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Simultaneously Online and Offline: Church as Hybrid Experience

Ryan Panzer Innovate Faithfully Leave a Comment

There was a time when we would “go” online. Some may remember the days of dial-up internet connected to desktop computers: the slow speed, the lack of mobility, the busy home phone lines. But those days ended with the mobile internet access provided by the smartphone. Four of five American adults now own a smartphone, giving most of us access to fast, reliable internet wherever we find ourselves.

In an environment of constant connection to apps and software developed for seemingly every use, we can no longer claim to go online. We must instead admit that we live online. We can no longer divide our waking hours between online and offline time. We spend our time simultaneously offline and online. To live in a tech-shaped culture is to experience constant hybrid connection that encompasses both the physical and the virtual.

Hybrid church as our next learning opportunity

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to show us what it means to be church in an exclusively virtual environment. As church leaders, our next learning opportunity is to determine what it means to make church a hybrid experience. When leaders find opportunities to bridge the online and offline together, they align their church community to the trends of digital culture. More significantly, they find opportunities to do the work of the church more effectively by increasing personal engagement with the Gospel message. 

In my previous blog post, I outlined a few techniques for hybrid worship experiences. But the hybrid church extends beyond Sunday morning. Bringing online and offline worship attendees together might be the first step to church as a hybrid experience, but it is by no means the endpoint. To align church with digital culture through hybrid experiences, we must find more creative practices than providing a dial-in for our events. In this post, I’ll explore what it means to bridge offline and online in faith formation and in spiritual practice. 

Deepening faith formation with technology

If church is to be a hybrid experience, faith formation and Christian education must fuse the online and the offline so that time spent together can be more edifying and immersive. A hybrid experience of faith formation should involve giving learners an option to join a class or discussion remotely, but it cannot stop here. If Christian education is to be a hybrid experience, Christian educators should seek to use technology to “flip the classroom.” In this model, increasingly popular in K-12 education, instructors distribute the necessary learning materials ahead of a meetup. When all join together, in a church classroom or on a Zoom, they draw on their self-paced discovery to reflect and create together. 

Imagine a Confirmation class studying the Old Testament, specifically the Hebrew prophets. Instead of a PowerPoint on Jeremiah and Isaiah, the Confirmation instructor could podcast a 15-minute lesson with high-level background, some brief commentary, and reading of some select passages. When the Confirmation class gathers together, they work together to write their own prophetic text in the style of the Hebrew Bible, engaging a social justice topic relevant to their community. The gathering concludes with plenty of time for reflection and discussion.  

Supporting spiritual practice online

The hybrid church also finds a natural expression through prayer and spiritual practice. The church leader of the digital age should constantly look to curate high-quality blogs, podcasts, books, and apps that support individual spiritual practice. In this case, the hybrid experience of church facilitates a transfer of learning and intentions from our communal liturgy to our personal lives. 

Imagine a Sunday service with a focus on stewardship of creation. Through song, scripture, and public prayer, those gathered on Sunday morning experience how God’s grace sets them free to care for our world. Church leaders then seek to make these experiences stick by using social media or newsletters to share thematically related resources throughout the week. Perhaps one post shares a podcast episode featuring a Christian environmental activist, perhaps one post links to an audio contemplative prayer meant to be played as one walks through nature. Curating and creating digital resources, the church leader looks to provide little experiences of Sabbath extending throughout our week. 

The best experiences of the church in the digital age are those that creatively use technology to bolster the life of faith. When we in the church become more fluent connecting offline and online hybrid experiences, our pastoral care, preaching, and proclamation reach further. Our churches become more dynamic, collaborative, and creative. And our communities come to recognize that God’s wondrous love extends far beyond our walls.

 In the next blog post, we’ll explore why church leaders ought to engage digital technology not just as a set of tools, but through the lens of culture.

Read More by Ryan Panzer on the Intersection of Technology and Ministry

 

About the Author

Ryan Panzer

Ryan Panzer (MA, Luther Seminary) is an author, instructional designer, and consultant who started his career working in digital marketing at Google. At Google, Ryan helped small businesses to craft a digital strategy using tools like Google Analytics, YouTube, and Google Ads. His Fortress Press book, "Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture", comes out in December 2020. For more writings and resources, visit www.ryanpanzer.com.

Photo by fauxels

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