Episode 76: “Imagining a Hybrid Future” featuring Rosario Picardo

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 76: “Imagining a Hybrid Future” featuring Rosario Picardo

How can a church develop hybrid ministry that connects both with those in the room and those who will never enter your church building? Rosario Picardo, one of the authors of a new book on ministry in the digital age, discusses how churches can continue to develop online ministry while resuming in-person ministries in the post-pandemic age.

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How can a church develop hybrid ministry that connects both with those in the room and those who will never enter your church building? Rosario Picardo, one of the authors of a new book on ministry in the digital age, discusses how churches can continue to develop online ministry while resuming in-person ministries in the post-pandemic age.

Ann Michel. I’m Ann Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, and I’m your host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I’m so pleased today to be speaking with Rosario Picardo, who is a pastor and a church planter. He currently serves Mosaic Church, new multi-ethnic faith community he helped birth in Dayton, Ohio, while also serving in a number of different capacities at United Theological Seminary, also in Dayton. Roz is the author of a number of books, most recently Fresh Expressions in the Digital Age, with co-author Michael Adam Beck. And our subject today is drawn from that book, ministry on the digital frontier. So welcome to you. It’s good to be talking with you today.

Rosario Picardo. Thanks for having me. I look forward to our conversation together.

Ann Michel. You and Michael cover a lot of ground in this book, but I want to hone in right away on what I think is a very timely challenge for a lot of our listeners right now. We’re in this time period when so many churches are either resuming more in-person ministries or they’re at least looking forward and planning for a time when they can in the not too distant future, resume some in-person ministries. There’s a lot of talk about a hybrid approach combining both in-person and digital ministries. And I think one of the most helpful learnings for me in your book is that it’s a mistake to think about just going back to doing in-person the ways that we used to do it in the past and then trying to layer on top of it digital ministry. And so I wanted to give you the opportunity to help our listeners think about a different approach to hybrid ministry. To think about what hybrid ministry in a more effective way might involve?

Rosario Picardo. Yeah, that’s a great question that everybody is wrestling with right now. And I think they’re going to be a few different categories of folks. The first is that we’ve seen, they’re pounding on the doors of the church to want to get in and worship right away. The second is those that are more reluctant to come. Once there’s a vaccine and the vaccine is out and it’s more widespread, they’ll come back. And then there are that third set that may never venture back as much. And they may be very infrequent, but they’ll possibly worship online. And so living in a both/and world with hybrid is interesting. Because prior to this, churches were streaming their worship, but streaming was simply more or less “worshiping over somebody’s shoulder.” It was really geared toward the folks in the room. And the folks out of the room or online were more treated as an afterthought, if you will. And so I think what’s happened with the pandemic, it really made the online viewer a priority. And they’ve never really been prioritized prior to that. Especially as pastors and teachers and worship leaders were leading from their homes and from kind of those non-traditional spots, it created an atmosphere of community, it actually created an atmosphere of, you know, kind of that “living room worship” feel. And so as more in-person worship resumes and other factors, discipleship and all those other, you know, church life type of activities, the reality is we’re going to have to think in a both/and world.

So how do you continue to incorporate the learnings from the pandemic with technology and interaction, but also be able to minister in person? So that impacts not just Sunday morning worship, but it also impacts discipleship and small groups and the things that happened during the week. So, you know, I see this hybrid actually creating a few different streams. So it’s going to be able to relate to people that maybe don’t feel comfortable coming back any time soon. But it’s going to be able to connect the church to the greater community, because often times those that are considering coming to church or maybe they’re looking at new churches, they first come across your website or also worship online to get a feel for it. So we have to make a decision. Is worship going to be for those in the room? Or is it going to be for the person viewing? Or is it going to be both? And so a hybrid approach will definitely have to be considered, I think, moving forward.

Ann Michel. Yeah. I think you also make the very important point that as churches move forward into a both/and hybrid world, it’s going to mean that what they do in their in-person person, sanctuary worship, is going to have to change and evolve, too.

Rosario Picardo. Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

Ann Michel. What are some thoughts you have about that?

