By Neva Rae Fox
When pandemic restrictions were thrust upon all areas of life, many in the Episcopal Church transferred to an online alternative for worshiping in order to maintain connections and spirituality.
But now that restrictions are being lifted, three overriding questions arise: Will churches return solely to in-person worship? Or will churches opt for online only? Or will a hybrid emerge that captures the essence of church and fills many needs?
The hybrid church uses both online and in-person worship.
An examination of hybrid church evokes various, albeit fundamentally similar, attitudes.
“Hybrid as a blended model is the way I am looking at it going forward,” said Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe of the Diocese of Central New York. “Some people in a place and some people who are tuning in.”
“My definition of a good hybrid would be livestreaming the services, then you bring Communion to people in one way or another, and for things — programs or Bible Study — have people able to phone in,” said the Rev. Hannah Armidon, a supply priest in the Diocese of Springfield.
“Hybrid church is inclusive church,” said the Rev. Tim Schenck of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts. “Not only can we connect in our own community with those who cannot be there for whatever reason — illness, vacation, homebound — there are so many reasons to embrace hybrid worship.”
Many look at hybrid worship as a form of evangelism. Duncan-Probe is one of them. “Hybrid, evangelism, inclusivity. Zoom allows for greater reach and greater evangelism.”
“One of the gifts of the pandemic is that it taught us new ways to evangelize,” agreed Bishop Andy Doyle of the Diocese of Texas.
Doyle, the author of Embodied Liturgy: Virtual Reality and Liturgical Theology in Conversation, added, “Hybrid can be a form of evangelism, but evangelism is meant to bring people into the church. Bible study online — yes. Book study online — yes. It’s not Eucharist.”
“Hybrid can be a form of evangelism,” Armidon agreed. “Bible study is evangelism — that’s the place where you can ask all the questions. That’s a good way of using the online presence without sacrificing the community. I think it’s more like church shopping, which I think is dangerous.”
She added, “I think it could end up fracturing communities. It can be isolating. People’s lives are a mess right now. I think the online provides flexibility. But for the sacraments and those acts of communal worship, that’s the biggest danger, of losing that.”
For some, hybrid is the future.
“Our digital presence matters more now than ever,” said Canon Mike Orr of the Diocese of Colorado. We’ve spent the last 14 months connecting online with worshipers, and that experience has been transformational. We’ve been forced to think beyond our walls in a new digital space, for worship, for spiritual formation, and for community engagement, and it has worked. We’ve grown in new ways and experienced community like never before.”
The Rev. David Peters of St. Joan of Arc in Pflugerville, Texas, considers online and social media critically important now more than ever. “It’s the nature of the reality today,” he said. “I think it always will be.”
As a church planter, Peters “was always looking for ways to connect with people. Hybrid works if you focus on both groups — those who show up in person, those who show up online.”
He first turned to the social media platform TikTok solely to meet his neighbors. Now, he has 89,000 followers on TikTok.
“TikTok loves novelty,” Peters said. “I was the first Episcopal priest who was more liturgical on TikTok. I got the little spotlight in the beginning. Not much anymore. That’s how the viral world works.”
During the pandemic, Washington National Cathedral has experienced an upsurge of online followers across the country creating a robust community. “We are fostering a community,” said Kevin Eckstrom, Chief Communications Officer. “There is a defined online community that has been built.”
He added, “I think hybrid is here to stay. It might look different — it might shrink or contract, but those people are there. We plan to be there for them. They are part of our cathedral universe. Whether they come once a week or once a month or once a year, they are our community.”
“We have learned to live into the national part of National Cathedral.”
Orr said hybrid is an opportunity for new ministries, citing “online ushers and greeters, engaging people in chat, preparing the technology.”
“Hybrid is really important,” Schenck said. “Absolutely there is a place in the Episcopal Church for hybrid.”
Schenck wrote Hybrid Church: A Way Forward for Church Leaders. “During the pandemic, there were challenges, but we got creative and experienced community and God in some very life-giving ways.”
