Balance Between Large and Small in Catholic Parishes

Over at Reclaiming the Mission, David Fitch offered this interesting analysis of the balance between the small and large in Christian communities of faith: “How To Avoid Becoming a Cult (or for that matter A Large Consumer Mega Church): Oikos versus Ekklesia” While many of the commenters ask some good questions about his methodology and standards for what aspects of Christian history are normative and/or formative for today, I’m choosing to look at his points through the lens of what resonates for Catholic parishes?

Thought #1 – The Need for Large and Small Communities Fitch writes:

In a culture where we no longer can assume people are Christians, I contend we once again need to separate oikos and ekklesia in the local church. Perhaps in a Christianized world, say the 1950’s, we could afford to do both at the same time. We could hold large gatherings open to the public where we do the Eucharist and not lose its meaning, and central forming force. But today, in many places, we can no longer assume everybody knows what it means to surrender and be present to the very presence of Christ, his forgiveness, reconciliation and new life, in the bread and the cup. If we don’t maintain the oikos/ekkelsia distinction, bad things happen.

[Note Throughout: Fitch uses the terms “church” and “Eucharist” with different meanings that in Catholic theology.] The main point for us–parishes are pretty big these days. Maybe attending a large weekend Mass was “enough” at some point as a “central forming force,” I agree that today it is not. Small gatherings, among those in Christian fellowship or journeying/seeking together, provide a place for the formation that then makes the large gathering (i.e. Sunday Mass) able to be entered into fully.

Thought #2 – Small Spaces as an Antidote to Consumer Christianity
Another point from Fitch:

I contend, when the Sunday morning attractional event is so central, it determines the other smaller social spaces. People get trained into consumerist events as the basis of their Christianity.

Tom Corcoran and Fr. Michael White describe the “consumer exchange” mentality they observed in their large Catholic parish–and I’m sure they’re not the only place to experience this! Having a balance between the large and small in a parish helps parishioners realize that the Church is NOT a “consumer exchange.” While many perceive Mass as a failure if they don’t “get something out of it”–a small group makes it more obvious that Christians are present in all settings to both give and receive. Realizing that one has to be fully present and participate in a small group can be a gentle way of coming to the realization that Mass also requires the same sense of intentional presence and participation.

In closing…

Not surprisingly, I disagree with Fitch’s ultimate conclusions about how a church should worship, as he misses the visible aspects of communion that are essential to the Catholic faith. However, his observations about the consequences of a lack of balance between the large and small in Christian life offer interesting points of reflection for those of us in Catholic ministry settings and parishes.

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