Hybrid Ecclesiology: A Proposed New Normal

There’s no need to revisit the history of how we got where we are today. We know all the facts surrounding COVID and the struggles that churches are facing in the midst of the pandemic and shutdown. Some of you reading this are dealing with these tensions on a daily basis and my heart truly goes out to you. Almost daily I hear stories of pastors struggling to see over the horizon and answer the questions of what their church will look like in the future.

As the Pastor of Missional Culture at a church of 900, but also a micro-church network proponent, I’d like to offer a proposed vision for brick and mortar churches that have mission as their organizing principal and culture. Of course, a church’s current organizing principle is the issue in many cases. Those that organize primarily around a Sunday event are feeling pain from not gathering and will require a paradigm shift for this new vision. These Sunday-centric communities of faith will need to embrace a new methodology in order to engage a future as a more dispersed church community.

The opportunity during COVID is that this paradigm shift doesn’t have to be “sold” to these churches, it is being forced in many cases. Even churches that are allowed to gather are not seeing full capacity of what they are allowed in attendance. The thesis here is that people are not ready to come back to church services, or quite possibly they have learned some new rhythms that have them practicing faith in new ways…i.e. they have left their previous church rhythm! (See Barna report on current church trends.)

Shared Root System

Even before COVID, my church community was contemplating the launching of a micro-church network. The beauty of a larger church being the mechanism for a network of house churches, businesses, and organizations is that it takes almost no additional resources to church-plant. Our primary role then is in curating a network support system that brings missional practitioners together and helps them launch their call to join God in mission.

The institutional church has resources and staff that can essentially act like a hub and help activate the network as it finds momentum. At some point in the future, the dream is that the network is launched and planted as its own entity with a physical coworking space for practitioners and leaders to come together for support and mentoring. (See Tampa Underground as an example.)

Earlier in the summer we launched The Pando Collective out of Pulpit Rock Church in Colorado Springs. Pulpit Rock, pre-COVID, hosted 800-900 people on Sundays in two worship gatherings. However, the church has embraced a very missional posture for the past five years and has shifted away from the Sunday event being the primary tool of transformation.

The Pando Collective is named after the largest living organism on earth (an Aspen Grove in Utah), and while sporting 160 acres of various sizes, shapes, and ages of trees, shares a common root system underground. This metaphor fits perfectly for what we hope to accomplish in Colorado Springs in the future. While one larger brick and mortar church serves as the sending and resourcing agent of the network, we hope to launch and network various sizes, shapes and methods of ecclesial presence around our city.

As we start to realize that fewer people may come to brick and mortar events in the future, we embrace the fact that the church is still out there in their neighborhoods. In reality, the church has always been the people of God that can activate in joining God’s mission right where they live, work, and play.

The New Hybrid

While Pando was created out of a growing realization that the future of brick and mortar worship services face an uncertain future, COVID now presents a vacuum in which Pando can thrive. As the pandemic violently shakes the system of current church methodology, churches are seeing their congregations “un-congregate,” or forced into a dispersed structure. We want to propose that churches embrace this as a missional “spreading out” (or Pando in Latin). Churches will have the choice to fight COVID by delivering the same content via live stream and hope that people still engage, or they can embrace a new opportunity to reach their city by intentionally dispersing their people geographically.

One hurdle to this strategy is that many people, after attending services and watching professionals for years, don’t feel equipped to launch a house church gathering or socially focused ministry. This is where the larger ecclesial structure can help. Not only can financing of new mission happen, but content creation and coaching to lead these efforts can come from refocused staff efforts. The church can become a disciple-making hub where missional gifts are discovered and activated.

The synergy can then be realized as the church’s network begins to bring together missional practitioners that have been hiding in the shadows of neighborhoods for years, already deconstructed of attractional methods. The church grows in influence and breadth as the congregation is dispersed intentionally around the city and joins together with other Kingdom people already dispersed for years.

Invitation to Innovation

Our new paradigms of culture and faith on this side of COVID will require some innovation. Those that are planting new missionally incarnational communities will likely find a welcoming context in which to plant. With COVID potentially escalating the already present trends away from Sunday-centric approaches, more people will be open to smaller and more relational communities in which to journey with.

However, we must not turn our back on the existing church in an “I told you so” posture. She is still Jesus’ and demands our attention. Our hope at Pulpit Rock is that we possibly create one way for churches to activate into God’s mission for the world by innovating with the times and our “new normal.”

Our church community hopes to see people return to Sunday services in the near future, but we are ready for it to be in fewer numbers. Our belief is that everyone is still wanting to stay connected as a faith community, and so we must innovate into new methods. Activating hybrid networked, dispersed communities will be an intentional way to still be the church, and likely “being” the church more than we ever have.

Activating hybrid networked, dispersed communities will be an intentional way to still be the church, and likely “being” the church more than we ever have. ~ Rowland Smith Click To Tweet

Diaspora People

Some of these past Sunday attenders may never darken the doors of the main building again, but they will be on mission with us, in a networked relationship. The Pando Collective will allow us to embrace methodologies of all designs and shapes, all working together to announce the Kingdom. As God’s people disperse and utilize their gifts and dreams, then the Kingdom will spread out in a tangible sense and our city will be better for it.

Lucas Pulley of Tampa Underground recently said in a blog post (read here), “God’s people are ready to lead far sooner than our pipelines allow.” COVID is forcing us all to release our people into the priesthood they have already been granted through the Holy Spirit. To not embrace the opportunity of dispersed ecclesiology is to quite possibly be exhibiting our own pride and control as leaders.

COVID is forcing us all to release our people into the priesthood they have already been granted through the Holy Spirit. To not embrace the opportunity of dispersed ecclesiology is to quite possibly be exhibiting our own pride and control as… Click To Tweet

Crisis has always helped push the church out into the Kingdom of God and his mission in the world. Going back to the very beginnings of The Way, Jesus’ people innovated in the midst of crisis and tension. We all have a choice to either see these times as depressing and deconstructing of what we’ve built so far, or we can lean into the opportunity to be a diaspora people and help other churches see their sustainability in joining God’s work in a dispersed way.

To learn more about The Pando Collective, micro-church network discussions, and coaching toward dispersion, contact Rowland at info@rowlandsmith.net.

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About the Author

Rowland Smith

Rowland serves as National Director of Forge America Missional Training Network, is a staff pastor of missional culture at a church in Colorado Springs, and directs The Pando Collective, a micro-church and missional expression network that was launched from his local church. He also teaches as affiliate faculty at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of Life Out Loud: Joining Jesus Outside the Walls of the Church, and most recently, was lead editor and organizer for the multi-author book Red Skies: 10 Essential Conversations Exploring our Future as the Church. He is married and has four adult children.

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