Everyone is excited about the prospect of getting back to church. Here at Nativity, we are reintroducing live streaming this weekend and inviting our staff to join us physically for Mass. If all goes well, we can begin welcoming back parishioners after a few more weeks of testing of our safety measures. But we do not expect everyone to come rushing back. That’s why we want this time of re-entry to be slow and steady, with each step a sure and certain one, raising everyone’s confidence and comfort levels.
Meanwhile, our online services, including weekend Masses, remain our central services, more important now than ever. This seems about as obvious as any fact could be. But I suspect, and fear, a temptation away from church online could be coming our way.
I’ve seen some pastors this past week actually celebrating an end to their online Masses with the reopening of their church buildings. For them, a return to physical attendance means the end to the temporary problem that online mass was supposed to fix, namely, the government-imposed quarantine. Now that the problem is gone in many jurisdictions, so too the solution.
There were even some church leaders in North America last week threatening to forbid online Masses in their dioceses. Many pastors and parishioners besides never even wanted to close their churches for the quarantine in the first place. They resented what they saw as an undue burden and never really embraced whatever online presence their parish was able to cobble together during the interim. Now, they are losing no time in abandoning those online efforts and returning to the past. While this view seeks to promote what they see as authentic worship, I believe it is ultimately misguided.
The fact of the matter is that church online is not just a temporary solution to a temporary problem. Online church is here to stay, it is not going away.Tweet
The fact of the matter is that church online is not just a temporary solution to a temporary problem. Online church is here to stay, it is not going away. Any attempt to vilify it (it will keep people away from the Sacraments), or criticize it (it doesn’t “count”), or even mock it (it’s church “lite”) is really unhelpful, misdirected, and flat out wrong, in my view. But it is happening and I would not be surprised if this issue becomes a new litmus test for who is and who is not “authentically” Catholic. Anyone who wants to move their parish forward through this crisis will have to reject the temptation to feel that online ministry is any less valuable or authentic or ‘Catholic’ than the physical ministry we were doing before everything changed.
We should see online church as an exciting opportunity, one unprecedented in the history of the church. Your parish has a direct link to every home and family in your community, even those who have never before heard your message. To that end, I want to encourage everyone who has been tirelessly working over these past few months to learn new technologies, patiently lobby their pastors, and implement new ministry teams. Your work will pay dividends in the lives of the unchurched and unevangelized.
Despite the war being waged around you, stay true to your path. Church online is here to stay and here are just a few reasons why:
Your congregation is simply not coming back anytime soon.
From the limited anecdotal evidence that I have found, many parishes were lively and busy the first weekend that they reopened. However, the excitement disappeared for the second weekend, as numbers dropped significantly once the initial desire to return to mass was sated and replaced by a recognition by mass-goers that the experience was not the same. Then there are some people, like the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions and their close friends and family, who simply cannot safely attend your church at this time.
It is a pastoral necessity to maintain online Mass. Softening government regulations will not be the sole determinant of whether the masses return to church. Rather, the decision to return will be made on the basis of safety. Is this a safe environment for me and my family? For those that prudently answer “no,” we must have a strategy to engage them. To keep them, and to keep them engaged you’ve got to be online. And let’s not discount the economic consequences of this. If your parish is simply unavailable to large numbers of your congregation, it is unlikely they are going to continue to give.
The decision to return to church will be made on the basis of safety. Is this a safe environment for me and my family? For those that prudently answer “no,” we must have a strategy to engage them.Tweet
This crisis is an accelerator of patterns we were already experiencing pre-pandemic. One of those pronounced patterns was the eroding of weekly Mass attendance.
One of the greatest fears of those in ministry right now is the question of “What if they never come back?” This fear reveals a truth that we’ve been pushing under the rug: many of our ‘regulars’ were never really engaged or evangelized. Statistically, even those who self-identify as ‘regular’ attendees were probably in your building no more than twice a month. And maybe there are things that can be done to reverse this trend (I hope so).
But it’s important to note that online church did not create this reality. It was already with us when COVID-19 shut down our buildings. And, I do not believe it is fair to argue it encourages it. Those who use online church as an excuse to stay home from mass were already looking for an excuse to stay home. Instead, I would suggest it overcomes it, in the sense that it can keep parishioners informed and engaged in the weeks they are not actually in the pews. Surely everyone would concede that, though certainly not ideal, that is a good thing.
Online church is your front door for the unchurched, visitors, and newcomers.
It is the place where anyone who visits your church for the first time is going to start. It ensures your church is accessible. After all, most people start all major decisions online. Buying a car begins by looking at pictures online, choosing a school for your children school starts with a thorough examination of online material, and even going to eat at a restaurant starts by reading online reviews. Online church is an opportunity for those curious about your church to ask: “Would I feel welcome here?” Without the online experience, they might have assumed the answer to the question to be “no.” Why in the world would you deprive yourself of this game-changing opportunity?
The war against online church is a holy war, filled with righteousness in defense of the Sacraments, the Eucharist, the Real Presence. One commentator noted that the Real Presence demands “presence.” I’ll gladly concede that point.
But church holds other values as well, like fellowship and support, inspiration and insight, hope and help. If our parishes can effectively deliver these things online, surely we will awaken a hunger for what more their presence in church can provide.