As churches were plunged into lockdown early on in the pandemic, many were quick to move online, creating church services over Zoom, streaming live from YouTube, or uploading the weekly sermon to Facebook.
But as churches are now free to open to the public again, we’re asking, should ‘hybrid church’ be here to stay?
This week, we asked our followers on Instagram “is hybrid church a loving way to make church worship more accessible?” The responses were split down the middle: 48.8% said yes, 51.2% said no – which should give us a sense of how Christians are thinking about this important issue.
We asked our followers to elaborate on what they thought about ‘hybrid church’, and caught up with two church leaders to see how they would respond to the question in our livestream, ‘Church Unlocked: Hybrid Forever?’
It’s clear that online church can never act as a replacement for gathered in-person church worship. The Bible is very clear that as Christians, we should be meeting in person as the body of Christ, not least in Hebrews 10, where it says:
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25 NIV)
As our online followers were quick to point out, online church means the body of Christ misses out on baptism, breaking bread, singing together and general fellowship. None of that is physically possible to partake in in front of a screen in your front room. As another of our Instagram followers put it, “If the essence of Church is the community, there are aspects of that which are impossible virtually.”
Dave Gobbett, pastor of Highfields Church in Cardiff, commented on our livestream: “Particularly for the families and the singles in the church, sitting at home and just ‘watching church’ is pretty demoralising – to just sit there in front of the TV. I’m of the opinion that online church isn’t really church, it was almost like a ‘holding church’ while we waited to get back into the building. Face to face matters so much – for us, seeing people was almost a way for you to be reassured that you’re not the only Christian in Cardiff who loves Jesus!”
And yet, ‘online church’ has had its advantages.
Another of our supporters on Facebook told us: “From the first Sunday of lockdown, we decided to broadcast a short 10/15 minute message via Facebook every Sunday morning on a different topic, rather than a long sermon. We had amazing engagement throughout the year and definitely reached the unchurched. The plan is to continue with Facebook and in person church.”
Pete Cornford, pastor of Redeemer Church Ealing in London, told us in our livestream that he was encouraged by the online engagement as well: “For those in our church who were suffering with cancer, or even those working shifts, it’s been great that they’ve been able to catch up with us online where previously they might not have been able to attend. Although obviously, I’d much rather people were in the room.”
Dave Gobbett also commented: “The advantage of having church on YouTube is that the random visitor, who has no connection to your church but just sees it online, clicks the link and can watch. We knew people were watching from all over the world who had never stepped foot in our building.”
When asked whether he’d continue to put the church service online, he replied: “Yes, at least for a while. I want to keep thinking about the visitor – the spectator – who’s new, who’s engaging with online church. But obviously I want to encourage people back in as well; I don’t want the church to become simply spectators. Church is also about serving and getting involved.”
As churches have now been able to meet in person once again, one Christian from America, John Revell, told us about how making the livestream private encouraged more people to come back to worship in-person: “In January, the leadership agreed to make the livestream private, available by application to those physically unable to attend church. This had the desired result, as two families who were Covid fearful returned to worship and the livestream now sees only 3-4 views – church members who are abroad and unable to attend live worship, or those genuinely housebound.”
Could that be the way forward if some Christians need a nudge to come back to in-person church?
Small groups, prayer and pastoring
Of course, ‘hybrid church’ isn’t just about the Sunday morning (or afternoon/evening) service – church life encompasses much more than just that.
Pete Cornford told us of how attendance to online prayer meetings and small groups had risen as a result of people no longer having to travel or find people to look after their children. “For us, the benefit of hybrid church has been outside of the Sunday gatherings, like prayer meetings on Zoom. We now get a lot more people turning up to pray. We did a prayer meeting on Zoom before the morning service and we got so many along, which was great. In person, nobody usually turns up before 10am! We get more involvement in the leaders’ meetings as well. So going forward, we might do one meeting in person and the next on Zoom.”
A vicar in the Cotswolds also tells us that Zoom baptism prep meetings work well for parents of younger children who can be in bed, allowing the focus to be on the parents without distraction: “This has been really helpful.” Wedding prep also works well on Zoom: “There’s something about faith that comes into our home, and people are more relaxed to talk and share.”
Our Instagram followers were quick to point out that ‘hybrid church’ and ‘church online’ does allow for good evangelistic opportunities. Certainly, with many tuning into online services on YouTube and Facebook from all over the world, it’s clear that online church seems to be reaching a wider audience. One supporter wrote, “It’s good for shy people who are curious about Jesus, and it could lead to their salvation.”
Pete Cornford spoke of how his church had run a successful Alpha course online and was now considering doing it again like this in future: “People invited friends from all over the world – we had someone from Canada, someone from Wales, someone from Gibraltar. We’ve found that these online courses have worked really well. I’d like to try a hybrid one, we’ve yet to decide on that and see whether it would work, but the online course has had a lot of success.”
Dave Gobbett spoke similarly of his experiences with Christianity Explored: “It has worked well. What’s been interesting is that as a result, people have wanted to meet one-to-one, which is much easier to facilitate and be creative with, so that’s been encouraging.”
You can catch up with our full livestream, ‘Church Unlocked: Hybrid Forever?’ below: