Flourishing Congregations: From Understanding to Practice

Since I first heard of the Flourishing Congregations Institute, I’ve been a big fan of their work. While much has already been written on the church in the U.S.A. and U.K., Flourishing Congregations is doing original research on the church in Canada. While some focus on what’s wrong with the church, Flourishing Congregations asks what’s going well, and how can we build on that?

I was glad to share some of my church’s story at the Flourishing Congregations National Gathering in Calgary last November, and to be part of a local panel for a Flourishing Congregations event in Abbotsford last weekend sponsored by the Mennonite Faith and Learning Society and Columbia Bible College. “Your perceptions shape your reality,” said Joel Thiessen, a sociologist of religion and the director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute, and his intent is to inform our perceptions with data. Both events offered great empirical research, sociological insights, storytelling, and ideas for practical application.

I understand that the slides from the Abbotsford event will be posted on the Mennonite Faith and Learning Society site, and I’ll provide the link once those are available. In the meantime, here are a few random  highlights from my notes taken at the Abbotsford event. My notes are more or less verbatim from what I understood of Joel’s presentation.

On religious “nones” in canada

Most Canadians seem to share the narrative that we should not impose our religious views on others. “I am the ultimate authority over what I believe” – this is a starting point for understanding religious nones.

On the role of parents

The family is the single greatest influencer on a person’s faith. Congregations can’t take the place of parents/home, but can come alongside and help equip parents to raise their kids. Parents most effective in passing on their faith do three things:

  1. They model their faith – so if church is important, they don’t just send their kids, they’re involved in church themselves.
  2. They teach their children – so if giving is important, they model and teach giving, including explaining theologically why it’s important.
  3. They create space and place for dialogue – if this is not provided at home, kids will find other places to dialogue and ask their questions.

On flourishing congregations

There is a strong divide between those who define flourishing as numerical growth and those who do not. But people, money, resources are needed, or at some point in time you no longer have an organization.

Most every congregation is flourishing in some way.

Every congregation has some kind of drawback/weakness.

Qualities that contribute to flourishing congregations include the following:

Organizational Ethos:

  1. Clear self-identity – can you put it on the side of a bus?
  2. Leadership – developing, equipping, and empowering leaders from within
  3. Innovation – willingness to experiment relative to your self-identity
  4. Effective structures and processes to aid key priorities

Internal:

  1. Discipleship
  2. Engaged laity – active and proud of their congregation
  3. Hospitable community – people feeling loved and cared for
  4. Diversity – within/depending on the theological tradition

Outward:

  1. Neighbourhood involvement – an incarnational presence
  2. Evangelism – from a sociological perspective, nothing can replace peer to peer relationship. The #1 reason someone joins a religious group is personal invitation
  3. Partnerships

For more on these qualities of flourishing congregations, check out the diagram and details here.

There’s still time to take part in the national survey of churches if you’d like to participate. I found that answering the questions helped me think about my congregation, and the individual church report provides a good overview of perspectives from members. For more information on how you can contribute to this research on the church in Canada and receive a free congregational report, check out 5 reasons to get involved.

I’ll continue to follow the work of the Flourishing Congregations Institute with interest as they complete the current national survey and prepare for the next phase of case studies.

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Ordained minister with 25 years' experience as lead pastor of a mid-size, multi-staff church, now resident author with a liturgical worship community, and editor of Purpose, a monthly magazine of everyday inspiration. Author of Four Gifts, Sacred Pauses, and other books on Christian living. For more, see aprilyamasaki.com and WhenYouWorkfortheChurch.com.

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