Virtual Church

Following-live-stream-massChristmas 2019. I think most pastors and their vicars, if asked, would remember back to the days when attendance at church overflowed the pews, into the aisles, and perhaps out the door. We Catholics, a largely silent and patient bunch, are given to sitting quietly awaiting the start of liturgy. Long ago silent reverence for “God’s house” was drilled into our consciousness and obedience. We would fidget, bu quietly. Remember the expression, “as quiet as a church mouse? They were the noise makers. But even we had our own special stirrings and sounds of life – especially on the solemnities and feast days.

It was good to stand just outside the sacristy door and hear the hum of life, crying babies unsure why their nocturnal norm was being disrupted for this thing called Midnight Mass. Sounds from the nave of the church wafted upward into the cathedral ceilings. Families greeting one another. Those whose weekend habits of Mass attendance put them on different paths than friends, but suddenly meeting in church. Volunteers making last minute adjustments, ushers cajoling 10 people into an eight-person pew, altar servers trying to find their albs, last-minute adjustments of angel wings, a wandering magi, and a million other details of the anatomy of the Body of Christ” “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” (1 Cor 12:27)

Even the ordinary Sundays had their own sound and hum of the presence of the People of God.

Then came the pandemic, the closing of the doors to in-person attendance at Mass, and the explosion of live stream masses and a whole host of ministries and activities when the Body of Christ came together digitally and at a distance. Churches everywhere scrambled to hobble together the gear and the operators needed to celebrate and broadcast. Virtual church was born in the seedbed of necessity. And pastors became aware and perhaps attentive to the language of views, clicks, impressions and the world of analytics. It wasn’t just the stream broadcast live, it extended to the recording left on the channel enabling parishioners to view and participate at a time that was more suitable to the ebb and flow of their new-normal Sunday.

Still the Body of Christ, but there was some sense of the digital ghost about it all. The sounds of the Body coming together was absent. We Catholic tend to sit in the same place at the same Mass and form “pew neighborhoods” – and the neighbors were missing. Our peripheral vision could no longer subconsciously take in the beauty of the stained glass windows, the local stirring of young ones, or the bowed head of a person in deep prayer. Now that peripheral vision was occupied by the ordinary nick-nacks and whatnots on the shelf that occupied your every other day.

The first time I saw a live stream Mass from the parish I was proud of what we had cobbled together. We had three borrowed cameras, broadcasting software, patched-together sound engineering, intuitive floor direction, and dedicated volunteers. The parish gave us rave reviews and many thanks for helping them feel connected, not only in celebrating Mass, but facilitating parishioners connecting with friends and pew neighbors as they left comments on the stream, checking in, and wishing people well. It was good, a great effort, but I remember being a bit unnerved looking into this two-dimensional world and thinking, “Wow, what a great job, what great quality…. I hope this doesn’t last long.” A digital body of Christ is not the same thing.

In time, the cobbled together system using borrowed cameras, iPads, and what-not, gave way to the permanently mounted three-camera, pan-tilt-zoom cameras, integrated broadcasting and sound engineering, a new parish ministry, and even better quality. But now it was just me alone at the altar facing an empty church. The broadcast team was no longer positioned at the foot of the altar; they were relocated to the converted audio visual center. Before I had people in front of me with whom to celebrated, Now I had to remember to look at the cameras perched at the back of the nave/. “The Lord be with you” was answered by the lone voices of the cantor and the lector. The Eucharistic prayer was not accentuated by a restless child or a random cell phone ringing. It was lonely.

114 times in the New Testament the church is described as ekklesia. Etymologically speaking it means “those called out.” An overemphasis on the etymological can leave one with meaning those “called out of the world” as though the world were all darkness and only the gathering of the faithful was light. In time the meaning came to simply mean the congregation, the parish, the people, the assembly or any denominational preferred term for the people of God gathering in worship and fellowship.

While celebrating at the lonely live stream altar, there was a yearning for ekklesia, the calling out of people from across the digital divide to be present, to assemble. The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium (para. 7) says that Christ is truly and most especially present in the Holy Eucharist, but it also holds that Christ is truly present when the people assemble. Perhaps, we the older generation, with the silence and mystery of church intrinsic to our practice of faith weathered the shift to live stream. Not so the younger generation. A Barna Group Study revealed that among practicing millennials (practicing!) more than 50% never bothered with live stream participation. This was consistent across the Christian denominations. Perhaps they more acutely experienced the missing ekklesia. The loss of people meant the loss of church. But this group did not abandon the faith, they formed small faith communities.

