The Real Mega Church

A friend pointed out recently that in terms of numbers, most good sized suburban Catholic parishes would qualify for ‘mega church’ status. With thousands of worshippers each week, they compare nicely with your run of the mill ‘mega church.’

But when you look at the Catholic Church globally and down through the ages it is the mega church to make all contemporary mega churches look dinky. Popes draw crowds in the millions. Here’s a church of a billion souls and growing, and when you count all the Catholics down the ages the auditorium pictured here wouldn’t hold a fraction of them. Do you want to join a mega church? The Catholic Church is the one.

One of the things that interests me about the mega churches is the way they use sensory tools for worship. Protestantism was always known for its bare preaching halls, austerity in worship and lack of physical aspects of worship. Not anymore. The mega church has pounding music, huge screens, dry ice smoke, action on stage, drama and even processions. Are they unconsciously copying Catholic worship? When Catholic worship is truly populist and integrated into the culture (the way mega church worship is) it did all this stuff too. In the middle ages the big cathedrals not only gathered crowds, they inspired and educated the crowds. If you like, the great stained glass windows served the same function as the big plasma screens. They entertained, educated and inspired awe in the worshipper. The processions, the passion plays and street drama, the fiery preaching and dramatic sensual worship was all Catholic before it was a Protestant mega church thing. Geesh, we even had light and smoke effects with incense and candles before their dry ice machines and laser shows.

In the meantime we Catholics have done one of two things: if we’re modernist Catholics we’ve made our worship and churches just about as Protestant as possible. We’ve stripped out the statues and vesments and processions and tried to get rid of populist sensory worship. On the other extreme, if we’re traditionalists, we long for the old days of sensory worship, but we’ve become antiquarians, with exquisite taste in archaic liturgies, remote rituals and beautiful, but elitist music. We’ve turned what was a populist religion into a preserve for dainty young people with fine taste and an interest in medieval pomp.

I wonder what real populist, sensory, traditional Catholic worship would look like. Could we use plasma screens to aid devotion? Are they evil in themselves? Instead of showing zippy zappy images, why couldn’t they show the masterpieces of Catholic art before prayer. Could Catholics use new technology and combine it with ancient traditions? Why shouldn’t a plasma screen show images from The Passion of the Christ as icons for meditation while the rosary is being said? Couldn’t we use the wonders of lighting to create worshipful and inspiring focus for worship? What about other aspects of worship and devotion? Maybe we should commision new mystery plays. Why shouldn’t they be operas or musicals? Could we make short films that would be used to prompt meditation? Is recorded music always wrong for devotional purposes? Could we use all these things plus traditional candles, incense, vestments and icons?

I’m just asking…

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  • Don Dwight,One of my favorite (Protestant) seminary classes was a course on “Philosophy of Worship”. I remember a lot of these questions being asked. I also remember there weren’t many satisfying answers.I’m intrigued by your use of the word “populist”. I think one of the problems is that American culture is so dang banal. Compare this with the post at Whispers in the Loggia on the celebration of OL Guadalupe in Mexico, et al, this week.I also understand what you mean about the extremes of austere, Protestant-style ambience vs. the near-reification of Florentine Renaissance art.One key I think is differentiating between art geared toward devotions and that which enhances the Mass itself. I think all of your ideas would be great outside of Mass, but within the context of the Mass, I think we need to be very careful.I have often attended my parish’s 6pm Sunday mass, which is billed as the “LifeTeen Mass”. I get a little sad at it sometimes, not because it’s contemporary, but because it’s so Protestant. I think it’s possible to be contemporary and Catholic in a “populist” sense as you would say.OTOH, even though there have been some true liturgical abuses at that mass (which have largely been corrected in my parish, thank God), there are a few touches that I enjoy. During the Canon, all of the lights in the church are turned down/off except those over the altar. This really draws one’s focus toward the consecration and is quite powerful. AFAIK, there’s nothing in the GIRM forbidding this.One big concern I have is avoiding the temptation to “compete” with Protestant churches in this domain, thus exacerbating the whole consumerist mentality of American Christianity.Just a few random thoughts on Monday morning…

