtual contributions to projects? Prioritize one method of collaboration, and select a tool that aligns with that specific use case. But start with specificity, with precision. Should the need arise, we can always add more collaborative technology.

In a hybrid ministry, less technology creates more impact. When we choose simple uses of technology that equip, gather, and collaborate, our communities are more likely to embrace the church's digital future. Moreover, our communities are more likely to join in living into our shared mission. When we overburden our faith communities with apps and hardware, subscriptions and services, we're that much more likely to desire a return to the "good 'ol days" of February 2020. As we look towards an eventual new normal, when the doors of our sanctuaries creak open, let us begin to unplug from that which is superfluous, so that we can connect where it matters most.


@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture," available now wherever books are sold.

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Robyn Koehler
Robyn Koehler
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I‘m grateful your words always make it seem possible, Ryan. I’m excited to see where this next transition takes us.

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