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The uncomfortable pew:

Flourishing congregations in a secular age

“Thank goodness this is a Canadian study,” Canadian congregational leaders kept saying. “We are different from the United States. We feel like a faith community in exile.”

We’ve heard from the Crystal Cathedral and Saddleback. We’ve done Natural Church Development and “Healthy Church” surveys. Now, finally, a new organization in Canada is conducting research particularly for the true north’s congregational life.

Flourishing Congregations Institute (FCI) formally launched its think tank life on November 26th, 2016 on its home campus of Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta. It had spent months gathering the perceptions of Christian leaders across Canada and used this launch to present its preliminary findings. Clearly, the Canadian religious landscape shapes vision for ministry in our neighbourhoods. FCI research shows that church leaders see declining levels of religiosity, notice that religion is perceived as bad for society, and witness how Christianity has been separated from politics and faith relegated to a private affair. There is a profound skepticism towards faith due to the failures of the Christianity in Canada and the U.S., making it difficult to self-identify as a Christian in public. In other words, as one presenter concluded, “We need to strive to repair ‘brand image.’”

This challenging context was juxtaposed with the positive focus of the Institute’s vision. “We want to begin with appreciative inquiry,” said Joel Thiessen, principal investigator ofthe research centre. “We want to study what is going well and right in churches all across the theological spectrum and all across the regions of Canada. We want to be a hub of research activity on congregations in Canada.”

So they began their work with a definition of “flourishing” (see sidebar at end of article). Sam Reimer, one of Canada’s leading sociologists of religion from Crandall University, was a guest speaker. “It’s past time for something like this. The only question is: why did it take so long? Well, people were captivated by secularization theory; they assumed there would be no flourishing congregations in Canada by this point in time.” Later in the day, he added, “The antagonistic secular context is real, but there is a large group of Canadians open to conversations about faith.”

The other guest, popular religion statistician Reginald Bibby (University of Lethbridge), concurred: “It’s a myth that religion is dying in Canada. There remains a solid core – about one third of the country – who deeply value faith. Another one third reject it, and the final third make up the ‘ambivalent middle.’”

Speakers at the FCI launch.
PHOTOCREDIT: Barry Pendergast

‘Bend toward the light’
After the research team and Reimer and Bibby shared their findings, the FCI invited reflection and response from the 100 church leaders gathered for the day – leaders representing most of the major denominations, excepting Roman Catholic. The institute’s list of funding partners includes World Vision, Willow Creek Canada, Cardus, Turning Point Consulting, the Christian Missionary Alliance Church, Ambrose University and the University of Saskatchewan.

Ten major themes were shared that relate to congregational flourishing as it is perceived by church leaders across Canada: clear self-identity, vibrant spiritual life, discipleship, evangelism, leadership, imagination, hospitality and neighbourhood involvement. Two particular themes stood out: first, that there is a debate about quantitative growth – some claiming transformed communities and lives were more important than numerical growth, and others claiming that flourishing assumes multiplication of people and resources; secondly, “diversity” was valued – not just in terms of sociological identities, but in terms of theological openness to questions and doubts.

Two other themes emerged during the day. One social reality recurrent in many conversations was the presence and promise of immigrants to the church. Not as a demographic to be exploited but as a reality to be paid attention to and engaged with because immigrants are particularly important to our nation. Almost 50 percent of immigrants to Canada are Christian, and Roman Catholic pews are packed in some parishes because immigrants love the church. Secondly, though it was mentioned with an added chuckle, fertility rates are key to flourishing communities that want to endure on the planet. It’s something easily dismissed from this conversation, but fertility rates could provoke significant questions about unspoken assumptions concerning sexuality, materialism, children and gender roles.

It was suggested at one point that evangelicals are about 50 years behind the mainline churches in terms of facing serious decline. Reginald Bibby, however, is convinced that the 25 percent of Canadians who now identify as religious nones (the fasted growing demographic on the religious landscape) is going to come to a halt at its current level. He doesn’t think they are likely to come to church, but, as Sam Reimer added, having a strong evangelistic ethos in your congregation gives a clear sense of mission and opens more possibility for flourishing, even if converts are few. “One convert can energize a whole church,” he explained.

The hosts also invited critical reflection on the dialogues of the day. There was general agreement that the sociology was strong but the theology needed more fleshing out. Some wanted more focus on men, youth, apologetics or diversity.

Other members of the research team are Arch Wong (Practical Theology, Ambrose University), Bill McAlpine (Practical Theology, Ambrose University) and Keith Walker (Personal and Organizational Leadership, University of Saskatchewan). Walker ended the day with this comment: “We tend to overstate the case and catastrophize the situation. We need warranted hope for the church in Canada. We need to bend toward the light.” The “flourishing” focus is thus one good antidote to discouragement and decline.

Christian Reformed leader Syd Hielema says that the Flourishing Congregations gathering gets “an A+ in my book. Their approach is very similar to Faith Formation Ministries in the CRCNA.”

Jo-Ann Badley, Dean of Theology at Ambrose, closed by saying, “Beware of the quest for a silver bullet. There isn’t one. This is as much a call to prayer as it is sociology.” The next phase of FCI research turns to case studies, followed by a national survey of congregants.

What is a ‘flourishing’ congregation?
Active spiritual life: prayer, Scripture reading, small groups, volunteering, etc.
Belonging: a vibrant sense of community and participation
Inspiring mission: worship services and mission are inspiring
Quantitative growth: church attendance, membership, finances, etc.
Leadership: leaders empower others to use their skills
Outreach and service: faith-based outreach and service, within and beyond
Community presence: an active presence in the community at large.
– As defined by the FCI

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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