Monday, February 13, 2023

Hybrid Hope

by Rev. Dr. Michael Piazza  (President, Agile Church Consulting)

The following article was reprinted with permission from the book “Hybrid Hope: Church of the Future for Churches With a Future.” For additional reflections on how hybrid church will endure beyond the pandemic and how to capitalize on the lessons learned in order to do ministry in new ways, we invite you to purchase a copy of the book on Amazon.

When I was a kid, I took myself down the street to a small Methodist church. I joined that church at the age of eight. My parents came, but they did not love that church as I did. When we moved, the first thing I did was find a local church to join. As it happens, this was a much larger and fancier “First Methodist Church.” 

There, I became president of the MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship), the youth delegate on the board of directors, and the youth delegate to the annual conference. I went to school, of course, and had a part-time job, but my true love was the church. That never changed. When I was 18, I was licensed to preach in the United Methodist Church and assigned to a circuit of three small rural congregations. 

I worked my way through college and seminary as a student pastor. When I came out as a gay man during seminary, my days with the Methodists were finished. Their rejection was excruciating. I had lost my second home and my future, but I did not leave the church. I found a church where my gifts, and identity, were accepted, and, for the next 30 years, I served predominantly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer churches in the South. Those churches prospered and grew; one became a megachurch. 

For the past 15 years, my church home has been the United Church of Christ. They have welcomed me and people like me. In August 2019, I was called to be the pastor of a historically great church in New York City. Half-a-century ago, they sold their gigantic building and became a “church without walls.” They thought sharing space with another church would help both congregations. That worked well for a long time, but what once had been one of the largest mainline churches in America began a period of substantial decline. They asked me to help reverse that decline. 

In the early months of 2019, before I arrived, attendance had been in the 20s. After I joined them, however, the church began to attract new people, and attendance quickly doubled. We all had hope. Then, of course, COVID came along. Although the pandemic hit many parts of the country hard, none was as hard hit as New York City.  

Like most churches, we immediately began to worship online. Fortunately, our congregation had the financial resources to acquire good equipment, and my assistant and I had cut our teeth in a megachurch that used multimedia extensively and also broadcast their services on TV and the internet. That experience served us well and allowed us to create a high-quality worship experience that attracted worldwide worshippers. Pretty soon, a church whose attendance had not exceeded 100 in more than 30 years had hundreds of people attending online worship. 

Despite having to record and produce worship mostly in my NYC apartment, it seemed we had discovered a 21st century sense of what it means to be “a church without walls.” 

After 18 months of worshipping online, we returned to our shared sanctuary. Now we had to figure out how to create transformational worship in person while wearing masks and social distancing. The service we created in person also needed to translate to a continuing online congregation, and it was a disaster, at least at first.  

The equipment worked very well in a confined space, but, in a sanctuary that seats more than 1,000 people, sound had to be controlled in the room and online. Lighting that worked in the space left the online congregation in the dark. Multimedia worked just fine on the screen in the room, but switching back and forth between livestreaming and PowerPoint slides was complicated. The internet in the sanctuary was far less dependable than it had been in our apartment. Although we started setting up equipment two hours ahead of time, we were rarely able to start the livestream at the appointed hour. Too often the sound seemed to have gremlins, even when the picture was just fine.  

All of these challenges cost us dozens of online worshippers. The overall quality was significantly less than the carefully recorded and edited version. Then, by Christmas, we had to return to online-only worship because a highly contagious COVID variant was sweeping across the city. We worshipped only online through the first Sunday of Lent, when we returned to hybrid worship. Fortunately, we had worked out most of our glitches. We also brought in a semi-professional to manage the livestream, had someone else manage the multimedia in the room, and a third person to handle the sound.  

In addition to hybrid worship, we have a weekly Bible study and a midweek guided meditation, both on Zoom. Our board has not met in person since 2019. Our congregational meetings, and even after worship receptions, have been held in-person and online. In fact, without the members who joined via Zoom, we would not have achieved a quorum at our most recent corporate meeting. We wondered about a mechanism for casting confidential votes online, but anonymous Zoom polls seems to work well for that.  

Unsplash image by Samantha Borges

I confess it is hard to preach passionately with so few people in the room. When worship was only online, it was easy to translate preaching to the camera alone, but speaking to people in person AND online is an entirely different challenge. One Spring Sunday we had nine first-time visitors. That is a great sign for the future. They liked worship, but it felt manic to speak to all of them before and after the service because there were too few of our members to provide adequate hospitality. We have not resumed coffee hour, in part because of COVID, but also because so many of our congregation still worship online.  

A couple of our members have health concerns. Most of those who worship from home, however, do so because of convenience. It is so much easier not to get dressed or have to dress the kids. Our already small children’s program has become a real challenge. Parents find online worship so much easier. Other folks prefer online worship because it feels more intimate, with fewer distractions. They are able to focus on the meaning of the music or the message without the performative aspect of being with their peers. 

Community always has been one of the great hallmarks of the gathered church, and this is, perhaps, the greatest challenge of the hybrid church. To accomplish connections online, we must stop assuming Sunday worship is the only time we can be the community of Christ.  

For far too long, the church has resisted using the tools of technology: databases, online recurring giving, multimedia, livestreaming, Zoom, and a marketing-oriented website. COVID shoved many of those churches into the 21st century. It proved to the naysayers the church is, indeed, capable of being agile and adaptive. We didn’t because we wouldn’t, not because we couldn’t.  

Churches who had made the shift from asking their congregations to make pledges to becoming “sustaining members” prospered financially during the pandemic. Completing a recurring giving card takes no more effort than filling out a pledge card. The income stream for the church is much more stable and supports the church, even in the lean days of summer or during the occasional ice storm. Prior to the pandemic, churches I worked with that had made this shift found an overall increase in giving of 18 percent. More importantly, though, those churches made it through COVID with a negligible decrease in giving.  

COVID someday will be a thing of the past; hybrid church, however, will endure. If we are wise, so will the lessons we learned about our congregation’s capacity to change, develop new skills, and do ministry in a whole new way. This is our hybrid hope.  


Our thanks to Rev. Dr. Michael Piazza for allowing this reprint of his chapter from Hybrid Hope: Church of the Future for Churches with a Future (available for purchase on Amazon). Piazza serves as President of Agile Church Consulting. He is also senior pastor of Broadway United Church of Christ in New York City.