As lockdown eases, and onsite church services return, leaders have every reason to carry on investing in digital, says Pete Phillips as he launches Premier's new Hybrid Church Charter
Despite the third wave resulting in a doubling of infection rates, the Government is moving ahead with re-opening society, including our church buildings.
For many, this will seem like the edict to return to Jerusalem. For too long, we have sat beside the rivers of Babylon, our lyres hung on the trees while we mourn the lack of singing the songs of Zion in a strange land. Many churches will breathe a sigh of relief. Back to buildings, back to the well-known routines, back to collections filling up bank balances so heavily depleted by the lockdown. We’ll be able to hug one another, greet our friends and share the peace (although Mrs Beamish isn’t a fan of that last idea).
But what of those we have lost along the way? According to HopeTogether, ten per cent of our church congregation have decided not to engage with church anymore. Barna say the figure is closer to 30 per cent. Lockdown has broken their faith.
We tend to count those who turn up onsite. I wonder if God counts people wherever they are?
What of those for whom our onsite presence was a barrier rather than an invitation; those with long term illness, or people with disabilities unable to engage with our routines and buildings, even if we have installed a ramp?
What of those who are reluctant, in the midst of a third wave, to come inside and take off their masks and sing?
Many people have loved online worship. They’ve met with God in their living rooms and kitchens, engaged with praying and Bible reading through the internet and a screen.
Real vs 'virtual' members
When we gather onsite, will we see these people as real members, not 'just' virtual members? Often we tend to count those who turn up onsite. Those who attend a worship service in a building. I wonder if God counts people wherever they are. After all, he did say that the time would come when people would worship God neither here nor there – God wanted worshippers who worship him in Spirit and in truth (John 4). When we gather online, we have been truly gathering together (‘episynagogē’, Hebrews 10:25).
The future of church is hybrid. Everyone you want to reach is online
Thank God that digital has been such a fruitful place to encounter God. Our research at Durham University suggests up to 16 million people were keen to engage with online church. That’s an increase of 400 per cent compared to normal, in-person congregations. Indeed, there’s a church I know of where they are holding back from returning to church because they want to change it to reflect their zoom services – meeting in the round to see each other’s faces rather than in pews looking at the backs of people’s heads.
As we come back together onsite, we need to remember that Church is about an open invitation to encounter God. It is not meant to be a private members club. One of the huge benefits of the lockdown was that the Church joined many existing online churches (such as Trevor Gay’s Coffee Shop Sunday, Pam Smith’s iChurch in Oxford, Disability & Jesus or Tim Rourke’s struggling disciples) and shared their worship with anyone who wanted to come and be part of it.
From Gateshead to Brighton, Falkirk to Truro, and from Anglesey to Cromer, we’ve gathered stories of churches experiencing growth and renewal during lockdown. So what should we do to preserve that growth, to grow deeper into God and to take the best of what we’ve learned during the pandemic into whatever comes next?
The blogger Carey Nieuwhof answers: “If you’re looking for the future of church, it’s hybrid. Everyone you want to reach is online and when the church fuses in person ministry with digital ministry, we can reach more people than ever.”
16 million people were keen to engage with online church - an increase of 400 per cent
With that in mind, Premier has launched the Hybrid Church Charter. It calls us to be open to both onsite and online engagement in all aspects of our Christian life together. It’s a ten point plan to maintain hybridity in the new normal. We want to get back to onsite/in-building church and, at the same time, remember the body of Christ which still wants to meet online. We’re holding webinars on the first Wednesday of every month to help leaders do this. And we’re commissioning up to three videos a week to offer additional training. All of this and more is available now in the Premier Digital Video Library – become a member of Premier Digital here.
Emma Major, Lay Minister in the Church of England told us: "This is fantastic, just exactly what is needed to raise awareness of the issues of inclusivity and the benefits of online worship, mission and evangelism. I am extremely happy to endorse this charter and to celebrate as churches and communities sign up to everything it contains.”