A Strategy for Hybrid Worship — For the Pandemic and Beyond
As Dumbarton returns to in-person worship even as the pandemic continues, we need to rethink our pre-pandemic worship experience in light of what we have learned from our time as a virtual church. Above all, we do not want to turn our backs on the positive aspects of being a virtual Christian community. Rather, we want to marry these advantages with our traditional in-person worship to make Dumbarton a more powerful and comprehensive witness to God’s word in the years to come.
Hybrid worship reaches out to four distinct audiences: in the sanctuary on Sundays; at home on Sundays and at virtual meetings; in-person or virtual visitors/guests; and online visitors at times other than worship services. Let us bear all these audiences` in mind as we consider in-person and online worship.
Justification for In-Person Worship
“For where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in their midst.” Matthew 18:20, KJV
For nearly all Dumbartonians, in-person worship means a drive to Georgetown and finding parking. In pandemic times, it has also meant weighing a delicate balance of health risks with the rewards of being a physical participant in our beloved community. And the church building itself represents a major drain on our community’s time and treasure. Why not just walk away from it all and go 100% virtual?
We should take a moment to consider the advantages of returning to in-person post-pandemic worship even though it is what we have always done.
Start with the above quote from Matthew’s gospel. With apologies to the early desert hermits, Christians are inherently community-focused. The Disciples were a community who became much more powerful after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Paul writes to Christian communities about the importance of building more perfect and effective communities. And as Methodists, we believe that membership in communities empowers us to be better servants of God in the world. Since June 1968, when Harry Kiely was appointed pastor, Dumbarton has developed and sustained a culture emphasizing social justice and sharing at a deep level during the joys and concerns time in our worship service. The congregation grew and a tight-knit community resulted. It has carried that culture forward even as various pastors have come and gone.
True to that community culture, Dumbartonians still very much want in-person worship. Surveys taken during the pandemic showed that most of the congregation was eager to return to in-person worship as soon as they felt it was safe and, in some cases, even before they felt safe. Our beautiful, historic building remains meaningful to many of us as a place to gather, to listen to the delightful music in our sanctuary, and to experience peace surrounded by church “family” as we worship together. For this kind of fellowship, there is no comparable substitute for in-person worship. The challenge now is to keep enough parishioners attending in person to support the worship service and post-worship fellowship time without overusing the volunteers currently providing this support.
Justification for Remote Worship
“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Triune God, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” Matthew 28:19-20 CEB (edited)
Jesus charges us to take His word to the world. At Dumbarton we believe we have an important Christian message to share with our home community in the Washington area and with the world. While we stumbled upon the ability to share our services beyond the church’s walls because of the pandemic, now that we have this capability, we must accept Christ’s charge to make the fullest use of it.
One of Dumbarton’s most surprising discoveries of the pandemic was that we had a remote audience in our own congregation that we had never made any effort to reach electronically. While we installed an elevator in the church several years ago, it was of no use to people whose mobility issues made it difficult or impossible to make it to Georgetown on ANY Sunday. We also have people who for whatever reason cannot make the trip to Georgetown on a given Sunday. In the past, they just had to miss church. Now it is possible for them to participate, and we have some regular participants who are physically unable to come to church.
The pandemic highlighted another population: people who would not go to church because of health concerns. After mass vaccination and boosting, this was mostly people with small children and the immune-compromised. While this will probably diminish over time, there will always be members of the congregation who have trouble coming to church for health reasons. In the past they were just out of luck. Now they can participate in Sunday worship through Zoom or by viewing portions of the service at a later time.
In addition, as soon as we started to put our worship services on Zoom, members of the Dumbarton Diaspora started showing up. Some have become regulars, and Doug Nelson is now running an all-remote Dumbarton Discovery Group from Ft. Lauderdale! All of this was unthinkable before March, 2020, even though it was technologically possible.
A next step is to interview those attending electronically and ascertain what aspects of remote worship they like and what improvements they recommend for better integration of the service with in-person worshipers.
