Four Hybrid Worship Lessons from Small Congregations

Dear Ones:

Small congregations are not big settings in miniature. So it’s no surprise that you’ve learned distinctive kinds of Covid lessons. You’ve made-do with your own challenges and strengths. And you’ve adapted hybrid worship in ways that fit your particular settings.

Because most instructions about hybrid worship have been developed by-in-for big congregations, your adaptations have required innovation, courage, and faithfulness. Along with failings, flailings, and loss of sleep, I suspect. Thankfully, scripture assures us that God is comfortable working with all of these.

Now it’s time to share what you’ve learned. These are the four biggest small-congregation-hybrid-worship lessons that I’ve observed and that you’ve sent to me.

1. Including folks outside of pews is here to stay. Gospel worthy. And with some great surprises.

Covid reminded us of something we can’t forget. There have always been left-out folks who couldn’t make it to a pew on Sunday mornings. They’ve longed to belong and connect–or quietly learn a little more about this Jesus guy. And the good news has always insisted that left-out folks matter. Divine love has a habit of stepping over barriers of time, space, railroad tracks, collar colors, abilities, health, language. Even denomination. 

Lots of you shared that even when Covid is no threat, you will continue your distinctive hybrid ministries. They came with some great surprises, like:

  • Better connections with the family and friends of home-bound members. Family and friends participated together. Some returned to in-person worship.
  • Options for those who work nights or Sunday mornings.
  • A reach-out to college students and others who moved away.
  • Collaborations with members of other denominations who enjoyed “dropping in” to learn something or coordinate community ministries.
  • Easy entry to shy persons who were looking for something, but hesitant to simply walk through doors. Many congregations reported adding new members through their Covid innovations. And these new members would have been left out of their typical ministries.
  • Worshipers who embraced new kinds of ministries (and sermons) because they experienced something new together.

In one small community, three different denominations began broadcasting a joint Sunday service. They recognized the need to include everyone, all together. The sermons were conversations among the pastors on the scripture. The pastors didn’t always agree on the meaning. But it turns out God is big enough that they never needed to. Now, the various denominations continue joint, quarterly services. Because they realized there’s still a need to include everyone, all together.

2. Small-setting hybrid requires forgetting “Program Thinking.” Instead it starts with diagnosing individual needs in your congregation–and community.

Program Thinking is an essential tool for big settings. In order to work efficiently with large groups, they have to start with a one-size-fits-most program. But small congregations don’t. They can start by figuring out what works best for each one in their community. They don’t need one well-focused approach with a critical mass of needs. They just need that creative combination of make-do-ability, curiosity, and flexibility. One at a time. The specialty of small settings.

Many of you identified that the hybrid answer wasn’t a single broadcast production. It was a menu of separate ministries tailored to specific folks, like:

  • Alma, in the nursing center, who appreciated watching on an iPad with a worship companion.
  • Paul, at home with a child recovering from chemotherapy, who enjoyed the delivery of a worship box with kiddo activities and real church stuff for decorating a home altar.
  • Ginger, homesick at college, who delighted in recording the scripture from her dorm room.
  • Mark, working food service at the hospital on Sunday mornings, who could listen to a recording of the sermon and share his answers to the Holy Conversation Starters (see 11/1/21 blog) with everyone.
  • The new-to-town Albers family who heard about these options wanted to be a part of something where lots of Almas, Pauls, Gingers and Marks were included. Just like the kingdom of God.

3. Quit chasing high production. Keep chasing participation and co-creation in hybrid worship. Don’t be afraid of mixing in Old School content (visits, notes, pictures).

This lesson is essential. It’s also a little counterintuitive. And lots of you recognize its power in small settings. 

Here it is. Whenever you chase polished, perfect production value (whether it’s on Zoom, Facebook, or another platform) you risk triggering performance expectations. Performance expectations tell people to simply observe. And wait for an expert to do the heavy lifting. It’s the kind of expectation needed in big settings–to manage large groups. But small congregations have an alternative superpower: participation. Participation is what turns the work of the people into, well, . . . the actual work of the people. 

And this superpower works with hybrid worship, too. You’ve proven it.

You can treat each worshiper like a co-creator of a together-encounter with God. Think of your Zoom or Facebook stream not like a recorded-for-Broadway production, but like a grandparents’ video call with grandkids in two different states. Messy. Intimate. Inclusive. With the possibility to interact and make something together, like:

  • The congregation that created a new passing of the peace ritual. Sanctuary worshipers could walk to an iPad on the front pew to bless home worshipers–and receive their blessings.
  • The pastor who went old school and gathered conversation notes, pictures, and written responses from worshipers throughout the week, then shared them on Sunday mornings.
  • The lay leader who set up children’s artwork from a weekday ministry to adorn the chancel each week. Then offered a phone-video of this offering with a short sermon to families. Alongside a note of thanks and invitation.
  • The far-flung worshipers who gathered on a Thursday afternoon Zoom to discuss the weekly scripture. To help them (and the pastor) prepare for worship. Many had scarcely met in person, but developed loving relationships that shaped the worship for everyone.
  • The women’s guild that decided to create a traveling worship scrapbook with pictures (from homes and sanctuary), stories, and sermon notes. To share beyond the limits of Wi-Fi.

None of these was an instantly-obvious, perfectly-successful hybrid answer. But all have been deeply-forming, right-here, creative engagements with the Spirit in small settings.

4. Use local signs and symbols to connect in-home and in-pew worshipers.

Signs and symbols are more muscular than mere words. Even really good words. They invite us into a bigger story. The objects of our ordinary lives placed before the cross speak powerfully. Their storytelling ability is a big strength of small settings. 

In large venues, signs and symbols have certain limitations. The objects have to be big enough to be seen by those 300 people in the back section. They also have to be least common denominator meaning-makers. That is, they depend on shared experiences of people who don’t know each other. 

But small congregations can play small, intimate, and local. They can place home-objects in sanctuaries and sanctuary-objects in homes to connect them. The power of signs and symbols treats the two separate groups as one meaning-making body, like: 

  • The congregation that places a lit candle by the cross for each known online worshiper–and one for those who are unknown or may be touched by the group’s worship. The pastor invites prayer for each as the candles are lit.
  • The lay leader who collects personal items from home worshipers to place on the chancel rail. She introduces their presence by name and significance. Then she takes a picture of the objects with the congregation to deliver back to home worshipers. 
  • The pastor who brings the actual Sunday-morning plate and chalice to home worshipers. And sometimes returns with a beautiful borrowed bowl to remember baptism or a treasured tablecloth to adorn the sanctuary altar.

In worship, each of these signs and symbols point to an unmistakable mystery. We are brought together. We belong together. One body.

Thanks for your ongoing small-setting learnings. 

And thank you for your ministry,