“Why are megachurches and formerly iconoclastic mainline denominations looking more like Catholic parishes in terms of liturgy and practices even as some Catholics are, late to the party as usual, imitating evangelicals and building churches with big screens that look more like suburban dentist’s offices than places where heaven and earth kiss[?]” (Anna Keating, “New Life Goes Old School,” America, May 13, 2019).
By “looking more like,” Keating references a significant trend among some Protestant churches, including some evangelical megachurches, to include in their liturgies such “old school Catholic practices” as the Nicene Creed, Communion, doxologies, devotions, even incense and candles. “One megachurch in Texas observes a liturgical calendar, recites the Apostles’ Creed and fasts during Lent,” she writes.
So what’s up? And is there food for thought here for the Catholic Church, as it contends with an arguably stronger trend, especially among young people in this country, toward disaffiliation from the church?
“One megachurch in Texas observes a liturgical calendar, recites the Apostles’ Creed and fasts during Lent”Anna Keating, “New Life Goes Old School”
According to Keating, “in some instances, it is the fruit of sincere conversion. For some megachurch pastors, the move toward liturgy and tradition is about a desire to go deeper informing their congregations in faith.”
One pastor told her: “I realized that something was missing in our worship, and that something was Eucharist, was sacramentality. This is a move of the Spirit toward theological depth and historicity.”
Other churches are more pragmatically motivated, Keating writes. “Megachurches are big businesses with lots of people on payroll, and part of the change is about marketing, rebranding, consumer choice and retention. You want a contemporary service? We offer that. You want traditional? We have that too.”
Whether motivated by theology, tradition, or branding, ritual is a key ingredient in creating communities with a sense of belonging, argues Charles H. Vogl, in his book, The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2016).
“I believe that because we live in a far more casual time than previous generations, the rituals we keep are even more special now because we don’t turn to the institutional rituals of previous generations,” Vogl writes.
That might be one explanation for a trend toward more traditional rituals in megachurches. Another, according to Vogl, is the necessity for communities to be dynamic. “As your community grows through time, it’s almost certain that you’ll discover that you have rituals (or boundaries or symbols or stories) in place that no longer serve the community as well as they could or should. . . . The best way to handle this is to reflect on what you want your rituals to mean in this time to the people you include now. You can use elements from the past to keep in touch with your history and tradition and then replace and add elements that excite you.”
“I believe that because we live in a far more casual time than previous generations, the rituals we keep are even more special now because we don’t turn to the institutional rituals of previous generations.”Charles H. Vogl, The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belong
“If you’re stuck keeping your traditions exactly the same, then know that you’re likely maintaining something that will grow less meaningful and appropriate for a community that won’t remain exactly the same. A dynamic community needs dynamic growth in its rituals. All symbols and rituals serve their purpose for a time. . . . And time moves on.”
All of which is NOT to suggest that all rituals of sacrament and prayer should be vulnerable to change for change’s sake, crafted to conform to the latest brand standard or dictated by popular taste.
In fact, megachurch trends toward a more sacramental, historically rooted sense of ritual suggests discussions regarding the value and practice of ritual are not a zero-sum game.
Writes Keating: “As the Catholic Church continues to work to keep people in and attract people to the faith, it would do well to remember that the pull of tradition can be an attractive one, even or perhaps especially for the millennial generation, which is famously interested in old things, from record collecting to jarring pickles.”
Which rituals, then, are negotiable? Of these, which serve to attract young people to Catholic faith practice and which turn them away? Also, are there new rituals to consider or create that might better serve the social, emotional, and spiritual needs of young people? Involving young people in addressing such questions will be critical to any conversations that ensue.
Jerry Ruff, Senior Writer and Editor
Saint Mary’s Research