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.


Fish Fry: Why?

In many parts of the United States, Catholic parishes are widely known (and loved) for hosing various annual festivals, bazaars, fish fries, carnivals, picnics, and more. The question is–why?

Often, the historic reason is to joyously celebrate and mark the parish community’s patronal or titular feast day as a community, especially if there are cultural or ethnic foods, music, and customs involved.

Or because it’s Lent, and lots of people who aren’t disciples of Jesus Christ in the Catholic tradition like to eat fish during Lent (just consider how much product development and marketing dollars fast food outlets spend each year to introduce new items during Lent–it has an appeal beyond practicing Catholics for sure).

Today many parish councils and leaders might mention the critical fundraising value of the event–that it brings in important revenues for the parish or a parish school–or, that it directly supports a local charitable or mission outreach, like a sister parish in an area impacted by natural disaster or a Catholic Charities project.

On the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these reasons for hosting some type of parish/community celebration (though the parish fundraising model in and of itself is worth questioning). Conventional wisdom says that anything that brings together a mix of people who are actively engaged with a local parish, those on the margins of parish life, those who feel a tie to cultural Catholicism, and/or interested members of the wider community is probably a good thing.

But, digging deeper into the “why” has the potential to move us towards a broader vision, more possibilities for celebrations, and a more focused commitment as to why we might choose to invest so many resources into these type of events.

Way back in 1953, Pope Pius XII reminded the Church that “The goal of all parish life is that all come to know Christ, to love and to serve Him. Everything else is of value only insofar as it furthers this goal…The center of the parish community is not the sport field, the parish theater, or even the school…all very useful and often necessary institutions, the center is the parish church, and in it, the tabernacle and the confessional.”

In short, it’s all about encounter with Jesus Christ. It’s about the process of evangelization, the true life of the Church.

Festivals, feasts, fish fries, and the like do have a role to play–if we are intentional about it. The challenge is that it doesn’t just happen by accident.

Getting in the habit of repeating events without questioning the deeper meaning or connections between our actions and those deeper intentions is a recipe for straying from evangelization, for losing focus on Jesus Christ.

How to do this? A first step is to consider, who is your audience?

  • Is your primary focus to attract the “unevangelized” (i.e. many self-identified Catholics, family/friends of parishioners, the churchless, etc.) in your community?
  • Is it to attract those who are registered as parishioners but do not regularly attend Sunday worship or other opportunities for spiritual growth?
  • Is it to gather the believing disciples of the parish?

It’s tempting to quickly answer, all of the above! And while it’s likely that there are people from all of those audiences (and more!) in attendance, the question remains–which group is your primary focus?

Without a primary audience, it’s nearly impossible to project–through words and deeds surrounding the event–a coherent, relevant, and appropriate message for that primary audience that helps them come “to know Christ, to love and to serve Him,” to use Pius XII’s language.

The next step is to examine, how are they going to “hear” the message?

The beauty of an event like a festival or celebration of a saint is that the message can be communicated through words, deeds, music, and more. Options abound! But intentionality still matters.

If the plan is that by having great food, a popular band, crowd-favorite games, and huge attendance all under the heading of “St. So-and-So Festival,” somehow the unevangelized will come to appreciate how basic human needs such as security, love, and acceptance include “a desire for God and his word,” then you’ve got some more dots to connect to make your pre-evangelistic message clear (see description of pre-evangelization from USCCB’s Nat’l Directory for Catechesis, p. 49).

Similarly, if the hope is that by dropping in at a fish fry with the family after years of being away from church, a person will see the teamwork and hospitality of members of the parish and implicitly know that Jesus Christ offers him or her a personal, grace-filled relationship of true forgiveness and love, then you’ve got some more work to do.

The message needs to be clear and unmistakeable. Given the significant investment of time and resources in putting on an event like a summer carnival or a winter St. Nicholas Day festival, the message needs to be woven throughout, so that the message doesn’t end with “what a fun culture!” or “love that this raised so much money for the food pantry” (though these are certainly good thoughts).

