When our parish first closed its doors three months ago in observance of COVID-19 guidelines, everything we did in response seemed like a temporary solution to a temporary problem. We anticipated that our experimental forays into Zoom staff meetings, Masses said to a camera and empty pews, online small groups, and new social media channels (our youth ministers even got into TikTok) would be a way to meet a need and then go back to normal once the quarantine ended. But here we are, four months later and little, if anything, seems to have significantly changed about the situation.
Recent statistics show that cases and hospitalizations are rising in certain communities, indicating that the “first wave” of the Covid pandemic is far from over. Many experts are suggesting that the current increase could just be a prelude to a “second wave” as temperatures drop, and indoor gatherings become more widespread this fall and winter. The reasons for these increases are certainly up for debate. But, no matter who you blame, the point remains that the virus has been, and will continue to be, around for much longer than we previously anticipated.
Meanwhile, churches are grappling with how to respond. Those that have re-opened to partial attendance have seen that attendance limited indeed, attracting far fewer numbers than they might have hoped. In many cases, attendance has steadily declined as the weeks have passed and the initial excitement worn off. For better or for worse, Mass attendance will not be dictated by whether our doors are open or closed. People will return when they feel they can do so safely. So far, they have voted with their feet: they aren’t ready to return.
People will return when they feel they can do so safely. So far, they have voted with their feet: they aren’t ready to return.Tweet
Efforts to engage those who have not returned to church have been, in my estimation, overlooked and under-resourced in the haste to resume in-person gatherings. Church online remains our greatest opportunity to stay connected to these parishioners and engage our community.
Church online remains our greatest opportunity to stay connected to these parishioners and engage our community.Tweet
The virtues and vices of bringing church into the online sphere have not been discussed widely, at least not that I have seen. This conversation needs to happen – now more than ever. The conversation may even bring out those in the church who disparage it or dismiss it as a threat to the understanding of the sacramental nature of the church. This is a legitimate critique, which I understand. However, my guess is that online church will emerge as a force for a renewed interest in the sacraments, born of an encounter with the beauty of the liturgy which was inaccessible for those who have stayed away from church.
I am certainly not an expert on technology, or liturgy, or crisis leadership. But I do think I have something to contribute to the conversation on online church. My parish has been streaming our weekend Masses online for many years, cultivating a resource that has been fruitful for many, especially here in our local community. Besides the value it has for the homebound, elderly, and those in nursing homes, online church has been a huge value in attracting the unchurched to our parish.
Here is my addition to the conversation:
1. Our online platform is designed to be synchronous with and in support of our in-person worship. While continuing to stream Masses online, our plan is to welcome a limited number of parishioners by reservation-only to our Sunday morning 9:00am and 10:45am Masses beginning August 2nd. We have worked hard to design, implement, and test drive a safe, healthy environment for those guests while at the same time preserving the vibrance and joy of our weekend experience. But even this in-person effort will start online, with the introduction of an online reservation system. Initially, we will have 50 reservation openings for 50 individuals or families.
2. Next, we will continue to upgrade and expand our technology so that we can provide a world class online experience for the vast and hopefully growing number of parishioners and guests who will be joining us there. We will continue to livestream our Saturday 5pm Mass (without congregation) and our Sunday morning Masses (with limited congregations), rebroadcasting Mass online throughout the day.
3. We will continue to explore ways in which we can engage our online community and move them from mere passive consumers to active and praying congregants. These efforts currently include:
- Live chat with chat hosts, a new lay ministry which engages with and chats with those joining us online
- A prayer room for prayer requests
- Our “Virtual Café” Zoom room for after Mass fellowship
- The presence of live staff who appear before and after Mass to make announcements, give shout outs to attendees, provide instruction about the Mass, and invite participation
4. Strive to be a “mobile-first” church. This includes continuing to offer our kids programs (“All Stars” and “Time Travelers”) online and providing an online program for our student ministry this Fall. We will continue to explore ways to effectively move our discipleship steps online, including giving, serving, and small group life, as well as move other programs online like our new members class and Sacramental preparation.
We are a sacramental community and we must gather for the sacraments; they require our physical presence. But we live in a digital community from which we dare not be absent.