This time last year, I was reporting on this blog that our attendance was hovering somewhere around one-third of our pre-Covid congregation. We had anticipated that the post-lockdown attendance would be sluggish. But even so, we were surprised by all the empty seats each week.
At that time, there were still so many unanswered questions, chief among them: Would churches that embraced online live-streaming (like us) fall behind those who emphasized the in-person experience, as some critics predicted? Does online church cannibalize in-person attendance?
After a full year of just about “normal” experience, we can finally begin to answer those questions.
One of the major lessons we learned during Covid is that attendance doesn’t have to be the only path to discipleship at a parish. Even as our attendance was slowly recovering, our church grew in other important ways. We:
- added 1,100 new small group members during Lent,
- experienced sustained growth in giving throughout the year,
- filled the church, and 2 video venues beyond capacity for Christmas, mere days after the Omicron wave, and
- saw our largest high school Confirmation class ever.
Here’s where Nativity is today. Our in-person weekend attendance is around two-thirds of what it was pre-Covid. This puts us comfortably in line with parishes in our region, who are reporting between 65-70% of their prior attendance. While it’s not quite where we want to be, it represents a huge step forward.
We are still sorting out what online versus in-person attendance means in our post-COVID world. There is an undeniable tension between the value we see in online church and the irreplicable value of in-person attendance and the Eucharist. As a parish, we know we don’t have all the answers. We do know that right now, we have more people attending online than we do in person. Many, many more. And we know we love our online church family.
Can the online experience allow our music and message to impact and inspire people we would never otherwise reach? Obviously.
Can online attendance, when parishioners are traveling or just can’t make it to church, keep them connected to our church family? Yes, absolutely.
Can worship online be authentic worship in spirit and truth. Yes, definitely, positively.
Can our online congregation participate in parish life in significant and meaningful ways and grow as disciples in the process? We know they can.
Can church online nourish our faith and awaken our hunger for the Eucharist leading us back to in-person attendance? We are committed to the belief it can.
Is online church a permanent part of who we are as a church, and one we will continue to invest in when it comes to technology and personnel? Without question.
But think about this: There is a parallel between the Jewish community’s celebration of Passover and our online worship.
When Jewish people celebrate the Passover in Baltimore or New York, or San Francisco, or wherever they are in the world, they view their celebrations as perfectly valid celebrations of the feast. Which, of course, they are.
However, they end the Passover celebration with the phrase, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Their celebrations are good and God-honoring but they themselves acknowledge they would be complete in person, in Jerusalem.
As a sacramental Church, we need to gather together in Church and receive Jesus in the various ways he comes to us at Mass, most especially in Holy Communion.
So, we haven’t totally figured it out. But here’s what I invited our online congregation to do in my Corpus Christi homily this past weekend:
If you haven’t come back, make plans to do so. Make plans to get here in person this summer so you can receive the Eucharist as well as enjoy fellowship with your church family.
For those who join us at some distance, for whom that is not possible, we’re thrilled your joining us. But why not take some extra time this summer to visit your local parish for Mass and Communion. Some people attend the Saturday or early Sunday Mass at their home parish and then join us later online.
And, of course, if your travels bring you to the mid- Atlantic Region definitely join us here on Ridgely Road. We have visitors every week from every part of the country and we love to meet you.
In First Corinthians, Paul says:
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.1 Corinthians 11:26
As often, every time we come to Mass and receive Holy Communion, we really experience communion with Christ.