A few years ago my uncle asked, half in jest, “Do you know which is the largest Catholic church in town?” When I pleaded ignorance, he answered with a smile, “Southeast Community Church!” He pointed to a Protestant megachurch just off the expressway and explained, no longer in jest, that many Catholic families who used to attend his parish on the east side of Louisville, Ky., were now attending Southeast Community Church. National studies indicate that 40 percent of Protestant megachurch members are former Catholics.
Why are Protestant megachurches successful in attracting Catholics? A frequent explanation is that megachurches provide “entertainment”—lively music, glitzy videos, coffee shops, food courts and more. While that may be true, such reasoning demeans the spirituality of former Catholics (and others who attend these churches) by implying they are superficial in their faith. The answer must lie deeper. Perhaps these megachurches truly minister to those who attend them, including former Catholics. Maybe they spiritually empower people. Perhaps entertainment and spiritual depth are not antithetical, but can go hand in hand.
I started to explore such ideas 10 years ago when I became pastor of Our Lady of Soledad Parish in Coachella, Calif. The 5,000-family parish is 98 percent Hispanic and relatively poor. Before my arrival, the parish already had very active laypeople and 100 or more small faith communities meeting in homes each week. An active retreat center next door contributed greatly to the spiritual dynamism of the parish. Still, the parish served as a revolving door or “sacramental machine” for many families, who came for a baptism, marriage or first Communion but vanished after having received the sacrament. The pastoral staff encouraged parishioners to make a three-day Missionary Encounter retreat next door, but each retreat could accommodate only 50 candidates. Since so many more people wanted sacraments, I began to study the outreach of Protestant megachurches.
I read Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Church. Warren pastors one of the largest megachurches in the United States, Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, Calif. His recipe for church development is simple and straightforward, and it works with many people, including former Catholics. Since Warren’s materials came in Spanish and his methods work among Latinos, I thought it reasonable to assume that some of his strategies might work in Coachella.
Our parish staff developed a three-pronged strategy that 1) focused on enhancing the worship experience of parishioners, 2) developed five mini-retreat workshops to help people grow spiritually and 3) allowed other ministries to flow organically from the structural “skeleton” created in the first two steps.
Step One: Worship
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.
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.
Parish leadership also promotes stewardship of time and of talent, not just of finances. Cards placed in the pews allow worshippers to request prayers or information on programs and ministries. A follow-up team calls anyone who fills out a card. The parish gives away 10 percent of the weekly collection to a charity; naming the charity among the prayers of petition reminds parishioners of the importance of tithing.
Step Two: Discipleship
Sunday Mass is primary and central, but it is not enough to sustain Catholics. Our parish also provides a step-by-step process to help parishioners deepen their faith, so they don’t just enter the front door only to drift quietly out the back door later. The discipleship program mirrors the process developed by Warren. It consists of five mini-retreats. A baseball diamond serves as a visual help to remember the strategy. Each retreat is one of the three bases, the pitcher’s mound or home plate. Parishioners run the bases and become “home-run Catholic Christians.”
Each mini-retreat includes prayer, ice breakers, talks, faith sharing and food. Each is also user-friendly. Held on a Sunday when most parishioners are off work, the first session begins at 3 p.m., late enough to allow for both Sunday Mass and family time. Retreats end at 8 p.m., early enough for participants to be rested for the next day. The parish provides child care. Each mini-retreat is self-contained; no one must return to complete it. This practice eliminates absenteeism and distinguishes the retreat experience from a class. Lay teams lead the mini-retreats, which are offered in English and Spanish and repeated frequently throughout the year.
Each mini-retreat focuses on a different aspect of spiritual growth:
Mini-Retreat 101, “Catholics Alive!” begins with the question, “What does it mean to be a follower of Christ?” Retreatants discuss the difference between a relationship-centered faith and a rules-centered faith; consider the importance of church as a family, instead of a privatized, Lone-Ranger Christianity; and note similarities and differences between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians. The group discusses the importance of serious commitment to the Catholic faith, as well as the commitments asked of parish members. Participants are asked to sign a simple membership covenant if they wish to join the parish as registered members.
Mini-Retreat 201, “Alive and Growing Spiritually!” focuses on maturation in the Catholic faith. Retreatants discuss prayer, Bible study and the importance of belonging to a small faith community. There is also a presentation of Catholic moral teachings.
Mini-Retreat 301, “Alive and Gifted!” helps retreatants discern how to serve God in ministry. The activities follow the acronym Shape, as developed by Warren, where “S” is for spiritual gifts; “H” represents the “heart” or passion and desire to serve; “A” stands for natural abilities; “P” is personality; and “E” represents life experiences. This mini-retreat helps participants discover how God has uniquely shaped them for ministry. Parishioners take up a ministry based on their gifts, not just on parish needs.
Mini-Retreat 401, “Alive in the World!” helps participants live as witnesses for Christ, as contagious Catholic Christians. The group discusses evangelization, as distinguished from proselytizing. Retreatants learn how to defend the Catholic faith. They also discuss Catholic social justice teachings and specifically how this parish is active in community organizing.
Mini-Retreat 501, “Alive to Praise God!” focuses on Catholic worship and the sacraments. It begins with a Taizé-style prayer, followed by a guided tour of the church during which sacred spaces, vessels and vestments are explained. Next, retreatants rotate through four workshops on the sacraments, the liturgical year and church traditions. The retreat concludes with a shortened Seder-like meal that leads into an explanatory Mass.
Step 3: Other Parish Activities
Like a human skeleton, which allows the body to stand and move, the mini-retreats work as a “skeleton” for the parish, giving structure to sponsored activities. But these are not the full story. Many other activities are supported by this basic skeleton as the lay parishioners become more involved. One parishioner created a parish soccer league for children; another established a program for the homeless. A professional psychologist started a parish counseling center, and a lawyer set up a legal assistance ministry. All parish ministries relate to one of the five core areas of the parish mission, each of which is highlighted in one of the mini-retreats: community as parish/family; spiritual discipleship/growth; ministry/stewardship; mission/outreach/social justice/evangelization; and worship.
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This process works. Some 50 percent to 60 percent of the mini-retreat participants become active members of the parish. Parishioners are enthusiastic about the retreats. One night, as I waited in the drive-through lane of a local fast-food restaurant, a man in the car ahead of me got out and ran toward my car. I thought I was about to be robbed, but instead he asked, “Father, when is the next mini-retreat?”
The biggest obstacle the parish has faced is overcoming the “requirement” mentality of Catholics regarding the sacraments. The parish does require adults wishing to celebrate a sacrament for their children to attend at least the first mini-retreat. But as it begins, the leaders explain that although the parents were required to attend, the hope is that they will continue on their own to run around the spiritual baseball diamond as adult Christians who want to grow spiritually.
The process works, but it takes time to develop and requires support and perseverance on the part of the parish pastoral team. Real life is always messier than any article might imply. Every parish is different. What works in Coachella might not be as effective elsewhere. I recommend that a parish start small and add to the process gradually, one retreat at a time, although that isn’t the way we began. We started the first four mini-retreats simultaneously and added the fifth a year later. We also began only with volunteers. Now the parish staff has grown to 16. Each of our core ministries—to children, youth and adults—requires two full-time staff people.
My best advice is to jump into the water and see what works. If one strategy fails, it is possible to revise it or try something else. Ultimately, success depends on God. I am convinced, however, that God wants Catholic parishes to be alive and vibrant, full of committed, growing Christians. Pastoral leaders can learn much about this from our Protestant brothers and sisters in the megachurches across America.