Once these two fundamental questions are addressed with focus and intentionality, plan away! Enjoy the opportunity for fellowship and getting to know new faces in you parish that these events often offer. Share the joy of continuing a parish tradition or launching something totally new. But, whatever your parish is thinking of for next year’s calendar–remember to first ask why.

This post also appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com

Evangelization Endures

Last month I visited Montreal and with my husband and son and happened to celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, at the Basilica of Notre Dame. Now, Montreal has a lot of churches that have been designated as basilicas. And after experiencing the sheer enormity and grandeur of many of them, these don’t seem like superfluous designations either. In terms of size and splendor, the Basilica of Notre Dame was the most royal, regal, kingly church building I’d ever set foot in.

But what did it feel like to participate in Mass there on such a seemingly appropriate solemnity? It felt a bit eerie. This enormous sanctuary was (proportionately) quite empty. You see, it’s only roughly 6 to 8 percent of self-identified Catholics in Quebec who attend Mass regularly. Even though this magnificent basilica is frequently visited as a tourist attraction (the admission fees for tours partially fund the upkeep) and all of Montreal is filled with large churches and evidence of the historic influence Catholicism on nearly every street corner, it’s a dramatic example of a setting of the New Evangelization. Evangelization here is little different than starting in a new mission field and building from scratch when it comes to conversion and discipleship.

And what a powerful reminder of what the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe is really about. Any time we hear the word “king” it’s natural to think of earthly royalty, of material wealth and power. But grand, regal church buildings, a church that appears successful to the world–none of these things are central to Jesus’ kingship. The most fundamental response we can make to Jesus as King is to recognize and respond to him as Our Lord. To make him master of our lives. To grown into relationship with Jesus so that He is not merely an abstract “Christ” or Messiah, not an impersonal “Lord”–but truly my Lord, your Lord, and our Lord as disciples in His Church.

Earthly signs of Jesus’ Church, like the extraordinary Basilica of Notre Dame in Montreal, offer testimony to the beauty of worship, fit for a king, that we offer to Jesus Christ as Church. Yet at the same time, such material accomplishments are no end in and of themselves. Neither earthly buildings nor institutional might is a guarantee that the saving message of Jesus Christ, the Gospel, the kerygma will be shared, that lives will be changed, that genuine conversion and revival in each person’s heart will bear the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Very few of us evangelize in places with the as stark a contrast between practice of the Catholic faith and splendor of Catholic buildings as displayed in Montreal. But on a much smaller scale, we are often faced with challenges of discerning how to balance the earthly and spiritual needs of the Church in parish life. We may be tempted to think, “my parish has a huge faith formation program with lots of kids and catechists, so we’re okay, we don’t need to be evangelized here,” but externals do not always tell the whole story. Evangelization is the most important work of building for Jesus Christ as Our Lord, as King of the Universe. We are rightly inspired by and use certain programs and institutions of the Church, but these are not an end goal, and are unsustainable without our essential participation in the Church’s reason for existence–evangelization.

A version of this post also appeared at

Parishes “Grappling With Culture, Conflict, and Identity” Instead of Evangelization?

In Parish-Level Evangelization: Grappling with Culture, Conflict, and Identity (part of the latest edition of the Institute for Church Life’s Journal for the New Evangelization), Brian Starks gives us a sociologist’s perspective on the New Evangelization, as he aims:

“to illustrate how strategies for attracting members differ [between two parishes] and how these contrasting strategies are rooted in distinct parish identities and develop out of alternative approaches to conflict” so that we can “recognize the entwined parts played by conflict and identity in shaping parish-level evangelization.”

Okay. I’m game. We all need to hear this, even if it’s challenging to our sense of parish life.

