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What Can We Learn From Megachurches?

Q U I C K S C A N

Dissatisfaction in the Church
Changes Are Needed


As the U.S. Catholic Church struggles with the dwindling number of priests and financial resources, it also must consider growing dissatisfaction within. Many Catholics are leaving the Church in search of a different spiritual experience.

In February 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released results from a survey of the American religious landscape. This survey (religions.pewforum.org/reports) interviewed 35,000 adults over the age of 18 in the United States. It found that, if shifts among Protestant denominations are considered, 44 percent of Americans do not practice the faith in which they were raised.

About one in three Catholics in the United States no longer identify themselves as Catholic. That means that 10 percent of Americans are former Catholics. (The number of Catholics has actually grown, though, because of Catholic immigrants.)

It used to be that religious searching was not very common. But now, many people advocate a conscious choosing of religions. People search for a religion that they can actively become involved in because they find a connection with the community and the message. For some, this approach is healthy.

On the contrary, other people see selecting a religion as a consumer activity, like shopping for cars or switching TV stations. It’s almost as if God has become a commodity.

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Like it or not, changing faiths happens more often these days. The debate should focus on why so many Catholics are leaving the Church. Dissatisfaction is found among many Catholics, but especially among young-adult Catholics.

“Young adult Catholics have a strong Catholic identity but do not feel much of a commitment to the institutional Church or its moral teachings,” according to James A. Davidson and Dean R. Hoge, authors of American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church.

Many cite the clergy sex-abuse scandal as a reason why people are leaving the Church. In my experience as a young-adult Catholic in college, however, the sex-abuse scandal is not the foremost reason. Many young adults disagree with the Church on issues including women in the clergy, homosexuality and contraception.

In many cases, young Catholics are not sure why the Church teaches what it does. After Vatican II, “Too much of Church teaching was irrelevant to people’s experience because it was expressed in terms from medieval philosophy and theology that was incomprehensible to contemporary people,” says Thomas J. Reese, S.J., former editor of America.

Thus, to break down this disconnect between the hierarchy and everyday Catholics, “It is the job of theologians to come up with new ways to explain the Gospel message. This requires hard work, creativity and freedom to experiment,” says Reese.

Not only do some Catholics struggle with Church doctrine, but they also do not have a strong connection to the Mass. Some 36 percent of Millennial Catholics (age 18-30) attend Mass at least once a month, compared to 64 percent of Catholics born before Vatican II, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This gap may be caused by dry or irrelevant homilies or lack of involvement in the parish community.

Thus, many young adults choose to leave the Catholic Church and explore other religions. Currently, megachurches are drawing in Catholics, along with their base of former Baptists, Lutherans, etc. These nondenominational churches are message-oriented and focus on providing contemporary services with relatable sermons and modern music.

Presenting a message that connects with daily life helps to integrate faith into everyday life, instead of simply being an isolated hour out of the week.

Instead of discounting the megachurches, the Catholic Church can adopt their visibility and fervor. When Pope Benedict XVI addressed young people in New York on April 19, he asked: “Who bears witness to the Good News of Jesus on the streets of New York, in the troubled neighborhoods of large cities, in the places where the young gather, seeking someone in whom they can trust? God is our origin and our destination, and Jesus the way.”

Another place to start is for priests to focus on trying to deliver modern, applicable homilies.

The Catholic Mass, however, should not abandon its traditions to be like a nondenominational church. These traditions and sacraments help the community build and develop a relationship with God. But aspects of the Mass can be changed to appeal to specific groups, such as having Masses with more modern music.

Parishes and dioceses could also establish programs that address specific social issues, prayer groups, service organizations, etc., for all ages, with heightened focus on young-adult programs. If young adults feel they are part of a community, they will be more likely to be active in the Church.

“Repeating the same answers in a louder voice will convince no one,” says Father Reese. Unless changes are made, people will look to develop a relationship with God outside of the Catholic Church.—Kathryn Rosenbaum, intern


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