Let’s Get Phygital

June 16, 2021

With the retreat of the pandemic, the easy decision would be to slide back to pre-pandemic ministry and forms of communication. But there is a better way.

By Chet Gladkowski

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A recent survey[1] found 76% of Americans started working out more at home in 2020, and 66% preferred it. People will likely keep using the exercise equipment and routines they’ve invested in but will seek out gyms for social experiences[2]. Others predict that exercisers will go hybrid, splitting their sweat between the gym and home[3].

While not an exact parallel, there certainly is a similar pattern materializing within the church. After the jump to digital: internet worship service broadcasting, small groups, and meetings at the speed of Zoom, things are returning to whatever normal once was. Physical attendance at live worship services, small groups and meetings is on the rise. And we thank God for His mercy.

Conventional thinking is that you have either physical or digital worship, either physical or digital small groups. Our baseline assumption is that it’s either one or the other. Physical and digital are complete opposites, mutually exclusive.

Aristotle said long ago what we all know to be true today: real opposites cannot both be true at the same time[4]. You either are in a vacuum or not. If there is a single molecule of a gas, then it’s not a vacuum. A number is either zero or it has a value, there is no in-between. Any movement off zero means that it’s not zero anymore.

And that’s the way we experience physical and digital. You do one or the other. We attend worship in person or remotely from the comfort and convenience of our home. We attend our small group at a physical location or in digital isolation. There is nothing in between. You cannot be in both at the same time.

Or can you?

Leaping Forward, Sliding Backward

Businesses, organizations, and churches jumped head-first from physical into digital delivery of communications, customer service, and congregating. Some were successful, many were wildly successful. While all age groups took advantage of the new digital access, it was primarily younger people who flooded the digital user numbers[5].

Churches and ministries were thrown into an entirely new paradigm, closing traditional, in-person gatherings and replacing them with digital delivery of worship services, small groups, ministries, and meetings.

But with relaxation of pandemic restrictions, digital access plateaued and has started slipping back. Even though the number of people using digital access for worship and small groups has slid backwards, it’s still well above pre-pandemic levels.

The question now is how to not just maintain the new, digital attenders, but to expand it while attracting and engaging new people. There is also an opportunity to provide more of a digital experience to those who gather in a physical setting. How can we harness the hard-won innovations and insights to create a new experience that moves people forward, encourage the distressed[6], strengthening “feeble arms and weak knees[7].”

To bridge the gulf between physical and digital, we need to think, plan, and deliver through a merger of physical and digital. This is Phygital (fij-i-dl).

Phygital is a blending of digital and physical experiences, taking the best elements of both and combining them with the distinctive aspects of the other. It leverages unique, and sometimes interactive experiences, whether it’s a digital or physical, brick-and-mortar, venue.

This may be through real-time interactions via chat, questions, surveys. It may also bring purely digital resources into physical gatherings and publications through video, or audio content that emphasizes the truth being shared.

This same consumer trends survey concluded that organizations can look to hold on to newly connected people. This happens by improving digital experiences, investing in “Phygital,” and putting people’s trust at the heart of all they do.

So, how do you “Get Phygital?”

Phygital Experiences

We need to be creative and bravely try new things, bringing a Phygital experience to our worship, small group, and meeting gatherings. The challenge is how to integrate compelling and complementary digital content within the framework of physical meetings. 

Here are some ideas and practical applications.

  • Audio – Integrate audio MP3 files into the flow of your physical gatherings. These audio files are not to show off, but to offer supportive, supplemental content that will captivate. Here are some examples:

    • Popular Music – integrate songs that are available on everyday radio, streaming, and web sites to emphasize an important point. Unless the song is ubiquitous, I always make the lyrics available to be read while they listen. It never ceases to amaze me that when I use a well-known, secular song, to watch people start tapping their toes, their fingers, bobbing their heads to the beat, mouthing the lyrics in perfect harmony.

      • Example: In talking about the trinity, I used CS Lewis’ quote, “[God is] a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a person. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence[8].” And to emphasize this idea, I used the song, “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon[9].

    • Sound Bite – use a well-known, very short sound bite to emphasize an emotion or truth.

      • Example: I had to correct and clarify something that I had said the previous week. So, to make it more attractive and memorable, I added a short audio clip of Brenda Lee singing, “I’m sorry. So sorry. Please accept my apology.” It made the point and lightened the mood all at the same time.
  • Video – Integrate video files into the flow of your physical gatherings to emphasize and drive home a greater truth.

