Parishioners at St. Martin Church in Gaithersburg, Md., pray during Mass. (CNS photo by Martin Lueders) (Dec. 2, 2002)

The Livestreaming Question

How can we best praise God as a parish community?

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Father Michael WhiteWe are in interesting times, to say the least. As the COVID-19 crisis has waned, parishes that went online have been faced with a choice: continue to stream Masses online or turn off the cameras.

There are still so many unanswered questions, chief among them: Will churches that embraced online livestreaming (like ours) fall behind those that emphasize the in-person experience as some critics predict? Might online church cannibalize in-person attendance? Does it give parishioners an easy way out of attendance they are obligated to as practicing Catholics? Does it “count”?

At our parish, we are still sorting out what online versus in-person attendance means in a post-COVID world. 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. What is their relationship to the parish? One of the major lessons we learned during COVID is that physical attendance isn’t the only indicator of parish health. Even as our attendance was slowly recovering, our community grew in other ways. We:

— Saw the largest growth ever in our adult small group program for Lent.

— Confirmed our largest high school confirmation class ever.

— Experienced sustained growth in giving throughout the year.

So, clearly, many of our online parishioners have maintained their commitment to discipleship and support for the parish. And yet, the Eucharist is the source and summit of our community life.

Here is one pastor’s attempt to balance the tension:

— Can our weekend online presence keep people connected to their Catholic faith who otherwise might drift away completely? Probably so.

— 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, 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 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 believe it can.

Think about this: Perhaps there is a parallel between the Jewish community’s celebration of Passover and our online worship.

When Jewish people celebrate Passover here in Baltimore, New York or San Francisco, or wherever they are in the world, they view their celebrations as perfectly authentic celebrations of the feast. Which, of course, they are.

However, they end their 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 summer:

If you haven’t come back, but join us online, please know that we’re glad you’re here, you are a part of our family. Our online experience is a great way to stay connected to the parish when you’re traveling or simply can’t make it to church. But why not take this opportunity to make plans to join us again weekly in person so you can receive the Eucharist, as well as enjoy fellowship with your church family.

For those who join us at some distance, from other parishes, we’re thrilled you’re joining us too. But why not make the effort to visit your local parish for Mass and Communion as well. 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. You’re always welcome.

Moving forward, I suspect that most parishes will be hybrid: online and in person … because the internet isn’t going away. But neither is the local parish church.

FATHER MICHAEL WHITE is pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, and co-author of “Rebuilt” and a book on church financing, “ChurchMoney” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95).

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