Sudden crises have a way of clarifying long-running debates. The essential nature of whatever is at stake tends to become obvious when we are forced to confront it without the haze of extraneous distractions or details. This moment in time is no different. As the current outbreak of the COVID-19 virus sweeps across the country, dioceses and parishes are left wondering how to minister to their communities when physical gatherings are prohibited.
In the past, I have used this blog to work through one of the most intense ongoing debates we have had internally among our leadership team: the role of online services. What does it mean to have an online “campus”? Is it even church? Does it “count?”
This debate is especially fraught in our Catholic context, which understands the Sacrifice of the Mass and accompanying Holy Communion as the Real Presence of Christ. To partake of this presence and the benefits it brings, including union with Christ and nourishment for the soul, a literal, real presence is obviously required. Any online service that proposes a virtual presence would be, by reason, impossible.
And yet Mass has been broadcast on radio and television since their inception (the very first radio broadcast was, in fact, a Mass from the Vatican engineered by Marconi, the inventor of radio transmission). Clearly the Church has seen the value in church experiences that are not live and in-person events. Surely it can be conceded that “hearing” Mass, offering prayer, worshiping through music, and listening to the Scriptures are all inherently of value even if Communion is not received. In fact, many people go to Mass all the time and choose to partake in a spiritual communion for various reasons.
The debate actually concerns whether broadcasting church online serves as a “front door”, a “side door” or a “back” door to church commitment. Will people grow as disciples, or are they just coasting along online, or is it an easy way out, encouraging people to give up on church altogether. In other words, will online broadcasts introduce new people to Mass at church, supplement weekly worship, or make it irrelevant and obsolete?
As Carey Nieuwhof notes in a blog post (here), online as a ‘back-door’ has been shrinking in the experience of most churches. These consumer-oriented and disengaged churchgoers were already on the way out – online church just speeds up the process and makes it more efficient, less messy. Meanwhile, an online campus as a “front” door for newcomers is a growing experience according to Nieuwhof’s research. If the broadcast is a quality one, if your broadcast is interactive with viewers, if everything is done with the unchurched in mind, the online experience can serve as an effective ongoing invitation.
It is true that some number of online viewers are just coasting along with little or no commitment. But given that most “regulars” at your church are only twice a month attendees in person, the online experience can keep them engaged too, which is going to translate into more engagement and greater commitment.
All that said, over the last year we have resolved our internal discussion and confirmed our online experience as a “campus” of our church, and the one with the greatest potential for growth. In fact, in that time it has grown at a far greater rate than attendance at our Ridgely Road campus.
This weekend we are hoping to take it to a whole new level. In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are inviting and encouraging all our parishioners to join us online instead of Ridgely Road. We will be broadcasting all our weekend Masses, including for the first time ever our Saturday evening Mass. While we deeply regret the advent of this crisis, we can definitely use it to advance what we see as our best opportunity moving forward. No matter where you are or what happens, our church can be on … online.