Just to be be clear, I am back with the Catholic Church, now.
I am pondering this topic because yesterday, after Mass, the Youth ministry director asked, "Why are there so many ex-Catholics in the non-denominational churches?"
I tried to explain my perspective, but felt that I didn't fully articulate the reasons. I remember meeting many ex-Catholics at my local Vineyard Christian Fellowship. In fact, I was quite amazed by how many there were. When I'd ask why they were there, the answers were usually the same: there was more "freedom" to worship God, they enjoyed the casual environment, they found the large offerings of Bible study groups to be stimulating. These comments were generally given by Catholics who were brought up in the 1960's and 70's.
Personally, I think many Catholics were starved for relationship. Out of everything I've experienced within the non-denominational church, I would say that the one place they got it right was with home Bible study groups. Within these groups, friendships form that challenge and support one another to live out their Christian beliefs in a tough world. Sharing one's stories with one another is to me, the secret. When you hear someone else's story, it provides several things: 1) You don't feel alone or isolated in your struggles because someone else is going through something similar and 2) You're able to encourage one another and be encouraged. This is one of the purposes of being a part of the Church. A body needs nourishment to be strong, and the Body of Christ is no different.
When I left the Catholic Church at age twenty, I was in search of "something more." In other words, the liturgy did not resonate with me. Attending Mass once a week wasn't "enough" because I was craving relationship with others who were serious about their relationship with God. I didn't know how to find them. Too often, people would bolt out the doors after Mass, many leaving right after receiving Communion. My parish didn't have a "coffee and doughnuts" time afterward. (Thankfully, my current parish does and this is how I have gotten to know so many of my fellow parishioners.)
The other attraction was, of course, the "coolness" factor of the non-denominational church. They had cool worship music. Cool musicians who were fun and, well... looked cool. We did cool things like wash cars for free to show people that God loved them and to open up conversations about their own relationship (or non-relationship) with God. There was a freshness about it to me. Sort of like a "Hmm, what happens when I push this button?" flavor to it. Because I am enormously curious (which only added to my wandering away from Catholicism to pursue other experiences), I was extremely attracted to these new approaches toward evangelism and fellowship.
All of these factors were extremely appealing to a young "twentysomething." I would say that the experimental aspect of non-denominational churches is foundational for young people in search of themselves and their beliefs. Because many younger people are open to "testing the waters," they seem to gravitate toward places that allow them to do this. If you visit a non-denominational church, you will notice that the majority of the congregation is below the age of 50. You will see very few "seventysomething" folks in a non-denominational church. And that's part of what I missed.
I have a deep love and respect for older people. When I was younger, I realized that we needed the wisdom and experience of older people but was disappointed that I couldn't find many in my non-denominational church. Somehow I knew that older people would help guide me, especially older women. However, I had to search for such people outside of my church membership.
I remember enjoying the freedom of being a part of a church that had no rigid rules or -- expectations. There was a fluidity to a Sunday service, and the attitude seemed to be: Be here if you can. Or don't. But you'll miss all the fun if you don't attend. The "fun" was roundly promoted. "I'll stop coming to church when it's fun," was a common phrase from the senior pastor. It propagated a perspective that church was primarily for my enjoyment. Many non-denominational churches look to other leisure pursuits such as golf or visiting malls as their "competition." Because of it, their evangelism efforts resemble marketing efforts to "re-brand" Christianity and church-going as a better way to spend your time.
Now that I've returned to the Catholic Church, I see things much more differently than I did at age twenty. (Thank God for the "with age, comes wisdom" adage.) I realized that during all those years, what I missed most about the Catholic Church was the Eucharist. And now I know why.
The Mass is known as "The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass." It is because each Mass is a journey that we remember over, and over again. We begin by acknowledging our sin. We ask for God's forgiveness and for the forgiveness of our brothers and sisters. We give glory to God. We listen and meditate upon God's Word. We ask Him to help us. We give thanks to Him for His gifts, most notably the Gift of His Son, Jesus Christ. We remember Jesus' life and death as the priest re-presents the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and then kneel in awe as the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We take and eat, knowing that we are eating "The Living Bread." (John 6:51) We thank God again for such an astounding gift. We meditate upon it, and then we sing a song of rejoicing. Then, we leave, being reminded to "go in peace" and to bring God's Good News to the world.
There is order, which to many young people equals boring. But the liturgy truly is anything but boring. There is meaning to every portion of it. Instead of the cotton-candy excitement of a talented worship band, Catholics have substance. Instead of the "anything-goes" mentality of many non-denominational services, Catholics have a purposeful trek. The altar is the focal point, not a stage.
For what it's worth, I learned much within the non-denominational church. And maybe I had to go through it in order to truly appreciate the treasure of the liturgy. At any rate, I remember feeling like I was holding onto the tail of a comet most of the time. Things would change so quickly within a non-denominational church and I often felt as though I was constantly trying to readjust.
I admit I love the Catholic Church with a surprised devotion. I never expected to find so much meaning, and to re-connect with a yearning I thought was satisfied with the non-denominational experiences. But here I am. Finding joy in the liturgy and intelligent challenges to help mature my faith. There is real "spiritual meat" in the Catholic Church, and you really don't have to look that hard to find it. Thank you, Lord, for showing me.