Our Flourishing Congregations Institute research team—based at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta—spent April to June 2016 interviewing and facilitating focus groups with over 100 Catholic, mainline Protestant, and conservative Protestant leaders in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, SW Ontario, and Halifax regions. The purpose? To explore how leaders of self-identified flourishing congregations describe and explain the optimal traits and characteristics of a flourishing congregation in a distinctly Canadian context, and to hear these leaders share their insights and experiences that contribute to flourishing in their setting.
I want to focus on one small but important aspect of what we learned: leaders and congregations who take risks and think outside of the box. It became clear early in our research that many leaders could be classified as mavericks, willing to push the boundaries in creative and innovative ways.
An Anglican leader expressed to us, “I think a flourishing congregation is a congregation that can contemplate imaginatively a variety of different possibilities.” A focus group participant stated, “Willingness to risk I think is probably something that’s really important in flourishing congregations. It’s okay to try something and have it not work.” In response, another member of the focus group added, “Not working means that it didn’t explode and there’s not 500 people involved. ‘Oh it was a failure, right?’ But it’s getting over that and going ‘sometimes things are only going to be a flash in the pan and they need to be for other things to happen.’ That’s okay.”
Examples of innovative ideas to emerge in our study include: purchasing multiple properties to expand social service opportunities in the neighborhood, trying new liturgical forms to engage people in weekly services, planting churches, hiring communications and marketing personnel, incorporating the Alpha program as an evangelistic tool, and investing funds into a new ministry without a clear sense of its likely success. The ideas are endless.
From a sociological standpoint a key catalyst for many of these congregational initiatives was the awareness of how secular Canadian society is and how ineffective many congregations are in reaching ordinary Canadians. With their backs against a wall they had nothing to lose in imagining and experimenting with new initiatives. Desperation helped to set the conditions for fresh thinking and acting.
With growing rates of Canadians who say they have no religion (24% of adults and 32% of teens) and decreasing figures identifying as Christian (67%) or attending religious services weekly (around 15%), it is fair to suggest that Canadian congregations should be desperate.
If I am a church leader in Canada, there are three questions worth considering.
First, what is our congregation’s core vision and set of values, and how do those determine our priorities? It is one thing to aimlessly take risks and experiment with new possibilities. It is another to embed such innovation against the backdrop of a clear organizational direction and purpose. So far as we can tell at this phase of our research, congregations who successfully think and act outside of the box do so with a clear self-identity in mind.
Second, do we have the right mix of paid and/or lay leaders who can help us as a congregation to think imaginatively, and to take tangible steps toward that end? Do I have members on my leadership group who encourage our congregation to think differently and to step out of its comfort zone? If the majority of your leadership group is stuck in a “this is how we have always done things” narrative, this should cause concern and signal an opportunity to diversify the leadership group. Who might you consider inviting into church leadership to help in this area?
Third, what are the possible risks that our congregation should take? This question is not to suggest that congregations should try what other churches are doing, though that may be the case. Every congregation has its own story and context, thus a risk in one setting may not be a risk in another environment. Identify possible new endeavours and courageously step out to try one of those.
Dr. Joel Thiessen is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University, in Calgary, Alberta. In addition to publishing several articles, he has written two books: The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Perspective (co-authored with Lorne L. Dawson) (Oxford University Press, 2014) and The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). More information can be located on his website, www.joelthiessen.ca.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*