An Ever-Expanding Parish Circle: Large Parishes As Growing Parishes

Earlier this week we checked out some positive encouragement about the potential of large congregations (aka most Catholic parishes) to form disciples–based on what’s been demonstrated by many Protestant “mega churches.”

This week I want to highlight some [interrelated] differences between most Catholic parishes and most Protestant mega churches. Differences that we as Catholics shouldn’t necessarily be proud of. Here are 3 more insights from the report, Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America’s Megachurches:

  • Nearly two-thirds of attenders have been at these churches 5 years or less.
  • Many attenders come from other churches, but nearly a quarter haven’t been in any church for a long time before coming to a megachurch.
  • New people almost always come to the megachurch because family, friends or coworkers invited them.

These trends are not the case in the vast majority of Catholic parishes in the United States. As Michael Gormley so helpfully depicts (citing Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, Ch 1), Catholic parishes in the United States “assume that religious identity is largely inherited and remains stable throughout one’s lifespan.”

While it’s certainly not a bad thing to retain as adults, those who were raised in a faith tradition as children, this way of thinking can no longer be the basis of pastoral practice. It’s a relic of a cultural/institutional “Christendom” society (or sub-society, in the case of the United States). We know that in our current cultural setting, mobility and individual choice generally trump any cultural affiliation with a set of faith beliefs. One can regret or complain about this–but it’s still the reality, and we must respond agilely.

Can you imagine your Catholic parish as a place where 5 years into the future (without increasing losses of current parishioners) 2/3rds of the new total membership has been attending 5 years or less?

Does this thrill you and inspire gratitude for God’s goodness? Or, does it make you a little unsettled or nervous. This is a tough question that many of us must honestly ask of ourselves and parish leaders.

Bottom line: In large congregations, there’s still room to grow! This is Jesus’ mandate that we see so powerfully played out in our daily readings from Acts this joyous Easter season. Let us be ever more inspired and filled by the Holy Spirit to do everything we can to expand and invite more people to enter into life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ in his Church.


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