What to Ask Before Blending Your Physical and Digital Ministry

Pioneering as an online church may not have been at the top of your plan last year, but you faced challenges and discovered opportunities in the midst of a pandemic. Now, you’ve shifted into a time of anticipation and planning for what comes next for your church, both online and in person.

We hear brave questions from church leaders around the country—and our team has been asking them, too:

What is the potential of the new reality we’re living in?
How do we maximize the role of digital in ministry?
What role will the church building play as the impact of COVID unfolds?
Why will people return to our church buildings?

Churches are relaunching in-person services, but it looks different. The reality is that church culture has been changing for years, and COVID accelerated the pace. Together, we’re exploring new possibilities and learning as fast as we can. We recognize these are risky questions for a design-build firm or even your church to ask, but they are necessary in order to innovate and grow our kingdom impact.

What Is the Potential of a Phygital Approach?

First, let’s define what we mean by phygital: Phygital is the combination of physical and digital—the seamless integration between an in-person experience and the online world.

When COVID hit in 2020, scores of churches had to quickly learn how to use digital tools to continue doing ministry. Now, as more churches are reopening and moving back into their buildings, we see churches wrestling with the idea of having both a fully functioning digital and physical ministry. No longer will they be doing one or the other. It’s a both/and world. We’ve crossed over into a phygital era where digital tools mix with physical tools to enhance overall ministry. Even when the pandemic is behind us, phygital church is here to stay.

Blending your two primary tools. As you explore how a phygital ministry approach could harness digital potential and encourage fresh perspective within your church facilities, it’s important to revisit a truth that the COVID shutdown revealed: The church building is not the church. The church is the Body.

Once you have clarity that your church building is a tool, it begs the question: As a tool, is your building working for you or against you in ministry? We can ask that same question about digital tools.

As a tool, is your building working for you or against you in ministry?

The church, discipleship, and ongoing ministry are meant to be part of everyday life. Our digital and physical spaces are tools to be integrated to help people engage at a deeper level for greater connection and growth. But where is the intersection where technology and physical spaces work together really well?

Southwest: The Phygital Life We’re Already Living

Southwest Airlines provides a great cultural and corporate example of a phygital approach. Consider how you seamlessly move between their digital and physical spaces; the digital enhances the physical. It’s exciting to see the strategy behind it and the cues we can take from this example.

Tools and behaviors. Southwest looks first to the tools their customers are already using: smartphones, tablets, and laptop/desktop computers. Recognizing that people interact differently with those devices, the company utilizes each one to enhance the travel experience. Most people still book a flight on a laptop or desktop to help them easily view options. Then, 24 hours before a flight, customers check in on smaller devices and access their boarding passes. Once on the plane, we see people on tablets or phones accessing apps for reading and entertainment.

High value on both experiences. I love the example of Southwest because the in-person experience is essential. Southwest can’t become a fully digital company because we need to board a plane physically. Similarly, we know there is high value in the physical, in-person connection that takes place within your church facility. We see it in worship services, community life, the breaking of bread, diving into the word together, and the simple gathering of believers.

Church leaders can similarly integrate the physical and online presence to enhance what their church has to offer. As we’ve seen, digital can be so much more than watching a worship service in a living room. That could be how someone experiences part of worship, but it’s not a full digital church. We see many leaders wrestling through doing small groups online, watch parties, and discipleship/training programs for parents to do with their kids at home.

Amidst these changes, great new tools are being created. How can you use these new digital tools to complement your physical, in-person experience? How might one support the other as we move into the future?

Is It Time to Make Space for Something New?

We know space creates behaviors that shape culture. As we look at retail, hospitality, education, and healthcare, there have been many studies over the last 20-30 years on how well-designed space helps these industries. In the medical field, it is connected to patients and families’ physical and emotional well-being, impacted by intentional choices on space, furniture, textures, and color. Retailers shape their space, lighting, and layout to guide our shopping habits and entice us to spend more time and money.

Before these other industries were figuring this out, the church was using these principles. Studies indicate people could walk into a church and know what to do, based on the space. It was an incredible experience to be in a worship service, so much so that the community craved to use church space because it was innovative and well designed.

Now, the world has caught up or surpassed the church. We need to get back to designing for experience in new ways. We need to creatively think about the experience we are trying to create for both churched and unchurched people.

