Lessons from a year of ministry during COVID-19

The hybrid church is here

By Paul Seebeck | Presbyterians Today

The one-year mark of the COVID-19 virus entering our lives is approaching. It is a virus that not only turned the world upside down, but also the church and its tightly held traditions. At the start of COVID-19, churches scrambled to recreate worship, re-imagine pastoral care and reinvent church school.

In the following brief “lessons,” five pastors share with Presbyterians Today their thoughts of the church created in response to the pandemic — the hybrid church, which seeks to offer both online and in-person ministry and worship opportunities. Each pastor responded to two questions: What have been the lessons learned? And is this the church of the future?

Paul Seebeck is a communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Hybrid Lesson #1

Hybrid worship has meant the shortening of worship services, said the Rev. Thomas Daniel. Courtesy of Covenant Presbyterian Church

Adjusting in-person worship for online formats

Rev. Thomas Daniel, Covenant Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas

  • Covenant Presbyterian has 1,000-plus members, having added 700 members since 2015, of which 70% were unchurched.
  • The church is moving to hybrid worship sometime in 2021, with people online and in-person in the sanctuary.
  • All Bible studies moved online in the fall of 2020, and 200 participants moved from in-person lectures to podcasts. The podcasts now see about 400 downloads each week.
  • Online worshipers have expanded the congregation, which now welcomes worshipers from California, Louisiana, Maine, Montana and even the United Kingdom. The church recently held discipleship formation for these out-of-state and out-of-country worshipers.

I have learned that worship is different when someone is at home in their living room versus in a sanctuary. I compare it to when movies started. At first, they were basically filmed versions of live plays. Then the craft of moviemaking evolved as it was discovered that what works live might not work as well when put on the screen. This is a consideration the hybrid church needs to be aware of. For example, our services are now about 35 minutes [compared to the traditional 60-minute in-person worship service]. We shortened the sermon and the prayers of the people. We also sought to include more voices in our online worship service. When it was “back to school time” in Austin, we had different people saying prayers for their teachers and their students. Technology, in its best form, allows us to hear from a much wider spectrum of voices in worship. The genie is out of the bottle; there’s no going back.

Hybrid Lesson #2

The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow does a test run for an online service. Reyes-Chow sees the hybrid church through a theological lens, driving home the expansive, borderless love of God. Courtesy of Bruce Reyes-Chow

The communion table expands

Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, First Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, California

  • In 2020, before COVID-19, the church averaged 80–90 in worship for in-person services. During COVID-19, attendance increased to 100–125 worshiping online.
  • People from around the United States and the world not only began worshiping with First Presbyterian, but also gave financially to the church in 2020.
  • While the church is still worshiping online only, Reyes-Chow hopes First Presbyterian will be able to start hybrid worship services by Easter, depending on the number of COVID-19 cases and the state’s sheltering-in-place regulations.
  • An online new member class was held in November 2020 called “A Place to Belong.”

The hybrid church of the future, where there are people worshiping online and people actually in the physical worship space, is about creating a theological understanding of church beyond buildings, borders and geography. As it relates to the communion table and to the feast that worshipers are called to participate in, we have stood behind wooden tables and spoken metaphorically about the expansive nature of Christ. But for me, having communion online every Sunday has been a liberating experience that makes the expansive nature of God real — it’s more than I could have imagined. Is the table just for those people who stand physically around it? Or is it for those who gather around a curated hybrid space and the table is there? Consider how the pandemic time has informed your understanding of both the communion table and the body of Christ — and how people are connected to each other.

Hybrid Lesson #3

The Rev. Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, is discovering how technology is delivering high-quality, customizable theological education at a very low cost to students. Courtesy of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary

Reformed theology revival

Rev. Paul Roberts, President, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, Atlanta

  • JCSTS has reinvented itself as a cyber institution, using technology as a viable replacement for the traditional classroom.
  • The seminary recently partnered with the Presbyterian Mission Agency and Stony Point Conference Center to host an online learning platform for Matthew 25 courses that explored dismantling systemic racism, eradicating poverty and creating vital congregations.

Thanks to technology, we’re introducing new audiences to Reformed theological education and bringing diverse groups of people together, who under different circumstances would not find themselves in the same educational space. Using technology, we’ve been able to deliver high-quality, customizable theological education at a very low cost to students. The centerpiece of our technology is a robust learning system called Canvas. Touted as one of the fastest-growing learning management systems, its interface is easy to use for those who don’t have much experience in technology. It supports instructor innovation, peer-to-peer interaction and collaboration. The student learning experience is enhanced with a tool called VoiceThread, which allows for a multi-sensory and more interactive learning experience.

