The pandemic of 2020 forced all of us into innovation mode for a short time, and in some places there was great pressure either to continue online or to return to in-person worship in the building. Some churches had members from both extremes threatening to leave the church if the church leadership didn’t go along with their side. But one thing was proven true: churches of almost any size are capable of creating online worship events. What does this mean for the future? I’m no prophet, but I sense that some sort of hybrid model will be adopted in order to maintain community in our modern digital world.
The danger of trying to do both is that a church might wind up doing neither well. Larger churches with a full staff might be able to produce an online-only worship on Thursday while also holding in-person worship on Sunday, but this is nearly impossible for a small church to sustain.
In order to find the best hybrid model to fit your context, assess your resources and determine what is sustainable and “worth the effort.” Livestreaming your worship service to Facebook from a cell phone may be all that is necessary on a weekly basis to maintain your online presence. But “do not quench the spirit.” Let your creativity flow from a sense of mission and outreach rather than obligation. You don’t have to post a weekly blog, a meme, a discussion question, a catchy photograph, or a fancy music video every single week at the same time each week. This quickly stifles creativity and becomes a chore and a burden. Instead, as you are inspired, pass it on. You will have some weeks when you are finding and sharing inspiration all the time and other weeks when you won’t say anything at all. But keep in mind two things: if you wait until you get it exactly right before you start, you’ll never start; and if you post on a fixed schedule, you’ve prioritized time over content. Just aim to be consistent in how your content enhances the worship event.
The Zoom application is not just for small groups and deacons’ meetings. It is the master tool for the hybrid church. There are many reasons why someone might not be able to be physically present at your meeting, so Zoom (or other video-conferencing software) allows them to connect wherever they are. My church has had members move out of state but still attend book studies via Zoom. One member had a work meeting run late, so she joined our Bible study on Zoom in the car on the ride home. Let’s say someone is sick or has company or can’t find a babysitter. Now they can join your meeting and at least listen in even if they aren’t able to fully engage in the conversation (they need only turn off their microphone and camera). If you have any kind of interactive meeting, simply place a Zoom device near the main speaker, and now anyone in the world can join. Here are some more detailed ideas for putting Zoom to work in your hybrid church:
• Greeter. Select a weekly online “greeter” who opens the church’s Zoom meeting on a cell phone and moves throughout the building with the camera, allowing the viewers to feel physically present. This technique helps out-of-town or homebound members interact with the community rather than just passively viewing content.
• Sunday School. Get a tripod and set up a Zoom device in the actual Sunday school room. If you have multiple classes, you can have multiple Zoom accounts or use other video conference apps like Facebook Messenger or Facetime.
• Bible Study. Open a Zoom session for your Wednesday night Bible study and set the computer or smartphone/tablet next to the presenter so people can interact remotely.
• Guest Speakers. Zoom allows guest speakers to present remotely, so you can enlist outside speakers without unnecessary travel expenses. We’ve had presenters sharing stories, slides, and images with us while they are on location in Africa and we are in our living rooms! Even if your large group prefers meeting in person, simply set up the church Zoom computer on the projector or TV, and participants can gather around it in person or join from home. In the absence of a weekly gathering, my church adopted this model, calling special guest speakers monthly from across the country. We were able to have attendance three to four times what it would be on a weekly frequency. Figure out what best fits your context.
• Small Groups. Zoom is ideal for small groups in a busy society where people are overcommitted. It’s much easier to log on for thirty minutes than to drive across town. A hybrid approach works well as no projector or TV is needed if a small group gathers in person around a laptop where those not physically present can also join.
• Other Groups. Book clubs, breakfast clubs, lunch clubs, college groups, or other affinity groups (which group people by common interests, occupation, etc.) are all more possible because of technology like Zoom. People may have become “Zoomed out” in the midst of pandemic fatigue, but at least they have learned to use the tool, making it easier to connect in the future.
This post originally appeared in Sensing God Online: Navigating Worship in a Digital World by Justin Bishop, now available from Smyth & Helwys.