Engaging seekers and reaching the unchurched in a time of COVID-19

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Daniel Ang and Sherry Weddell. A global hookup of Catholic thinkers, authors and those interested in evangelisation with Ms Weddell and Canadian priest Fr James Mallon sparked reflections by Daniel on the possibilities for parish renewal and evangelisation which could emerge from the widespread lockdowns of churches around the world caused by coronavirus.

On Thursday, I participated in a webinar with 500 others from across the globe from my dining table in Sydney, Australia. On a cool autumn night, coffee in hand, I was able to tune into the insights of Fr James Mallon, founder of the ‘Divine Renovation’ movement in Halifax, Canada, and Sherry Weddell, author of Forming Intentional Disciples at her home in Colorado, in a conversation facilitated by Hannah Vaughan-Spruce, also of Divine Renovation, based in the UK. These are the signs of the times.

Opportunities that are beginning to take shape

What the conversation brought home to me was the unique opportunities presented to Catholic parishes at this time of COVID-19, to transform their culture permanently for evangelisation.

As Sherry highlighted, people are online like never before and not only that – they are spiritually curious. Even though many people in our Western culture do not believe in a personal God or have even visited a church in a long time, people are Googling ‘prayer’ in unprecedented numbers, “kind of throwing a line out into the universe” as Sherry observed.

As the ever-effervescent comedian Russell Brand shared online the very same day and in his own inimitable way, “We are looking for a sacred experience… the presence of the limitless that is always, by its nature, present in the limited bandwidth of our physical sensate experience here on earth which, on some level, we know is not enough…”

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP is seen on national television as he celebrates Easter Mass via livestream on 12 April 2020, in St Mary’s Cathedral during the coronavirus pandemic. More than a million Australians tuned in on television and online to watch Easter services broadcast from the cathedral. Photo: Peter Rosengren, The Catholic Weekly

Lockdowns posed a question

With churches across much of the world closing in March, including here in Sydney almost overnight, the choice for local parishes in the face of the crisis was clear – hunker down and wait until the whole thing passed, or to change methods to remain faithful to Christ’s mission to “go, make disciples of every nation” (Mt 28:19).

This intervening time has been a powerful reminder that this Gospel vision is not out of reach for any of our Catholic communities, not in a time such as this. As a local example, our Archdiocese of Sydney is sponsoring an online pilgrimage to Pentecost that has so far attracted 6,700 participants from over 80 countries, an initiative cobbled together in mere days and teaching us as sponsors as much as it is feeding others (www.pentecostpilgrimage.com).

As Fr James shared during this week’s webinar, some parishes are rising to the current crisis and have done extraordinary things, shifting their ministries and approaches to evangelisation in ways they never thought possible before the coronavirus hit their shores. Other parishes have struggled to take a step forwards, paralysed by a lack of database, online ministry, skills or infrastructure. The crisis has exposed where we are, as communities no less than individual persons and families.

A US bishop is captured on camera for livestream as he celebrates Palm Sunday Mass in his diocese’s nearly empty Cathedral on 5 April 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Technology came to the church’s aid in an unforeseen way courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: CNS, Deacon Skip Olson, courtesy Diocese of Lexington

Never too late to take the initiative

Wherever we may be in parish life, it is never too late to change method at a time when, as Fr James noted, people have not been able to come in to our churches and so we have been forced and stretched to go out to them. Even as churches begin to re-open in these coming days and weeks, we should not lose this missionary impetus to ‘go out’ and reach large swathes of people, including the unchurched and those without connection to the Gospel or Church.

Even now we can create environments for a meaningful encounter with God and with others through online platforms and as churches begin to re-open through mixed or blended approaches to evangelisation.

One of the keys in approaching this opportunity is to recognise that if we want to reach people through an encounter then we have to engage with social media in a different way than we have traditional forms of media that are generally more familiar to parishes.

A laptop displays the control screen an operator sees while preparing to livestream the rosary. Have the restrictions imposed by church lockdowns inadvertently indicated a way forward for parishes in communicating with wider society? Photo: CNS, Dan Russo, The Witness

Beyond the parish bulletin

For example, the parish bulletin is a traditional media, characterised by being essentially ‘one way’ communication. It is a media controlled by the author and so a ‘closed system’ to which the reader cannot add a jot. It is pre-produced and mass produced, given to us for our passive consumption and our field of vision is limited to whatever the parish priest, parish secretary or other chooses to put before us in print. It is not social and it doesn’t pretend to be an encounter (though it can, helpfully, invite one).

Compare this to something like ‘TripAdvisor’ where people discuss and review holiday destinations online, as well as restaurants and venues. Here they contribute their views and ideas and even cross reference information with one another to identify the perfect setting for that special occasion. Like Facebook or Twitter it is an undoubtedly social media with all the advantages and limitations of online human interactions. You can have an encounter with people online but not a parish bulletin.

Pope Francis prays in front of the “Miraculous Crucifix” from the Church of St Marcellus in Rome during a prayer service in an empty St Peter’s Square at the Vatican on 27 March 2020. Over 11 million people watched the service on television or online. Photo: CNS, Vatican Media

The readers we already have

(Before I go any further, are online or live-streamed Masses a replacement for the communion of God’s People gathered for Word and sacrament? No. Are online platforms an opportunity to lead people to that full participation in the life of the Church? Yes. Are people swarming our pews at present, compelled to join us in the pews by the attractiveness and vision of our Catholic communities? No. So, is it worth engaging online platforms as part of our evangelising mission? Yes.)