Technology is incredibly helpful, and we should not be averse to using it, even in our worship settings. In our Matthew 25 courses, we’ve had people join us from coast to coast in the U.S. and as far away as Puerto Rico and Guatemala. It has been amazing to watch people find connections because of the technology. Some had traveled in the same places, others knew someone in somebody else’s congregation or they shared common interests. They began to share their stories and resources — and connected through social media — as a way of encouraging each other.

The kind of leadership required to lead during these turbulent times is different from the leadership needed in quieter times. What we need now are leaders who prepare us for sustained difficult times in our country [be it adapting how we do church digitally or organizing against racism]. It’s important to remember that Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary came into being right after the Civil War to serve the needs of those previously enslaved.  At JCSTS, we are calling on the strength and courage of those who came before us, and our goal is to help individuals and communities of today do as they did.

Hybrid Lesson #4

While Jaime Lázaro sees that the ministry of physical presence will never go away, there is no returning to traditional in-person worship, church meetings or Bible studies only. Digital ministry is part of the church’s fabric now. Courtesy of Jaime Lázaro

Social media is a vital tool

Jaime Lázaro, co-director of Cíclica, a network of cohort groups of Latino pastors and church planters, Southern California

  • In August 2020, an online learning platform was created for Spanish-speaking pastors.
  • The interactive and easily accessible platform features two initial courses: “Presbyterian History, Theology, Government and Worship” and “Cíclica Express,” a 12-week course on church planting and revitalization.

We believe God was preparing us before the pandemic hit, as we began in 2019 to modify what we were offering our cohort groups to include more online classes. Since 2020, it is clear the life of the church is going to be digital and/or hybrid. Nothing will ever be the same again.

We may go back to Sunday services, but we don’t know if it will be every Sunday. And Bible study, for sure, will be using video conferencing applications. Video conferencing will also continue to be used for committee meetings. And don’t underestimate the power of social media in ministry. I know many pastors who have already lost much of their traditional congregation, but now others are following them on social media.

Some people will physically congregate [when it is safe to do so] in churches they’re following on social media. Others will follow pastors from other cities and countries. The truth is, no one knows how many people will return to our churches physically [after the pandemic safety regulations ease], how many new people we might have or how many we may lose.

Ministry in 2021, though, will also have some traditional attributes. We need to remember that congregations can be effective if they focus on their neighbors in the community living around them and respond to their material and emotional needs. I know of brothers and sisters who are focused on calling neighbors and friends to simply listen to them and offer words of encouragement, when appropriate. Other congregations are providing food to food banks. Some women’s ministries are baking cakes to share with neighbors or whoever might need them. These are some examples of the emerging church that are very traditional and cannot be done virtually.

A church that walks the streets shows Jesus without audibly saying a word. This will be the church that emerges, transcends, influences and remains after the pandemic.

Hybrid Lesson #5

The Rev. Dr. Christopher Benek sees the future of church being that of virtual reality, which is different from the online or digital worship churches are offering. Courtesy of First Miami Presbyterian Church

Benek created a virtual reality church, where a person can enter a different world through the use of a virtual reality headset that generates realistic images and sounds. The person (pastor, worship leader) is digitally embodied in an avatar — an icon or a figure representing that person — in a digital space. Courtesy of First Miami Presbyterian Church

Virtual reality churches are next

Rev. Dr. Christopher Benek, First Miami Presbyterian Church, Miami

  • Benek is the founding pastor and CEO of CoCreators, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that nurtures technological innovation by teaching people how to understand and engage in emerging technological challenges and opportunities that equip them to develop and steward technology in new and life-affirming ways.
  • He helped create CHVRCH± — a virtual reality platform for churches.

Many of our congregations have been thrust into the digital realm as a matter of survival. This includes creating prerecorded or livestream worship. I think a growing trend will be churches worshiping in augmented and virtual reality forms. “Online” or “digital” worship describes any offering that is conducted on the internet. This includes the aforementioned prerecorded and livestream formats and even the fusion of the two. “Augmented reality” and “virtual reality” are just that: it is the digital augmentation of our present reality for the viewer via a transparent lens that is personally (like glasses) or corporately viewed (like a car windshield) to create a hologram-type overlay in your present environment.

In virtual reality, a person can enter a different world through the use of a virtual reality headset that generates realistic images and sounds. The person (pastor, worship leader) is digitally embodied in an avatar — an icon or a figure representing that person — in a digital space. There is a sense of space and presence that is not communicated in the same way in other online engagements. Particularly as we discuss the future of the sacraments in a digital world, this virtual embodiment raises many important considerations.

As virtual technology continues to develop at exponential speeds, there is no limit to the environment’s size or detail. This creates extraordinary opportunities for safe and creative worship design at a radically reduced price point. With more than 2 billion gamers in the world and millions of VR headsets being sold annually, the most fiscally reasonable and missionally proactive expansion goal of the PC(USA) should be to have a virtual new church development in every presbytery by 2026.

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