Genesis II: Re-Vision and Renew

Redefining “hybridization”

February 22, 2022

By: The Rev. Katie Nakamura Rengers, Staff Officer for Church Planting

I need to develop a new relationship with the word “hybridization.”  After two years of Covid, including the absolutely exhausting start-stop caused by Omicron, for me “hybrid church” has come to mean “twice the work church.”  

A book that’s helped me is called “The Gene: An Intimate History,” by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  Reading it took me back to the one bit of high school biology that most of us probably remember – the priest and scientist Gregor Mendel and his gentle, meticulous experiments with simple garden peas.  His work transformed scientists’ understanding of how genetics work, and eventually of how living things evolve to meet the challenges of their natural surroundings.  

As Mendel showed, hybridization doesn’t mean doing and being everything – not even being two things at once.  Crossing a plant with yellow seeds with a plant with green seeds didn’t yield a new plant with both yellow AND green seeds.  Rather, it produced a plant with either green OR yellow seeds.  Sometimes a feature would disappear in the second generation, only to mysteriously reappear in the third.  We now call these recessive genes.  

We are followers of Jesus in a time where evolution is needed.  The religious AND cultural climates of the United States have changed.  But evolution doesn’t mean that we all do everything.  Churches must both instinctively and intentionally select the traits that they will carry forward into the post-COVID era. 

Already, we’re seeing life find a way through creative hybrids.  We are seeing bi-vocational clergy who pastor bi-vocational congregations.  Our New Episcopal Communities are experimenting with hybrid spaces, like dinner churches that meet in the back of restaurants and congregations like Grace in the Diocese of Northern Michigan, who turned ownership of their 1902 building over to a local brewing company and now partners with them to create community and worship space.  

Like with Mendel’s pea experiments, hybridation does come with certain costs – some church traits, even the traits we most love, will disappear.  BUT, lest we despair of all these losses, remember another principle of the natural world: biodiversity.  Diversifying when, how and to who we proclaim the Good News is necessary for a healthy spiritual entity.  Traits that your congregation doesn’t carry forth post-covid may be manifest in other expressions of church… and some that seem to disappear entirely might show up again in another generation or two.  A great example of this?  The new monasticism, lived out by new communities like CRECHE in Boston and The Benedictine Way in Nebraska.  

We also need to be aware of the dangers of NOT diversifying our ecology.  One of the reasons for our current struggle is that, for decades, The Episcopal Church was able to get away with – and even thought we were strengthened by – essentially creating one kind of church.  In some cases, we’ve even used the concept of “common prayer” as the rationale behind creating franchises rather than contextual church plants (such as the proverbial “red door”), establishing ONE type of success (Average Sunday Attendance and budget) – and we’ve tended to raise up leaders who “fit the mold” rather than leaders who bring different gifts.  We know, from biology, that this kind of inbreeding is dangerous because, while it allows us to share strengths, it also forces us to share weaknesses.

What’s crucial for us to do, as we bumble our way through 2022, is to treat our hybrids with care, with curiosity, and with dignity.  Many of them will not fit neatly into liturgical or canonical boxes.  They are not cheap experiments, and they are not toys – they are living, incarnate expressions of Resurrection in a swiftly changing world, and of the Church’s will to live.