Outreach refers to Dumbarton’s ministry to those who are not currently members of the church. Services on Zoom and access to recorded services allow us to engage with people anywhere in the world, not just in the Washington area. Dumbartonians will be able to take Dumbarton with them wherever they go in the world, and interested people everywhere will be able to access Dumbarton via the internet.
With outreach, our community can now include “remote members.” We currently have a few people who consider Dumbarton their “other” church, a place they follow and feel a part of in addition to their local church community. We should strongly encourage remote membership because it gives Dumbarton an entrée into church communities across the country and around the world. Remote membership can also be a welcome sanctuary for isolated individuals. This is very important because people in some areas do not have access to a progressive Methodist church. Some LGBTQ people, for example, live in places where they do not have churches that fully affirm and accept them. Others may feel the need for a church that grapples with issues of systemic racism. Dumbarton online can serve as their primary church or their “other” church.
Projecting leadership and progressive theology within the Baltimore-Washington Conference, in the greater United Methodist Church, and in the wider world is an important part of Dumbarton’s identity as a community. Access to our worship services and to other resources in real time or at a later time is an important means of spreading our influence. Zoom book studies or other discussion groups and speaker series such as last year’s “Dumbarton Forum” (also inconceivable pre-pandemic) help to take Dumbarton’s message to the wider church and to the world. With enough virtual outreach, Adult Ed sessions and other events might draw interest from far beyond our usual audience.
Reimagining Dumbarton’s Mission in a Hybrid Context
We describe Dumbarton Church as a Christian community that “seeks, serves, and celebrates.” Each of these words points to a part of Dumbarton’s mission – the unique way that our congregation manifests God’s Spirit in the world. These three aspects of our mission are necessarily transformed – born anew – in a hybrid context.
“Seeks” – This alludes to the inquiry that lies at the heart of how Dumbarton uses language, symbolism, and liturgy in its worship services, and wrestles with what it looks like to live out an individual and communal Christian faith in the world. Our Dumbarton forums, Zoom book groups on Many Witnesses and White Fragility, hybrid Adult Ed sessions (and their podcasts), and recent virtual film premiere are ways that we have begun to share our Christian inquiry beyond our physical walls.
“Serves” – This represents diakonia, the way that Dumbarton makes God known in the world through service to the community. At Dumbarton, service expresses itself not only in addressing social needs in our immediate community, but also in a strong social justice witness. Hybrid worship may bring us opportunities to explore both of these kinds of service outside our immediate geographic area.
“Celebrates” – This speaks to koinonia, the way that Dumbarton makes God’s love known in the world by means of the love and relationships that it models in its community. This is one of the strongest aspects of Dumbarton as a worship community, and arguably the area where Dumbarton needs to be the most intentional as it invents and reinvents new relationships in a hybrid context without losing the strength of community achieved through in-person attendance at worship and other events. How are physical and virtual communities knit together as one? How do we create virtual and hybrid opportunities for the kind of congregational caring and intimacy that Dumbartonians experience as the presence of God? Our all-virtual Discovery Group is one way we are exploring these questions; many more explorations and opportunities await us.
— Restore and improve in-person worship. Consider what changes are necessary to sustain and improve in-person worship attendance and the quality of post-worship fellowship. DC health restrictions will change over time and our ability to manage the health risks of meeting in-person will change too. COVID-19, influenza, and who knows what else may impact our ability to hold services in ways that we do not yet understand. The flexibility to do hybrid or remote worship will help us manage whatever happens next, but in-person worship is fundamental for our sense of community, and it should be kept available to the maximum extent that applicable health restrictions allow. Above all, we must not assume that the new normal will be like the pre-pandemic normal.
— Regularize remote worship. Continue to develop real-time online worship. Technology will evolve and we must keep up with it, as we failed to do in pre-COVID times. We must also facilitate access on the church website to recorded worship services.
— Explicitly expand remote access to activities other than worship. To the greatest possible extent, we should try to include remote members in the whole range of congregational activities: adult ed, TED talks, the Labyrinthing Together videos and study guide, book study sessions and any other content that might be of interest to distant individuals or to a wider progressive Christian community.
