Big Doesn’t Have to Be Bad: The Potential of Large Parishes

Sometimes we’re quick to dismiss ideas or assume that “xyz can’t happen in Catholic parishes, because were just so much larger than such-and-such nondenominational church.”

Yet a study of 25,000 attendees of “mega churches” (defined as Protestant congregations with +2000 weekly attendees across all services) reveals that being a population-blessed 😉 [aka large!] parish or congregation doesn’t have to be an excuse for why attendees aren’t growing spiritually, aren’t serving, etc.

Inspiring tidbits from the study for Catholic parishes grappling with a large parish community?

  • 55% of megachurch attendees volunteer at the church in some way (this is higher than at smaller churches)
  • attenders report a considerable increase in their involvement in church, in their spiritual growth, and in their needs being met
  • despite misconceptions, “large churches today are making good progress in reaching people and moving them from spectators to active participants to growing disciples of Jesus Christ”

Now, this doesn’t automatically mean that just because a Catholic parish is large, it is doing these things. But 🙂 the good news is that size doesn’t have to be an obstacle to forming disciples in a local church setting. Large parishes often have more resources and can use these well to evangelize, to attract the unchurched, and help lead many to real relationship with Jesus Christ.

Bottom line? Whether your parish seems like a tiny house church of Acts or the church on the day of Pentecost, it can, should, and must be a place where individuals come to meet Jesus Christ and his Church.

Background: Budget resources in parishes; Size of Catholic parishes; other statistics on mega churches

 

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What can Catholics learn from the Protestant Multisite Church Movement?

The multisite church movement is a significant and growing trend among Protestant (especially of the emergent, evangelical, or non-denominational type) congregations.

There’s lots of information out there (for example), but this infographic from unSeminary provides a nice summary of key points:

Okay, so as a Catholic Christian, what catches my attention?

1. 57% of multisite churches plan on launching another site in the next year. Wow. That’s a real confidence in the outreach aspect of evangelization that I don’t think all Catholic parishes, especially those that are recently clustered or merged, have. It’s also a real sense of movement, and vision that witness should necessarily mean an expanding of God’s family in a concrete way.

2. 37% of multisite churches started as a merger. That’s great news to hear, especially for Catholic parishes feeling down about being clustered or merged. It seems that in the this Protestant sphere, a merger is not a weak band-aid on an unaddressed problem, but something that can drive more witness and outreach. I see many Catholic parishes that are just plain dejected after mergers, but it looks like it can be a new fuel for vision and growth.

3.Churches typically launch their first new campus when they reach 1000 people, and new campuses start w/ 75-350 people. Hmm. Catholic parishes are much bigger [1100 families median size]. So, basically, if Catholic parishes were in on the multi-site trend, then pretty much every average sized Catholic parish would be launching new sites/campuses. Maybe this points us towards more collaboration, shared resources, etc. between parishes. Often clusters and mergers are a “last resort” for parishes with dwindling priestly vocations, worship attendance, and financial stability–but maybe we need to think more pro-actively and be a little less “parochial” 😉 about our parish boundaries.

4. 85% of multisite churches are growing. Attitude matters when it comes to evangelization. If you focus on the call to evangelize and add disciples, then it can happen. But, if a congregation is in mourning over becoming multisite/clustered/merged, then I doubt growth will happen on its own.

5. 1 out of 10 protestants in the U.S. attends a multisite church. I don’t have the stats on Catholics in America, but I’d guess we’re at a lower rate. Maybe then its just that we’re not as culturally used to the idea of a parish growing to multiple sites. Maybe time will show that the multisite trend is a negative one, that it’s not helping grow disciples in Protestant churches. I’m not sure. But, what I do know is that being a Catholic member of a multi-site/merged/clustered parish clearly isn’t the end of the world. The end of faith in Jesus Christ. Or the end of the essential purpose of the Church–evangelization.

Measuring Disciple-Making

How do I know if my local church is making disciples?

Whether you’re a person in the pew, volunteer leader, minister, staff, pastor, or parish council member–you should care. Your local church has the unique mission to foster initial and ongoing conversion in every person within the geographic boundaries of your parish. This is at the heart of the New Evangelization.

But how do we know if we’re on the right path?

For most of us, we’d quickly jump to anecdotes, stories of life-change we’ve seen happen, through the grace of God, within our parishes. Teens who’ve come to Bible study because their parents made them, but who leave as fired up, disciples with a mission. Or, many an older gentleman who comes to RCIA and is able to enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ that he’s been missing, or experiencing in an incomplete way, his entire life.

