I was moved and challenged after reading Canon Neil Elliot’s article in the Anglican Journal, ‘Our response …gives me much hope,’ and would like to respond.*
After reviewing some of his assessment of our situation in the emerging post-COVID-19 church, I would like to ponder the meaning of a term he uses—“hybrid”—review some historical precedents for it, and then propose a few future considerations, all as part of continuing dialogue.
“Hybrid” is defined as something new resulting from the combination of two previously different elements.
The pandemic has profoundly affected many, but “God is bringing blessings out of a bad situation,” says Elliot. We have had to endure forced community separation, but we have found ways to be together in spite of that. We miss the Eucharist, but we’ve adapted church to a new online condition using Zoom and have discovered new ways of engaging our surrounding communities.
COVID-19 has changed us in three important ways, Elliot continues. There has been an unprecedented outpouring of creativity and change. The move online has broken barriers of time and distance, and we have transformed our liturgy.
We seem to be moving towards a “hybrid church” where there will be both online and in-person services in many churches. In the process we are solving connection problems that we have struggled with for decades. Elliot asks, will the hybrid church become the new normal? “I feel more confident about the future of the church locally and nationally than I have in many years.”
For those who fear these developments, I suggest that we’ve been there before. Over time, Christians have found ways of working through—sometimes beautifully, sometimes with difficulty—the means to become a new hybrid.
The early church began as a Jewish community centered on Jesus that evolved into a universal and diverse body of believers. Catholics and Protestants have been growing together as a result of the ecumenical movement. The Book of Common Prayer was adapted and enhanced as a result of the Book of Alternative Services. Lutherans from non-English speaking backgrounds in
Europe were helped to change their liturgical language by borrowing from Anglican and Episcopalian sources in the New World, so that they could be more at home in new settings. All of these transformations involved risk and overcoming the fear of new circumstances.
And what of the future? We all have anxiety about what will happen to in-person church. We tend to think that resolution means church attendance and human connection in a building once everything opens again. Moving into the post-pandemic era will challenge us to gather together in a wide variety of ways. We must not limit our understanding of in-person gatherings to in-facility gatherings. The majority of attenders and perhaps our most engaged people may not be in the auditorium.
Making the most of diverse gatherings will likely be our biggest mission challenge. The church can offer the wider culture opportunities and community that just can’t be found elsewhere.
People have learned to move seamlessly between the digital and the real.
Church will go the hybrid route in the future. That means digital and physical ministry are both here to stay. As society heads in various directions to meet individual needs, let’s work to stay connected, calling all to a deeper level of sacrifice and commitment.
* some ideas expressed here come from The Hybrid Future of the Church(Outreach Magazine).