When I initially developed the curriculum for my "How to Be a Hybrid Church" course, I did not include anything specific to children's ministry. Along the way, however, participants raised questions about it and requested its addition.
I decided to do some digging and adapt the lesson. As I researched and assessed the landscape of children’s ministry today, the picture became more blurred, not less.
Still, themes began to surface and I ended up with a few important takeaways I started to share in class. An inspiring conversation with Christian Formation and Technology Minister Alex Evangelista from Swarthmore Presbyterian Church further informed my teaching.
Here's some of what I learned:
You may need to scale back first.
While I believe this is true in other parts of church life as well, it is perhaps most relevant for children's ministry. As we see waning interest among volunteers and exhaustion among families, there may be a need to scale back programming at first in order to rebuild willingness and recruit new contributors.
Alex told me that for a while they too have scaled back their Sunday School programming. Swarthmore Pres decided to offer multiage Sunday School for children K-5 for a number of months thereby requiring fewer resources, teachers, and volunteers. The experience has been so positive, in fact, that while they will likely return to age-based classes in the future they will maintain multiage components to Sunday School—perhaps even extending to youth and adult groups as well.
Decide what hybrid means for your church.
In my research, I discovered that the vast majority of the time when someone references a hybrid children's ministry, they’re referring to a combination of virtual tools with physical options. This is an entirely different definition of hybrid from what is most commonly understood within the church context.
Hybrid may mean real-time in-person and online teaching but it may not. Last fall, Alex attempted true hybrid children's Sunday School classes. His hope was to include everyone and to offer them the opportunity to see each other no matter their access point. They found, however, that with a split group—one in person and one online—it was difficult to hold the children's attention and have meaningful conversations.
Instead, he now offers three ways for children to engage with their church's Sunday School lessons and plans to continue with this approach moving forward:
- In person
- Sunday School Light, a story and activity sheet for those families who are committed to their child's spiritual growth but are short on time and attention spans
- Sunday School Expanded, an at-home kit and guide for those families who want to replicate the in-person experience as much as possible in their homes
Invest in technology if "hybrid" means in-real-time hybrid teaching.
If you decide that your church's hybrid children's ministry should involve real-time in-person and online teaching, technology is key. When Swarthmore Pres attempted this type of hybrid teaching for children, they had cameras, a large monitor, and used Zoom. Your iPhone simply won't cut it.
Be willing to experiment.
When youth participation began to dwindle in the early part of 2021, Alex decided to cancel March programming. He recognized that what they had been doing wasn't meeting his youth's needs.
Instead, he challenged them to engage with a list of mental health and self care activities all month long. He asked them to post evidence of the activities to social media and those who completed 15 of the activities received a cool sweater from SelfCareIsForEveryone.com. He even invited students to meet one-on-one with a therapist who then also presented to the youth's parents.
As a class participant told me after taking my Hybrid series, "I've learned that becoming a hybrid church isn't something we can check off our list on a specific date." The Church—your church—finds itself in a period of transition and where it takes us is likely not where we would have taken ourselves.
Have open, honest, and vulnerable conversations with your congregation. Over-communicate. Try new things and know that it's okay if they don't work. And don't get stuck thinking that "hybrid" means one thing and one thing only. This is the most important lesson from my class: There is no right way to be an effective hybrid church; there is only your way.