This week, a couple of large and successful churches across the country took a step which I found unexpected. They announced that, in view of the pandemic, they would stay closed to in-person worship services through the end of the year. Some of this decision is explained by their large size (making it harder to practice distancing) and their locations (areas of the country where cases are rising rather than falling). Some of it is driven by their conviction that current safety measures would compromise their worship experience.
Instead of any kind of gathering at church, they will rely on online broadcasts some also encouraging small groups gatherings in homes.
Online church is an approach I have been championing on this blog recently, despite some vocal critics. I believe being and growing as an online church brings blessings and benefits which we have only just begun to understand. Online church is here to stay and there is no going back.
But online only church?
Even if these churches were to open up in 2021 (and will they, if the situation has not improved or we’re hit with a second wave?) they are looking at a long closure. Does it not risk fraying or even severing the bonds parishioners have with their church? Does it not aggravate the possibility that online replaces our brick-and- mortar gatherings? And does it not transgress some fundamental element of what it means to be church?
It’s certainly a balancing act. My parish has been closed since the beginning of the quarantine, far longer than any of our neighboring parishes. We remained closed out of an abundance of caution but always with the commitment to reopen as soon as we felt the time was right.
Here are three keys to understanding the importance of in-person worship in the new normal:
1. The Celebration of the Sacrament Requires It
The Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ. He really comes to us, and he comes to us to feed us. It is obvious that to be fed we must be present. While “hearing” Mass or watching it brings benefits that are substantial and beneficial, presenting oneself before the Consecration, in which Jesus becomes present, and then receiving Holy Communion is a renewing experience that can be life-changing.
Precisely this celebration is the source and summit of the Church.
2. Human Nature Requires It
We are made to worship and we are made to worship together. To sit and stand and kneel, to sing, and even to be quietly reflective together. To be present to one another as we are present to the Lord. This coming together is the outward manifestation of what it means to be the Church.
3. Online Church Requires It
After 19 weeks of preaching to an empty church, I can tell you it is not an easy exercise. Together with the musicians and the other ministers, and even the tech crew, I have to manufacture energy that can be quite tiring. Without it, the online experience becomes dull and joyless. A live congregation, even a small one, brings energy and vibrancy that supports all our efforts and can help us excel. Excellence in our in-person worship in turn actually enhances the online experience; there is a “there” there, a “presence” there that makes it a more genuine experience of church.
Excellence in our in-person worship in turn actually enhances the online experience; there is a “there” there, a “presence” there that makes it a more genuine experience of church.Tweet
With all that said, we have a very special announcement to make. After weeks of planning, vetting, and testing of safety procedures, our parish is ready to reopen to the public. We will begin by hosting public Masses on Sunday August 2nd at 9 and 10:45am. Details and reservation instructions will be available at churchnativity.com beginning on Monday, July 27th.
Given the experience of other churches, we are expecting a modest start. Even so, we can’t wait. See you in church.