Cen­tre ex­am­ines why con­gre­ga­tions thrive, oth­ers fade

Church lead­ers across coun­try strug­gle to re­main rel­e­vant in chang­ing so­ci­ety

Calgary Herald - - YOU - CHRIS NEL­SON

What makes one Chris­tian con­gre­ga­tion flour­ish and thrive in this coun­try, while an­other fades into vir­tual in­signif­i­cance?

That wide- rang­ing and vi­tal ques­tion plagues many church lead­ers across the coun­try as they strug­gle to re­main rel­e­vant in a rapidly evolv­ing so­ci­ety. Now a Chris­tian col­lege in Calgary is try­ing to piece to­gether some much needed answers to that com­plex co­nun­drum.

Ambrose Univer­sity in the city’s south­west has set up a re­search in­sti­tute in­volv­ing three fac­ulty mem­bers, along with a fourth re­searcher from the Univer­sity of Saskatchewan, to look into the com­plex­ity of con­gre­ga­tional growth and de­cline.

The pro­gram has been of­fi­cially up and run­ning for more than a year and it is hoped that it will even­tu­ally be­come a re­search cen­tre and data hub that will be avail­able for all Cana­dian Chris­tian de­nom­i­na­tions to tap into.

Joel Thiessen is a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Ambrose and the di­rec­tor of the Flour­ish­ing Con­gre­ga­tions In­sti­tute. He be­lieves this is the largest type of in-depth, cross-de­nom­i­na­tional re­search be­ing car­ried out in the coun­try.

“We look at the signs of life and vi­tal­ity in Chris­tian con­gre­ga­tions across Canada,” he said. “The pre­vail­ing nar­ra­tive is still that con­gre­ga­tions are in de­cline, but against that back­drop there are many signs of life and vi­tal­ity.

“We want to see what can we learn from them, what con­trib­utes to these or­ga­ni­za­tions that are buck­ing some of the trends and, most im­por­tantly, to col­lect and have Cana­dian spe­cific data, in­stead of al­ways look­ing to the U.S.”

Last year, he and his col­leagues went coast to coast con­duct­ing in­ter­views with more than a 100 church and de­nom­i­na­tional lead­ers and hold­ing fo­cus groups with those churches that are wit­ness­ing a flour­ish­ing of faith. They asked ev­ery one how they them­selves de­fine and mea­sure such suc­cess.

“There are some that are adamant that num­bers mat­ter and there are other lead­ers who are equally adamant that a con­gre­ga­tion of 75 can be flour­ish­ing bet­ter as op­posed to a con­gre­ga­tion of a thou­sand that is not so in­volved,” said Thiessen.

Their on-the-ground re­search has un­earthed three strands that they be­lieve are com­mon to those churches that are grow­ing rather than shrink­ing.

Thiessen said suc­cess­ful con­gre­ga­tions have a clear self-iden­tity; they know why they ex­ist and they have an ethos that is will­ing to try new things and take risks.

Se­cond, there were in­ter­nal cat­a­lysts, such as hav­ing the laity ac­tively in­volved, mak­ing sure the place is wel­com­ing and invit­ing and that there’s di­ver­sity across eth­nic, age and gen­der lines.

Lastly, Thiessen said it ap­pears flour­ish­ing con­gre­ga­tions are heav­ily en­gaged in their own neigh­bour­hoods, that they are part of what is go­ing on around them and in­volved in im­por­tant so­ci­etal is­sues that af­fect their neigh­bours.

How­ever, he cau­tioned that there are ex­ter­nal trends af­fect­ing the health of var­i­ous in­di­vid­ual churches no mat­ter what those at a lo­cal level try to ac­com­plish.

“There are things that are out­side their con­trol that con­trib­ute to growth or de­cline,” he added. “Take im­mi­gra­tion as an ex­am­ple. In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s main line Protes­tant num­bers grew rapidly in this coun­try be­cause of im­mi­grants from Bri­tain and west­ern Europe. Con­versely, now Catholic and evan­gel­i­cal tra­di­tions are grow­ing be­cause of im­mi­gra­tion from the south and east­ern parts of the world. These trends have noth­ing to do with what an in­di­vid­ual church does or doesn’t do.”

Thiessen, the son of a Bap­tist min­is­ter, was born in Calgary but grew up in Win­nipeg. The fam­ily re­turned to Al­berta and he took his un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree at Ambrose be­fore gain­ing his PhD in so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Water­loo. Nine years ago, he came back to the Calgary col­lege when he was hired as a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy. That re­mains his main role with the in­sti­tute work be­ing added to his plate.

In Jan­uary, the in­sti­tute’s work con­tin­ues with a planned na­tional sur­vey of con­gre­ga­tions and grass­roots mem­ber­ships. “It is one thing to hear what lead­ers are say­ing, but what’s ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing on the ground among the peo­ple in the pews?” he said. “Are they as di­verse as lead­ers think they are? Is growth com­ing from other churches in their neigh­bour­hood or is it grow­ing from con­ver­sion? We need to go in-depth.”

Thiessen said the goal at Ambrose it to col­lect a body of re­search that will stand the test of time long af­ter he and his col­leagues have moved on.

“We hope that this vi­sion will long out­last us.”

Con­gre­ga­tions are in de­cline, but against that back­drop there are many signs of life and vi­tal­ity.

Joel Thiessen

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