“I’m already sick of the term hybrid” one of my friends told me over the weekend; “I’m hearing it so much at the moment”. Everything is trying to work out how to become hybrid - for example the restaurants and pubs doing bookings and food orders over your phone, or the choirs who are meeting in smaller groups and then stitching their recordings together. And when it comes to thinking about hybrid church – balancing traditional in-person gatherings with the digital expressions of church we have been using for the last 12 months – perhaps you come to it with some level of fear.
For many the prevailing view is that, yet again, this is new ground, and we wish that everything would hurry up and get back ‘to normal’. Some church leaders (and tech teams) are just counting down the days until the live stream can be turned off!
However, I’m convinced that the church has always been hybrid - it’s always had its foot on both sides of the technological gathering. You can see that in the early church, and you can see that in the church ever since.
If you think of technology as something manmade which extends human capacity this begins to rethink how we see technology. The wheel was cutting edge technology once, I still think it’s pretty cool, but we’ve stopped thinking about how it extends our capacity and our reach because it is so normal.
If you pull out your Bible and come with me to 2 John 1v12. John is writing a letter to encourage someone, to keep them walking with Jesus and he rounds off his letter with this:
I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.
We could say that John just doesn’t want to write a long letter, but there is something very insightful about how technology (the pen and quill) and humans come together. He knows the strengths and limitations of the tech. He knows that he can use it to encourage and warn, but it is limited. Tech and tech alone will never ‘complete joy’ So John (and all the letter writers in the Bible) run a hybrid ministry where they write, and the plan and long to visit the churches.
I could draw your attention to many churches and ministries over the last 2000 years that have done this kind of hybrid work… ministries that used planes after the World Wars, radio ministries that broadcasted into closed countries and then linked people up with local believers, or even Spurgeon who had a hybrid ministry so that his sermons were available in New York just a few days after preaching. The Reverend Chad Varah in the 1950’s, as he founded The Samaritans, realised that with tech he could save the lives of people in his parish by making it possible for desperate people to call his vicarage phone so they could just talk. That hybrid work saw many people’s first interaction with the church happening at the point of greatest need, mediated by technology, but also drew them one step closer to seeing Christ as they spoke.
Your church might have transitioned from the tech of a song book to an overhead projectors in the '80s and 90’s, probably a data projector or a screen to enable your congregation to sing. Once upon a time you might have operated a tape or CD ministry for those who couldn’t make it into the church… perhaps you run a parish magazine to speak to your wider community.
The question is not how do we do hybrid church. We’ve been doing hybrid church for years. The question is how do we do hybrid church better?!
Okay… so if your church has always been hybrid, let’s think about something that it has never been! Your church has always been hybrid, but it has never been a spectator sport.
For the last year it has been far too easy to be a passive consumer of church; someone who sits on the sofa, turns on the livestream, ‘does church’, and that’s them done for the week. And, on top of that your church has had to compete for a set of distracted eyes scrolling through InstaTok, Disflix Prime, and all the rest…
But church isn’t something that we passively spectate in. Perhaps you’ve experienced the sadness and frustration of joining a pre-record or a livestream, perhaps even weeping that it doesn’t match what we long for it to be. We’ve realised that broadcasting a service like BBC’s Songs of Praise is a long way off the ‘complete joy’ that John longs for. John isn’t satisfied by that, we’ve not been satisfied by that, and we shouldn’t let ourselves become satisfied by that.
Something I learnt as a teenager - no matter how good your sound system is (or your friend’s sound system) there is nothing that compares to listening your favourite band (or chamber choir if that’s your thing) playing live. The musician’s performance is part of it, but so is the anticipation of going, and so are the people you go with, and the crowd that you join.
This week I read a statistic that said that over 40% of dating couples over the last few years had met online. I’m not sure of the validity of that number, but I can believe it. But while they meet online, they don’t purely stay online. A number of friends who have started dating during the last 12 months have immediately prioritised meeting and spending time together. It’s not that technology has gone out of the window - they’re still using video calls, text messages, and all the rest to communicate, but that’s not where the relationship stops. Our relationships are hybrid, but online should lead to spending time in person. This is the same for your church.
People will meet your church for the first time online, but don’t be satisfied with just viewers on a livestream. Work to build up that connection, strive to deepen the relationship. We’re made for human connection - Genesis 2v18 makes that clear; the first thing that isn’t good in all of creation is the loneliness of Adam, and in Jesus, God took on flesh – he didn’t settle for text messages on tablets, he came and walked among us.
We’ve seen that serving your church family and local community through online services has enabled people who wouldn’t previously have been able to come into your building on Sundays be connected with Sunday worship - those who work shift patterns, who are elderly, those who are disabled, or ill that week. There are plenty of reasons why people can’t come to your service this Sunday - but we mustn’t suggest that we’ve solved that problem with the livestream which is available for catch up later.
Doing ‘hybrid church’ isn’t leaning on digital tools like it’s a crutch- but carefully considering how these tools might encourage, extend, and improve your church’s ability to proclaim Christ. For the first time you’ve been able to include those who would have been excluded. Please note that I’m not saying that you need to go straight from watching a service to being a signed up Sunday attender singing in the choir, that would be like going from online dating to marriage, and switching off that provision might be tragic… But so would settling for leaving them at the digital fringe of your family. So how might you start to think beyond the broadcast, and make provisions for that person who just joins your livestream to be part of a community that encourages and spurs them on, that meets their needs, in person?
Remember - your church has always been hybrid. This isn’t about starting something new, instead thinking about how you might improve and bring together the new tools that you’ve learnt to use recently. Some bits are going to stay online, some bits are going to return in person, some physical gatherings will have digital elements, some digital gatherings will have physical elements.
These connections with your church that have started online, they will continue to be facilitated online, some of the practices that we’ve introduced have really blessed the church family - my church runs Tuesday Morning Prayer on Zoom before work, over breakfast, it’s been transformational for a number of us - but hybrid church is going to be able working out how to serve our church family best both online and in digital spaces.
That might be posting a gift or a card, it might be linking them up with one or two people in their neighbourhood, it might be linking them up with a different church family that are geographically closer to them, it might be arranging to do some shopping so you can have a chat on the doorstep, it might be picking up the phone and individually inviting them to come to church with you on Sunday.
We’re not going to “get it right” first time. We didn’t get the livestream right first time, or the Zoom prayer meetings, or the Minecraft youth group… but we learnt, we improved, and we innovated over the last 12 months. We’re going to have a lot of opportunities to do that in the months ahead.
This was originally given as a talk for Premier Digital as part of their Technology for the Hybrid Church seminar.