Returning to the example, a parish bulletin is also opaque because it doesn’t give you anything but information and the background or backdrop of the message remains hidden. It is quite good for distributing information to a particular set of people but it doesn’t invite our interaction and reach those not directly engaged with the community. It is not social in the sense of enabling people to see how others are reacting to it or does not provide any real insight or experience of what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ as it were.

So traditional media is generally focused on the needs and desires of the person that created or produced it. It tends to be more polished and ‘top-down’ – readers passively receive what is presented. ‘This is what we want you to know about our parish.’

Pope Francis makes the sign of the cross at the beginning of his livestreamed general audience on 15 April 2020. Photo: CNS photo/Vatican Media

Offering the opportunity to respond

In contrast, social media can be much more personal and two way or invite multilayered conversations, in real time with genuine interaction. It is an open system where people can share, ask and respond to what is going on for others who are also looking in. Social media is focused not only on its maker but is ultimately about engaging an audience. We are not archiving our better-looking meals but sharing their beauty with and seeking a positive reaction from others. This media is about engaging a response, not simply disseminating information. It values authenticity even above polished content and it is a ‘bottom-up’ strategy for evangelisation, enabling the grassroots, the people participating in the exchange, to shape and share the conversation.

A helpful litmus test for ensuring social media is truly social, and not simply an ‘old’ way pretending to be new, is to ask “Can other people get a word in?” If they can’t, the media may not be being used for its greatest potential and not necessarily for genuine encounter but perhaps for proclamation alone. Time and experience have shown us that if we proclaim a message to people without knowing their context, their story, inviting questions, relationship or showing personal concern, then the chances of that proclamation having any traction is fairly limited.

So we want to move people from passive involvement to active involvement, not to be inert consumers with little influence or say but active participants who have something at stake in this exchange, who can share input, ask questions and meet people. This time of isolation only confirms that we all want communities, friends, colleagues, teachers, mentors and examples who listen, and if people are listened to, they can become more open to being taught or, even better, becoming learners, literally ‘disciples’.

Sister Margaret Smyth teaches an RCIA class in February. Might not individuals such as RCIA leaders be available in parishes to accompany those who encounter and become interested in the Church through parish initiatives such as online meetings and livestreamed events and services, asks Daniel Ang. Photo: CNS, Gregory A. Shemitz

A bigger future for parishes?

Does this still sound all too hard? Change can always seem difficult and is always prone to scepticism unless we ourselves can envision the greater reality that lies on the other side of the present moment, if we have the courage to entrust ourselves to the promise of God in every circumstance, a God of abundance.

It is Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom and his joy in knowing the Father’s love that allowed him to cast fresh light on who could eat at table. It was a vision so grand that it gave meaning to tiny seeds. It was a vision so extravagant, generous and self-giving it could sustain meaning in a Gethsemane night, even on the Cross. In the end, it was the one who stayed awake to the great call and vision of the Father that worked the transformation of the world.

So, could we imagine a bigger future for our local parish? Could we imagine a parish that has been live streaming its Masses for eight weeks and is looking ahead to the slow return of people to the pews?

So, could we imagine a bigger future for our local parish?

What if …?

What if the parish didn’t disband the online streaming service as soon as doors opened but continued to invest in it? What would it look like if following the homily an invitation was offered to people watching online to head over to an online ‘Zoom’ or chatroom address that was shown to viewers – for those who would like to learn more, have questions, think of themselves as on the peripheries, are looking for community or simply someone to share their hurts or hopes with or how the week’s readings or homily spoke to them?

What if a priest, deacon or lay leader with a charism for hospitality and evangelisation was waiting in the chatroom for them after the close of Mass to facilitate such a follow-on conversation? What if, after a few weeks, that leader asked anyone who had been a repeat online visitor or was open to meeting to a coffee with a small group to take those conversations further? What if the parish RCIA coordinator, a trusted parishioner or a newer baptised member of the parish were a part of that accompanying group, building trust and low demand relationships over time?

What if a person who started watching a Mass online this weekend was invited to connect with real life parishioners online or in person, who is spiritually curious and ended up in six months’ time a regular part of the parish community, and even made the surrender and decision for Jesus Christ and was baptised? What if in time that person become one of the parish’s newest and best online facilitators, impassioned by their own conversion to lead others to Christ? What if that become part of our regular parish evangelisation strategy over the years to come?

What if the parish RCIA coordinator, a trusted parishioner or a newer baptised member of the parish were a part of that accompanying group, building trust and low demand relationships over time?

An invitation to cast out into the deep

We are being called to put our nets in the water as the spiritual tide comes in, and to see the great catch that lies just beneath the surface of the present moment and beneath the surface of our present lives. We can build the experience of faith and outreach from one sacred hour in our parish to encompass invitations to encounter Christ and the parish across the other 167 hours of the week.

This renewal of parish culture could be one of the better legacies of this undoubtedly challenging time, a time in which people living in the darkness of unemployment, loss and grief, isolation, fear, uncertainty, and spiritual can begin to see a great light.