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  • Writer's pictureDavid Billotti

Time for the Talk: Hybrid Worship

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

I have spoken with colleagues who have begun to have “the conversation” with their leadership about “hybrid” worship. While we may not actually be hybrid for a while, many are wisely thinking about it now. Because, frankly, who even knows what hybrid means?

While I do not have solutions right now, I believe the answers to our questions will come with focused, carefully-directed conversations that will help each congregation organically discover the most meaningful reasons for hybrid worship. I firmly believe that the clearer you are about what you hope to achieve out of your communal prayer experiences, the better you will be positioned not only to answer the critical questions, but to avoid asking questions that aren’t relevant to your worship vision.

To consider:

Is our hybrid worship designed to give those joining virtually AND in-person separate but similar experiences? Or are we aiming for “one worship”?

What adaptive considerations must we take to ensure that we still feel a part of a single congregation (if that is indeed our goal) if people pray in diverse ways?

If we recognize that the remote experience and the in-person experience of the same worship will be different, what matters to us most? What do want people to have experienced, both within each cohort, and as one community? And why?

An example of starting with why:

: We should offer a virtual option even if we decide to gather in person soon. : Why?

: Because people want to pray at home.

: Why? (the previous response isn’t yet a real answer to the first question)

: Members of our community who won’t feel comfortable gathering in person should still receive worship options.

: Why?

: They too want meaningful connections. It’s hard to be isolated, and we hear that our people feel hopeful when they are connected to each other. Virtual worship will do that.

: Why?

: It will allow people to connect to each other, and by knowing other people and being seen and known, perhaps they will feel more hopeful and see their Jewish life as a doorway to that hope, and that’s ultimately the reason we have sacred community.

Through thoughtful inquiry, we discover that our desire for remote worship was more than “because people on at home should pray”. Instead, when we allow people to connect to each other, they will feel more hopeful, will appreciate Jewish life as a doorway – that’s the reason we have sacred community. The answer was deeper, and, therefore, our Why.

Here are a few examples of some of the many questions that have arisen, but which will take the deeper thinking to find the answers that best serve each individual community’s needs:

A common core question: How do we have in-person worship in the sanctuary and have folks on Zoom at the same time?

If we use large screens to project the people on zoom into the sanctuary, questions arise.

For the people in person in the sanctuary?

  • Will they spend a lot of time looking at the active movement within the boxes, will it be distracting?

  • Can the people in the congregation interact with the Zoomers?

  • Do the people seated in the congregation get given the same opportunity to “respond in the chat” as it were, as the people in Zoom? And do we have the technology (wireless mics, more mics on longer chords) to go out into the congregation to illicit the responses we so love on Zoom?

For the people on Zoom?

  • Will they watch the clergy, or watch the congregation? Or see each other still?

  • Will they only hear a feed of the clergy/musicians, or will they also hear the congregation, if the congregation speaks or shares into microphones?

Clergy/leader questions?

  • Should we look only at the congregation, or into the camera for zoom? Or both – and how, when do we decide?

  • Do we need an additional staff member/clergy/leader to monitor the zoom from a position in the sanctuary (to let people in, answer the chat?) Does that person read the chat responses out loud to the room, or are the zoom responses only for the people on zoom?

  • What do we do with our visual prayerbook? If we use screens (already installed or choose to install them), how do we see the zoom and the visual prayerbook?

If we do not use screens in the sanctuary, but invite people at home to zoom into what we stream out from the sanctuary, questions arise.

If the zoom and in-person sanctuary participants don’t see each other, then how do we encourage a sense of one community and not two parallel ones?

Would the clergy look at the cameras more than they did for general “streaming” before the pandemic, because the zoom participants appreciated the intimacy? Will the cameras be so far away that in a tiny zoom box it’s inaccessible?

Ultimately, these questions will not only have no simple answers, but we will have to be prepared to keep trying, changing, being in relationship with our communities, and sharing our thoughts and experiments with full transparency to our people so they understand the WHY of things we are trying. This transparency will help them navigate the reboot of our congregational worship and connect them deeper to our congregations and our traditions.

A year into virtual worship, it is clear we aren’t going back to exactly how things used to be, nor are we completely reinventing. Instead, we are tasked with a sacred and unique opportunity to bring the richness of our tradition, the best of our new learning, and the drive to find new ways to think about prayer and community building into the new “hybrid” future.

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