by Murray White CATHOLIC congregations are much larger on average than those of other Christian churches, but as a result are less prepared to attract new members, a new study has revealed.
Finding Faith Today, a substantial survey of how adults come to a Christian faith.
concludes that major denominations may need to rethink their approaches to the Decade of Evangelisation. More people are attracted to all of the Churches by partners or friends than by "up front" evangelistic rallies and. contrary to expectations, a majority of people become believers gradually.
Congregations of Catholic parishes are on average three times the size of those of other denominations. Almost two-thirds of Catholic parishes have 200plus people attending Masses.
But the author of the study. John Finney, concludes that bigger-sized parishes are less likely to grow. "A full church tends to inhibit evangelism. The figures are pertinent to the current debate about forming new congregations or having smaller communities with large congregations. They suggest that 'smallish is beautiful'," he says.
The findings of the study were backed up this week by one Catholic diocese, which urged its clergy to take seriously the practical opportunities for deepening the faith of people at a very local and personal level during the Decade of Evangelisation.
Bishop Augustine Harris of Middlesbrough stresses in a booklet to the priests of his diocese that faith "can never be force-fed." He says: "The day is gone when we imagine that religion can be sold as a programme for salvation, although there are still those who attempt to badger unbelievers with the Bible."
Priests must be well prepared in their liturgies and other pastoral commitments. says Bishop Harris. They must be visibly active in Catholic schools. and not assume a judgemental role when dealing with difficult social issues such as Aids and the baptism of children from non-practising families. They should develop a sense of "self-sacrifice" if they are to make an impression on parishioners, he says.
"In some of our churches there is a tired look, a sort of heavy fatigue. Remember, our congregations know instinctively when the liturgy has been prepared, considered and thought through," he says.
The Roman Catholic process for bringing adults into the Church, the Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults (RC1A), is lauded as "the most thorough" by the Finding Faith Today report, commissioned by Churches Together in England and the Bible Society.
Cardinal Basil Hume, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Methodist leader Dr John Newton last week launched the new study, a survey of more than 500 adult Christians who made a "public profession of faith" between March 1990 and March 1991.
Other findings of the study show that adults who become Catholics are more likely to have gone to a Church school, but not necessarily a Catholic one. Some, however. have negative memories of Church schools which "rammed faith down our throat".