Schenk reckoned that this may be a turning point. “This is it,” he said. “We need to embrace it. It’s not that traditional worship is getting thrown out. It’s getting blended. This is a huge opportunity for us as the church. We can’t go back to the way it’s always been and pretend that this pandemic didn’t happen.”
He added, “We met and worshiped with people from all sorts of ZIP Codes.
Virtual parishioners are real parishioners. They can be part of their community. Hybrid broadens the scope of ‘Who is my community?’”
Calling online ministry “the ultimate church shopping experience,” Schenck added, “The world has changed. With digitally integrated ministry, we are really trying to integrate the ministry between the brick and mortar, and online.”
“The blessing of this pandemic time is that we’ve had to figure out how to be church outside our buildings,” said Bishop Kym Lucas of Colorado. “More congregations have begun using technology like Zoom and social media to host not only worship but also for spiritual formation and community engagements. I suspect more people have heard of, and engaged with, the Episcopal Church in the last year than in the last 10 years and I hope that we continue reaching out with our message of love, mercy, and justice.”
Bishop Pierre Whalon chairs the House of Bishops’ Ecclesiology Committee and presented “Questions for a Strange Time” for conversation. In it, he addressed the 1918 pandemic in which “50 to 75 million people died in that year, including two of my great-aunts. Thank God COVID-19 is nothing like that! But they did not have the internet then, obviously, and the ready availability of that technology now has led to creative and effective ways to stay connected to each other and God.”
But Hybrid also raises many concerns for some church leaders.
“When we digitize, we have cut the gospel off at the knees,” Armidon said. “It’s a tool, but it can’t be the only means of worship or community.”
The Rev. James R. Rickenbaker, assistant rector at Aquia Church in Stafford, Virginia said, “Hybrid church fosters a consumer approach to church. You can watch one church one Sunday and another church the next, all from the comfort of your couch.”
Rickenbaker said that the online and in-person “do not need to be the same” and he feels strongly that “the online option should be less attractive than the in-person.”
“I don’t think we need to be fostering online community,” Rickenbaker said. “I think it’s a good thing for this time, because it has helped people to be in community.”
However, Rickenbaker named concerns. “First and foremost, we are losing the sacraments. We are losing a sense of embodied worship. Being together to worship the one true God — that’s what we are called to be. And that’s what we are called to do. In-person should be normative. We get the sacraments. We get to worship God. And there is something formative about the liturgy that should not be missed.”
While he supports online Morning and Evening Prayer, Rickenbaker said, “If we can funnel people from online virtual worship to in-person worship, that’s the goal. I don’t foresee online worship as a goal. It should be a means to a purpose to have people in-person.”
The Rev. John Mason Lock of Trinity in Red Bank, New Jersey doesn’t believe watching worship virtually fulfills spiritual needs. “We’re not just consumers when we go to church,” Lock said. “We are engaged.”
He added, “On the other hand I can see why people would want to continue virtually. I think there will be a lot of pushing to retain it. It does have advantages.”
As there are concerns, there are also hopes for hybrid.
“My hope that we will listen to the Spirit,” Duncan-Probe said. “That we will listen and allow God to transform the Church. The real interest is in people knowing Jesus and finding God. That we make disciples.”
“My hope is that people remain,” Lock said. “We are redirected to come back together not only as a Church but as a community of Christian people, in a renewed faith.”
“We live in an in-between time,” Doyle said. “We see the internet as a great massive disrupter in society, that has a huge influence on us. A part of what’s happening is an embellishment — we still see it as a thing, but in 50 years it won’t be separate. The way our lives and bodies are meshed with technology, it will be an appendage.”
He added, “I think we need to see this as an opportunity to grow and stretch. We should not be afraid of it, but we need to be wary of those things that may be damaging to others. This is an opportunity to open doors to a place where people have a feeling of safety and a way to navigate. A safe place.”
“We need to ask questions now, for the future.”