Hybrid vs. Online vs. In-Person Church: What’s the right way to look at your attendees?

The Apollos Project

Hybrid relationships don’t exist.  

You can have good relationships, active relationships, troubled relationships, high-maintenance relationships.

To Gen Z, a person you meet online isn’t an “online friend” they’re just a friend. Making friends online feels natural to them.

Likewise, you wouldn’t call your relationship with your dad hybrid because you’re only together in-person a few times a year.

Churches don’t become digital churches just because they offer ways to connect online. They’re still churches, called to continue bringing people together.

Digital discipleship becomes possible when we reconsider how relationships are made and maintained in today’s culture.  

How people want to engage with church varies from moment to moment, so churches should be prepared to offer connections and experiences in the ways people want them: apps for ministry, streaming services, articles, and podcasts. Barna research says that formats for spiritual formation are many and well used by practicing Christians, including podcasts, music, books, and social media.  

This anywhere-church mindset may not feel natural to the traditional church model, where church attendance is measured by people-in-seats. But if our goal is to build authentic, meaningful relationships with the people you serve, connect them to God, (and grow your church), you need a digital engagement strategy. People are hungry for digital church. In fact, 73 million people want online church. (Yes, you read that right.)

One way to reframe hybrid vs. in-person relationships is to look at the NFL and Home Depot.

Threatened by television, the NFL issued blackout policies. (They didn’t work.)

Decades ago, the NFL felt threatened by broadcast sports. They worried that if people preferred their couch to a crowded stadium, ticket sales would fall, and interest in the game would diminish. So, for years, in an attempt to boost local ticket sales, the NFL enacted blackout policies that prevented a home game from being televised in their local market unless 85% of tickets were sold out. But punishing loyal fans for staying home flopped, and the NFL changed its tune.  

The reality is, fans want to engage with their teams in lots of ways. I would argue that attending a game in-person feels even more special now.

College gymnastics is a great example.

Ticket sales and overall viewership has grown amid increased TV exposure. Last April, ABC aired the national championships on broadcast TV for the first time in a decade. In the 2022 season, ESPN aired 60+ hours of gymnastics and ABC televised a regular-season meet for the first time. In addition, “LSU led the nation in average attendance -- 11,691 -- for the first time in program history while Auburn sold out every home meet this season. Michigan drew a record crowd of 12,707 when Lee and Auburn visited last month. There always have been ‘strong pockets of support, particularly in places like UCLA, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama and Utah, but the growth is no longer limited to a select few’.” And ESPN inked a deal to broadcast all of college gymnastics.

Threatened by online competition, Home Depot embraced technology. (It worked.)

Home Depot recognized Amazon as its biggest competitor—not Lowe’s, as you might expect. Instead of trying to beat the online giant at their own game, Home Depot focused on using technology to create a more convenient, efficient in-store experience for their customers.

For a retailer that gauged success through metrics like time spent in-store and quantity of items purchased, this was a big deal. The theory was, the longer a person spent in-store, the more they bought.

But Home Depot didn’t try to lure people in store and stay longer. Instead, they created a mobile app that met customers where they were. Armed with an app,  all customers—many of whom feel like inadequate DIY-ers—could watch a video about how to change a fixture, see the parts used, identify if it’s in stock at their local store, find the aisle number, and locate a product fast.

The Home Depot hypothesized that embracing technology to create a better relationship with their customers would win out. And they were right. Their digital platform created a 700% increase in value for the company—and in 2021, 13.7% of Home Depot's net sales came from online orders. While digital plays a part, people still come to the store to meet a need.

Embracing technology is about more than relevancy—it’s about relationships.

The NFL sees high engagement with its teams because it recognizes that fans are fans, no matter how they connect. Home Depot uses technology to solve problems in the aisles and create an emotional connection between their associates and customers in the midst of DIY projects.

Likewise, churches have a huge opportunity to use technology to create meaningful communities, build deep connections, and meet felt needs. By creating experiences that meet your people where they are, you can help them engage more often across all channels.  

NewSpring Church, a longtime partner of Apollos, uses their church app to improve the in-person experience and build community online.  

To enhance their in-person experiences, NewSpring offers mobile check-in for their kids’ ministry. Parents can easily use the mobile app to sign-in their kids, so they avoid standing in line at church. All they have to do is pick up the stickers and walk their kids to their classrooms.  

NewSpring’s church app also offers Sermon Notes. People can view an outline of the sermon, jot down ideas during the service, and see other people's notes.  

Although Sermon Notes isn’t the most popular in the church app, it is valuable for two reasons.

  • It meets the need of a core group of people who use it consistently.
  • Pastors appreciate the feature and want to talk about it. In our experience, when pastors talk about the app, more people start using it.  

On January 1, NewSpring launched The Daily, a habit-building app that helps people build relationships with their church throughout the week. Think of it like a Home Depot DIY-er, using the app to grow their skills.

In The Daily, people read scripture, see other people’s notes on that scripture, request prayer, pray for others, and share what they're grateful for.  

People are invited to participate and can find encouragement from others, in the way that feels comfortable to them. It really addresses where many people are right now—dreaming of connection but scared to engage.

Since launch, people who use the NewSpring church app greater than 5 days a week has doubled from 7% to 14%.  

That’s double the people who are reading the Word, growing in their understanding of God, and connecting with others.  

Where does your church’s digital strategy stand? Take a free digital strategy assessment for your church.

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