Adapting to technological change has always been part of the church’s DNA. What’s new is just how much the rate of that change has accelerated in the past couple decades. For example, it took around 1,400 years of church history to get from papyrus to the printing press. It’s taken about 25 to go from the first MP3 sermons to sermons written with the aid of ChatGPT and delivered in virtual reality churches. Though the message of the gospel never changes, the way it’s delivered certainly has.
During the pandemic, churches experienced a sea change as their in-person ministries shifted online—in many cases for the first time. Now those same churches are back to meeting in person, incorporating what they learned during the lockdown, and discussing what a new hybrid physical-digital or “phygital” model of church might look like. To help churches navigate the transition to hybrid church, we had a conversation with three leaders who have done a lot of thinking about the future. We trust their insights will be helpful as you craft a vision for the coming years of ministry.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; president of Serious Times, Inc.; co-host of the Church and Culture podcast; and author of more than 20 books, including Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age (Zondervan).
Gary McIntosh is president of the Church Growth Network, distinguished affiliate professor of Christian ministry and leadership at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology, and the author of several books, including The Solo Pastor: Understanding and Overcoming the Challenges of Leading a Church Alone (Baker Books).
Jeff Reed is the founder TheChurch.digital and DigitalChurch.network, and director of Metaverse Church NEXT and Digital Church NEXT for Leadership Network. He is the author of VR & The Metaverse Church: How God is Moving in this Virtual, Yet Quite Real, Reality (Leadership Network) and Sharing Jesus Online: Helping Everyday Believers Become Digital & Metaverse Missionaries (Exponential).
We live more and more of our lives online. Why have you remained committed to the physical church?
Gary McIntosh: For me, it’s a strong belief that Jesus called his body an ekklesia or a “called out” gathered group of people. I define a local church as a gathered group of baptized believers practicing the ordinances and fulfilling the Great Commission. This can be practiced online, and some churches are doing it, however, I still think it’s best done as an in-person gathered community. One can’t give a hug over the internet or visit a person in the hospital or make good eye contact like is done in person.
The rise of online churches has stretched my categories, for sure. The evangelical church has always been innovative, and it’s no surprise to me that we see numerous pastors attempting different approaches to church.
James Emery White: The mission of the church is best served, I believe, through a hybrid model that involves the physical and the digital, not simply physical or not simply digital. The synergy that comes from a hybrid model has more missional force than a digital model alone. The goal is not to transform the church into a solely digital form, but to transform the church’s thinking into methods and strategies in order to reach a post-Christian digital world. We need to get out of our heads that we’ve got these two worlds. No, I’d say it’s one world that is physical and digital. The marketing world has a name for it: “phygital.”
So, we don’t have two sets of disciples, one online and one in person. We don’t have two types of unchurched people, one online and one in person. The reality is that you have people who live in the slipstream between both. We live in a hybrid world, which is why we need a hybrid church.
For example, think about church. You don’t have an online person and an in-person person. Typically, you have a person who might attend in-person one Sunday, listen to the message on podcasts the following week, watch a livestream the Sunday after that, catch the message on demand in a church app the week after that. That’s just the new reality. One of the real tensions is that you have to develop an approach that involves the physical and the digital to equip people and then from that determine what can be served online, what needs to be embodied or what might need a blend of both.
Jeff Reed: I love James’ stance on that, but I do think that a digital expression of church can work to reach a different type of person. What we’re seeing is that digital expressions of churches—churches that exist within virtual communities—oftentimes reach people that don’t go to the buildings. It’s a higher [concentration] of atheists and agnostics, de-churched people, and even other nationalities and other religions coming in to ask questions.
The more we get into the digital community spectrum, the more missional opportunities we’re seeing. But this isn’t in competition with the physical church, like: “I’m going to skip going to church physically, and instead I’m going to church in virtual reality.” So instead of being threatened by what’s happening in digital [environments] and the missional implications of what can be done digitally or in virtual reality, the physical church should be embracing it and using it as a front door to bring people back to the physical expression of church.
Do you feel that a hybrid model gives you a chance to reintroduce people to the church in a different way?
Reed: I think that people are more open digitally than the church’s perception allows. I think people will have open, honest conversations. They will become unfiltered. Judgment does not pass via Zoom, or at least the perception of judgment. So, to get somebody to be real honest, talking about themselves, transparent, authentic, that comes out in digital space. Now, you do get a level of people being fake [as well]. And so there needs to be wisdom in how ministry is done in that space. But the ability to connect with people openly and honestly, and to be able to have rich dialogue, disciple-making conversations, quickly is very possible [in a digital space].
White: If I could play with your question a little bit, the realities of online church and metaverse and such have shaped our thinking about what’s essential to being a church. Nothing in technology, from my perspective, changes a historic Christian orthodoxy in relation to ecclesiology.
What has changed, though, is the expression of orthodox ecclesiology in light of a digital world. Think about the passage in Hebrews, which talks of not giving up meeting together (10:25). That’s almost universally understood by people in a popular way to mean gathering for in-person public worship services. But the digital revolution forces us to look at that and say, Is that really what it’s saying? There’s little doubt that we’re to be worshippers. There’s little doubt that we’re to be doing that both publicly and privately, and that one of the marks of the early church was gathering together to do just that. But was that what the author of Hebrews was mandating? No, the author wasn’t talking about gathering physically for corporate worship or gathering physically for any church event.
