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 as having 1,200 or more registered parishioners).
Look at these numbers:
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Houston has 11,023 families! If you average that to 3 members you have 33,000+ people registered!
St. Ann in Coppell, TX has 8,900 registered households and 30,000+ members!
This means that both these churches would easily make the top 10 biggest Protestant churches in the nation (if they were Protestant). There are others Catholic parishes within the same range. Take for instance, St. Matthew in Charlotte, NC – they have 34,000+ members!
If we define a mega-parish as one with 1,200 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, communication / decision-making
- engaging visitors
- buildings / facilities
- handling volunteers
- preventing folks from “falling through the cracks”
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.
- they can provide a wider range of services / organizations.
- they generally have larger staffs.
- generally have better RE and youth ministry, due to a wider pool to pull from and more financial resources.
- they usually have better facilities.
- they are more diverse.
Our Protestant brethren have a lot to teach Catholic parishes about how to be successful in such large communities. Here are just a few things we Catholics can learn:
- They push small groups (esp. in the form of Bible studies) more than Catholics. This helps individuals experience relationships within the faith community, which is sorely lacking in too many Catholic parishes. It is easy to be anonymous in Catholic mega-parishes and thus, we don’t really minister to everyone coming to us, on a personal level.
- 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 many Protestant mega-churches see such rapid growth. Catholics have changed Jesus great commission in Matthew 28 from “Go make disciples” to “stay right where you are and remain comfortable, while waiting for others to wander in to your church.”
- They make adult discipleship an emphasis. Catholics have it upside down. We put most of our time, effort, and budget into youth, while still teaching that “parents are the primary educators” of their children.
- They continue to think differently than small churches. Many Catholic mega-parishes think “small” too often, so they operate with small mindsets in meetings, structures, policies, etc. Catholic parishes need to focus on growth – but NOT just Mass attendance growth. Rather, growth from a faith perspective. How many intentional disciples are there? Do you know? What is your plan to increase this number?
- Protestant mega-churches don’t do nearly as many things as Catholic mega-parishes. Too often the ministries, apostolates, groups, and organizations you find in many Catholic parishes are not fulfilling the needs that the parishioners have. The primary needs are to evangelize, form community, grow in faith together, and be sent out to serve / evangelize / disciple others. We can all get distracted from what we ought to be doing by doing good things. Just because an activity is at a church doesn’t mean the church ought to be doing it. Less really can be more in this case. Do little and do it well.
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)? More importantly, what more can Catholics learn from our Protestant brothers and sisters who are in similar contexts?
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.