If there’s one thing that 2020 brought, it was the necessity to change strategies and routines — including how to have church.

Enter “phygital church,” which is the “blend of physical and digital ministry. It is not a replacement of community, but a birth of a new kind of community,” said Dr. Ed Love, director of church multiplication for The Wesleyan Church (TWC).

According to Love, this ministry uses “technology as a tool to complement the mission of the church in both the physical and digital realms and to grow across multiple contexts and to multiply everywhere that people gather, whether online or in person.

“With the COVID-19 crisis, a vast majority of society was forced to discover a new way and rhythm for human connection. Most churches were unable to meet in person, so their digital church experience became essential, not merely optional.”

Sowing digital seeds

Rev. John Howell (pictured below) leads the Sown Network, a church plant of the Northwest District, a network pioneering digital micro-church expressions through a network of mission-centric individuals from the Wesleyan tradition “sown” into the fabric of their communities through businesses, ministries and micro-church gatherings. These mission-centric individuals desire to share the hope of Jesus outside of the typical framework of the church building.

As a pastor, a Christian technologist and a serial entrepreneur, Howell’s vision came about through recognizing the need to equip and train individuals to love, follow and discuss the hope of Jesus within the context of the communities and workplaces where God has intentionally and purposefully placed them. The Sown Network believes the community of the church exists to equip and send people out into the world to make disciples, who in turn, seek to go into the world and make more disciples. According to Howell, “the whole methodology that we have is to equip and send people already in the world, resourcing them to connect through their businesses, their hobbies and their gatherings they are already involved with.”

Howell sees his role as a pastor to create and discover resources that can best equip the individuals serving the micro-church expressions they are involved in. Sometimes that means Howell writes individualized messages and series focused on a specific topic or theme. Other times, Howell pulls in resources from outside sources and encourages the individuals to learn and use those resources as they see fit.

The Sown Network’s digital engagement is fluid and growing. Some weeks he has as many as 90 people engaged in a virtual experience, other weeks he interacts with a dozen or so individuals looking for resources for their micro-churches.

The Sown Network is made up of people from all walks of life whose lifestyles don’t necessarily fit into the traditional church model. For example, there’s the professional musician engaging in a collaborative worship project, the young welder leading a Bible study in his addiction-recovery group and the mountain biker who facilitates rides and shares the gospel message with his fellow riders. These are just a few examples of the individuals who have found a home in the Sown Network.

When asked how the digital church model works alongside traditional models, Howell noted that discipleship is present in both models.

“Nothing I do is unique,” said Howell. “It is, at its core, discipleship. I’m simply trying to create pathways for people to share the hope of Jesus in the groups they’re already associated with.”

Courageously connecting

Hannah and Tim Klopfenstein (pictured with others from the church) planted a digital church that “has a gradually increasing physical presence.” Courageous Church, based in Seattle, Washington, launched in the summer of 2020.

The couple felt called to be church planters in 2015 and ended up at The Ransom Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as church planting residents in 2019. It was there that they sensed God leading them to Seattle. They quickly realized a digital launch was their best option because of the pandemic restrictions.

It did not take long for community to form.

“Loneliness was rampant, and people were jumping into zoom chats with 20 strangers just to have a sense of community,” said Hannah, the church’s lead pastor. “We decided that instead of waiting until a return to whatever we perceive as ‘normal,’ we needed to respond to the needs of the community right around us right now.”

The church meets digitally via Facebook every Sunday. There is both a lesson/sermon for kids and adults. Community groups are encouraged to watch in digital watch parties. For those who can’t watch then, conversations centered around the sermon occur in Google Meet meetings throughout the week.

Hannah said, “People were incredibly open to digital community through social media and other outlets.” She’s met some fellow moms this way and connects with them digitally. Then, if they express interest, they set up a time to meet in person. The couple has also met people via Facebook and other social media channels as a way to connect.

“Our initial conversations are almost always one-on-one digital conversations.” said Hannah. “Many of those transition over time into in-person conversations. We can have a playdate, meet someone for a hike, grab a coffee. From there, relationships are being built.” Current church members are engaging in conversations with new people each week — sharing the gospel with some individuals for the first time.

If the opportunity arises, they tell those they’ve connected about a new community of people. Men and women are told that “we talk about God from a biblical perspective, but you can be part of the community even if you’re unsure what your beliefs are.”

According to Hannah, “people are very interested in being part of a community where they can grow together.” Along with community and connection, discipleship and multiplication are at the heart of community groups.

“Our approach is really built around building communities, raising up leaders and sending them,” said Hannah. “Our first community group is about to multiply.”

The initial digital connection makes Courageous Church unique, which seems to be the norm in these days of restricted gatherings.

“Most people do not find us initially through our Sunday morning service; they come to us through a conversation and then through a community of people they’ve grown with.”

Hannah sees Courageous Church’s current digital strategy as being ideal for those who wouldn’t normally be eager or ready to walk into a church building. The church will continue to meet in the digital realm, although the team is planning some in-person connection times when it’s safe in the future — because they know that people desperately need that real-life interaction. That will hopefully include digital and in-person fellowship and community group options, baptisms and serving the city in tangible ways.

