Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the just-released book by James Emery White, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church in a Post-Christian Digital Age (Zondervan). It’s available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christian Book Distributors, The Grounds Bookstore and Café, and bookstores nationwide. You can get more information HERE.
In March 2020, most churches rushed not only to be online but also to create as much of an online presence as possible and to encourage any and all online engagement. Lifeway Research found that 45% of Americans say they watched a church service online during the COVID-19 pandemic, including many who said they didn’t normally attend in person. As Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, noted, “A form of communication that was not even used by most churches before the pandemic has now reached almost half of Americans.”
After that, people expected churches to have an ongoing, robust online presence. They even expected to be able to attend church online after in-person services resumed.
Why wouldn’t they?
In the minds of many, if not most, people, the church had finally embraced the digital world. Sadly, not all churches seized the cultural moment. Instead, once they reopened, some churches greatly diminished, if not ended, their online presence, discouraged anything digital as not being real church, and even shamed people for not attending in person.
That was a tactical mistake that willfully ignored what had happened in our world.
There’s no going back from the necessary online engagement that was accelerated during the pandemic. As a cable news report proclaimed:
Church, as we’ve known it for the past few generations, is over. Every church you’ve ever attended, or that you drive by on your way to a Sunday sporting event, was built on a physical attendance model that is location-centric.
As a result, church leaders and pastors have spent time every week encouraging, inviting, and pleading with people to come to a specific place at a specific time on Sundays. This approach has created church staffing models, systems, and ministry strategies focused on improving attendance. It’s also why there is an annual Top 100 list of America’s most attended churches.
But that way of doing church is dead.
While that model is not truly dead (yet), people will naturally vacillate between online and in-person offerings—between the virtual and physical—from this point on, feeling that both options are not only acceptable but also count as having attended. This hybrid model is the model all churches must embrace. Let’s not have cyber wars the way we had worship wars.
It’s not about whether churches should be in person or online; they should be both.
And we are learning, most notably from the State of the Bible survey, that people who attend churches with both in-person and online service options have a more positive opinion of their church experience than attenders at churches with only one option. Those who attended both in person and online were most likely to strongly agree (44%) that their church services increased their desire to read the Bible. The same results were found when respondents were asked about whether church services increased their understanding of Scripture. Churches offering both online and in-person services found higher percentages strongly agreeing that, indeed, they had. The good news is that even after almost every church was back to meeting in person, Hartford Institute for Religion Research found in 2021 that eight in 10 US churches were continuing to provide hybrid services, offering both in person and online options.
People will choose based on their desired experience, readiness to surface physically, and, even among core members, how their week went. Rather than fight this change, embrace it. It will not prove helpful to elevate in-person attendance over online attendance, much less shame online attenders. The better and more strategic path is to embrace any and all engagement. As Carey Nieuwhof has written:
The hybrid-church model will simply become church. In other words, hosting church online and in person is just how you do church to reach the next generation.
People have lived in the slipstream of digital and in-real-life for well over a decade now, and church leaders will realize that church online is both a necessity and an opportunity.
It’s good that the debate over online church will fade into the background because then leaders can get on with the key task: Reaching people however they come to you—in person or online.
One of the most strategic decisions I made as a leader, and this was just prior to COVID, was to affirm that attending in person or online was attending. When COVID hit, this proved to be pivotal. Our experience has been that when you provide a combination of in-person and online experiences and events and give people the freedom to sample and choose, overall engagement goes up exponentially. At the time of this writing, our online campus is where, by far, the greatest number of people attend and the arena for our greatest growth. Our in-person weekend services are still running below prepandemic levels. Yet select in-person events—Christmas services, fall experiences—see record numbers. Being okay with that is critical to the new reality.
The goal is to become omnichannel, allowing individuals to connect online and offline seamlessly. In retail, becoming omnichannel involves driving traffic to stores through services like “buy online and pickup in store (BOPIS),” as well as offering “an expanded set of ship-from-store services.” As Dave Anderson has written, “An omnichannel approach to church would allow people to fully connect and engage with a church without the need to step inside a physical environment every week. They could attend one Sunday, listen to the message on podcast the following week, watch a live online stream the Sunday after, and catch the message on demand in a church app the week after that.”
He notes that this “shifts the church from a location-centric approach to an audience-centric approach that allows people to connect and engage with churches both digitally and physically.”
Every church should embrace the new reality: You have at least two campuses. One is physical…
... and one is digital.
James Emery White
This has been excerpted from James Emery White, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church in a Post-Christian, Digital Age (Zondervan), order here.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president.
His latest book, After “I Believe,” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast.
Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.