Rosario Picardo. Yeah, I think we need to make considerations as to the length of the sermon. I love to preach, but I knew that preaching online I couldn’t preach the same length because twenty-five or thirty-minute sermon wasn’t going to cut it for an online platform. And so I think we’ll see shorter sermons with the use of the economy of words. So getting to what’s important and saying it in fewer sentences, in maybe time frame. I think also creating that engagement. Engagement is the word when we think about online worship, but also in person. So how do you create the level of engagement? And so, if you’re preaching, you’ve got to think about when you’re welcoming folks and thanking them for being there, you have to talk to both the camera and to the people in in the worship center and sitting in the pews or the chairs. I think even, you know, the music you play and the length of music. I think some things that don’t translate to video. So when communion is taking place, how do you have a hybrid expression for the folks that are tuning in and watching from their homes? So, pastors and churches are starting to talk about this, how to create those different experiences that can translate cross platform, whether it’s in-person or online. So those are just a few examples. And then also, how do we create community? That is the biggest question. And so something that we’ve done is we’ve created a “Zoom party,” a Zoom gathering right after worship. And so people come together that, of course, aren’t worshipping in person, but they’re worshipping online to come together. And so we’re treating it almost as it’s one church, but it’s almost a few different services or campuses, if you will. So we’re treating this as its own campus pretty much. And that’s kind of how we’ve gone. But there’s a philosophical decision that needs to be made, is online worship for the person sitting in their homes that will never come through the doors of your church? Or is it for the insider that can’t be there? And so, you have to start with your “why.”

Ann Michel. You know, going into the pandemic, there were some churches that were lucky enough, I guess, really, to already have existing online ministries and they already were livestreaming their services. But I but I think, on the other hand, this experience of worshiping online during the pandemic has really revealed some of the flaws and the shortcomings of the way that the churches who were doing livestream worship in the pre-pandemic period were doing it. So you talk about this idea of online worshippers, having to “look over the shoulders of people who are in the room.” Or, you know, they’re almost I think you used the words “second class citizens” in the book to describe that it’s not really about them. They’re just sort of getting the opportunity to peer in. And, you know, that the whole idea of it really is to eventually lead them to then come to your church. And that may not be at all what is going to happen or even what the expectation should be if we’re thinking about a truly hybrid future.

Rosario Picardo. Exactly, yeah. If it’s a hybrid future, you know, I have to be OK with the fact that some of the folks that worshipped with us online will never be able to come. And so how do we think about this that I’m going to be OK with that. I mean, the missional movement has taught us this. I can be a pastor of a community and people identify me as their pastor, but they may never set foot in a worship service. But guess what? When someone dies in their family, who are they calling? Me. Or they hear about the works that we’re doing with maybe a food pantry or ESL classes. And then, guess what? They want to participate and they want to contribute and give to it because they see the good we’re doing. But they might never walk through our doors, but they still consider us their church and also me as their pastor. So it’s really interesting. I think online will reveal kind of the same things as we think about people that want to join as members but live in another state.

Ann Michel. I think one of the things that has concerned me as I have observed how a lot of churches have transferred not just their worship, but other activities online is that they’re just carrying over the same attractional assumptions, right. That if we do something well online, people are going to be attracted to it, instead of thinking more missionally about the digital frontier as a place to really go and find people. To go and engage people. So I wonder if you can speak to some of the ways that churches can find new ways of engaging people in the digital sphere?

Rosario Picardo. Yeah. I think when we think about fresh expressions and we think about affinity groups, what draws people together? Usually it’s an activity of some sort. And so my co-author, Michael Beck, he has something called Yoga Church where he has a yoga instructor. And they came together to do yoga and they do a devotional. But now that things have gone virtual, they’re doing that on virtual space. My co-pastor at Mosaic, he is a spin instructor, a certified spin instructor. And he does classes at five thirty in the morning. And we’ll guess what, when the gyms shut down, he was left without being able to do that. And so now he’s gathering a few friends and he’s doing that virtually and they’re all spinning from home. So when we think about maybe even book clubs that are very popular, we’ve done things like that. And now we’re seeing activities where people are reading a book together and they’re discussing it. And that’s really taking some traction. Another offering that we’ve done to reach kind of wider, which is unique, is this adult coloring. And I know it sounds funny saying that, but adult coloring books have become very popular. And so we call it Bible journaling. And, you know, one of our lay folks leads a brief devotional. And then what ever coloring pattern or activity they’re doing, they are able to do through Facebook. And that has gained a huge following as well. It’s become one of our most popular offerings.

Ann Michel. Wow. You really are situating this work that you’re doing in digital ministry within the broader stream of the fresh expressions movement and making connections with people in the activities that they enjoy the course of their daily life. You know, if I’m reading your book correctly, I think you really see the disruption and innovation of the past year during the COVID crisis as part of really a much larger ongoing shift in how the church needs to be reaching people. I mean, I think really you’re exploring new paradigms of church, a new ecclesiology, really, that’s emerging. And so I wanted to pick up on what that trend might mean in terms of different aspects of church life. You’ve already spoken a bit about different approaches to preaching, but I wondered if you wanted to explain a bit more.