One of his first observations is the different perceptions each parish has the modern, American idea of “parish shopping” (or even denomination shopping)–the parishes grapple with this reality, one thinking that it has to be embraced, simply because it’s where the flock is at. The other parish, hesitating, because this is a consumer-oriented ethos at odds with the fullness of our faith.

This is a very real dilemma faced by many parishes and I think our response should be pragmatic. Accept that we can’t change people who aren’t yet in our pews–in order to form the ethos of service (vs. consumerism) we have to first get them in the doors. I think Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD does an excellent job of this–it’s a seeker-friendly Catholic parish, yet also a parish that  challenges insiders.

Through his interviews with pastors and leaders, Starks draws out a discussion of people going where they are most comfortable vis-a-vis a liberal or conservative parish theology (while noting one pastor’s acknowledgement of the limits of this spectrum). On the whole, this liberal/conservative language makes me shudder a bit–as I have no idea what a liberal or conservative parish theology is, and the terms confuse me. Is a parish that preaches conversion, relationship with Jesus Christ, and a life of discipleship liberal or conservative? Beats me! 🙂

Starks observes that one of the parishes (fictitiously named “St. Mark’s”) in essence embraces conflict [specifically with the hierarchy] as part of their self-identity. The other parish (fictitiously named “St. Luke’s”) takes a different approach, working to ensure that culture is not polarized in the parish, thus limiting conflict. Discussions of decline at St. Mark’s seem to be linked to the hierarchy, while decline at St. Luke’s is pegged to changing culture, demographics, and decline of the neighborhood.

What troubles me reading all of the comments from leaders at St. Mark’s and St. Luke’s is that Jesus Christ seems to be absent. I could easily re-write their statements centered around a nonprofit organization–and it would basically make sense. The parishes seem to function as nondescript organizations or social clubs, rather than the local church of called disciples (remember, ekklesia, the root of “church,” means to be called out).

Could decline have something to do with lack of authentic conversion to Christ? Missing fruits of the Holy Spirit? Lack of personal evangelization in the pews? These things seem just as likely as what each parish discusses.

Starks writes, “Catholic theology and especially ecclesiology give the Church a vision and goal of a unity which exceeds that found in, or even hoped for, in other types of organizations.” Bingo. Spot on. In plain terms, this means the local parish isn’t a club. It has a mission to evangelize and both of these parishes seem more interested in their members, culture, etc. than creating spaces for all people to encounter Jesus Christ and make a life-changing, foundational decision to develop a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Starks ends with these questions:

“I hope that my research allows for a deeper reflection on what kind of identity we desire to produce as a faith community, what challenges are keeping us from enacting that identity, and what creative strategies (especially regarding conflict and conflict resolution) this vision might require. What could parish identity look like if, rather than leveraging conflict or avoiding it, a parish tried to actively engage in conflict resolution, in peacemaking? And how might this
transform parish-level evangelization?”

The question of identity is key. But, I also think that our faith makes this clear. It’s not exactly an open question. Parishes are communities of disciples following Jesus and growing in relationship with Him. Parishes are the Church in a particular locality. In this spirit, I think solving conflicts starts with questions like these between those in conflict:

• Is God someone you would say you have a personal relationship with?
• Have you had any kind of moment when you felt particularly close to Jesus? If so, can you tell me about it? If not, have you ever wanted to?
• How would you describe your view of God? Jesus? Is He a reality to you or more of a vague concept?
[Question examples from Aggie Catholics and FOCUS Equip]

Why? Because coming to an authentic understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit and person conversion in each of our lives is what roots us as disciples. It’s what we base of discipling parish communities on. When these foundational realities become more clear, a unified vision is more likely to result. Trust is built and teams form, teams that can address conflict and truly make the peace only Jesus can bring.

In this glorious Easter season, I think of Acts of the Apostles as a key example of this. The disciples faced very real conflicts of culture and identity. But, they didn’t attempt to solve those problems like any old organization. They knew that they were Church. They knew the Holy Spirit was essential. And, they knew each other’s stories and had a trust based on a recognition of the powerful reality of conversion in each other’s lives.

