What counts as a flourishing congregation in Canada?

by Joel Thiessen

What counts as a flourishing congregation in Canada? What are the indicators of a flourishing congregation?

FlouishingCI LogoWhat would you say? Membership, baptism, conversion, or attendance figures? How “well” churchgoers love others? Good leadership? Strong community presence?

These are common and anticipated questions that our research team receives as we launch the new Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University.  In reality, flourishing is a combination of all of the above, plus a series of other variables.

Our team recently facilitated two expert panel gatherings with nearly 20 church and denominational leaders of flourishing Catholic, mainline and conservative Protestant congregations in Calgary. Soon we will travel coast to coast, speaking with 50-75 additional leaders of flourishing congregations – and later in the study we will conduct in-depth case studies of some congregations, followed by a national survey with leaders and members of flourishing congregations.

In our initial explorations we ask leaders this open-ended question: “What comes to mind with the phrase “flourishing congregation”?” We also summarize and then solicit their response to five traits that emerge in the literature on healthy and vibrant churches: a clear self-identity; strong and committed leadership; a culture that desires growth (numeric as well as spiritual); a hospitable community;band vibrant spiritual life (see our earlier article in Faith Today)

As we probe leaders, there is strong affirmation for things such as clear self-identity, strong and committed leadership, and a vibrant spiritual life. Drawing on personal experiences, church leaders discuss the necessity to clearly articulate their church’s vision, to “get the right people on the bus” in staff and lay leadership, and above all, to anchor the congregation in longstanding spiritual practices, goals, and activities.

Interestingly, there is also a strong and visceral reaction to ideas surrounding the desire to grow (at least in terms of membership or attendance figures), plus a discontent around the absence of certain items that they would associate with flourishing congregations. From our very preliminary round of one-on-one interviews and expert panel gatherings, here are some emerging themes that we are starting to listen more intently for (in no particular order).

  • Risk Takers – leaders and congregations are willing to take risks and try new things, to live “near the edges” in their approach to finances, buildings (or no buildings), programmatic initiatives, and so forth.
  • Discipleship – a word that has come up several times across denominational lines, leaders insist that a clear discipleship plan is integral to their congregation’s ability to flourish. Part of what we want to explore is what discipleship looks like, in concrete terms.
  • Stewardship – they take seriously the impact that their church’s decisions today – regarding finances, property and land, the environment, partnerships, and programs – will have on their congregation in the future and the next generation.
  • Diverse Communities – demographically, their congregations reflect the communities that they reside in, including age, socioeconomic, ethnic, and interest group diversity.
  • Outward Focused – while embracing a hospitable community toward those who come to their churches, they are evermore anchored in a “missional” and “sent” narrative to actively engage and contribute to the surrounding community.
  • Urgency – in all of the above there is a keen awareness that Christianity is on the periphery of Canadian social life where congregations cannot operate under the “build it and they will come” refrain; thus these congregations function with a desperation to think and act creatively, to study Canadian religious and cultural trends, and to orient their focus to those beyond the walls of their congregation.

Truth be told, we do not know exactly where this research will take us or the Canadian Church – but this is what excites us! In the early stages of this study we are already encountering many and varied expressions and understandings of flourishing, realities that give us hope and encouragement for the local church in Canada.

We welcome your input and involvement in this collective endeavor. Check out our website, sign up to receive regular updates and findings, follow us on twitter and facebook, tell others about this project, and let us know about flourishing congregations in your sphere who may participate in this research.

In the end we hope that along with contributing in meaningful ways to academic discussions about congregations and organizations, this research can help to equip, empower, encourage and spur Canadian congregations towards flourishing as well, in ways that honor and respect the uniqueness of each local congregation.

Joel Thiessen is Associate Professor of Sociology at Ambrose University in Calgary (www.joelthiessen.ca). Faith Today interviewed Joel for our May/Jun issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *