By Neva Rae Fox
While there are divergent opinions about online services and worship, there is common agreement that a hybrid offering can be effective in reaching people who may not return to a post-pandemic, in-person setting.
Hybrid has been defined as a combination of an in-person service with an online service, either livestreamed or recorded, of the Eucharist, Morning Prayer, Compline, Noonday Prayer, or a Bible study.
Even those who may not be enthralled with hybrid recognize its value.
“The digital world is a new mission frontier,” said Bishop Pierre Whalon, chair of the House of Bishops’ Ecclesiology Committee. “And the church needs to be there. And the church needs to know how to use it.”
The Rev. Lorenzo Lebrija, director of Try Tank Experimental Lab, sees hybrid as the church’s future. “Hybrid is expanding. It’s not going away.”
“Online engagement is our front door,” said Canon Mike Orr of the Diocese of Colorado. “It is necessary to keep online and virtual for the health and growth of the church and our mission field.”
Bishop Andy Doyle of the Diocese of Texas has been addressing web ministry for almost a decade. “I talked about it as a necessity as evangelism,” Doyle said. “This kind of worship is important; more and more people coming to church after viewing worship online.”
Doyle, author of Embodied Liturgy: Virtual Reality and Liturgical Theology in Conversation, added: “Online is another door that the church can open to people who are seeking. They are finding us online, they are looking for places.”
The goal for most is not just to do hybrid, but to do it well. The key lies in the presentation of online services. Effective hybrid is more than just setting a up a stagnant camera and recording the service. The Rev. Hannah Wilder, curate at St. Mark’s City Heights in San Diego, said today’s world demands high quality. “Millennials have more of an awareness and an expectation of a good online experience.”
Many courses, resources, videos, and books are available, designed to assist the novice as well as the professional in Zoom, YouTube, and online skills.
“Parishes, whether on a shoestring or with resources, are really doing online well,” said Joe Swimmer, executive director of the CEEP Network, said, but “What about the tools? Zoom, Facebook — none of these were created to share the Good News.”
CEEP offers several digital workshops and courses at no cost.
A 10-minute video prepared by professional actor Sean Close for the Diocese of New Jersey recommends technical tips on staging good Zoom videos, covering such practical points as set-up, background, lighting, and consulting notes. His focus, Close said, is to “help achieve connection” between the presenter and audience.
To Lebrija, hybrid is “a congregation that does both in-person and digital offerings well.” He believes hybrid is the way to go. “It is an awesome opportunity for the church,” he said. “Digital — that’s where we are mostly. We rushed to go digital. We thought it was a short-term thing.”
The pandemic proved to be long term. Try Tank, a joint venture of Virginia Theological Seminary and General Theological Seminary, has created a course for both clergy and laity: “Being a Top Notch Hybrid Church.”
The aim, Lebrija explained, is to present “hybrid and how to do this right.” The course, based on four pillars, focuses on theological reflection, production, forming a functioning digital community, and effective fundraising.
Two sessions, of more than 250 registrants each, sold out quickly, indicating the desire for this information in today’s church. Lebrija will consider multi-lingual if there is a call for it. “Based on requests, the course materials will be offered in Spanish at a later date,” he said.
Orr, a trainer for both his diocese and Caffeinated Church, addressed the need for new equipment for effective online. “A lot of churches are rushing to create a hybrid worship experience: upgrading their sound and lighting and installing multiple PTZ cameras in their worship spaces. I hope they are doing so as a well-thought out and planned response in discerning that they can equally engage both an in-person audience and an online audience, simultaneously, without favoring one audience over another.”
He added, “Some churches are taking the concept of hybrid church even further to try to encourage engagement by both audiences by adding screens in church worship spaces where an in-person audience can see and interact with the online audience. This is great and I applaud the creativity and enthusiasm of churches who are experimenting in this way.”
The Rev. Tim Schenck of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts, doesn’t think hybrid will ever go away. “From my perspective, we invited a new technology,” he said. “It’s here to stay. I plan to livestream until the Second Coming.”
In his article “Hybrid Church: A Way Forward for Church Leaders,” Schenck challenges clergy and lay leaders to reflect and consider the future. “Resurrection, rather than resuscitation, is the model I believe the church must embrace in order to move forward in a post-pandemic world,” he wrote. “As much as we might hope for it to be so, things will never fully return to the way they once were, not fully, anyway.”
Among his recommendations are an interactive Prayers of the People, a parish-specific smartphone app, and a digital ministry team.
Hybrid is essential in the Diocese of Central New York. “For the clergy, I am urging and encouraging and empowering training on how to do hybrid,” said Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe. “We started to do trainings in June 2020. It has been well-received by a large a portion of the clergy.”
Despite all the support, hybrid is not one size fits all.
While believing “the digital realm is an opportunity for us,” Lebrija said, “It’s not for everyone. There are some churches that shouldn’t do it. I am not saying that everyone needs to do it. But it’s available.”
“We need to ask bigger questions about online church,” Doyle said. “When to use it, what platforms to use, etc.”
Swimmer reflected on the possible long-term effect of hybrid. “We won’t know what seeds have been planted for years. I believe we have planted seeds of renovation and innovation. It is proof that the church is adapting and adjusting.”
Next: Hybrid Part 3: Is there a future for hybrid in the church?