Can we learn from Protestant ‘megachurches’?

It’s no secret that Mass attendance has diminished by more than half in the last 50 years. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, 55 percent of Catholics regularly attended Mass in 1965; that number has fallen to 24 percent in 2014. But where exactly are they going?

According to the Pew Research Center, many lapsed Catholics become unaffiliated with religion. But many end up joining Protestant churches — in particular, evangelical congregations known as “megachurches” — because they prefer the style of worship. In fact, some 80 percent of former Catholics surveyed by Pew responded that they enjoyed the religious services more at Protestant churches than at Catholic ones.

Luring Catholics away

Take Dallas. The Diocese of Dallas is among the fastest growing in the nation, jumping from 200,000 Catholics to 1.2 million over the past 25 years. The growth is fueled by a surge in immigration from Mexico and Latin America as well as an infusion of young U.S. Catholics who have moved to Texas, said Annette Gonzales Taylor, director of communications for the diocese.

Despite its burgeoning population, the diocese is losing some Catholics who are choosing to attend any of the several Protestant or Pentecostal megachurches in the area.

Taylor and Sister Theresa Khirallah, the director of ministries for the Diocese of Dallas, said they have no way to determine the number of lapsed Catholics, but they contend it is significant.

Sister Theresa, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, told Our Sunday Visitor that she understands the appeal of multimedia shows and rock music to those Catholics peering over the fence at the nondenominational megachurches.

“We are not competing for a Grammy Award with bands and singers,” she said. That being said, Catholic churches can find insight into how to engage worshippers by looking at — and incorporating — the models offered by Protestants.

New business model

Father Michael White, a Maryland pastor who was assigned to a declining parish outside Baltimore in the late 1990s, tried without much success to reinvigorate the Church of the Nativity in Timonium. Father White, with the help of youth leader Tom Corcoran, began turning around their parish five years into the effort when they looked to the Protestant megachurches that were drawing large crowds.

Corcoran and Father White have literally written the book on how to prevent the flock from jumping the fence.

Their how-to manual, “Rebuilt: The Story of a Catholic Parish — Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95), tells the story of how they learned from megachurches and adopted business principles to build a church that drew people into it.

They adopted the “purpose-driven church” philosophy of evangelical pastor Rick Warren, founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church, an evangelical megachurch in Lake Forest, California.

“The purpose of Nativity (church) is to reach lost people to help them become disciples, and then to help disciples become growing disciples,” wrote the authors, who have since published a second book, “Tools for Rebuilding: 75 Really, Really Practical Ways to Make Your Parish Better” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95). “When evangelization is front and center, the community and the congregation are better served.”

youth leadership
A small group converses during the Diocese of San Bernardino’s Youth Christian Leadership Training event. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of San Bernardino

Know the market

Taking another page out of the Protestant church playbook, it can also be helpful for Catholic churches to identify and tap into their particular markets.

For example, in the Diocese of San Bernardino, California, the population of self-identified Catholics in the diocese has grown 600 percent since its founding in 1978. As in Dallas, it’s primarily Spanish-speaking Catholics who are driving that growth.

“With Hispanic and English speaking parishioners, there is a dynamic,” Timothy Matovina, the executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies and History of Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, told Our Sunday Visitor. In two words, this dynamic can be identified as “charismatic Catholics.”

Matovina, who is also a consultant to the diocese, credited San Bernardino Bishop Gerald R. Barnes with recognizing and embracing this group of Catholics who belong to the movement marked by a close sense of community, openness to spontaneity, and emotional expressiveness in worship and community prayer.

Charismatic Catholics are noted to be open to the charisms of the Holy Spirit, such as prophecy, speaking in tongues and healing. While Matovina said some bishops are “leery” of this movement, Bishop Barnes is not.

John Andrews, director for communications for the diocese, told OSV that Bishop Barnes even has gone so far as to engage the Office of Charismatic Renewal in recognition that some Hispanic Catholics prefer a more charismatic worship more in tune with some of the thriving Pentecostal churches in the area.

And the diocese’s outreach is not just limited to Hispanics, but also includes Oceanic and Asian Catholics, including Filipinos, who are gaining in numbers, Andrews said.

Capitalize on seasonal opportunity

It could be argued that the Catholic Church shines brighter than any others during the penetential seasons of Advent and Lent — times when Catholics naturally feel called to their faith-based roots. As a result, there’s perhaps no better time to reach out to fallen-away Catholics.

Back in the Diocese of Dallas, Sister Theresa, who has led efforts during the past five years to invite lapsed Catholics back to the Church, said that she is responding to the call of Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell for “a grassroots, welcoming, hospitable approach to open our doors” — especially during the penitential and highly visible seasons of Advent and Lent — when “people are thinking about their faith and receiving the sacraments.”

To remind them of the season, Sister Theresa, with help from The Knights of Columbus and the Council of Catholic Women, purchased space on billboards beside highways throughout the diocese to announce to motorists: “Come Home! The Catholic Church Welcomes You!”

“We have banners in front of churches with the same message,” Sister Theresa said. “We know during (Advent and Lent) is when people are thinking about the good things in their life. We hope they feel good about their memories receiving the sacraments.”

Faith formation and empowerment of the laity

It may sound simple, but teaching the Faith and empowering the laity already invested in serving the Church can be an effective way to evangelize and retain Catholics who may otherwise drift away.

“Things like evangelism for adults and faith formation are critical to a church,” Andrews said. “You need to renew your relationship with Jesus Christ every day.”

The diocese has developed evangelical and adult faith formation groups as well as a pastoral juvenile ministry, which, through a partnership with the national fundraising organization Catholic Extension, is funding a staff position in the diocese for outreach to young Hispanic adults. The leadership programs in the San Bernardino diocese are producing catechists, youth ministers, directors of religious education and coordinators of sacristans, Andrews said.

The people who come to the classes are very committed to their faith and they infect others with their curiosity about their faith,” Matovina added.

“The Diocese of San Bernardino is blessed with so many people who strive to live their Catholic faith more deeply, to grow their knowledge and understanding of it, and to build their skills in ministry leadership for the good of the Church,” Bishop Barnes said in a statement to OSV. “We have worked through our many catechetical and formational programs to give our lay Catholics the tools they need to become leaders in their parish community. The more opportunities you give someone to serve their Church, the more alive and vibrant it will become. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we have experienced this in our diocese.”

What they can find nowhere else

Finally, when it comes to winning fallen-away Catholics back from Protestant churches, there’s nothing more basic and more effective than relying simply on the beauty, richness and truth of the Faith.

Catholics who perhaps have drifted away “come back because they miss what the Catholic Church has — the sacramental aspect of our Church,” Sister Theresa said.

Because of this, Sister Theresa added that the “grass is always greener” mentality that lures Catholics away doesn’t always having staying power. “We oftentimes see people who leave the Catholic Church for a while and go to an evangelical church come back,” she added.

Once they’re back, though, the key is to get them to stay. This is where programs like the Landings International ministry comes into play. Run by the Paulist Fathers, and available at many Catholic parishes around the country and the world, Landings provides a “safe harbor” for inactive Catholics to re-explore the Faith from which they have drifted away.

In this setting, with the help of parish leadership, they can be reminded of the sacraments, the tenets of the Catholic Faith and the way that it leads to Christ and eternal life.

Joseph R. LaPlante writes from Rhode Island.