Though Stark’s article might seem like just a sociologist’s study. It’s not. He provides a powerful, essential reminder of what we must guard against in parish life–resisting the distracting temptation to become just another charitable organization or social club, and instead seeking authentic relationship with Jesus and others in all we do.

In short, we need to avoid “Grappling With Culture, Conflict, and Identity” at the expense of evangelization. And instead, allow the urgency of evangelization and life-changing conversion to be the shared and essential foundation for dealing with conflict, culture, and identity.

Update: Extremely insightful response from Brian Starks over at the Catholic Conversation. Well worth the read!

Is Discipleship Too Much?

This is the second post in a series examining concerns and cautions about evangelization voiced by Fr. Francis P. DeSiano, CSP, President of the Paulist Evangelization Ministries.

As I discussed in Part 1 of this series, authentic evangelization is never elitist. True evangelists are humble, projecting the goodness of God in Jesus Christ and not their own accomplishments, while increasing in love for every person they seek to share Jesus Christ with.

Yet even as we maintain a spirituality of evangelization that leads us further and further away from elitism, difficult questions still follow as we wonder about what discipleship means and the many forms it can take. In the first two parts of his series, Fr. DeSiano challenges us to ask:

  1. If one estimates that most self-identified Catholics are not disciples, then is our definition of discipleship too high or exclusive? (Part 1)
  2. If growing disciples is a slow process, does that mean it’s not a mass movement for everyone? (Part 1)
  3. Does an emphasis on discipleship “marginalize” or possibly “exclude, more and more ‘ordinary’ Catholics?” (Part 2)
  4. Can God’s grace be “far wider than those who are consciously followers?” [i.e. those whom we might call disciples or those who have responded to evangelization] (Part 2)

I’ll take these questions one at a time. First, if one estimates that most self-identified Catholics are not disciples, then is our definition of discipleship too high or exclusive? This question is a critical reminder that “we” (not you, nor I, nor our pastors or our parish council) do not get to decide what discipleship is. Drawing from Scripture our Church teaches that a disciple:

  • Professes, spreads, and lives the faith of the Church CCC §1816)
  • Lives “the simplicity of a life in conformity with the Lord’s example” (CCC §2470)
  • Prays! (CCC §2601, 2612)
  • Is initiated and nourished by the Eucharist (CCC §1275)
  • Responds to Jesus’ invitation to enter His kingdom (CCC §546)
  • Establishes habits befitting a disciple of Christ (CCC §1494)
  • Continues in Jesus’ word (CCC §2466)
  • Witnesses to Christ and works using the gifts received from God, in ecclesial and temporal affairs (CCC §1319, 2427)
  • Imitates Jesus (§2347)

Discipleship is the process of growing more and more as a follower of Jesus Christ. A disciple isn’t perfect. A disciple is, however, growing more and more as a follower of Christ—seeking to be transformed and conformed to Jesus Christ’s image. Is this description from the Church too high or exclusive? Under our own power alone, yes. It would be impossible. But, with the love of God and help of the Holy Spirit, anyone can respond to Jesus Christ as a disciple, an intentional follower of the Lord.

Second, if growing disciples is a slow process, does that mean it’s not a mass movement for everyone? Absolutely not. God’s time is not our time. Many mass movements take years, decades, or centuries to grow—bearing all sorts of fruit along the way. Again, I immediately think of the lives of disciples in the New Testament. We hear of some who have dramatic conversion processes and quickly “drop their nets” and assume a new life. But there are others, hundreds of nameless other disciples of the New Testament who formed the early Churches who probably experienced slower conversions. As each of these new disciples shared their encounter with Jesus Christ with others, the movement grew. Right on down to our generation today. Slow? Yes. Mass movement? Also yes. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Third, does an emphasis on discipleship “marginalize” or possibly “exclude, more and more ‘ordinary’ Catholics?” One of Jesus’ clearest instructions is, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations”(Matt 28:19). If we fail to place an emphasis on discipleship, we are ourselves deliberately choosing not to imitate Jesus, not to follow his command or his example in his earthly life of consistently inviting people to follow him and probing those he converses with to create an place of encounter and response to His love. Discipleship is for everyone and excludes no one. It’s inviting and walking with others to model what the life of a disciple is really like—the ups and the downs, the victories and the suffering. If openly talking about relationship and encounter with Jesus Christ as the “fundamental decision of [a Christian’s] life…which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” is an uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or disconcerting topic for those whom Fr. DeSiano calls “ordinary Catholics,” then all the more reason to emphasize discipleship in a warm, loving, and inviting way, rather than to simply shy away from it (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §1). Discipleship is not the same thing as cultural Catholicism, but it by no means excludes Catholics who are enriched by Catholic culture.

Fourth, can God’s grace be “far wider than those who are consciously followers?” Of course! An emphasis on discipling others is in no way a limit or restriction on the mystery of God’s saving power and grace. The teachings of our Church and, as Fr. DeSiano points out, even our liturgical worship point to this blessed reality. Yet, at the same time, as the Venerable Pope Paul VI explained in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “the religion of Jesus,” “objectively places man in relation with the plan of God, with His living presence and with His action” (§53). This is why to be consciously experiencing and responding to the love of God is a truly right relationship, the one each person was designed for.

Fr. DeSiano’s questions remind us that it’s all too easy for disciple-making to lose focus on Jesus Christ, and instead become about adding membership to a club. When we treat discipleship like a club, people are marginalized, excluded, and the Gospel message becomes obscured by our sinfulness. Discipleship is too important to become “just another club,” another “in-group.” In a nutshell, real discipleship is about not selling ourselves short as Christians. Jesus Christ calls us to follow him as disciples and gives us the Holy Spirit to make discipleship a real possibility, even for the most fainthearted, weak, sinful, unenthusiastic, [insert problem…], of us! This is a wonderful blessing—a joy—as Pope Francis recently reminded the world in Evangelii Gaudium. It’s not too much for us—it’s what Jesus asks of us.


Still love this quote from Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles…

I love this quote (made in 2009) by Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angles, so I’m repeating it. Just because I like it so much, no other reason 🙂

“Jesus Christ did not come to suffer and die so that he could make ‘cultural Catholics.’” (From “The Coming Latino Majority,” Dec 2011)

Hmm. Examen time…What am I doing to help people better understand this? 


Another Characterization of Cultural Catholicism from George Weigel’s “The Rise of Evangelical Catholicism”

Previously, we’ve dug into what “cultural Catholicism” might mean (I propose multiple definitions, some with positive implications, others with negative ones).

In “A New Take on Modern Catholic History,” George Weigel offers this characterization, that gets at the flavor and feel of cultural Catholicism:


…as recently as the 1950s in America…the ambient public culture helped transmit the faith, especially in intensely Catholic environments like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee and so forth.

He contrasts that with our culture today, noting:

…those days are long gone. The twenty-first-century cultural air is toxic, anti-biblical, Christophobic. It teaches the soul-withering notion that to do things “my way” is the summit of human aspiration and the very definition of maturity. And it regards those who hold firm to biblical religion and its moral teachings as idiots at best, irrational bigots at worst.

As Catholic Christians, called to be evangelizers in our world today, understanding these distinctions is not academic, or merely historical reflection. Reflecting on the practices in many of my parishes, I can see how, in many ways we do still act as if an “ambient” Catholic culture will compel people to worship, seek liturgical sacraments, and so forth. Assuming that what remains of this “ambient” culture will continue to lose influence, are we ready to boldly go forth in this changing cultural context?

Ss. Cyril and Methodius–Christ-filled evangelists, navigating a changing cultural context of their own–pray for us.