Hybridization of the Physical and Digital Church
The pandemic has changed us in ways we still don't fully understand, but the future of church gatherings will be a combination of physical and digital space.
At Barna, we asked, “After the COVID-19 pandemic, what kind of church gathering will fit your lifestyle best?” The majority of people said physical gatherings will be important; those aren't going to go away. What was interesting is that there is also a sense that both physical and digital experiences are going to be favored. Before, technology was a barrier to us in how we were joining church. Now, we have people whose virtual literacy has gone up immensely over this period, across generations.
Even though older generations, particularly the Boomers, still prefer and have a strong preference for physical gatherings, others say having some hybridization is important. That's going to have an impact on the space. We're seeing that Gen X, particularly people with families, says there are some weekends when hybrid church is going to be needed.
Watch the full video, Building a Better Future:
One of the problems we're seeing is a difference between watching something onscreen and attending and participating. We found in our research that people don't always equate watching a service to attending a service. We know the church is more than a building. The question is: is virtual church more than a sermon?
How can we give people a better physical and digital church experience, rather than them just choosing to opt out?
"We know the church is more than a building. The question is: is virtual church more than a sermon?" –Mark Matlock, Insights Lead, Barna
Hierarchy of Virtual Experiences
As someone who does a lot of event planning and facilitation in the live space, I started to look at how we do this in a virtual space. As a result, I created a hierarchy of online engagements and found that most churches are currently operating in the lower area.
Here, you can see this hierarchy in action. At the bottom, you can see that it’s a lot easier to simply deliver information and content to a mass audience in a virtual way. By contrast, at the top, you can imagine how events intended to be more personal and intimate are smaller and more process-oriented, presenting a greater challenge when moving to a virtual platform:
Be With and Become: At the top of the hierarchy, this is the deepest level of connection.
Make and Take: This level asks, how do we make something together, either collaboratively or individually? For example, think about families who are creating their own church service; it’s being augmented by what's happening in the physical space while they're at home. That could be a deeper level of engagement.
Respond and Receive: The presenter has a toolkit, more like a coach who pulls from the audience to ask: what they need right now? Then, they reach into that toolkit and present it.
Consume and Clarify: Here, people receive content but also have the ability to engage. It's not just a presentation, but instead, a discussion where people have the opportunity to ask questions or present their case.
Sit and Stream: This involves sitting and watching, but there is very little opportunity to participate or engage in the program. The majority of church services were built on the Sit and Stream model, initially designed as an option for people who were traveling or ill, but it was not designed specifically for virtual space. Now, it has become the primary tool, but are people really using it? How do we get to a place where people can do more than just experience the stream?
On-Demand: At the bottom of the hierarchy, we have on-demand, which is a library of sermons.
Creating spaces that are designed for more engaging experiences is challenging. With hybridization, we’re able to connect our virtual church experience with our physical experience, and keep connected to the body of Christ.
About Mark Matlock
Mark Matlock is a facilitator of innovation and impact, helping organizations adapt to changing times by turning research-based insights into action. A regular presenter and workshop facilitator for Barna, Mark facilitates training and on-site application of research findings for Barna clients. He is also the author of more than 20 books for teens and parents, and in 2019 co-authored Faith for Exiles: Five Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon, with Barna Group President David Kinnaman.