How to be Church in the ‘New Normal’
The Covid-19 crisis and the lockdown have forced parishes to find new ways of being Church, especially through digital means. Fr Brett Williams argues that this will help in the New Evangelisation.
By Fr Brett Williams – Early on in the corona pandemic lockdown, Fr Thomas Weston, a priest from California who had visited our Durban parish of Morningside a couple of years before, wrote on Facebook: “Remember that your Church is a community that is online; it is not an online community.”
Something else that has stayed with me is what came out in an online coaching session with Ron Huntley of Divine Renovation: “The ‘why’ we do things has not changed, just the ‘how’!”
These two statements really struck me and have remained with me throughout this time of learning and attempting to minister online during these challenging times.
It has been important for me to remember that I am part of a community, and that connection, relationships and relatedness are values that we have to guard and nourish in the weeks or months ahead.
This community which I belong to, is made up of men and women, young and old. There are real people with emotions, fears and anxieties (most especially at this time), behind the computer screen or cellphone; and these people are known to me and I to them.
Instead of coming together as we usually did, we now have to gather in different ways—but that does not change our community and relationships, and it does not change the fact that we are a people of faith united by the Holy Spirit.
We are now a Church community that has moved online—that’s how we are now doing church! The “how” and the place of our worship, mission and community has changed, but not our “why”!
How to be Church
Very few Catholic priests or their parish communities in South Africa had embraced or used new media in their mission of evangelisation and community-building before the outbreak of the coronavirus and the resulting national lockdown.
Consequently, the sudden absence of parishioners in our pews and youngsters in our catechism sessions precipitated a crisis.
“How” were we to be faithful to our “why”? How were we going to be and do Church in this new environment? The idea of the New Evangelisation, spoken of by all the recent popes, is often put forward in rather abstract terms.
Many Catholics who want to be involved are at a loss as to how to do it.
Much has been said and there are plenty of books that cover the “why” of the New Evangelisation—but very little that cover the “how”.
Throughout its history, the Catholic Church has engaged challenges that have resulted from various cultural developments and advances—but perhaps it has turned to the new social media more slowly than other Christian communities.
This present worldwide health crisis has challenged us—perhaps even forced us!—to embrace the new and different means available to us to extend the joy of our faith to people who live outside our parishes and on the peripheries of our society.
World of false encounters
Men and women today increasingly find themselves online, and many of these are lost in a world of false encounter.
They often feel alone, unsatisfied, unhappy, and certainly removed from the life of the Church.
In his 2014 World Communications Day Message, Pope Francis called the Internet “a gift from God” through which “the Christian message can reach to the ends of the earth”.
Catholics must be present there, inviting those who are lost and who are seeking a new and better way, in.
I believe that if we remember what Fr Weston said, then we will create parishes that are able to embrace new media and modern technology, and we will have found ways to open doors to welcome our brothers and sisters into an encounter with Christ and his Church.
For me, this has been the major highlight of having church online.
My greatest challenge (or obstacle) has been that I had received no training in these new methods. I had received all my training in “old media” (parish bulletins and notice boards, announcements, plus e-mails and a few WhatsApp groups).
But I had been reluctant to put my toe into “new media”, such as Facebook, blogs, YouTube, livestreaming and Instagram. At least the crisis quickly put paid to any of my reluctance; I had no choice if I was going to pastor my community.
But I was still totally unequipped or trained for the sudden change to new methods of communication.
It was fortunate that I belong to the Divine Renovation Network and use Alpha as our primary tool of evangelisation, because both organisations were able to provide assistance and guidance through toolkits and amazing webinars, and fast, in situ training!
‘The Next Generations of Parishioners is Growing Up Online’
The longer we do this—and I am totally convinced that we will never go back to “normal” and things will never be how they were in the past—the more I realise that we can and indeed are still Church.
The “how” does not define us.
The “why” that comes from Jesus’ Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20) and the presence of the Holy Spirit which Jesus first sent on his Church on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) is what defines us as a Church.
And more importantly a Church with a mission! Throw out the excuses I would recommend to all those priests and pastors who are uncertain or afraid of leaping into this new way of ministry, that they throw out all their excuses for not using new media and mobilise evangelisers to bring people to Jesus.
There are so many people and organisations willing to help you create content and launch it online to engage your community and others outside, so as to make your parish an exciting hub of God’s life and love, just as he meant them to be.
The next generation of parishioners is growing up online. They tweet and text from their smartphones while reading books and watching movies on their iPads and eReaders.
For the Church to reach this generation—and our people today in this crisis—we all need to be on the digital continent that Pope Benedict XVI spoke about.
It is worth it.
I have seen how people have responded and how our engagement with one another and with the Gospel has grown exponentially.
The Holy Spirit is never limited by our ways and methods. The Holy Spirit is certainly guiding us along these new and different ways and creating wide vistas of opportunity and new mission fields.
Fr Brett Williams is the parish priest of St Joseph’s church in Morningside, Durban.
This article was first published on www.southafrica.alpha.org