    • Popular Music – again, use well-known, non-church music as a way to drive home a truth.

      • Example: when talking about the prodigal son[10], the question always comes up, when is it too late for the son to repent and return home.  Bon Jovi’s song, “Who says you can’t go home” speaks to this important question, especially for people who feel like their past prevents them from coming home to God. And since there are several copies to choose from, you can select the one most appropriate to your audience:

        • There is a Daytona 500 version if your people are interested in NASCAR[11].
        • There is also a version from Letterman if your people are more urbane or from the northeast[12].
  • Popular Movies – by complementing your physical encounters with clips from movies, you have an opportunity to connect and build content and emotional bridges with your people.

    • Example – when working through prayer, a moving scene from Shadowlands portrays CS Lewis’ prayer life and healing for his wife’s cancer. In the end he reveals a deep truth, “It doesn’t change God. It changes me[13].”
  • Popular Television – similar to popular movies, complement your physical encounters with clips from popular TV shows, building content and emotional bridges.

    • Example – in James, we are told to be transparent, confessing our sins to one another[14]. Doc Martin has a choice to hide or talk about his weakness. Whenever he sees or smells blood, he has a panic attack – not exactly what you want your doctor to suffer from[15].

    • Video content – there are opportunities to bring a Phygital experience using general video content.

      • Example: Mark 6, Jesus restores a demon-possessed man, the pigs rush into the water and drown after being thrown out. Use a video of lemmings throwing themselves off a cliff to their self-inflicted doom[16].

Phygital Teaching

When you are physically in front of people, not everyone may be comfortable with jumping in and out of digital experiences. There are two storytelling techniques that you can us to portray vivid and emotional connections, helping people connect with God, connect with the truth, connect with you.

  • Word Pictures – the Scriptures are powerful, and Jesus’ words will never pass away[17]. But to help people enter into God’s word, they sometimes need help, an illustration, a word picture to help them remember, to help the truth stick.

    • Example: we used the Mark 6 story earlier when Jesus restores a demon-possessed man. Help people enter into the emotion and horror of that historical event through a word picture.

The immediate result was that the pigs went out of their minds. They didn’t just walk down to the water; like we go swimming at the beach. They violently ran down and over a steep embankment and were drowned. One after another, they climbed and clawed over each other, struggling to stay afloat. They didn’t just go in and sink, they thrashed and struggled before finally going down for the last time.

This was a horrific scene. It wasn’t carefully choreographed, directed, and staged by a film crew. It wasn’t created by computer-generated imagery, CGI, in some isolated and clean office with 21st-century screens, keyboards, computers, and mice. This was as real as it gets, as horrible as it gets, as tragic as it gets, as blood-curdling as it gets.

And it was more than just the imagery. Don’t forget the anguished and gut-wrenching cries and squeals of the pigs as they fight for their lives. These weren’t the cute grunts and oinks, these were screams of panic and pain as they climb over each other, fighting and kicking to gulp in air, and not water.

  • Touch – While we’ve talked about using sight and sound, using touch can be a powerful way to connect. And with a little bit of preparation, you can connect in a new and dynamic way.

    • Example – when something is described as rough or smooth, have people touch something that has a similar texture.

    • Example – if you are in a small group, you might want to have examples available to pass around. Sandpaper or unfinished wood for rough, silk for something smooth.

Phygital Writing

Yes, there are ways to write in a Phygital way; integrate written words with digital experiences. This article has several examples built right in.

  • Links – these are where a word or phrase has “link” to some kind of digital file: audio, video, website. But because not all technologies can automatically jump with the links, you need to also record the internet address. I prefer to put them in footnotes.

    • Example: if you click on the word, Selah, you will be taken to their song, “All My Praise[19].”

The Way Forward

When looking to create Phygital experiences, you need to think about the following do’s and don’ts.

Don’ts

  • It’s not about you. It’s never about you, your ego, your reputation, your press clippings, your following, your likes, your numbers.
  • It’s not about the technology or “cool factor.”
  • It’s not a competition, being the most aggressive technology user, the smartest, the funniest person in the room, on the web.
  • Don’t try to overwhelm people with digital content. It’s like adding salt – a little bit can take the bland, awaken it, complement it, making it better. Too much salt, and the dish is ruined because it’s become all about the salt and not the dish.