Rosario Picardo. You know, one of the things in church life, I think that will become huge. Through the pandemic, I saw the rise of the shepherd and teacher. And shepherding, I think, is going to be crucial, actually, the gift of being able to pastor people, especially through, I mean, I call it the year the triple whammy. We had COVID. We had racial tensions in our country. And then we had a horrible political situation divide. And so the gift of shepherding is huge. And so one of the chapters in the book that we wrote about was “going old school in a new school world” and how to make touches with people intentionally, with congregation members in the greater community to feel connected. This is really, I think, a crucial piece for people to know that the local church cares about them, is reaching out to them. And it’s the old fashioned way. It’s picking up the phone. It’s sent out cards. It’s doing so. We’ve seen more churches kind of gravitating toward this because it’s a connection point for them with their congregants. I think our care systems are going to have to improve. I mean, I think it showed holes. This has been missing in the past for us and also the discipleship void. When we look at that, people are not as rooted as they could be. And I think it goes back to we set a low bar when it comes to discipleship and not wanting to challenge people. And then a pandemic hits, and then people feel scattered and disconnected. I think Barna released the study that, you know, as much as Americans have more time on their hands, Bible reading is less and less an activity among professing Christians. And so, you know, it’s kind of revealed some holes, but opportunities. So I think the pandemic will help us see how to care for people, not just digitally, but also in the traditional formats that we need to go back to know, as I mentioned, phone calls, letter writing, care packages, those things, but also a renewed emphasis in discipleship.

Ann Michel. Yeah, we’re seeing that in our work at the Lewis Center, too. And I frame it in terms of the pandemic really forcing people “back to basics.” Churches need to be far more intentional about just maintaining relationships, about basic pastoral care. And that’s been a very, very important. I think it’s been an epiphany to realize that maybe we weren’t taking as much care in fostering relationships. And this period of having to be more intentional about it, has been helpful in a way. I think the same is true with home faith practices. We have had to help people understand what it means to practice their faith at home. And why did it take a pandemic for us to realize that that was an important part of formation for people? Yeah. So I wanted to move on to the subject of evangelism and discipleship, because I think that’s another area where you’re really pointing to a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about evangelism and discipleship that grows out of the Fresh Expressions movement? Where do you see that taking a new turn?

Rosario Picardo. Yeah, you know, I think with discipleship especially, I think we’ll see a renewal in small group ministry where people feel connected and how to be able to foster that effectively. So we went through a seismic shift at Mosaic Church, where we went from the big box Wednesday night study to then emphasizing the small groups. And we started getting many people involved in these groups. And the great thing about it is still people have not even met each other physically in person, but have developed really enriching relationships, which has been awesome. Even my co-author, Michael Beck and I, we have become good friends, and we wrote a book together, and yet we have not met in person yet. So I think it’s kind of a renewal in the small group ministries that really need to take place and be able to foster those things that are going to bring people together. So churches need to think about how to be able to connect people in community, not just virtually, but then in person. Start those plans now. Start implementing it now on what a rhythm or a discipleship pathway looks like. What does it mean to be a disciple at your church? And is it going to be class based? Is it going to be a hybrid? Is it going to be, you know, Bible studies? Or whatever that means. I think having that pathway for people to be able to follow will be able to tell people what their next steps are. Because oftentimes people want to get involved, they want to grow, but they don’t know where to start. So how do we point people and lead people in that? So I think a renewed focus will take place. But we’ll have to continue doing this virtual peace and get this down as well as in person. And we can’t favor one over the other.

Ann Michel. An epiphany that I had reading your book is that I think so often in churches today, we think of evangelism and discipleship as two separate things, two separate phases on the discipleship journey. Evangelism is what brings people to the door of the church. And then discipleship happens down the road someplace else after you’ve after you’ve entered that portal. And I think what you’re describing, both in your book and in terms of what you were just saying about the importance of small groups, is that evangelism and discipleship are a holistic, interrelated process.

Rosario Picardo. Yes, absolutely.

Ann Michel. So are there other major trends that you’re keeping an eye on as you think about how the church is unfolding in this digital future?

Rosario Picardo. Well, one of the trends is it has allowed a reset. I say that it’s given us permission to be able to do away with some of the sacred cows that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do away with. So what is not fruit bearing? What is not making disciples? And how do we readjust? I think local churches will be able to do less, but do it more effectively what they focus on. Even large churches, as well. And it comes down to the reallocation of whether it’s dollars or whether it’s staff time or even volunteer time toward the virtual component. And so I think that’s a trend that we’ll see. Local churches will be able to have more of a laser focus instead of trying to be all things to all people and being spread thin.

Ann Michel. So I want to end on a hopeful note. And I want to pick up on something that you say quite early on in the book. You say that the digital frontier has leveled the playing field in the sense that every church, regardless of size, regardless of how they’re staffed, can be in mission on the digital frontier. And I think that’s such a good word. But a lot of pastors and churches have felt so challenged and stretched over the past year that I’m not sure they really feel that hope. So I wanted to give you a chance to explain what you mean by that and maybe address some of the ways in which churches across the size range can be thinking about digital ministry.

