Escape from the Megachurch

By the time you read this, I will have left my Bible-based megachurch and cleaved to the Bride of Christ. I will have known the joy of meeting Christ in the Eucharist, confessed a lifetime of sins, and been confirmed by my kindly neighborhood priest.

Friends at the nondenominational church I’ve attended for three years are horrified. They lob all the usual grenades: “You’re going to confession? Don’t you know God is the only one who can forgive sins? The Bible says all have sinned, but they actually believe Mary was sinless.” And, of course, “I know I’m saved. I don’t have to do any works to earn my way into heaven.” The kinder ones say they’re happy I’ve found a “worship style” I’m comfortable with.

If these were cradle Protestants getting all hot and bothered, I wouldn’t mind so much. For years, I had hammered away just as hard at my now fiancé’s beliefs. But it’s the ones raised Catholic doing most of the talking. They’re deserting the Church of their youth in waves, swelling the rolls of cutting-edge, Bible-based megachurches. No one has tallied the numbers nationwide, but some evangelical pastors boast that as many as 80 percent of their congregants are former papists. At mine, it was 39 percent in 1995, up from 34 percent four years earlier.

Dancing to the Music

Why should even 1 percent have left the Church for the megachurch? Well, for starters, the services get your attention: When you’re sitting in comfy theater seats in a converted warehouse/school gym/movie house, and the lights go down and the electric guitar starts up, you don’t expect “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” In fact, since there’s nary a cross, let alone a corpus, in sight, you might not realize you’re about to worship the savior of the world.

This is part of the “seeker-sensitive” strategy: No Christian imagery to spook those carrying organized-religion baggage. Unlike at Mass, outsiders find it easy to join in. Bulletins with sermon outlines replace missalettes, and instead of hymnals, dual screens on either side of the stage flash the words of songs younger than the pastor. They’ve got a good beat and you can dance to them—and people often do.

After at least a half-hour of music, a verse or two is read from what may or may not be a familiar translation. (James 1:9, at a recent service, became “When the down-and-outers get a break, cheer!”) The personable, straight-talking pastor delivers a message, not a homily, and he encourages the audience to follow along in their Bibles, even giving directions to those who’ve never cracked the thing. The talk is peppered with vignettes from family life and popular culture, and there’s usually three concrete points to take you through the week. The whole time he talks, people scribble furiously.

“I feel like a student with a textbook,” says one Washington-area graduate of both CCD and Catholic high school who recently began attending an evangelical church. He writes two pages of notes every week. “I never saw anyone bring a Bible to Mass; there was just the priest’s gold-encrusted one. When only one person has the textbook, how can the rest of us decide for ourselves?”

How, indeed? This country was founded on the idea of individualism, after all, and we don’t like taking orders from anyone. “American Catholics are particularly susceptible to leaving because of the infallibility issue,” says Bob Sungenis, the Westminster-trained president of Catholic Apologetics International. “They want to figure things out for themselves, especially in personal areas such as birth control.”

The way they figure things out is by reading the Bible. Free of denominational ties, the pastors—and their congregations—are at liberty to interpret the Scriptures as they see fit. The result: twenty-eight thousand Christian denominations at last count, all claiming to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Giuseppe Butera, a doctoral candidate at the Catholic University of America, spent eight years as a Fundamentalist before the search for truth brought him hack to the Church. It was the Bible that made him leave in the first place.

“When I turned to the Bible, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, there’s nothing about Mary or the pope.”‘ But he began to think twice when he encountered cavalier Protestant views on baptism and remarriage, subjects clearly addressed in Scripture. Another breakthrough came when he understood that “all my questions boiled down to one: How does the Holy Spirit lead us into truth? As a Protestant, I believed the Holy Spirit would guide me in matters of doctrine. But I realized it’s no less pious to believe that he was working through the Magisterium. Just because I thought the Holy Spirit would lead me into all truth didn’t mean he would.”

