Production booth, University Baptist Church, College Park, Maryland.
Photograph by Curtis Ramsey-Lucas
The four qualities of an effective hybrid church
July 26, 2022
Over the last two and a half years, we learned we can do a whole lot more online than we realized. We can worship, learn, pray, even gather. We learned how to stream, Zoom, edit, publish, post; and the learning curve was steep for most.
Today, however, we are faced with a new challenge as we consider how to engage what can at times feel like two separate congregations—one in the pews and one online. This moment in the Church’s history demands intention and collaboration. It is asking of us that we discern if we are called to hybrid ministry, what that might mean for us, and how to build the bridge between what we’re doing now and what we will do in the future.
But what is a hybrid church?
Let’s start with what it isn’t. It’s not (necessarily) a church that has a livestream of its Sunday morning worship service.
Are you surprised?
The reality is that many churches that have a livestream have not fully engaged—and may never fully engage—in hybrid ministry. And that’s okay! Not every church is called to become a hybrid church.
At its most basic, the hybrid church model presents two driving forces of equal status: an online ministry and an in-person ministry.
Through my work with churches across the country and my research, I have identified what I call “The Four Qualities of the Hybrid Church.”
They are as follows:
1. A hybrid church does more than restream its worship service.
2. A hybrid church encourages different rhythms of participation and engagement.
3. A hybrid church prioritizes people over programs.
4. A hybrid church relinquishes the role of the expert and is willing to become an explorer.
Let’s briefly unpack each one.
A hybrid church does more than restream its worship service.
Much of what we do in a traditional worship service is impacted—sometimes even determined—by our physical worship spaces. Because of this, much of what we do in a traditional worship service does not translate to the at-home or online experience of worship. Singing along can feel awkward, preaching disconnected, and everything from prayers and readings to the sacraments can be difficult to replicate.
An effective hybrid church does not prioritize one experience of worship over another; it does not value one over another. This means that in many cases online worship cannot and should not be the mere broadcasting of the in-person worship service and physical worship space.
Even small adjustments can be made to communicate to the online portion of our congregation that it matters to us as much as those sitting in the pews. These adjustments might include learning to acknowledge those worshiping online by looking into the camera more frequently and having a plan for online worshipers for any moment during the service when physical participation is necessary.
Other churches may go as far as creating a shorter, more intimate online-only worship experience that is published later on in the week in addition to (or instead of!) a Sunday morning livestream. A recent conversation with a church in New Jersey resulted in the reorganizing of their order of worship so the sermon takes place within the first half hour.
Prior to the pandemic, churches had become experts at what they did. For the most part, there was little room for experimentation, backtracking, the rethinking of processes and systems. Today, however, we are faced with a new challenge as we consider how to engage what can at times feel like two separate congregations—one in the pews and one online.
No matter the adjustments it makes, an effective hybrid church will do what it can to equally honor both parts of its congregation and their experience of worship.
A hybrid church encourages different rhythms of participation and engagement.
For too long, in-person participation in Sunday morning worship has been the stick by which we measured how active someone is. Today, however, participation can often mean more than one thing. An individual can attend church in person or online in real time. Others might access the worship service later in the week. Some who primarily worship online (and perhaps only occasionally) may commit to more regular in-person missions or hybrid small group offerings, for example.
Many churches with new online ministries offer a variety of access points but are still communicating that (1) attending the worship service is the most important way to interact with the church and (2) it’s best to show up at a specific time and in a specific way.
One of the most important things we can do to become an effective hybrid church is not just offer a variety of access points to our ministry but to acknowledge the need for and encourage creativity and flexibility in participation.
A hybrid church prioritizes people over programs.
Churches have focused heavily on the development of on-site programming for so long, many have missed one of the greatest opportunities gifted to us by digital media—digital ministry.
The vast majority of churches use their websites, emails, and social media as digital bulletin boards, advertising their in-person, online, or hybrid programming.
These digital tools, however, can also be used themselves for ministry—not just marketing. We can minister to our followers directly on Facebook, encourage them to grow in their faith by email, and give them food for thought on our websites.
Increased participation in church life does not guarantee spiritual maturity. Part of becoming an effective hybrid church is acknowledging that a person’s spiritual life extends beyond the church. If we only ever offer programming that our congregants can attend, we’re helping them make the church part of their daily life, but not necessarily make their faith part of their daily life.
An effective hybrid church prioritizes the spiritual growth of its congregants. It uses all of the available tools to support their growth—even if that means that at times it won’t be able to assess the success of its ministry by counting the heads in a classroom, in the pews, or on Zoom.
A hybrid church relinquishes the role of the expert and is willing to become an explorer.
Prior to the pandemic, churches had become experts at what they did. For the most part, there was little room for experimentation, backtracking, the rethinking of processes and systems.
We are at an important intersection in the Church’s history. There are no experts and, frankly, experts are not needed. People don’t connect with experts. We may listen to them, respect them, but we don’t connect with them. Today, the Church needs explorers.
Experts talk to; explorers engage with. Experts know the destination and the path for arrival; explorers are excited for the possibilities, undeterred by the unknown, and are willing to take it all one step at a time. Experts take the lead; explorers come alongside. Experts seek perfection; explorers seek excellence.
As congregations across the country and around the world discern what it means to them to become an effective hybrid church, one thing is certain: this period of upheaval and change is not happening to the Church, but for the Church.
An effective hybrid church does not seize every opportunity; but it does see opportunity everywhere! Perhaps that more than anything else—more than a livestream, more than access to technology and staffing resources, more than anything else I’ve mentioned in this article—is what defines a hybrid church: the willingness to see opportunity everywhere and to explore with excitement the possibilities for the future.
Christen Kinard is the founder of Digital Congregations which sits at the intersection of her desire to do meaningful work, her belief in the importance of faith communities, and her talents and experience.