Centre examines why congregations thrive, others fade
Church leaders across country struggle to remain relevant in changing society
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.