Do’s

  • Find and use experiences that are relatable to your audience.
  • Look for Phygital resources that allow people to enter in the experience emotionally.
  • Since everyone has pain, always look for and illustrate pain in your Phygital resources, it’s the greatest communicator and motivator.
  • Be willing to address tough topics using Phygital resources to spur thought and conversation.
  • Be certain that you have personally listened to and watched everything you share, you never know what someone might have inserted into that scene from a children’s cartoon.
  • Add footnotes to videos you use, siting their source and copyright information.
  • Delete objectional material based on where your audience is, their backgrounds, experiences, tastes, likes.
  • Look for what God can use to reach, connect and change people “to be conformed to the image of his Son[20].”

In his message on Mars Hill, the Apostle Paul reaches out to the people around him. He’s at the Areopagus, a popular meeting place in Athens. He’s standing on nothing more than a rock outcropping in the shadow of the Acropolis. To connect and reach his audience, he uses two familiar resources.

First: A close by temple that would have easily been known to them.

the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’

     Acts 17:23

Second: A very popular poem to both the Greek and Roman worlds as is proved by the number of commentaries and Latin translations.

as even some of your own poets have said[21], ‘For we also are His descendants.

Acts 17:28

Jesus does something similar. When He gave us the Lord’s Supper[22], He took something familiar, The Passover, and used it in a new way in order to teach and illustrate.

If there is a single, major driving force within our culture and community, it is the digital revolution and availability of digital content. It’s available 24/7/365, from just about anywhere in the world. When it started, it was reserved for the elite. It was expensive, hard-wired communication via bulky computers and laptops. Now it’s very cheap, fits within your hand. Instant access to any and all information worldwide is available through a myriad of wireless technologies that are increasing in speed and availability, while their overall cost plummets.

  • More than half of the world uses social media[23].
  • 4.6 billion use the internet.
  • 316 million new users came online within the last 12 months.
  • 5.22 Billion mobile phone users population
  • The average US adult spends 38 minutes per day on Facebook while 16-24-year-olds spend 3 hours a day on social media[24].

And there is no end in sight on digitals’ deployment or impact.

Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul were unwilling to ignore what their audiences were familiar with. And either should we. They were willing to use different methods in order to deliver the timeless truths of God. The methods change, but the message stays the same.

He has given us the gift of digital talents. To ignore such connections, such resources, will be something that we have to answer for. What will be our answer when Jesus asks, “What have you done with the talents I gave you[25]?”

So, let’s get Phygital, and be about our Father’s business.

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Chet Gladkowski is the Founder of GLAD Associates, Inc.[26] and author of “Have Yourself a Merry COVID-Christmas[27].


[1] Consumer Trends 2021, New Consumer and Coefficient Capital

[2] The pandemic’s home-workout revolution may be here to stay, Hamza Shaban, Jan. 7, 2021 The Washington Post

[3] Are Gyms Dead? Why Home Workouts Are Here to Stay, Ashley Mateo, Jan. 22, 2021, Wall Street Journal

[4] Metaph IV 6 1011b13–20)

[5] Survey: US consumer sentiment during the coronavirus crisis, Mckinsey and Company, May 13, 2021

[6] John 16:33

[7] Hebrews 12:12

[8] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, “The Good Infection”

[9] https://youtu.be/kVJu9AMJJr4

[10] Luke 15:11–32

[11] https://youtu.be/gFI0lxsjTjo

[12] https://youtu.be/ZNSAZDHXKvc

[13] https://youtu.be/7GTX4xapmRM

[14] James 5:16

[15] https://youtu.be/YhmPFuF7LqY?t=2196

[16] https://youtu.be/YNZ_K14iT-Q?t=34

[17] Matthew 24:35

[18] https://chetglad.org/

[19] https://youtu.be/cSpt-ua8FHo

[20] Romans 8:29

[21] Aratus, Phænom. 1–5.

[22] 1 Corinthians 11:23-27

[23] Datareportal Global Overview report, January 27, 2021

[24] Facebook eMarketing

[25] Matthew 25:14-30

[26] https://chetglad.org/

[27] https://www.amazon.com/Have-Yourself-Merry-COVID-Christmas/dp/B08J1WLXNS

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