Rawlings School of Divinity


Doctor of Philosophy


Rusty N. Small


Christian Spiritual Formation, Discipleship, Traditional Discipleship, Digital Discipleship, Spiritual Formation Models, Church Online, Livestream, Virtual Church, echurch, Traditional Church Setting, Brick-and-mortar


Christianity | Leadership Studies


The purpose of this phenomenological study was to explore best practice spiritual formation models and the perceived effectiveness of spiritual formation in the hybrid church community brick-and-mortar and online church settings for individuals in Christian hybrid churches. The concern was whether the churches effectively implemented best practice models through their traditional brick-and-mortar locations and digital platforms that would cause individuals within the Christian community to experience spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is generally defined as “the holistic work of God in a believer’s life whereby systematic change renders the individual continually closer to the image and actions of Jesus Christ” (Pettit, 2008, p. 19). In the model of social network formation, Centola (2010) suggested, “Many behaviors spread through social contact. As a result, the network structure of who is connected to whom can critically affect the extent to which a behavior diffuses across a population” (para. 1). Interpretative phenomenological analysis was an appropriate qualitative design for collecting data via semistructured interviews, allowing participants to respond to open-ended questions and provide insight in their personal experiences. Nine purposively selected participants provided sufficient data to answer the research questions. The sample comprised Pastors, Elders, Directors of Spiritual Formation and Christian Education, and congregants who had attended the traditional or online church community at least twice weekly for a minimum of 1 year. The video-recorded virtual interviews underwent transcription and upload into Dedoose software for coding and data analysis, including reviewing and examining data from individual interviews. Common themes and patterns emerged from coding. The findings showed that with effective models in place for digital platform interaction, using digital platforms to attend church—including Biblical teachings, engagement opportunities, prayer, and connecting—could encourage spiritual formation in an individual’s life just as in a local physical church setting.