But, while stories work well for us as individuals, they are not sufficient if we want to truly assess what’s working and what’s not on a larger scale, like in a parish. David E.K. Hunter writes that in general nonprofit organizations, suffer from “a pervasive case of unjustifiable optimism.”

Now, my parish isn’t just any “nonprofit organization”–we’re empowered by the Holy Spirit! But, we’re still human beings with human tendencies, and I wonder, are we too often unjustifiably optimistic about how well our processes for making disciples are going?

This is a challenging, soul-wrenching question when we really start to think about it. Because, if we recognize a problem with disciple-making in our parish, we know we have to do something about it–regardless of our age, leadership title, etc.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est, coming to believe in God’s love is the “fundamental decision” of a person’s life–it gives life a new horizon and direction. Jump-starting and nurturing growth along this pathway of discipleship is the most important thing a local church offers to those in the parish. The liturgical Sacraments, works of charity and justice, Bible studies, etc. are all part of growing as a disciple.

But, in and of themselves, they do not replace discipleship. Even Sacraments–as our disposition matters!

I recently saw a summary of a presentation given by Albert Winseman, author of Growing An Engaged Church, at a nearby parish. Winseman observes that most parishes measure just three things: Mass attendance, registered members, and giving.  And when we think about it, we can see that these types of metrics really don’t tell us much about how we’re doing when it comes to making disciples.

So that’s my challenge to each of you this summer. Start a conversation in your parish about measuring or assessing your discipleship process–not because having numbers to support anecdotes is an end, but because digging deeper into what’s really working, and what’s not allows us to focus our finite resources and energy on processes that truly are fulfilling the Great Commission (Mt 28:19) to go and make disciples. We can’t every truly capture the actions of the Holy Spirit through research or data–but we’re failing to use the full gifts of reason and intelligence God has given us as human beings, if we only rely on our feelings or anecdotal evidence to assess ourselves.

This is not easy–and I say that as someone who’s taking on the same challenge myself! It takes prayer, wisdom from above, and a spirit of charity. But, no matter what our position in our parish is, we must have the courage to ask, are we making disciples?

Note: a similar version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

Market Well: Lose the Outdated Fonts

We all need to remember this when it comes to bulletins, posters, fliers for events, and more. 🙂

Seriously, there are probably folks in your pews (even teens) with some real artistic, graphic design, and marketing know-how. Find them and use them. Oh yeah, and leverage the creative-types on your staff. If the bulletin-editing secretary doesn’t have an eye for graphic design, find someone who does and make it a team effort!

Why Do We Have to Preach for Evangelization in a Catholic Parish? (aka Evangelistic Preaching: Part 15)

This is the fifteenth post in a series on evangelistic preaching in Catholic contexts.

The parish is the focal point for evangelistic preaching because it is near where most people are. Most non-Catholics and Catholics who are in need of evangelistic preaching are not going to attend a diocesan rally, a retreat, or large conference—but, they may be regularly attending a parish or make a one-time visit to a parish in a time of need or spiritual inquiry.

How does a parish become a focal point for evangelistic preaching? First, we need preachers. Most parishes already have a combination of priests, deacons, and/or general [lay] ministers with homiletic training. Baptized faithful who are “orthodox in faith, and well-qualified, both by the witness of their lives as Christians and by a preparation for preaching appropriate to the circumstances” can be admitted by the bishop to preach (with the exception of the Eucharistic homily, which is not ordinarily a primary place for evangelistic preaching).[1] Parishes can take steps to help faithful parishioners discern the call to evangelistic preaching by cultivating a culture of sharing personal testimony, reflecting on one’s own conversion story in small-groups, and recruiting from within the flock.

The second key step for parishes is integrating evangelistic preaching into parish life. Though Mass is not intended to be a place for initial proclamation, certain Masses, i.e. Christmas, Easter, Mother’s/Father’s Day, and harvest or homecoming Sundays in certain regions, tend to attract a large number of visitors, a prime opportunity for evangelistic preaching.[2] Additionally, when parish leaders know the spiritual state of those in their pews well enough, they can determine what type of preaching is most appropriate for Mass, i.e. if most people are not yet committed disciples or evangelized, and Mass is the only opportunity you have to reach them–then even ordinary Eucharistic preaching probably needs to be evangelistic at heart (while making sure there are then other opportunities for more catechetical or discipleship oriented preaching for mature believers).

Parishes can also consider adding a service designed for evangelistic preaching. For many parishes this requires a radical re-orientation from an nearly exclusive focus on the “already converted” to allocating quality resources for initial proclamation, seeking to attract and offer something designed for the nominal believer or nonbeliever. This shift is at the heart of the call to the New Evangelization in the United States.

