By Dr. James Emery White, Crosswalk.com
The idea of a hybrid church is simple. When we talk about a hybrid vehicle, we are talking about something that uses two or more distinct types of power, such as a submarine that uses diesel when surfaced and batteries when submerged, or a car that runs on gas and electricity. When we are talking about a hybrid church, we are talking about a church that is also harnessing two types of power—the physical and the digital.
The digital revolution has taken place. There’s no going back. Churches will either embrace the new world – which means the new mission field and the new way of reaching it – or become obsolete, irrelevant, and completely out of touch with the world they are trying to reach.
But what does that mean? What would a strategy, based on this, look like? I’ve written an entire book to answer that question, titled Hybrid Church, but let me introduce its depth in a simple way. The church I founded more than 30 years ago, Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), has always had a strategy. And, for more than 30 years, it hasn’t changed.
The steps themselves are probably not new to your thinking, but the way they are applied – at least, in a truly hybrid model – may be. By truly going hybrid, Meck is growing faster now than at any other time in its history. Our average in-person attendance from January to June of this year compared to January to June of last year has increased by 40%. Our online attendance has increased by 50%.
So what are we doing differently as a hybrid church? First, here’s our six-step strategy:
Meck’s Six-Step Hybrid Strategy
2. Come and See
3. Get Connected
4. Cross the Line
6. Make a Difference
Now, to explain how becoming hybrid changes things, let’s detail the first three steps, beginning with “Hi!”
Step One: “Hi!”
The first step is to reach out to a post-Christian, unchurched world and say, “Hi!”; meaning, introducing ourselves to who it is we are trying to reach. The first thing we want to do is initiate some kind of relationship with people, some point of contact.
That’s been at the forefront of Meck’s strategy from day one. We build a relationship with someone who isn’t involved in a church and/or who isn’t in a relationship with God. This used to be done solely through personal interaction. We would talk about the importance of intentionally building relationships outside of the church. For example, I did it through coaching my son’s basketball teams and getting to know the parents of the other kids. Or through strategic patronage—building a relationship with a barista or the person who cuts my hair. Reaching out to neighbors, friends, coworkers, family.
This has been foundational to our thinking and our way of living out our mission, and it still is. Without a doubt, the way someone far from God draws close to God is if someone close to God goes far to reach them.
But in a hybrid world, you need to have the digital come alongside the physical. The online with the embodied. So starting with “Hi!” means not only a physical hand across a backyard fence, but also a digital hand across an online fence.
The importance of this can’t be overstated.
James Carville was the lead political strategist for the successful election of Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, to the Presidency of the United States. He distilled the campaign to three messages: “Change vs. more of the same,” “Don’t forget health care,” and most importantly, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The U.S. was in the midst of an economic recession, and the incessant focus on the economy by Clinton ended with his unseating of then President George H.W. Bush. This despite Bush earlier polling a 90% approval rating following the invasion of Kuwait. If you didn’t live through that like I did, it’s hard to convey how stunning that political turnaround was. But Carville was right in seeing that the real issue – what mattered most to people – was the economy, and then painting Clinton as the one best able to turn it around.
If I had to distill a message to pastors, church leaders, and any and all others interested in the vitality of the church in relation to the practice of ministry, it would be this:
“It’s the internet, stupid.”
It’s where we now say “Hi!” It’s where the majority of the people you are trying to reach live.
Americans, on average, visit more than eight websites a day, amounting to more than 3,000 websites per year. As the chief marketing officer at Squarespace said, “Browsing the web plays a central role in our daily lives.” One could even argue that it plays the central role.
Yet one recent study found that only 21% of church leaders agreed that they have a “well-defined digital ministry strategy to engage with people who are outside the church and outside the faith.” Which means, of course, that almost 80% don’t.
So step one in our six-step strategy is to say “Hi!” to the unchurched world, to build a relationship, and to do it both in person and online.
And the ways you do that are not complicated. You have an online presence – an online existence – that is interactive and welcoming. And you make sure your website, your postings on Instagram and TikTok and X, your digital marketing, an online campus and services are all designed to reach out.
But then, of course, comes step two: “Come and See.” And in a hybrid world, that has changed, too.
And that’s what we’ll explore in the next blog.
James Emery White
James Emery White, Hybrid Church (Zondervan), order from Amazon.
Kate Mabus, “Online or In-Person? Gen Z and Millennials Find Digital Life More Memorable, Study Shows,” USA Today, July 1, 2021, read online.
Carey Nieuwhof, “3 Shocking Statistics That Show How Quickly, Radically (and Permanently?) Church Has Changed Since 2020,” read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on X, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.