Reshaping ministry spaces or approaches isn’t new. Historically, we see how church culture has shifted over the years. This illustrates a high-level view of the evolution leading out of the oral/print era to the broadcast/digital era and how it reshaped our facilities. This doesn’t fully represent every church, and these characteristics aren’t right or wrong, but you may find your church in a portion of this list.

A Cascading Effect

As we fully enter the phygital era, what other building shifts might take place? For example, many church leaders can resonate with the transition from sanctuaries to auditoriums. We work with some churches that have maintained a beautiful sanctuary, a great reverent space that, when you walk into it, automatically prompts you to slow down, be quiet, maybe sit or kneel. The space speaks. It’s transcendent, which was the intent of the early sanctuary.

In the broadcast era, we shifted to auditoriums. As times changed, we weren’t looking at print Bibles as much or reading lyrics from a hymnal as those needs were met on screens. However, the screens weren’t powerful enough to fight daylight, so we started closing off windows. There is a cascading effect. As we make changes, sometimes even subtle ones, they reshape our building. This transition of space also geared audiences from a mindset of participating to one of attending.

Adapting to New Needs

As we’re connecting with more people online, we’re transforming spaces again to add better video, audio, and lighting to produce our message in a more robust way online. The challenge is that the primary worship space was designed for a live audience, not a broadcast one.

In light of this, will the future possibilities include a worship studio, a space designed to capture what’s happening so those who aren’t in-person can engage well? We’ve likened it to NBC Studios, where they interact with a live audience, but others can still feel like they are a part of the experience.

Children & Family Ministry

Building elements have adapted as our ministry with young families changed. During COVID, many churches have enjoyed a season of equipping parents to do more with their kids at home. Today, we know kids are on smartphones four to five hours per day and are possibly in church an hour or two per week. We need to incorporate technology and parents to be a more significant part of kids’ spiritual transformations.

There is still an essential place in church for children’s ministry. It’s something we have to do really well. But, some churches are wondering if they could transform some of their space into a training center where families would learn together, and parents could engage with their kids’ spiritual journeys.

We have learned how important it is for the younger generation to have intergenerational relationships within the church, so when they come back from college, they find foundational relationships that are meaningful to them. This is a value that space can help express.

I visited a church during the COVID season where I was so impressed by their lobby space. There was something for everyone in the furniture, colors, textures, and flooring. It included contemporary furniture for adults next to lower furniture for kids. I could picture grandparents, parents, and kids all interacting in the space together. These are simple solutions to bring generations together.

The Space In Between

Another topic for discussion in churches and businesses, in general, has been the idea of in-between spaces, places where technology can allow us to meet people where they are. As we think about the goal and mission of the church–to reach the lost, make disciples, and serve the world–many are striving to do that in new ways by exploring the following:

What are the ways we can use our homes to reach lost people and make disciples?
How do we use our buildings better?
What are the in-between spaces where people are already living, where technology allows us to connect and engage?

In regions with milder weather, we’ve seen restaurants shift more toward outdoor dining. Some churches worshiping outdoors also found this to be a great new way to engage people who wouldn’t typically opt to join them in their building. People enjoyed worshiping outside in nature. We have found that people often feel closest to God in nature.

Maybe you continue to offer outdoor environments, or perhaps it could be that you look for more interplay between the indoors and outdoors, like incorporating windows in worship spaces or creating lobby spaces that have gathering areas with outdoor elements.

Internal Spaces

As we return to the Southwest example, we can look to the spaces in their operations centers to learn more about how they support their customer experience. They have defined a culture to enhance the travel experience. What we see in their behind-the-scenes space is that it just encourages the culture they want their people to carry out. They have a 24-hour, seven-day-week listening center where Southwest employees follow news, social media, what people are sharing about travel experiences, and what’s happening in the world. They make real-time business decisions on real-time data about how people are interacting digitally and physically with Southwest.

When churches come to us, they are often thinking about key public-facing ministry spaces like the sanctuary, lobby, or children’s space, and those are critical spaces. But, other spaces also help a church operate well, like their staff or volunteer central spaces.

As we think about a phygital approach to ministry, we’re already seeing churches create recording studios, Zoom rooms, and places where things are assembled and sent out. Those behind-the-scenes spaces could be even more important than they were before.

First published on AspenGroup.com. Used by permission.