  • Forgot to mention…if you’re talking about liturgical dance, we’re through. 🙂

  • You’re right. We are not competing with the Protestants or the circus or the TV or the local disco. We’re not seeking to entertain or cheapen devotions in any way. I’m just wondering whether–in a devotional setting there isn’t room to use the senses more, and to do so using modern technology if need be.My point is that Catholics weren’t shy of using the technology at hand in other ages…they used theater, stained glass, art, craftmanship,architecture, drinking tunes for hymns, etc. all to glorify God and enhance worship.Surely the question is not ‘what technology are we using and is it modern or not?’ (else we might as well become Amish) but ‘does the technology properly serve the worship, and not just entertain?’ Lowering the lights at the consecration (or having lights dimmed before Mass) seems a proper use of technology. No one objects to microphones or those new fangled fake oil burning ‘candles’ do they? Even in the liturgy, for instance, why would a still image on plasma screens necessarily be a distraction any more than stained glass windows or statues or a procession or nice vestments or incense?They use big screens to help people see at big papal events. Wouldn’t they be just as useful for other big events?Our faith has always been visual. We live in a modern visual age. Why not use the screen for worship? Why should the devil have all the best music (or technology)As for ‘teen masses’…maybe one of the things those who like such masses are trying to do is to bring in the sensual and emotional and visual. The problem is they are turning to pop culture and protestantism to get their ideas. They might have better success among Catholics if they brought in more Adoration services complete with vestments, candles, flowers, incense etc.

  • I could accept the projection of one still image. No movies. No slideshows.The “visual” experience of the liturgy needs to be the liturgy itself.The “audio” experience of the liturgy needs to be the liturgy itself.I can also accept video monitors that allow people to see what is happening in the sanctuary, but perhaps at a distance, angle or location in the church that does not allow them to see.P.S. Dwight, this coming Thursday I’m praying that St. John of the Cross prays at your ordination to the priesthood, since I can’t be there.

  • Thank you so much for your prayers on Thursday Father! My first Mass will be offered on Friday evening at St Joseph’s School, and my first Mass at St Mary’s on Sunday morning.I agree that moving pictures or slideshows during the liturgy would be distracting. Likewise with recorded music. You’re right the visual is at the altar, and the music should be live.What do you think about using screens to project the words for hymns or parts of the liturgy that are unfamiliar? Couldn’t that actually be helpful? Clear away those hymnals, all the shuffling for pages and noses in books?

  • I have been a part of several Protestant churches which used presentation software for projecting lyrics and even some congregational responses (what passes for “liturgy” in congregationalist churches). All things considered, I really don’t think it’s a good idea.I think projecting song lyrics contributes to the dumbing-down of musical knowledge. Even those without formal musical training can absorb rudimentary music skills over time by exposure to printed scores in hymnals, etc. Teaching music used to be a primary concern of the Church because it was essential to the liturgy. I think losing notes on a page is a step in the wrong direction.Likewise, I think projecting liturgy is a kind of dumbing-down as well, because it decreases the motivation to truly learn (i.e., memorize) the liturgy. It could also serve as a distraction from whatever is happening at the altar. There is also something about opening a missal (or even “missalette”) in that it involves the body and is participatory. Worship isn’t supposed to be easy; if we can’t even get people to open a hymnal or missal, how we are ever going to convince them that it’s not a spectator sport? One could argue that a person standing empty-handed singing a few words off a screen is better than a person standing empty-handed singing nothing at all because he won’t open a book—but only marginally, if at all.

  • Maybe it is possible to incorporate some of these elements in a way compatible with worship. But I haven’t seen it done yetI sometimes go to one parish where they project the lyrics on the wall. Talk about tacky and probably something that violates copyright’s since they have no missals.I think large screens for anything other than perhaps and outdoor Papal Mass sends the wrong message. It can once again concentrate too much as Mass as entertainment. What Fr. Stephanos says is right on and if technology can be used to actually enhance it than that is great. Sound systems have helped everyone to hear the liturgy better.

  • So that I could focus on converting I left a large, by Canadian standards, Willow Creek styled church. They had it all, except You know Who in the You know What. To me, He is Who and What mattered.When I visit some of our Catholic churches and note that they have begun to do the overhead power point thing I cringe and say, Dear God, we just left that. None of it has any attraction for me. None of it. Not the “worship”, not the ambiance, not one thing. And, dear Crucified and Resurrected Jesus, please, please spare me the liturgical dance.

  • I’m with you onion boy! If it’s of any interest I ran these same questions by some of our Catholic high school students today and happily, most of them were not attracted by the idea of plasma screens in the liturgy.There is a beautiful hunger for what Newman called ‘real religion’–without the distractions of entertainment.

  • Unless you’re a serious Platonist, there is a difference between flickering images in 2 dimensions, and icons written prayerfully, even books well-printed that entail heft and texture. You’re actually proposing material that impoverishes the senses, and perhaps in ways we don’t begin to understand, deranges the perceptual system (possibly through being lit from behind rather than reflecting light).As a former Protestant, I have had to struggle with lots of Good Ideas I could hatch to improve the ancient worship. I have come to think that it is only what grows organically via many iterations throughout the community that won’t disrupt the “experience.”The full-time job that commends itself is to be increasingly attentive to what’s already there in worship, IMO.

  • Thanks who me…good observations