The phrase “mega-church” has been around a while now, but the definition of a mega-church does not include Catholic parishes. A mega-church is not only about size, but also about the culture and characteristics that surround them. Thus, the official demographics on mega-churches do not include Catholic parishes. This means that we currently have very little research on Catholic mega-parishes. One statement the Hartford Institute for Religion Research had about Catholic parishes put the situation in perspective:
There are many very large catholic churches and if we extended our interest in megachurches from just the Protestant megachurches to very large Catholic congregations with attendance over 2000 on average weekly we would add roughly 3000 additional Catholic churches to the 1200 or so that are over 2000 in attendance.
This means there are more than double the number of Catholic mega-parishes than there are Protestant mega-churches. This is an area of church life that we have not really studied much, but need to, because the phenomenon is only going to continue to grow (Note that CARA defines a mega-parish (PDF link) as having 1,200 or more registered parishioners).
Look at these numbers:
St. Ann’s in Coppell, TX has 8,500 registered households and 28,000 members!
This means that the only non-Catholic church in the USA bigger than St. Ann’s is Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston. From what I could find St. Ann’s is the largest Catholic parish in Texas, but not the largest in the nation. Thus, there are others within the same range.
If we define a mega-parish as one with 2,000 or more in attendance, then St. Mary’s Catholic Center clearly qualifies. The difference with us, obviously, is that we are not a traditional territorial parish. We are a “personal parish” which means according to canon law, we do not cover a geographic territory, but serve a group of people (the campus communities of A&M and Blinn College). So, the issues we face are unique in many ways, but cross over into what many other mega-parishes are going through.
Think of the issues that arise when you get into larger parishes:
- administration issues
- leadership structure for apostolates / groups / ministries
- engaging visitors
- buildings / facilities
- handling volunteers
- communications / marketing
To top it off, no seminary I know of does a good job preparing priests to manage budgets, work on administration issues, handle human resources, good business practices, etc.
Of course there are also advantages to having mega-parishes:
- it prevents priests from having to handle several parishes + more priests.
- they can provide a wider range of services / organizations.
- they generally have larger staffs.
- generally have better RE and youth ministry.
- they usually have better facilities.
- they are more diverse.
Furthermore, the mega-churches have, in my opinion, handled growth better than mega-parishes. Here is why:
- They push small groups and communities more than Catholics. This helps individuals have more to tie them into the community.
- They make evangelism (Catholic generally call it evangelization) a priority. They don’t sit back and wait for new members to show up at their door. This is why they grow so rapidly.
- They make adult education an emphasis. Catholics have it upside down – 17% of Catholic churches offer no adult religious ed. and what we do have is generally weak, with little participation.
- They continue to think differently than small churches, Catholic mega-parishes think “small” too often.
Put it all together. We have a situation (growing mega-parishes) that we aren’t even talking much about yet. How do we work to handle the issues raised above (and many more)? I am not sure. But I would sure like to know who is going to participate in the conversation and when will it start?
Marcel is a husband and father of five, serves on the pastoral council at St. Mary’s and is the founder and Executive Director of Catholic Missionary Disciples.