Amongst Christian religious denominations in Canada, the current narrative is one of decline. Church attendance is down; secularism is on the rise; people are turning away from religion.
Pastors, priests, professors and politicians alike discuss questions such as: Why is it in decline? What is the possible impact? How can it be stopped?
In the midst of this narrative, one group of researchers is asking a very different set of questions.
“There is no doubt that religious congregations face an uphill battle in Canada,” says Joel Thiessen, Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University. “We see lots of stories that document that narrative of decline. We are exploring where there are signs of life and vitality to understand the elements that make a flourishing congregation.”
Thiessen and his team at the Flourishing Congregations Institute are conducting a study, to understand what flourishing looks like across the Christian continuum of denominations in a Canadian context. They are asking questions such as what are the environmental and contextual factors that influence flourishing? Does flourishing look the same in a Catholic setting versus a Pentecostal one? What are the traits of a flourishing congregation?
While the study is still in its early stages, a few interesting findings are coming forward.
In Catholic settings, the biggest challenge is that congregations are growing, primarily due to immigration from predominantly Catholic countries in Africa, South America, and Asia. These congregations are building larger cathedrals, offering more masses, and expanding their staffing to accommodate for such growth.
For mainline Protestants decline does seem to be prominent, but there are some congregations that are doing exceptionally well. What sets these ones apart is that they tend to be outsiders to the standard tradition. For instance, these congregations and its leaders are creative with their liturgy, they question taken-for-granted assumptions within their traditions, and they take bold steps to engage those in their neighborhood.
In Vancouver, a sense of desperation and urgency in response to secularism is predominant. Church leaders feel they have nothing to lose and out of that desperation, an entrepreneurial spirit has developed, most evident in new and innovative church plants in mainline and conservative Protestant contexts.
What all of these examples have in common is an openness to engage people in a less intimidating way.
“Our sense is that [congregations] are more alike than different…” says Thiessen. “…those that are willing to take risks, are entrepreneurial, have structures in place but are willing to be flexible, will flourish.”
For more information on the study and to follow its progress, visit www.flourishingcongregations.org.
For more information about the Official Launch of Flourishing Congregations, Saturday, November 26, 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM at Ambrose University visit: www.eventbrite.ca/e/flourishing-congregations-institute-launch-tickets-27306310911