— Be forthright with all our audiences that hybrid church is here to stay, although our worship services and other church activities will continue to adjust as technology evolves and creates more possibilities. We should emphasize the advantages of greater inclusiveness in our own congregation as well as the advantages of having remote participants in our services, our Discovery Groups, committee work, study groups, and all aspects of the life of our congregation. Dumbarton has changed a lot in its 250-year history, and we must continue to adapt if we are to thrive.
— Consider the development of an implementation plan to achieve the objectives of this strategy document for hybrid worship. Unlike this strategy document, which is akin to a vision statement at a high and more permanent level of abstraction, the implementation plan could be adjusted as frequently as necessary to address changing technology, changing opportunities to reach new audiences, and changing practical needs, including those for protecting people’s health and safety. As a starting point, some of the considerations that a good implementation plan might need to address are presented below in a temporary addendum to this document.
Candidate Measures for Hybrid Worship Implementation Plan
— Distinguish between ephemeral vs. evergreen content for the website to maximize content that does not need frequent updates. Worship content should be posted on the website by topic as well as by date.
— On the Worship and the Communications Clusters, include an advocate (preferably the same person) for online worship and the needed internal and external communications that support it.
— Continue to support Jeehye as our Digital Ministries Director and lead tech person for the virtual component of our hybrid worship services. Ideally, this support would include the Music Director, someone from the Worship Cluster, and a backup person with technical and social media skills, along with someone from the Diaspora or a local congregant who cannot usually make it to church. This could be an opportunity for the church to invite tech-savvy younger people into leadership roles, creating a possible gateway for recruiting a new generation of church leaders. As we improve our ability to track and contact virtual visitors, we may also want a volunteer on this team to see what kind of support remote participants might need, and consult a few of them from time to time to reassess their needs.
— Rethink the “jobs” that support the pastor during the service. How has the pandemic changed them and what should they look like when we are operating a hybrid service during normal times? Who and what do we need to make hybrid church welcoming and inclusive?
— Rethink what we need for an appealing in-person worship experience and thriving post-service fellowship. Should we consider distributing a sign-up sheet for area congregants to commit to periodic in-person attendance to ensure sufficient numbers for after-service fellowship? Are coffee and snacks essential for this fellowship? If so, do we need to return to a sign-up sheet, or can we make do with pot-luck contributions? In addition to our existing sign-up sheets for greeters, readers, and liturgists, should we consider a sign-up sheet for in-person worshipers to fulfill such non-liturgical tasks as operating the audio system, cleaning up after fellowship, turning off fans, closing windows, turning out lights, and locking doors so that we won’t become unfairly dependent on the same small group of volunteers for these tasks?
— Perform regular technology audits to ensure that our technology remains up to date and that we are using what we have to its best advantage. The large television screen in the sanctuary showing remote worshipers is helpful, and we should be keen to adopt new technology as it becomes available to further link our remote and in-person audiences.
— Interview local and distant Zoom participants in hybrid worship to learn what features and functionalities of hybrid worship work best for them and what ideas they have for improvements, with particular reference to improving their integration into the worship service. One possibility, assuming that there is an after-service fellowship opportunity: Hook up another laptop to one of the large-screen TVs to allow in-person worshipers to participate in the remote worshipers’ virtual “coffee hour.” Another possibility: Give virtual worshipers an opportunity to provide their phone number to a volunteer technical support person who could relay their request for a two-way conversation with an in-person worshiper.
— Give remote worship attendees the option to share their joys and concerns in Zoom’s “speaker view” from the large screen.
— Monitor trends in activity on our social media sites, and periodically analyze these trends to assess what we can do, including search engine optimization, to attract more visitors and/or new audiences.
— Gather and publicize within the congregation the number of persons attending worship remotely, whether they stay for the entire service, what level of participation they want to have in the service itself, and, if they live in the DC metro area, why they typically attend remotely and what, if anything, the church can do to promote more in-person worship.