Rosario Picardo. Yeah, I mean, I think there is a fatigue, a decision fatigue with leaders and staff. People are tired and they’re frustrated with the constant change. However, I think this has presented us with an opportunity, like we’ve mentioned, with being laser focused, to reaching new people like we’ve never reached before. But here’s the thing. We don’t have to have a multimillion dollar budget. We don’t have to have the smoke machine and the fog machine. We don’t have to have the best this, that, and the other. But it’s just like when God went to Moses, “What’s in your hand?” And it’s taking whatever it is and using it for God’s glory. And so with the invention of the smartphone, I mean, that has leveled the playing field. We’ve seen videos go viral. They’re not high produced, they’re not high quality. But it’s simply people being authentic and real. And I don’t think you can put a limit on that. And I think that’s one of the top values that’s going to help us to reach a wider audience. You know, I use the illustration of Jimmy Fallon, the Tonight Show host. And one of his most popular segments was his At Home Edition. This caught him by surprise because his wife was the camera person and his kids were there running around. But it was authentic and real. He wasn’t dressed up in his suits, but he was just wearing a T-shirt and jeans. And the ratings were off the chart because they kind of gave you a glimpse into his life. And now that they’ve gone back to more of the studio, he’s kind of adapted even his dress and some of those things in a similar fashion. So I think the opportunity is there, but it’s thinking big and starting small. What do you have? Don’t look at the church down the road to think we have to have all these resources to do it well. I think you have to start somewhere and have a goal and implement it little by little. And we can’t just give up and say we’re not going to try at all, but be able to work with what we have because the digital playing field has leveled. It doesn’t have to be the best and most well-produced video. In fact, sometimes that’s a turnoff. Our society and younger people prefer more authenticity, even with mistakes and mess ups. There’s something about that that communicates realness, authenticity that you can’t put a dollar amount on.

Ann Michel. I’m so glad you mentioned that factor of authenticity because it comes through very clearly in your book. And I think so many people have experienced that. And I mean, authenticity is an element of it, but also the intimacy. You know, even at a time when people are so far away, the ability to peer into people’s homes and get a glimpse of their lives create such a sense of intimacy that I think doesn’t always exist in our very beautiful cathedrals.

Rosario Picardo. Yeah. And it gives a chance to get to know that person, that pastor or worship leader. You see them in a new way, in a new light, that you see sometimes their family life. My congregation loves when my kids are interacting with me behind the camera or if we go Facebook Live because they think, “Oh, he’s a real person. He has other responsibilities outside of the local church.” And, you know, this is a glimpse into his life.

Ann Michel. Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of cat tails and dog butts.

Rosario Picardo. Yes, absolutely.

Ann Michel. So to draw this to a close, I want to pick up on what you said just a minute ago about churches sort of taking stock of what they are able to do and what next steps they might take. And I always like to end these podcasts by thinking about what a good next step is for somebody who’s listening. And I know everybody’s context is different and everybody’s in a different place with this. But is there an attitude or a practice or a next step that you would recommend that people do first as they are looking to turn more toward this digital future?

Rosario Picardo. Yeah, I would say they need to know their “why.” Because when they know their “why,” their “what” will become more clear. A lot of times we confuse the “what” with the “why”. So the “what” may be Sunday morning worship, but the “why” tells us why we’re doing what we’re doing. So I think having a clear vision and plan at the beginning will be able to get everybody on the same page and really be able to set the expectations for folk. If not, there’s not going to be clarity to it. It’s just going to be a function rather than anything else. And realizing that the virtual world is more of a wineskin. You know, we have to marry our vision, but really keep our keep the mode or the wineskin loosely. Yeah. So it goes back to knowing your “why” for me.

Ann Michel. Well, I want to thank you for that because that is terrific advice to church leaders under any circumstances. It’s something that we talk a lot about at the Lewis Center — clarity of purpose and vision. And I think you bringing that very important perspective to bear at this particular period of time is really, really valuable. So I want to thank you for this conversation. I want to thank you for the book, you and your co-author, Michael. It’s a tremendous book and so I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today.

Rosario Picardo. Well, thanks for having me. It’s been fun.

Announcer. Thank you for joining us, and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Fresh Expressions in a Digital AgeRelated Resources


About Author

Rosario Picardo is a pastor and church planter currently serving Mosaic Church, a new multiethnic congregation he helped to birth in Dayton, Ohio. He also serves in a number of different capacities at United Theological Seminary, also in Dayton, Ohio. He is author of Funding Ministry with Five Loaves and Two Fishes (Abingdon, 2016), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. He recently coauthored Dynamite Prayer: A 28 Day Experiment.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.