Making Church Matter

Catholic Churches & Mega-Churches

September 21, 2012

In graduate school, my specialization was “ecclesiology” which is the study of the Church itself: what it is, how it is constituted and how it grows. Ever since, my abiding interest, as regular readers know, is growing healthy churches.  The so-called “mega-church” movement therefore, and not surprisingly, holds special interest for me.

“Mega-church” is a designation that came into usage in the 1970’s as some existing protestant churches and a number of start ups pursued aggressive intentional growth in their communities (mostly in the South at first, mostly Southern Baptist or non-denominational) through disciplined and creative efforts at evangelization. In many instances these communities experienced rapid growth. Churches so designated stood in stark contrast to traditional style Protestant churches both for their sheer size, but also for their deliberately upbeat and contemporary worship style combined with their conservative theology.

A mega-church is generally described as a single congregation (on one or more campuses) with weekly attendance (including kids and student programs) of 2,000 or more.

This month’s edition of “Outreach” (a magazine all about evangelizing church communities) published its annual “100 Largest and Fastest Growing Churches in America.”

The largest church in the country, far and away, is Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston with 43,000 in average weekend attendance. Interestingly, this year our friend Andy Stanley and his Northpoint Community Church in Atlanta is number two (31,000).  Also in the top ten, of course, are Bill Hybel’s Willow Creek in Chicago (24,000) and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California (19,000).  After the top 5, the numbers drop into the teens; After the top forty the largest churches in America are between 6-8,000 in weekend attendance.

Beyond the top 100, there are about 1,200 Protestant churches in the country that qualify as mega-churches.  But let me ask you a question.  Why aren’t Catholic parishes ever included in this designation?  There are as many as 2,500 parishes in the United States with weekly attendance over 2,000, some that probably could have qualified for that top 100 list. Why are they not counted?

One explanation I found in the New York Times (of all places) went like this. As an editorial policy the Times does not consider large Catholic churches “megachurches” because “megachurches” are “movements” in their communities.

The New York Times gets it better than we do.  Some Catholic churches are only Mass stations in their communities. They are not attracting the lost and they are not (intentionally anyway) shaping disciples.  They are not movements.

We do not want to be one of them.  We want to be a movement.  So we’ve got to move and grow.

Currently our weekend attendance is topping 4,000…pretty good though we wouldn’t have made Outreach’s list (this year). But whatever our size, we want to be growing in our connection to our community and in the depth of our discipleship.  We always want to be moving in those ways

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  1. An interesting question might be: what makes a movement, what are the catalysts, what keeps it going and helps to bring more people into it. Also how is the community nurtured to grow further, what happens organically and what needs to be facilitated.

    Many good things are happening at Nativity. It is exciting to see this approach in the Catholic church.

  2. As I grow as a new Catholic, I have found that our parish in particular is a movement and the Catholic church itself is indeed a movement. One only needs to look at the outreach across the world that the Catholic church champions. The NY Times is choosing to labor under an outdated cliched misunderstanding of what the Catholic church is and accomplishes.

  3. As a lapsed Catholic for various reasons and many years I’ve found most of my worship, study and answers from the ministering TV preachers such as Andy Stanley, his father Charles Stanley, John Hagee and the Copelands. I had also had my curiousity peaked by my various Jewish employers who were all extremely forthcoming with their explainations of their faith.
    I had attended public school but my parents made sure I made my first Penance, Communion and Comfirmation. Although having for the first 16 years of my life attended Church dutifully, I truly had not heard the Word.
    Having read through the Bible now a number of times and with the help of all the above mentioned ministers I have been most pleasantly surprised to find the teachings and ministering put forth by Nativity Church to be thouthful, provokingly unlike my Catholic experiences of the past. The messages are great and the music is refreshing and uplifting. I’m still not attending a chuch in my community but I do embrace the Nativity service as a home base. Thank you folks for your service to our Lord and I will continue to encourage friends and family to look in and see what is truly Good News!

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