Starting Over Again

In postmodern America, though, seekers of universal truth are becoming an endangered species, having been replaced by those who are only interested in their own version. Truths the early Christians died for are served up cafeteria-style—and even then it’s hard to get takers. “The validity of something doesn’t matter today,” says Karl Keating, founder of Catholic Answers. “When you have a populace who doesn’t care about black and white, it’s hard to convey absolute truth.”

Much less absolute morality. Moral ambiguity leads to moral anarchy, and, as Paul warned Timothy, people tend to flock to teachers who will tickle their ears. The pastor of one Bible church in Texas told the Atlantic Monthly last year that many of his Catholic-raised congregants were cohabitating, and he is “willing to accept them for who they are. The church is not for those that are perfect.” An orthodox Catholic priest, on the other hand, recognizes that the Church is made up of sinners, but still teaches that grace is given to overcome sin, throwing in such countercultural teachings as: contraception is evil, priestesses are not God’s plan, and confession is good for the soul.

Although these ideas are firmly rooted in historical Christianity, contemporary megachurch pastors claim to be spiritual atavists, harking back to the time when apostles still walked the earth. Willow Creek Community Church, the prototype of the New Church, was born the same year as Tiger Woods, 1976. Its pastor, Bill Hybels, writes in the 1995 Rediscovering Church that “people need the church—not the lifeless institution that has often passed as the church, but the true church, the Acts 2 church.” It’s too bad Hybels doesn’t believe in praying for the dead; those billions of Christians who shed this vale of tears before his church was born—such as St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Maximilian Kolbe—could use some intercession.

Hybels isn’t the first to decide that when Jesus told his apostles he’d be with them to the end of the age, he really meant that he’d leave after the first century, skip the next eighteen, and rejoin them in the twentieth. This idea that the church at Pentecost had an unparalleled unity and perfection has been propagated since the time of the earliest reformers. But Ronald Knox points out in Enthusiasm that Scripture offers little support for this notion. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians addresses no fewer than seven areas of error. In summary, Knox writes, “If such formidable clouds could gather on the horizon of Christendom, when preachers were still living who retained vivid memories of our Lord’s sojourn on earth, when . . . no schism had loosened as yet the fabric of church unity, what would be the experience of later and more degenerate times?”

Fostering Community

Citing our nation’s new tendency to look for spirituality in all the wrong places, Hybels wonders whether it’s “because they seek answers that are self-centered rather than God-centered? Or is it because they have become sincerely disillusioned with a church that for too many years was more concerned with its identity and traditions than with the concerns of the human heart?” Human nature being what it is, I’d vote for Door Number One. But the sad fact is, both are right.

Not a single Willow Creek founder had ever darkened the doorstep of a seminary—but what each did have was an immense love for the lost. “Lost people matter to God,” says Hybels simply, “so Christians need to get to know them and discover how to love them.” To this end, he and the core leaders scheduled women’s luncheons, men’s breakfasts, and other special events so people could bring their unchurched friends.

They started a one-on-one discipleship program for baby believers (know any in your parish?) and packed the bulletin with plugs for evening Bible studies, money-management seminars, and support groups for compulsive eaters, adult children of alcoholics, and the depressed. To foster a sense of community in a church larger than some towns (fifteen thousand total weekend attendance), they organize newcomers into small groups, called “cell groups” or “house churches” that meet in homes during the week for fellowship and Bible study.

On Sundays, they raise the roof with skits, multimedia presentations, and state-of-the-art sound systems. If this sounds like a departure, that’s because, by Hybels’s own admission, “the unimpressive truth is that we made the whole thing up as we went along, trusting the Holy Spirit for each next step.” Our society thrives on instant gratification and a frantic pace—no room for silent prayer or solitary retreats—so it’s easy to mistake intensity for intimacy. Is it possible that in all the clamor, people are missing the voice of God? When he spoke to Elijah, remember, it wasn’t through wind, fire, or earthquake, but in a still small voice. “With Protestants, it’s more like the fire and earthquakes,” says Butera.