The couple hopes to have a physical location to meet for services and gatherings one day.

Meanwhile, Hannah sees the importance of “being the church in a digital environment. We are to go and make disciples, and the digital world is where many people can be found.

“I think digital ministry is here to stay,” said Hannah. “In the past, strong social media presence was something churches had after they had the strong in-person attendance.”

The potential to build disciples, even online, is real in today’s culture.

“There’s so much potential if disciples of Jesus can be empowered to know they can make connections with those who don’t know Jesus through their personal relational evangelism over social media,” said Hannah. “Even if a church’s primary form isn’t digital media, they can equip their congregations to be digital disciple-makers and then help them connect with God through the local church gathered.”

Being a bridge

Jenn and Rick Legacy planted a church in 2020 on the other side of the country. Simply called “BRIDGE Church,” they launched in Indian Head, Maryland. Both were formerly in the military and believed this Naval-base town of 8,000 residents was the perfect location for a church plant.

According to Rev. Jenn Legacy, lead pastor, “there are incredible divides between poverty and wealth, black and white, military and non-military” in Indian Head. That’s what they essentially want to do: build a “BRIDGE” in a diverse city. The church’s name backs up being that “BRIDGE.” The church’s vision is to “Building relationships, intentional discipleship, generous engagement.”

“We always felt like eventually we would plant a church, and it would involve military folks,” said Rick, who is BRIDGE’s assistant pastor. “One day as we were praying, ‘God, lead us,’ he led us to a coffee shop about one mile from the base gate. We were sitting there having coffee, and God impressed on us that this was where we were supposed to be.”

The team launched their digital footprint in March 2020.

“We started a Zoom Bible study in March, right when people were sidelined from work and feeling the fear and isolation from this pandemic,” said Jenn. “We decided we would have a three-day-per-week Bible study, and, suddenly, we had 25 people on that because folks were so hungry to connect.”

Rick’s military background involved small teams supporting operations all over the world, so a small team of five (men with military backgrounds) launched the church on Facebook, using a Sony Handi-Cam video camera and an old computer at home. They saw the need for folks to still connect, albeit virtually, and got the job done.

BRIDGE Church launched with their core team on July 13. With COVID in full swing, that meant utilizing both digital and physical platforms. In September 2020 they had their public launch in the town’s park — in a tent and on Facebook and YouTube, with weekly services continuing. But two months later, they were forced to go all digital again.

Even with a digital presence, the church is serving in Indian Head, and people are noticing. They’ve connected with city leaders to help feed the needy every Wednesday. Others have volunteered to make changes to help improve digital capability for the performing arts theatre where they meet. And they’ve connected with the owner of the coffee shop next door and helped each other with renovating their new ministry spaces.

One of those city leaders is now a part of BRIDGE’s launch team. Months back, Joe* was out on a Sunday walk and heard the worship music coming through the doors. Intrigued, he began attending.

At the town Christmas tree lighting, BRIDGE provided sound and music, even playing some Christian music during the event. And at Halloween, several church members participated in the town-sponsored drive-thru trunk-or-treat.

Jenn and Rick know that digital church capabilities are here to stay, even as BRIDGE goes back to meeting in person. They have church members who live in Pennsylvania and Germany who are just as connected and engaged as those who’ve attended in person. The team does its best to provide gifts, meals and notes to others, so they know they’re part of the church and not alone. The importance is to connect with folks — no matter how that looks these days.

“We don’t want to lose those and say, ‘If you want church, you have to show up to us,’” said Rick. “That’s not how it works anymore. We can’t go back just to that traditional platform; we’ve developed relationships all around the world.”

A digital unleashing

Love noted that while “a digital church experience may not provide the hugs, high fives and holy kisses that churches have come to appreciate,” authentic human connection can still be found in a digital church setting, along with intentional discipleship relationships.

“Virtual church experiences may not be for everybody, but there is a high likelihood that a growing percentage of individuals … will only be able to be reached through a virtual church experience and virtual discipleship,” said Love. “In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told his disciples this parable, ‘Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing’ Luke 15:4-5 WMB). Maybe the one that was lost can only be reached through an online connection.”

Love believes The Wesleyan Church can continue to mobilize lay and clergy in Unleashing a Kingdom Force and can capitalize on the digital platform to do so.

“I believe Wesleyan churches are doing a good job of figuring out how to create online church experiences and disciple-making processes,” said Love. “Phygital church is an opportunity to complement your church’s mission, vision and strategy. It is a timely tool designed to help your church thrive, grow and multiply, no matter what curveballs life throws.

“When done well (and more than just watching a video of a pastor talking), digital church experiences are awakening disciples of Jesus to new ways of connection, authentic relationships and reaching more lost people,” said Love. “I am excited, but I am also willing to ask the hard ecclesiological questions. I do want to consider the impact for all generations. We have a lot of research and investigation ahead of us, but I’m grateful that TWC is forward thinking and innovative.”

*Name has been changed