When lock-down restrictions were first implemented following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, many church leaders reluctantly turned to live streaming technology. It is a reluctance that I understand well. When we first started live-streaming Mass at my parish, we knew we were taking a risk. Internally we fiercely debated the merits of online church: whether it really ‘counted’ for Catholics, whether it was liturgically permissible, and whether it would supplement or cannibalize physical attendance and engagement.
For our full coverage of parish life in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, visit our response page here.
But then, a surprising thing happened. In the weeks since the lock-down started, many churches have been experiencing online viewership that is actually higher than their average weekly attendance. Our staff began to receive messages from parishioners reporting that their unchurched friends were tuning in to online church broadcasts. We heard stories of close family members who had not been to church in years asking, “What is the link to that online Mass?”
Whether you are aware of it or not, if you’re online, the unchurched are watching you. The people you have labored to reach for years are finally tuning in to your messages. Amidst all your reluctance, God is moving through your willingness to go where the unchurched are.
Which raises two questions…
Why is this happening?
In part, the pandemic evokes an incredible spiritual curiosity at this moment. Everyone’s world has just been flipped upside down and people are looking for answers. The same uncertainty that worries church leaders also worries skeptics, atheists, and the curious.
Also, Mass broadcasts are inherently approachable to those unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the church. They don’t have to worry about what to wear or whether or knowing all the responses. They know that if they ever get uncomfortable, they can just turn off the screen. But most of all, people are already used to doing things online, from Netflix to Amazon to Zoom, it’s where they’re living their lives. So, why can’t they watch mass, give online, and participate in an online small group?
Whether you are aware of it or not, if you’re online, the unchurched are watching you. The people you have labored to reach for years are finally tuning in to your messages. Amidst all your reluctance, God is moving through your willingness to go where the unchurched are.Tweet
What can you learn from this moment?
1) Use what you have today … but grow over time.
By now, many parishes have already been trying online streaming in some form. If you haven’t started yet, or are unsatisfied by your setup, that’s ok. Not everyone has access to world-class equipment and expertise. Our first livestream set-up consisted of one cheap camcorder pointed at the altar. That’s it.
Real and authentic is more important than professional quality right now. But it’s important to grow over time. If you have become comfortable with operating a one camera set-up, consider investing in more cameras and a video switcher. If you are currently only streaming to one location, like Facebook, consider investing in an online streaming broadcast service like Churchstreaming.tv, Boxcast, or Vimeo to simultaneously stream to multiple locations (YouTube, a Roku or Apple TV app, your website).
Real and authentic is more important than professional quality right now.Tweet
2) Educate yourself…but surround yourself with people who do understand
As a leader, your role is to make decisions about the direction of your church or organization. Because of this, you have a responsibility to have a basic knowledge of how this stuff works. Seek to educate yourself on the fundamentals, at least. Resources we have found helpful include:
But, don’t feel like you need to go it alone. Neither I nor Tom, my associate, are ‘tech people.’ We surrounded ourselves with people who do know what they are talking about and empower them to do what they do best. Even if these people aren’t on your staff, they are most certainly in your pews (well, not right now). Young people, especially, have an intuitive understanding of it all and can be leaders in your church.
3) Stream your Mass online … but don’t forget about other ‘STEPS’
We have been streaming online for a few years now but have just started to digitize our discipleship ‘STEPS’ in the wake of the COVID-19 quarantine. STEPS is our way of laying out a discipleship path (Serve in ministry or missions, Tithe/give, Engage in a small group, Prayer & Sacraments, and Sharing your faith). Some of these translate well to our all-digital reality while some do not. It’s something we’re experimenting with. Here are a few ideas:
- Have small groups meet with video conferencing software
- Call at-risk parishioners to check-in and offer prayer
- Send out a daily devotional, email, or social media blast
- Make online giving easy
- Move Sacramental prep classes online
- Connect parishioners with service opportunities in the community
What we started doing reluctantly can be a blessing and an opportunity. Take advantage of this opportunity and invest in technology.