Why Hybrid Ministry?


10 Considerations for Building Online Church Communities

When the pandemic closed Sunday services, churches quickly (and adeptly!) moved online. Everyone I know has been immensely grateful for the work that pastors and church leadership teams have completed, enabling the people to be part of their worshiping community while safe at home.

But how has this pandemic changed ministry for the foreseeable future? Some would argue that moving online has set us back significantly by making worship more passive. Others might argue the opposite- that this pandemic has caused a deep yearning for active relationship with God.

Regardless of the long-lasting implications, most of these people would admit that what is called for in the coming months is a hybrid ministry model: churches must continue to offer online services as well as in-person services. I would ask churches to embrace the hybrid ministry model, but also to understand the difference between offering online programming, and building an online community.

The reason most of us adapted to online services easily while socially distanced is because we were already members of our communities. We were met with familiarity on our screens and rejoiced. But this pandemic is causing a renewal of faith and visitors are heading to their screens to catch a glimpse at what this life of faith might offer them. How are we building an online community for them, too? And how are we planning to maintain ministry for our most vulnerable once we are back to in-person gatherings?

An online community is more than just programming online. It includes relationship building over technology. Understanding the difference is imperative when embarking on this next phase of our pandemic journey.

Most churches, as a result of the pandemic, offered various programs online, offering one of these levels:

  1. Knowledge based (no direct human interaction required): sending information out, hoping households participate.
  2. Activity based (some human interaction, asynchronous): there is some interaction but it is not happening in a relational, present manner, but with more of a receive now, participate later format.
  3. Interaction based (ongoing human interaction, synchronous): human contact is made with ongoing interaction in real time.

All three of these are valuable. All three of these contribute to equipping disciples. In order to build an online community, however, the third is necessary at some point. Take inventory of the things you have offered so far, recognizing how you can begin to offer all three to those in who meet in-person, to those who ‘meet’ online, and to those wanting to be part of the community without technology.

For those churches moving toward a hybrid ministry model, I’d suggest these ten things:

  1. Consider a new hire (perhaps even temporarily) of a Director of Online Ministry; if this is not feasible, ask each director to find an Online Coordinator for their team. This person should internalize the purpose and goal of previous in-person activities, and strive to meet those goals/purposes in an online environment. This is not a programmatic hire, this is a strategic pastoral hire. Invest in someone at the church to spend their time on social media, interacting with the community, praying for people, commenting on local businesses, “in” the virtual community.

  2. Consider ways to build communities online, rather than moving programming online. The task is not to simply take what you do in-person and make it available for viewing online. This could result in a consumeristic, information only, one-sided relationship. The task is actually to build a community, valuing the same things that you have always valued, using technology to enable connection. We can’t lose sight of that goal.

  3. Invest in real-time interaction online. Invest in making your website, or platform, interactive and demonstrative of real people engaging in real conversations. Avoid formal and cliché, embracing more vulnerable material such as interviews, Q/A, discussions, videos, etc.

  4. Individual contact is necessary for ministry. Multiple methods, and varying platforms, of delivery are necessary for online ministry. Give people responsibility in your online ‘meetings’ of any sort. Shorter time spans must be considered in online ministry. Predictable schedules and platforms are helpful; if information is always available on one platform, make sure all platforms direct to it frequently.

  5. Get in the habit of ‘checking in’ with your people on an ongoing basis. Empower others on the team to do so if it is taxing on leaders. Empower the church. The leaders are already tired. Get them support.

  6. Continue live-streaming but consider how interactive it is. Ensure that every single program you’re offering online has a way to loop back to it. Someone should be engaging with the people online in real time, and the presenters should be offering some sort of additional way to engage with that material. People must connect what they are learning to their own experiences. How are your online presentations ensuring this is happening? How are you doing this without short-changing those present in your sanctuary?

  7. Ensure you have a virtual connection card, and then mobilize your team with a structured response. Someone should make contact that week, and different leaders on your team (such as family ministry or youth or women’s ministry) should be notified to include the visitor (if desired) in the activities available. Consider streamlining contact to ensure the person is not overloaded– vary people, vary methods, vary when they are contacted.

  8. Anything you send out, consider a way to enable others to repeat the activity without you. How can you model Bible study, morning prayer, nighttime devotionals, small groups, in a way that teaches others how to lead them within their households, without you? Equipping, not just enabling?

  9. You must offer online giving, and strongly consider text-to-give options. Make sure the online system has a way of contacting those who give (without knowing what was given). Additionally, set up a general email address and project that onto the screen during your online presentations so people can get in touch to ask general questions.

  10. Develop a healthy rotation for all leaders in hybrid ministry, especially clergy. All leaders should work toward having someone in place who could continue ministry for up to a month if a leader became ill. The vestry must ensure the clergy are seeking pastoral care and accountability for themselves.

Churches may find these ten considerations overwhelming, which is understandable. What are a few you could introduce while considering strategic, long-term planning for the next few months or more? Having reviewed these, it may become even clearer that a person is needed on the leadership team to help coordinate this online community. Hybrid ministry offers a way to meet the needs of the people in our community, but we need innovative, sustainable systems in place to reach out to those joining us, as well.

For more specific programming ideas, see: