Mixing online and offline church

30 July 2021, Matthew Cooper, Thirtyone:eight

Almost two-thirds of UK churches in a survey of 1,000 church leaders plan to carry on streaming online even as restrictions lift. In response to this and the growth of online church in general, Premier Digital recently put together the Hybrid Church Charter. This is a set of ten principles for a healthy hybrid church. It aims to help ensure equality and accessibility to church regardless of how people choose or are able to participate.

Pledge number three of the charter states: Ensure that the Church both onsite and online provides safe places to explore faith and engage through effective safeguarding procedures.  

There are many safeguarding considerations that need to be taken into account in this ‘hybrid church’ because the space online is very different to the space offline and what we now know is that both can co-exist and are likely to co-exist long into the future.  

The pandemic and lockdowns put a real spotlight on this area and there are some things to consider about the differences between online and offline church:

  • People who may be interested can get a glimpse of church life without ever stepping foot into your building – this doesn’t mean that they won’t be looking for factors that make them feel safe. Joining anything online can be just as daunting as joining in person – so one of the first things to think about is what messages you portray and how you enable that online space to be and feel safe for everyone. 
  • You are likely to have a whole new cohort of people that may have additional needs whether physical, emotional or indeed. In light of the pandemic, people may have quite specific mental health needs that may have prevented them from attending church in person whereas the online space has given them an open door.  

So, with all of this in mind, what are the safeguarding considerations that we need to be mindful of as we embrace the hybrid church model and what can you do to make the pledge become a reality?  

Well, let’s first think about data... 

It will be important to consider policy and procedure when it comes to people participating online particularly in relation to cameras and names being displayed to others. 

You may have adults or children in your church who are in need of protection and should not or don’t want to be visible to others. So if you are live streaming your service, it’s good practice to ensure there is sufficient space identified where people in the physical space can sit and move around without being included in the live stream. 

You should publicise and be transparent about the fact that your service is live online so that people can make an informed choice about the use of their data or presence. You could have posters in the physical foyer, announcements in your newsletter, a reminder at the beginning of the service or even floor markers for ‘live space.’ 

The key thing is that you declare what areas are visible on camera and invite people to speak to you if they are concerned about being seen.  

When children are involved, ensure you gain informed consent from parents and avoid personal identifiers such as surnames or details about where they live. 

Many churches have noticed a drop in the number of safeguarding concerns being reported over the year and half. What does this mean? Well, it doesn’t mean that there are fewer safeguarding concerns, but more a reflection of the fact that many activities with children, young people, families, pastoral visits etc, simply wasn’t happening. The reality is that regular activities and contact with people were a primary space for safeguarding concerns to arise.  

So how can you enable safeguarding concerns to be raised in the digital context? 

A key phrase we often use at Thirtyone:eight is to replicate online, your safeguarding practices offline as best you can. 

So how might this be done in respect of the online element of hybrid church services?  

Here are some points for you to think about: 

  • The public safeguarding message– This could include having safeguarding notices in visible places and information on websites. These not only publicise your commitment to safeguarding but tell people who they can seek help from. The same applies online, think about ways in which you can communicate that message online – is there anything in your social media page info about it, if you have one? Are you communicating ways in which people can raise their concerns when they aren’t there in person? Can they email someone or send a message to someone? 
  • Have a clear digital welcome– Again, replicating offline to online, when someone attends church face to face, usually there is someone who will greet them when they arrive, they may recognise that they are new and give them a leaflet about the church and key people. Digitally, this can be replicated by having an online leaflet and making sure it’s referred to at the beginning of services. 
  • Be clear about where people can go to report a safeguarding concern – This can be in the leaflet just mentioned – refer to your safeguarding coordinator or lead person and ensure that people know how to contact them if they have a concern.
  • Have a safeguarding policy that works for the hybrid church - If you haven’t made time for it yet, now is the time to formalise your policies and procedures about working both online and offline, creating synergy between the two.  

Thinking specifically about work with children and young people, we at Thirtyone:eight partnered with Youthscape last year to produce a helpful guide to working online. This free download can be found here

Previously, the general limit of interaction between a youth worker and a young person was confined to organised activities in a known space such as the church building. The risk with shifting into majority or purely online engagement with young people is the sudden and acceptable access to them via digital means, often without written guidelines for such activities.  

When work moved from the church to the home, the ability to be transparent in your interaction with a vulnerable person, child or adult became harder and required extra communication and administration. 

It might sound odd, but we would say it is never acceptable for a youth worker to meet a young person in their bedroom, yet that’s technically what is happening or has been happening for many young people over the last year or so in a digital space.  

In a hybrid context, unregulated contact with children and young people online could lead to an increased risk of grooming which may lead to a physical encounter and subsequent abuse. To avoid this there is a need to create policy and procedures for engaging with all people, not just young people online.  

What may have more easily stood out before in terms of regular digital connections, may now more easily blend in and look acceptable from the outside in and be abused by someone with that intent. 

To summarise then:  

  1. Data-informed consent relies on people being aware of how their data, their image, is being used. Consider how you will communicate this in a hybrid setting where your congregation will be in person and online.
  2. Digital services – How can you recreate the same accessibility online as in person for people to feel welcome and be able to share concerns? 
  3. Continuing youth and children’s work – be prepared for safeguarding concerns to be raised on their return. Put in place policy and procedure for moving forward in a hybrid model.
  4. The hybrid church safeguarding mantra – Endeavour to recreate online the safeguarding measures you have offline.

If you need any further guidance, Thirtyone:eight operate a safeguarding helpline where you can call for help and advice 0303 003 1111 or visit the ‘Get Help’ section of our website and click on ‘Resources’ to find helpful tools which include a useful flowchart for responding to online concerns and a model template policy for safeguarding online. 

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