Instead, the author of Hebrews is speaking directly about not giving up on relationships, of not giving up on people. It was a clarion call for the need to be faithful to interpersonal relationships as Christians with other Christians.
The mistake would be to assume that if we have always done something in person, it can only be done in person and must continue to be done in person. The discipline is to think through everything you have done in person, gathered in a physical location, often on a weekend, and ruthlessly evaluate whether it just might have a digital counterpart or a digital manifestation.
When we think about online tools, a lot of it is driven by convenience. How do you maintain a discipleship focus as we start to transition the way we do hybrid church?
McIntosh: First, it doesn’t work to put people down or blame them for seeking online experiences. If a pastor preaches against the online church experience, I think it’ll just drive more people away from the physical church. The two best approaches are, first, to design and highlight an excellent on-site experience, such as ministries for children, youth, couples, singles, older adults, etc. These are things that aren’t readily accomplished online.
Second, creatively call people back to personal commitment to discipleship. For example, I recall a church that called people to be “oak tree” Christians. The pastor used the example of an oak tree because it had a large trunk, with deep roots and fruitful branches. Each year he challenged people to become an oak tree Christian by committing to such practices as attending a small group, being present regularly at worship services, serving in one area of church ministry, giving financially, etc.
White: There’s two ways to consider this. One is to focus on how online experiences drive convenience, and therefore an ever-growing consumer mindset so the needs of the consumer and what is convenient become paramount. And most people would start pulling their discipleship hair out over that. But the other way is to take that very same understanding and envision how we can capitalize on the convenience it offers to enhance the delivery of resources that will serve spiritual growth.
Let me give you one example. We developed an online systematic theology course with a workbook. It ended up being seven installments of around 45 minutes or so each. Students enrolled and participated in the class over a lunch hour for seven weeks as part of the class. I would join live in order to answer any questions they might have at the end of the lecture. And if we had done that class in person, we might have had 50 people attend that class and we would have been happy with that. Instead, we had hundreds go through that class.
These are simply new delivery systems that can be seized to enhance discipleship. We have found that it has actually enhanced not just the number of people we’ve been able to disciple, but the quality of it offering both live online, on-demand classes, interactive things, you know, along with the embodied aspects of appropriate discipleship. So, I don’t see it as a negative, not if it’s being thoughtfully done.
Reed: There are a lot of misconceptions around what digital is. The truth is, it can be a tool for consumerism, and it can be a tool for very deep relationships. It can effectively reach a billion people, or it can hyperfocus on an individual on the other side of the planet. It really depends on what we, the church, want to do with that tool. And as we look forward into metaverse and augmented reality and spatial computing, it’s not that we should be afraid of these things. Instead, I think it’s good to ask questions, to lean into that technology, to better understand how it functions, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how it can help the church accomplish the Great Commission.
Let’s not look at hybrid as the endgame. Hybrid is the beginning. Hybrid is the first step for many of our churches to understand how to better use digital technology and the metaverse to reach people for Christ. [To begin,] focus on programs like creating digital missionaries or engaging with different communities in digital space, or even engaging in other Facebook communities and Facebook Groups that are within your neighborhood to start to build relationships, to bring people in. This is where we need to get more into being missional. This is where we need to look at inviting people in online or even creating opportunities for people to [share] Jesus in digital and virtual spaces.
How can pastors start thinking in a more proactive way about technology and this digital world that we’re in?
McIntosh: First, provide an online pastor totally dedicated to shepherding the digital congregation (building small groups, times of prayer, counseling, classes, etc.). Second, fund technological improvement—higher-end cameras, sound and light equipment—hiring top quality tech staff, etc. Then the board and staff must get involved in “futuring,” that is, creatively dreaming, innovating and experimenting today ideas that might be needed five years from now.
Next, find ways to engage secular people that will draw them to Christ evangelistically. All research on how people come to Christ demonstrates that people come to Christ and a church through relationships, usually those near relationships among family, close friends and social acquaintances. How will evangelism be done online? How will the connection of newcomers be accomplished online?
It’s my observation that only about 7% of pastors are innovative creator types. Perhaps another 10–15% are able to be creative and innovative if they are trained to do so. That leaves around 80% or so who need models. As I observe the church today, there seems to be a distrust of models, or perhaps a dislike of models, but most church leaders need workable models from which they can learn what works and adapt for their context. Most effective models arise from the fringes of ministry rather than from the core of current ministry. Where are today’s fringes? What ministries are working there? Who are the leaders on the fringes making a real difference, seeing new souls come to Christ? If we can find them, they’ll show us the way.
White: In the late 1800s, the railroads dominated the transportation industry of the United States. And then, as we know, a new discovery came along: the car. Incredibly, the leaders of the railroad industry did not take advantage of their unique position to participate in that pivotal transportation development. The reason was simple: The railroad barons didn’t understand what business they were in. They thought they were in the train business. They weren’t. They were in the transportation business.
Churches are not in the Sunday school business. They’re not in the Awana business. They’re not in the Upward Sports business. They’re not in the Catalyst business. They’re not in any programmatic business. And let me go further. They’re also not in the small group business. They’re not in the men’s ministry business or the women’s ministry business or any other sub-ministry business. All of these may be well and good, but they’re not your business and they shouldn’t be treated as such.
We’re in the worship, evangelism, community and discipleship business. We are in the business of evangelizing the