Comment Comment and Features

What I saw in the megachurches

An Evangelical service in Las Vegas (Getty)

Still basking in the warm afterglow of Christian Unity Week? Fired by the Vatican’s pioneering “ecumenism of philately”, with its Martin Luther stamp, to strive ever more zealously “that they may all be one”? No? Well, your loss.

This week I’ve a treat in store: enough to tempt even the least ecumaniacal of these my brethren. What, I have been pondering, might our Catholic parishes learn from American Evangelical megachurches?

I won’t comment here on matters of dogma, except to say that on many core matters – the Incarnation, the Trinity, the demonstrable rationality of belief in God – there is often little to quibble over. (Though there is, I might add, much diversity among America’s 1,500 or so megachurches.) On areas of sexual and life ethics, too, there is typically more common ground than with some traditional dialogue partners.

Remember that many of today’s leading Catholic lights – Brandon Vogt, Ulf Ekman, Dawn Eden Goldstein, Scott Hahn, Mark Shea, Doug Beaumont – “came home” via, if not actual megachurches in every case, then the ecclesial and theological milieux in which they flourish.

Before proceeding, we ought to be clear about what a megachurch is exactly.

Numbers, obviously, are one determining factor. Two thousand or more weekly attendees (not necessarily at the same service) is the generally accepted criterion. But size, in itself, prompts a more interesting question. What are these congregations doing that results in such robust figures? (Not only robust, but also growing: 83 per cent of American megachurches reported an increase in attendance between 2009 and 2014.)

In fact, size really, really isn’t everything. According to Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, arguably America’s leading megachurchologists, the real engine of success lies in smallness.

Among the defining features of megachurches, Thumma and Bird list “a multitude of diverse social and outreach ministries” and “an intentional small group system”. That is to say, in between each Sunday’s thousands-strong worship extravaganza there is a web of ancillary activities and meet-ups.

Take Champion Forest Baptist Church in Houston, where I spent a very enjoyable Sunday morning a few weeks ago. Central to church activity are its “Adult Life Groups – small groups where we make friends, share in discussion about the Bible, and lift up one another’s needs in prayer”.

At their main campus (of three), you can sign up for one of 70 such groups, meeting on different days, and targeting different age groups, states of life (eg, couples, singles, widowed), and language preferences. We’ve been hearing a lot about “southern Evangelicals” and their (supposed) attitudes on “welcoming the stranger” in the media lately. But how many churches do you know that advertise weekly Bible and social groups in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese and Farsi?

Four-fifths of megachurches say that such small groups are central to their overall strategy, and that they are actively seeking both to grow and diversify their offering. Furthermore, on average 40 per cent of megachurch Sunday congregants belong to one or more.

All this is important for Catholics, for two reasons. First, at least in America, we already have plenty of “ordinary parishes” which meet the 2,000-or-more weekly worshippers criterion. I’d be willing to bet that in almost all such cases you’d find precisely the same “seven-day” approach to church life: men’s groups, youth basketball, pro-life ministries, rosary or Divine Mercy circles, and so on – all flowing from, and pointing back to, their “source and summit” at Sunday Mass.

Secondly, that such Catholic megachurches exist and are thriving should not surprise us. For in fact, we more or less pioneered the concept.

In the new book I’m writing – working title: Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation since Vatican II – I focus a great deal on urban parish communities of the early 20th century. These were as distinctive a feature of the Catholic experience in Boston, Massachusetts as they were in Preston, Lancashire. In both great cities, Catholic parishes provided an array of social, cultural, civic, educational and charitable functions, from Sunday to Sunday. Everything from theatre groups to football teams to life insurance provision (the founding rationale of the Knights of Columbus).

Partly by accident, the decline of this rich Catholic subculture – “sometimes disparagingly referred to as a ‘ghetto’ ”, as Benedict XVI once observed – was well underway by the time Mass attendance, among other signs of life, began to fall.

Now, there are interesting sociological reasons why such seemingly peripheral activities should have clear knock-on effects to religious belief, identity and participation. I won’t bore you with them now: that’s what I write books for. Nevertheless, it’s arguably the same “deep architecture” holding up Evangelical megachurches that used to – and in some places still does – invigorate Catholic parish life.

There is, in short, much that we might re-learn from our Evangelical brothers and sisters. For instance, every so often, one comes across an article about some edgy megachurch setting up in a bar to reach “unchurched people where they are”.

A good idea, if not exactly brand new. Remember Catholic parish social clubs?

This article first appeared in the February 3 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here