Some churches are opening buildings, many more are keeping them closed. Where do we go from here?
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has convinced many faith communities to meaningfully engage digital technology for the first time.
A 2017 study by Vimeo found that 64% of church attendees reported that a church website facilitated their attendance or participation in the life of a congregation. While clear data on the church during COVID-19 will not be available for some time, one would expect that the percentage of those who connected to church through a website or social media is now closer to 100%. More significantly, the church’s presence online no longer functions as a gateway to in-person community. A church website is no longer a facilitator. Rather, since March 2020, our websites, social channels, and applications have become the church itself, the fullest expression of Christian community during quarantine.
As states have begun to lift restrictions, a few Christian communities have begun a phased transition back to in-person assembly. Thoughts on reopening vary across denominations, geographies, and even political leanings. The question of when to reopen will occupy the minds of church leaders for weeks, months, and perhaps years.
Yet as churches begin to consider if or when to reopen their buildings, another question ought to follow: how will our initial endeavors into cyberspace change our approach to ministry? Where do we go from here, having learned so much about being the church in the digital age? Do we revert to exclusively in-person worship, perhaps the norm prior to COVID-19; do we continue to offer online-only experiences; or do we find a way to bridge online and offline expressions of church? As we begin to consider the next movement of Christian community, church leaders must seek a hybrid of offline and online ministry practices in order to reach communities whose lives were, are, and will always be lived fully offline and online.
Many churches using live-streaming during COVID-19 will continue to offer some form of live-streaming through platforms like YouTube, Facebook Live, Vimeo Live Stream, or Zoom. As we enter a new phase of the pandemic, the challenge confronting church leaders is how to prevent streaming from becoming a lesser-tier worship experience. We should all thoughtfully consider how to offer online attendees more than passive viewing of an experience taking place elsewhere.
Commitment #1: Parity between offline and online worship
Let us, therefore, commit to facilitating equal offline and online experiences, in which those gathered in-person and those assembled online can actively engage scripture, song, and prayer. This might be accomplished by incorporating virtual lectors or even preachers, in continuing to record and broadcast virtual choir performances, or by having a virtual attendee preside over the prayers of the people.
Commitment #2: Continued collaboration
Throughout the pandemic, church leaders collaborated virtually using tools like Google Docs or Microsoft 365. Many churches found that these tools facilitated more expressions of shared leadership, in that members of the community became more involved in developing innovative approaches to ministry for an uncertain time. As pastors and staff return to their desks, they should resolve to continue to collaborate virtually, extending an invitation to non-staff and non-rostered leaders.
Let us then also commit to perpetuating shared leadership, supported by newly familiar collaborative technology. This might be accomplished by inviting community members to share input and feedback with tools like Google Docs or Survey Monkey, or by inviting community members to quick and efficient brainstorming sessions over Google Hangouts. We should remember that collaborative technology is only as good as how many in our community are invited into the collaborative process!
Commitment #3: Opportunities to unplug
Finally, many church leaders and church members alike recently experienced moments of digital burnout or fatigue. As workdays filled with oft-interrupted video conferences, we all recognized the realities of “Zoom fatigue.” The pandemic showed us that purely virtual forms of togetherness are tiring and that though the future of the church will be partially online, it will never be exclusively virtual.
Let us commit, then to providing virtual Sabbath. As our churches seek to find new ways to connect, let us also seek to find intentional moments of disconnection. Whether through prayers, meditations, direct messages, or personal outreach, the church leader of the digital age should promote healthy digital engagement and intentional disconnection.
Whenever this pandemic ends, the era of the hybrid church begins. Rather than forgetting all we have learned about being the church in a tech-shaped culture, let us lean into virtual expressions of the church that are fully offline and fully online. Let us commit to faithfully innovating.
Join Ryan Panzer at the next Faithful Adaptation webinar to discover and discuss more about digital ministry. Stay Signed On: What’s next for online church? isa free webinar on Thursday June 18 at 1 PM CST.
In the next blog post, we’ll explore hybrid experiences of church in order to further define how to be a ministry that is simultaneously fully online and fully offline.
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Photo by Jopwell