What might this look like? Possibilities for parish services[3] that incorporate evangelistic preaching include:

  •       TaizĂ©-inspired prayer services.[4]
  •       Modeling a service after the XLT (pronounced “Exalt”) nights popular with teenagers and young adults. XLTs “combine quality music and a dynamic teaching with worship of the Eucharist in an energetic and reverent setting.  In other words, you are sure to hear a fun and relevant talk, some of the best new worship music, and experience the intimacy of spending time with Christ in Eucharistic Adoration”[5]
  •        Reviving the Cathedral Vigil services (or other adaptations of the Liturgy of the Hours) popular in the Patristic era. A version of this is currently popular among young adults in Colorado.[6]
  •       Making use of services that do not include reception of the Eucharist, since receiving the Eucharist is often not applicable for someone in need of initial proclamation and allows for wider use of the baptized faithful as preachers of the Word or Liturgy of the Hours as a venue for evangelistic preaching (i.e. Liturgy of the Hours, Liturgy of the Word).
  •       Offerings modeled on small-group series, such as the Alpha Course,[7] or a retreat-based opportunity for preaching and decision, similar to a Cursillo.[8]

Finally, parishes can also bring evangelistic preaching outside the walls of the parish, to non-parish facilities. This includes offering evangelistic messages in public locations, virtually through the internet, using broadcast media, and in hospitals, Catholic schools, and prisons. Preaching in the public square is not limited to presenting a sermon. Processions and other visual aspects of the Catholic tradition offer settings where preaching could potentially be inserted, after the visual captures the attention and imagination of the audience.[9]

——-

[1] USCCB, “Complementary Norms: Canon 766 – Lay Preaching,” 2001.

[2] See “180 Week One: Easter,” a sermon preached by Fr. Michael White, March 31, 2013 as an excellent example of evangelistic preaching in an Easter Mass, http://churchnativity.tv/media.php?pageID=96.

[3] Charles Arn’s How to Start a New Service: Your Church Can Reach New People (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997) provides how-to steps on planning a new/additional service.

[4] See the TaizĂ© community’s website for examples of contemplative ostinato music, intercessory prayer, and silence as characteristics of TaizĂ© prayer: http://www.taize.fr/en.

[5] “XLT: Teaching – Adoration – Worship,” http://emmausyouth.squarespace.com/xlt/, accessed January 2013.

[6] “Young Adults Pray at Vigil Praise,” National Catholic Register, 13 April 2013, http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/young-adults-pray-at-vigil-praise/.

[7] See the Alpha USA website for more information: http://www.alphausa.org/Groups/1000065342/Alt_Home_page.aspx

[8] For a description of the Cursillo movement, see: http://www.cursillo.org/whatis.html.

[9] See “Lift the City: A Catholic Eucharistic Flash Mob,” http://youtu.be/cZ5aYoSr3Hg and “No, Not a Wedding, a Eucharistic Procession,” http://newevangelizers.com/blog/2013/04/30/no-not-a-wedding-a-eucharistic-procession/ as examples of how the visual can capture the attention of onlookers, offering a potential way for parishes to evangelistic preaching to the public square.

How To Do a Parish Phone Census or Survey

A few years ago I was an intern adult faith formation coordinator in a parish. We wanted to launch some groups that would align with what our people were actually interested in, what spiritual needs they actually had. A co-worker and I set out to call as many people as possible from our parish phone book (we started with the As and made our way through the Cs before our focus shifted due to changes in pastoral priorities).

In short, it was a great experience. Why? Because it gave us a chance to talk to registered parishioners, many of whom don’t normally come to Mass or parish events. We asked them some basic questions–what brings you to our parish? what do you value most about our parish?–and were also able to give personal invites to our new adult faith formation offerings. Little did we know, we’d also be put in the position to help re-connect folks to ministries they had drifted away from, “I used to help with funeral luncheons but stopped getting calls about them. Do we still do that?” or new interests, “I’d like to bring communion to the home bound, but didn’t get a call back about training…”

But, my co-worker and I didn’t have a plan to systematically expand this to the whole parish in a short period of time. This article from unSeminary, “8 Lessons Learned from Making 2,005 Phone Calls” gives great, practical advice for how to train a team to execute a phone survey/census in a short period of time, with high quality, standardized results. I highly recommend this short article for any parish interested in reaching out via phone.  

Top 10 Homily Prep Tips for the New Evangelization (aka Evangelistic Preaching: Part 14)

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Find out more about each of these strategies in this series on evangelistic preaching in Catholic contexts.