Sunday, September 8, 2013

Why Megachurches Are Full of Ex-Catholics

I remember when I left the Catholic Church and what drew me to Protestant churches.

It was relationships.

I yearned to talk to other believers about Christianity. I desired fellowship and conversation. However, in the Catholic parish I belonged to at the time, there was little available.

Decades ago, Catholics would attend Mass and that was that. There were a few groups like the Knights of Columbus but not many that focused on simply gathering together to encourage one another in the faith.

I remember the first time I visited a local Presbyterian church. I was astounded that after the service, they invited everyone over to their "fellowship hall" to have coffee and doughnuts. This was a revelation. Wow. Imagine staying all the way to the end of a service and then join others in a room afterward to socialize!

Most of the Masses I attended at that time had a good amount of people heading straight for the exit after receiving Communion. I wasn't used to people actually wanting to stay after church to spend time with other church-goers.

So that's how I got hooked.

It's taken me years to reclaim my Catholic faith. I have found some fellowship online through blogs, articles, and the comment sections. But my true fellowship has come through my own parish where they have... wonder of wonders, a "coffee and doughnuts" social held in the undercroft after Mass.

I think more people yearn for this than some may realize. When I look around at the parishioners who are sitting at tables, munching a doughnut and drinking an average cup of coffee from a styrofoam cup, I see people who are in need of connection. Some of them are older and alone. Others are young with families. But everyone wants to connect with someone.

Dr. Taylor Marshal has an excellent article, "10 Ways to Put Megachurches Out of Business." He didn't mention "coffee and doughnuts" but I think it's worth a mention.

Catholicism is rich with its history and spiritually fulfilling with her sacraments. I'm thinking of going through an RCIA class just to learn the ropes, again.

Here's why I think the megachurches are full of ex-Catholics: because Catholics don't really understand and appreciate the truths of their faith.

Everything looks better "on the other side." Megachurches seem exciting with their worship bands and the hundreds of various ministry groups. There's hustle and bustle going on! Activity like this is often confused with substance. Catholics look at all the energy and excitement as proof that their church life is boring and irrelevant.


Send me any ex-Catholic who attends a megachurch and let me talk with him or her. Let's get down to the nitty-gritty. Let's have coffee and really talk about why they're there. And then let me tell them the truth about the megachurch.

Busy, Busy!

Megachurches thrive on busyness. There are too many groups and too many activities because they're trying to appeal to everyone.

Their identity is dependent upon how the church members define it. And the identity is always shifting, along with the "new building fund."

They have to keep changing up things, otherwise, they fear people will become bored and leave.

But is that the way the Church should be? Is this what Jesus Christ meant when He said to St. Peter, "Upon this rock I shall build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

I believe the gates of hell won't prevail against the Church but meanwhile, the vulgar, meaningless, culture-of-death crowd is certainly trying.

Perpetual Teenagers

Megachurches, because of their nature, do not have much spiritual depth. They're constantly trying to reach out to "the unchurched" yet once Ben and Jennifer Unchurched is inside, the megachurch realizes they can't look and act too much like a church, otherwise, they'll lose Ben and Jen.

So there is the constant "light and fluffy" spiritual messages that float out to the congregation with enough pop psychology and current cultural references thrown in to keep them hooked.

Meanwhile, Ben and Jen remain perpetual teenagers, having their ADD-style spiritual compass forever spinning around but never finding True North.

There is no grounding, nothing of substance because everything a megachurch does is rooted in keeping up with whatever is popular or trendy. This isn't a good path for deeper spiritual development.

Casual Faith

Finally, the type of faith I experienced during all the years I was involved with megachurches was a casual saunter into God's Coffeehouse.

One megachurch I attended had a specialty coffee area where I could get high-quality espresso drinks. And then I could take that hot beverage with me right into the "sanctuary."

Apologies if the quotes offend anyone, but it's difficult to view a huge multi-purpose room with upholstered chairs and a large stage filled with a drum kit, keyboards, and guitars as the central focal point, as a sanctuary.

We unfortunately live in a time where entertainment trumps substance.

Substance is difficult to grasp. It takes work. It's not as mentally easy as standing up and swaying to the music of a worship team or sitting back sipping your fair-trade cappuccino while watching a multi-media "60 Minutes" style production talking about the importance of Bible studies.

Here's an interesting observation: if you ever visit a megachurch, look around to see how many gray heads are sitting in the seats. There may be a few, but usually they're outnumbered by those who are under the age of 50.

I think that says something.

The Fullness of the Faith

When I returned to the Catholic Church, I was stunned by many things. The beauty of the liturgy, which when I was younger, struck me as "boring." Gregorian chant, which always appealed to me but now seemed like the perfect response to a loving, merciful God whose traits we can barely comprehend.

I remembered going to confession and explaining to the priest that I had just returned to the Catholic Church after attending non-denominational churches for years. He graciously said, "those churches do a good job of bringing people into the church and telling them how to live a Christian life, but they don't have the fullness of the faith."

I am still discovering the fullness of the faith but will say that I have found it to be full of substance and meaning. It has intellectually and spiritually challenged me. It has fed my soul to a degree that I never found within the blinking, blaring megachurces.

What brought me back to the Church was the longing for the Eucharist. And not just a symbolic nod to the Last Supper. I wanted the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The words from St. John 6:44-58 call to me:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.

It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that any one has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father.

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life.

I am the bread of life.

Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.

This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh."

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you;he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.

He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.

As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.

This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever."

Upon hearing Jesus' words, many could not fathom their truth. It seemed preposterous to suggest that one would eat someone's flesh. And that claim about "living for ever?" What kind of sense did that make?

It's one of the many facets of Christianity that I love -- the inexplicable, the mysteriousness, the stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks-and-make-you-go-what-ness of it all. Jesus said very thought-provoking things and this definitely was one of them.

I never heard anyone in a megachurch really unpack that section of the Gospel of St. John.

But in the Catholic Church, we celebrate it during every Mass. We look at the bread and wine and solemnly acknowledge that a sacred mystery is unfolding before our eyes as the priest, in persona Christi, takes the bread and the chalice of wine, offers it up to God in a re-presentation of the sacrifice at Calvary, and in that moment, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Receiving tiny tablet wafers and a tiny tablespoon of wine in a tiny plastic cup, passed from person to person on a plate like party appetizers -- is not the same thing.

This to me is part of "the fullness of the faith." There is a richness, a depth, an fuller expression of our faith in the Catholic Church.

I spent over two decades in the non-denominational church. After almost ten years, I asked a few church friends, "So, how do you get spiritually fed?" They admitted they didn't receive much "spiritual meat" from the Sunday service. We talked about various books, radio programs, etc. But it was obvious that once you passed the "Okay, now I'm comfortable in church once again" phase, there was little substance in the messages.

The megachurches may appeal to many Catholics but I think it's because many of those Catholics (and I used to be one), have no idea about their Catholic faith.

Imagine, for fifteen centuries, the Christian Church was one.

United. In bond with one another. That is a long time for church unity.

Compare that to the mere five centuries we've now had with the church universal and the myriad of off-shoots since the Reformation. Those fifteen centuries built some very strong saints, produced intellectual giants who founded universities and hospitals, and overall, changed the world.

I can't help but think "how did they do it?"

And to me, the Catholic Church is a large part of the answer.