Flourishing Congregations in Canada
When it comes to congregations, much of the academic and clerical discourse on religion in Canada to date focuses on what is wrong with churches. Church leaders often ask what they can do to keep people from leaving or to attract people to come, and responses tend to focus around more relevant preaching, more programming, livelier music, more small groups, etc. It is valuable for organizations to self-examine and to probe at some of their limitations. At the same time this process can become demoralizing in a setting such as Canada that is increasingly secular and where the appetite for ‘organized religion’ appears to be waning.
I recently met with a group of denominational leaders and presented a series of findings from my latest research, a narrative that is not overly optimistic yet is realistic about the state of religion in Canada today. Two questions to come my way: (1) Can you tell us something about what is going right and what works? (2) Are there any signs of life? These questions spoke volumes about the power of the ‘what’s wrong’ narrative that has (understandably) plagued many churches across Canada. But what about those alternative questions …
I am at the outset of a three year study with some colleagues on ‘flourishing congregations’ in Canada where we wish to focus on what is working in Canadian churches and to mobilize distinctly Canadian findings to academics and religious leaders/practitioners. Our three central questions are: (1) What internal and external conditions, catalysts, and factors contribute to prosperous, sustainable, innovative, and flourishing congregations? (2) What role does leadership and leadership culture (e.g. style, structure, strategies) play in flourishing congregations, and in the innovative and prosperous capacity and potential of flourishing congregations to those in and outside the organization? (3) How should our definition and measurement of flourishing congregations adapt in light of the data gleaned in this study, and how might our enhanced understanding of innovation within flourishing contexts contribute to ongoing prosperity in society?
Much has been written about flourishing in all types of organizational settings from schools to businesses to nation-states to churches. One of our objectives is to discern how best to measure flourishing based on the data we collect through surveys, interviews, focus groups, observations, and case studies across Canada. But as a starting point here are a number of key indicators of flourishing that will help to orient the beginning of this project: a) quantitative growth in church attendance, membership, finances, baptisms; b) active spiritual life among congregants: prayer, scripture reading, small groups, volunteering; c) people are invited and welcomed into a vibrant sense of belonging and participation; d) worship services and mission are inspiring; e) leaders empower others to use their skills to lead and serve; f) faith-based outreach and service, within and beyond; and g) an active presence in the community at large.
In the next few years we aim to build on these ideas as starting points to achieve the following: a) explore and describe church attenders, leaders and experts’ perspectives on the variables that account for flourishing within Roman Catholic, Mainline Protestant, and Conservative Protestant congregations towards arriving at a multi-dimensional understanding of flourishing congregations; b) identify the conditions and catalysts in flourishing congregations; c) develop a series of case narratives of thriving congregations; d) from findings, discern attributes of flourishing congregations and from these develop assessment instruments to further identify indicators of flourishing attained and sustained by such groups. In turn, we aim to refine instrumentation for use by congregations to assess and enhance qualities associated with their vitality as thriving communities; and e) pursue meaningful dissemination of findings to academic and professional audiences, together with forming a network of collaborating churches, church leaders, and experts in religious community development in ways that enhance their ability to flourish, innovate, and prosper.
Over the coming year(s) I will blog with additional insights on what is going well in congregations, in ways that will hopefully spur conversation and practical application. In the meantime, check out the book The Healthy Small Church by Dennis Bickers (2005). Most churches in Canada have fewer than 100 members/attenders and this book is full of practical insights that will be of value.
Have additional thoughts or reflections on this topic? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and stay in touch via my website at www.joelthiessen.ca.