Sunday, December 13, 2009

Should Catholics Copy the Megachurches?

The pastor of this parish in Coachella, California, has an article in the new issue of America. In here he argues as follows. Forty percentage of the members of megachurches are refugees from Catholicism. We need to look to them to see what they are doing to attract and hold Catholics.

He believes it is more than just the coffee bars and health clubs. It is the sense of community and friendliness that draws them, a sense of life and fun at Mass, together with extraliturgical ministries such as mini-retreats, that sense that they are serving the whole person and a whole community rather than just individuals in their religious lives.

To deal with this problem, he instituted many changes in the parish. Here is what he reports that he does for liturgy on Sunday:

Sunday Mass is the doorway through which most Catholics pass regularly to experience God and the church. Consequently, the quality of Sunday worship is of utmost importance. The parish emphasizes hospitality: everyone receives a greeting at the door, and before Mass worshippers are invited to offer a handshake or a hug to those nearby. Members learn that their first ministry is to be friendly and welcoming. After the announcements the presider welcomes visitors, recognizes wedding anniversaries and birthdays and blesses newborn babies.

The Jesuit Refugee Service affirms to accompany, serve and defend the rights of vulnerable and often forgotten people.

To encourage congregational singing, the parish uses PowerPoint to project the words of songs onto a big screen. Songs sometimes involve clapping or movement. PowerPoint is also used to integrate photos, videos and music into the preaching. Our Mexican-American congregation responds well to visual aids, so this strategy is especially effective. Upon entering the church, the parishioners receive a homily outline, which they are encouraged to take home as a message reminder or to share with someone else.

The parish encourages inclusion and participation, especially of children and youth. At some Masses, the children’s Liturgy of the Word includes skits, games, puppets and music. At Communion time, those children who have not yet received the sacrament form a separate line and both receive and give a blessing. The priest makes a sign of the cross on the forehead of the child, and the child reciprocates by tracing a sign of the cross on the priest’s forehead. If there is a deacon, he sometimes takes on this role. Teens serve as ministers of hospitality, run the computer for the music and homily, help in the children’s program, sing in the choirs and more. The staff and parishioners also take special care to accommodate seniors and persons with disabilities.

Now, I've written widely that substituting community for Catholicism is not the way to go. As Shawn frequently reminds us, we are engaged in divine worship, not just gathering together to admire our togetherness.

But let us engage this a bit more closely. The article itself is very interesting and contains much that is true - and certainly the motivation to keep Catholics at the Catholic Church is a good one. I'm not really in a position to comment further on the sociological dimension here, and the pastor apparently has a real record of success.

My primary sense in reading this is simply that the pastor here has too quickly passed over another solution: letting the glory of the Roman Rite in its fullest and most authentic form speak for itself and draw people in through mystery and truth.

The authentic Roman Rite includes drama far more profound than a puppet show or displays of friendliness, sights and sounds far more enticing than any power point presentation, and music more emotional affecting than anything that asks for clapping hands and swaying bodies. I doubt very seriously that this pastor sees a viable path forward through tradition here, and I can understand why. It is doubtful that he has ever been presented that option in a way that he believes can be instituted in this parish.

It is true that the model of music in liturgical convention in the United States right now is causing people to leave, but this is after decades of the conventions themselves running away from the Church's own traditional treasures. There is another way to deal with the drain from parishes: provide the fullness of the Roman Rite and nothing short of that.

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