This is the summer of 2021, the churches are re-opened. “The Lord be with you” has a vibrant response. The church again has its “Sunday sound” of life. But the pandemic is not over; the delta variant is surging. It is not hard to imagine, however, reluctantly, mandatory masks may return; the dispensation reinstituted, and in the worst case, the Churches are again closed for public service. But surge or no surge, the parishes have to decide what it will make of live stream masses. In truth, there have always been Masses available on TV which have served those restricted to home by health, age and infirmity. Often it was a national broadcast with the local parish working to maintain connection with those families. Now there is a plethora of live stream options – national and local. Will the local church continue to stream Mass?

Live Streaming makes digital church available on the road, at weekend travel sport events, beach gatherings, and wherever. Or whenever. You don’t need to assemble at a specific time. You can flex-schedule around your activity, sleep or work routine. Is that a good thing? Yes, if the option is no church at all. No if the travel sport team becomes the priority and streaming Mass is shoe-horned in between matches. No if the connection is largely digital with only off-season appearances.

I wonder if wide-spread live streaming will begin to evaporate the ekklesia’s boundaries. One no longer needs to watch their own church’s celebrations. Pick your church – as close as across town or as far as a different country. Maybe live streaming is becoming the Zillow for church shopping, a way to choose a place of worship based on …. What? Sermons and music? Those things are wonderful, but I am pretty sure that Sacrosanctum Concilium (para. 7) does not include them in the list.

And I worry about the effect of Live Streaming on the understanding of the Eucharist. If the travelers on the road to Emmaus were participating in a live stream of the event, I am sure that their hearts would have been on fire with Scriptures (and even with accompanying music), but would they have recognized the Lord is the digital breaking of the bread?

But mainly I worry about the living, breathing ekklesia. “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). It was not a remote viewing event. Nor should the communal worship of God.

During my time in Kenya I was privileged to travel out to the Transmara with Fr. John Kaiser, a Maryknoll Missioner, and a long serving and legendary figure among the Maasai people. There were family clans that moved around the Transmara; sometimes in Tanzania, sometimes in Kenya. Fr. John visited one such group twice a year.  They celebrated and received Holy Eucharist only when Fr. John was there, but ekklesia always gathered on Sundays to worship, hear the Word of God, and be the people of God. Theirs was not a remote viewing event.

There is something irreplaceable about ekklesia. The millennials of the Barna Group study understand it. The Maasai of the Transmara live it as do many people in the remote areas of the world. There is something I have experienced as I celebrate Eucharist at a lonely live stream altar.

All the churches will have pastoral decisions on how to use/not use/limit live stream broadcasts in the post-pandemic world. I don’t think there are clear choices. And while we will rightly be concerned about the people’s Eucharistic experience and participation, let us be mindful of our mission to those who have been called out of the gathered communities of worship by the available live stream options. “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” (1 Cor 12:27) – and the Body needs to be restored and made whole.

3 thoughts on “Virtual Church

  1. I’m sure when Jesus fed thousands, not all of them could hear him preach and some in the front were passing the words back or repeating them to friends when they returned home. What about when the apostles were jailed? Who spread the word then? We’ve always been divided in space but united in faith. Is the church just a building to congregate or a means to share hope in this life and the next however it can be done, in person, written down or verbally shared?

    • True, but my point was never about the building. It was about the community gathering. The nexus of the evangelical church is always the gathering of people be it St. Peter’s in Rome or under a jacaranda tree on Mfangano Island. The two parts are always to have one’s heart set afire with the Word proclaimed and to recognize Christ in the breaking of the Bread. There’s a case to be made for the former in live stream, but the latter…? It is after the celebration of these two things that the words “Ita misa est” make the most sense. Those are the final words of the Mass. It’s Latin is not a suggestion, it is in the language of command: “ita” – “Go”. “Go [the church] is sent on mission” The Church has always depended on the people “gossiping the gospel over the backyard fence” as the primary means of witness and testimony – the turning around to their neighbors to spread the word. It has always been about the people of the community. Live stream has it place, but to a point.

  2. Always appreciated the live-streamed Masses before we were allowed back in. But never considered how lonely it must have been for the Celebrants. Prayers that we don’t have to go back to them.

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