It’s hard to imagine a bigger disruption to church life in the last hundred years than our experience with the COVID-19 crisis. Gathering together for worship and the Sacraments, at the very heart of our mission, was halted and, when we did come back, it looked very different.
Parish leaders were left to navigate this unprecedented situation. Survival and self-preservation, understandably, became the objective by which we measured ourselves. But survival is not our mission. The mission of the Church is simple and is given to us by Jesus in the 28th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. He commands his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.” This always means two things: going deeper (discipleship) and going wider (evangelization).
First, we’ve changed the way we count success. More than “attendance” we’re understanding “engagement” as the most important metric to be following. Rather than concern ourselves with what people aren’t willing to do, we’re learning what they are willing to do:
none of which require an in-person presence at the church building.
Second, we’re more committed than ever to our in person weekend experience here on Ridgely Road. Attendance is currently two-thirds of what it was pre-COVID. That puts us comfortably in line with parishes in our region, who are reporting between 65-70% of their prior attendance, but we would like to see that number grow. Meanwhile online attendance is 4x pre-COVID numbers.
We’re still sorting out what online versus in-person attendance means. There is an undeniable tension between the value we see in online church and the irreplaceable value of in-person attendance and the Eucharist. As a parish, we know we don’t have all the answers. We want people to be attending Mass and receiving Holy Communion. 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 now 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.
Here’s what I invited our online congregation to do in my Corpus Christi homily this past Spring:
If you haven’t come back to church yet, make plans to do so, receive the Eucharist and enjoy fellowship with your church family. For those who join us at a distance, for whom that is not possible, we’re thrilled your joining us. But why not take some extra time 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:
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 as we come to Mass and receive Holy Communion, we really experience communion with Christ in a real and immediate way, we enter into and receive his real presence. And as often as we gather online, we experience communion with Christ and fellowship with one another in a spiritual way.
In other words, post-COVID we are now a church in two ways.
This blog was written by Father Michael White, the Pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland. Contact Fr. White at [email protected].
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