5 Features of Flourishing Congregations
As I survey the vast interdisciplinary literature on churches that thrive, five interrelated features stand out to me (and perhaps there are more that ought to be added to this list). What binds the following together is intentionality. Like cultivating all kinds of habits in one’s life, congregations do not flourish, develop, or thrive without intentionally seeking to do so.
Clear Self Identity: Flourishing congregations have a clear sense of who they are – where they come from, where they are now, and where they are going. They often learn from other churches along the way, yet they understand their uniqueness and do not strive to be like the others (e.g. how many Canadian churches have I encountered who mistakenly try to be like Willowcreek or Saddleback or any other American church!). As part of knowing themselves, thriving churches involve many people and voices in the self-identity conversation – these are not solely concentrated among pastoral staff and board members. Leaders take time to listen to members in the congregation and to act upon the feedback that they receive, prioritizing clear, concise, and timely communication. The culmination of these variables are people who identify and buy-in to the congregation’s identity and rally around the group’s goals and mission, both in terms of financial and volunteer resources.
Leadership: Thriving churches equip and empower leaders to lead. Pastors are not all things to all people. They focus their responsibilities around their strengths and that specific congregation’s needs, and they delegate lay leaders (it is key to identify and mobilize the right people for the right positions, rather than taking any willing body to fill a need) to play an instrumental role in the congregation’s life. In this vein, flourishing congregations are generally set apart by pastors who stay a long time and take the time to build trust and rapport with members (research suggests that this truly begins to set in after five years). Encompassing all areas of leadership, flourishing groups strike the right balance between structure and flexibility in setting out strategies, making decisions, sharing authority, and so forth. These congregations are not so structured that they cannot make spur of the moment decisions along the way, but equally so, are not so open to any and all things that they have no underlying values and direction to orient their activities.
Culture that Desires Growth: Flourishing congregations have a cultural ethos that desires growth. These churches do not want to merely survive or remain static. Toward this end they commit to excellence in all things from quality of preaching, music, and programs, to treating people well. They encourage spiritual growth among members. Leaders and the congregation alike value learning, as a way to develop and broaden one’s horizons toward effective ministry. These congregations are innovative and entrepreneurial, willing to take risks and make mistakes – however defined in their local context. Finally, thriving churches seek ongoing accountability and self-evaluation, with an eye toward improvement rather than living on past successes or failures.
Community: Churches that do well are known for inviting and welcoming people into a vibrant sense of belonging and participation. They create an environment where safety, love, acceptance, affirmation, and forgiveness are hallmark features of community life – and these traits are first and foremost spoken of and modeled by congregational leaders. Out of this focus ministries are generally relationship-centered, personal stories and testimonies are exchanged in different congregational-related gatherings. Once more, when people feel part of the faith community they are more likely to reciprocate with volunteering and financial resources … and the more that people attend and volunteer, the more likely they are to buy into the vision of that congregation.
Vibrant Spiritual Life: A commitment to a vibrant spiritual life is evident in flourishing churches. This includes teaching, opportunities, and resources that encourage members toward spiritual growth. Inspiring, engaging, and inspiring worship services are also common. A congregational commitment to sound stewardship of one’s time, finances, talents, relationships, possessions, health, and knowledge is also key to churches that are doing well – this is mainly because it means that individuals and the congregation as a whole are generous toward others, rather than constantly self-serving (a common critique of churches). On this latter point, flourishing churches have a faith-based commitment to outreach and to serve those beyond the walls of their congregation. This entails an active evangelism focus, participation in various social justice initiatives, and an active presence in the community at large.
As I embark in earnest on my next sizable (three year) research project – on what conditions, catalysts, and factors characterize flourishing churches in Canada – along with my colleagues Dr. Arch Wong, Dr. Bill McAlpine, and Dr. Keith Walker, and I continue to accept invitations to speak with many denominations and congregations across the country, these five features are at the forefront of my mind.
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.