Bringing Catholics Back

Pretty stiff competition. We know the Church will always be there for those who want to come back, but the question is how to bring them back. Above all, parishes must do a better job of educating their flock. “I have never met a Catholic who knew the faith well and then joined some other church,” says Keating. The damage done by ignorance is incalculable. “What am I supposed to do?” wonders Susan Holden, my house church leader. “I had sixteen years of Catholic school, and if I didn’t get it there, where am I supposed to get it?” Richard Gingher, a catechist in Baltimore, recalls the shock last fall when he mentioned the Real Presence to his class of twenty bright ninth-graders, all the product of either Catholic school or CCD. “They looked at me like I had two heads. Turns out that none of them had ever heard the term.” Astonished, he began asking around in his own parish and at others. Catechists, directors of religious education, and priests all assumed someone else was covering the doctrine. “This is a cornerstone of our faith! You can’t be Catholic without it!” cries Gingher. “It should be covered at every opportunity, as far as I’m concerned.”

Lay people have a job to do, too. Here’s what you can do if you see those you love leaving for another fold:

  • Know your faith. “If you don’t know what Purgatory is, you can’t defend it,” says Keating. Butera might have come back to the faith sooner, but after a disappointing audience with his parish priest, he stopped asking questions. “I didn’t know any other Catholics who could give me the answers,” he says. Now he advises people who are considering leaving the Church, “Make sure you understand the truth before you reject it. Find someone who really understands his faith, not just any old poorly informed Catholic.” Jennifer Cole, another revert and a field coordinator for the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment, came back to Catholicism in part “through many 3 a.m. conversations with friends in the parish parking lot.”
  • Invite them to an orthodox parish.
  • Pass along apologetic books, magazines, and tapes. Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Envoy contain important articles and columns. Both Catholic Answers, (619-541-1131; and Catholic Apologetics International, (800-531-6393; [email protected]) are great resources. For Butera, Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism was a watershed: “He wasn’t talking past my concerns. He knew the Fundamentalist position, and was able to provide biblical answers.” Keating himself recommends the writings of Frank Sheed, among them Theology for Beginners and Theology and Sanity. Patristic writings, such as William A. Jurgens’s meticulously indexed three-volume The Faith of the Early Fathers, may help refute the “Acts 2” assertions. “I started reading the Fathers, and when I came upon their teaching on the Real Presence, it threw Protestantism in a whole new light,” says Butera. “The Protestants told me that they were based on the early church, but the Fathers weren’t Protestant, they were Catholic.”
  • Ask how old their church is. “As we see in even the Bible, the first generation of the church is always the most enthusiastic,” says Sungenis. “You can look at various Protestant denominations throughout the last four hundred years and see congregations that started out on fire for the Lord, but which ceased to exist by the fourth generation. The Catholic Church has been around for at least seventy-five generations, so it’s not fair to take a cross-section and criticize it.”
  • Find out what they miss. Although many will answer, “nothing,” others admit that they’d like to be able to go to services on Thanksgiving or observe certain liturgical seasons, such as Advent. And even the most strident Catholic-turned-“just Christian” admits a reverence for beautiful old sanctuaries walled with stained glass. You might get an opening to explain why such elements are important to the faith.
  • Urge them to pray. “Anyone questioning their faith needs to pray above all else, with an unbiased heart if possible,” says Jennifer Cole. “It’s also about having the humility to say that maybe I don’t have all the answers. At some point, I started to think less about my own opinion than about two thousand years of history. Suddenly, they weren’t weighing equal anymore.”

We, too, must pray. I’m thankful that God has put people in my life to show me the beauty and truth of the Church as it should be. We must ask God to bring back to the Church those who have left hurt, ignorant, or disillusioned. In many cases, they have struck out alone. “Having the saints and Mary and the angels,” says Butera, “it’s as though you go from living in a house where it’s just you and Jesus to living with a whole family.” I, for one, can’t wait to move in.


  • Susie Powell

    Susie Powell is a features editor at the Washington Times.

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