The Flourishing Congregations Institute probes what is working in Canadian congregations
BY JOEL THIESSEN
If your church burned down tomorrow, would the neighbourhood notice? Years ago, that question was routinely tossed around in church circles to spur on good works and neighbourhood engagement. Leaders of flourishing congregations today say it’s still a great question. They claim they simply can’t flourish, theologically or otherwise, if they are not actively involved in their neighbourhood.
This emphasis was universally acclaimed by Canadian Catholic, mainline Protestant and conservative Protestant church leaders who dialogued on this question with our research team during interviews and focus groups in late 2016 during phase one of a national study on flourishing congregations in Canada.
So, how does a church do it well? The possibilities for links between congregations and their neighbourhoods are endless. Issues like poverty, refugees, immigrants, addictions, housing, families, single parents, sexual minorities, rites of passage, community gardens and barbeques, public lectures, evangelism, the environment and racism are just some of the topics and events those in our study mentioned when reflecting on their activities in the community.
It is too early to say what specifically causes a congregation to more effectively engage its neighbourhood or ultimately what contributes to a church’s success. We can only report on what leaders say is happening in their congregations, noting some features that appear to "hang together."
Study the neighbourhood
Without exception, the congregations we identified as flourishing appear to have done their homework on the community where they are situated. They say they know who lives in their community. They know facts about family status, stage of life, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and more. From this information churches identify what possible needs, points of convergence and opportunities exist. Churches garnered this information by speaking with local community association and organization leaders, reading city demographic reports and interacting with neighbours in various social settings around the church property. (A free, practical how-to guide is available at www.TheEFC.ca/CommunityResearch.)
In our study senior leaders seem to be instrumental in having a vision for outreach in the community, to communicate and rally core members as early adopters around that vision (who in turn influence those in their social sphere as late adopters). Senior leaders help create ample opportunity for church members to get involved in neighbourhood initiatives. They also respond positively to congregational members who have a desire and willingness for outreach activities. Again and again we see leaders in flourishing congregations seek to provide organizational space, resources and opportunities for lay members to lead in this way.
WHAT IS A GROUP NARRATIVE?
THE STORIES AND FRAMEWORKS GROUPS USE TO DESCRIBE AND PERFORM WHO THEY ARE AND ASPIRE TO BE. THESE INCLUDE CORE BELIEFS AND PRACTICES THAT SET THEM APART AS A CONGREGATION.
A neighbourly group narrative
Some congregations define themselves as a neighbourhood church — especially those in or near the urban core of a city, where parking is less common and congregants walk, cycle or take transit to church. Many members of such churches talk about the importance of living in the community where the church is physically located, to the point where commuters are discouraged from attending their church in favour of a congregation in their own neighbourhood. Along with varied opportunities for the congregation to come together and serve in the neighbourhood, such groups have a culture where it is common for members to step up and become actively involved in serving the neighbourhood. Theology is integral — the theological beliefs, rituals, customs and practices that anchor these congregations stress hospitality, service, dialogue, diversity and making room for the "other."
Embedded in group liturgy
Group narratives are more likely to be embraced by members when they are lived out, modelled and embodied in group rituals and liturgy such as weekly services, prayer gatherings, volunteer settings and so on. Flourishing churches regularly use social media, announcements, prayers, stories and testimonies, and invitations to highlight needs, opportunities and ways of responding to needs beyond the church walls. In other words, the importance of the neighbourhood and community involvement is consistently in group consciousness.
Flourishing congregations say they entrepreneurially try new things in their community and are willing to fail. They interpret "failures" as seeds to new ideas. There are some contexts where desperation (low membership, attendance or financial numbers) jolted congregations to think and act in fresh and innovative ways toward those outside the congregation. The narrative was, "We have little to lose, so why not try something new and see what happens?" For flourishing congregations the risks worked.
These congregations leverage the strengths of their church and other organizations (faith-based and secular) to collectively contribute positively in their community. Often there are paid or volunteer congregational leaders with skills and expertise in community development as well as partnerships with different organizations toward a common goal. Flourishing congregations work well with others.
Just because someone has past involvement with a given issue does not mean they will take an active role in the community, but it does help. For example, church members who were personally affected by immigration, poverty or addiction are more likely to take an active role in a related ministry.
Across all these features there is no silver bullet, single topic or sole approach that helps a congregation strengthen its neighbourhood involvement. It depends on your local context, the needs that exist around the church, the people and strengths and passions within your congregation, and how central you ultimately want this to be part of your congregational DNA.
Ideas to connect churches and neighbours
REMEMBERING HUNGRY NEIGHBOURS IN THE EUCHARIST
During Eucharist every week, members in one congregation place fresh fruit and vegetables in a basket during the service. This ritual is a reminder many come to the table with abundance, and others in the world do not. Following each service the food is donated to those in need — a particular response to food banks who say they receive high donation volumes around Christmas, but not throughout the year.
A member of one congregation asked the pastor if their congregation could raise $30,000 to sponsor a Syrian refugee family — one-quarter of the church’s annual budget. Within two months the money was raised without any dip in the ongoing operational giving.
When asked how their church could come alongside university students, one church member noted a space to study and receive some food would help. The church opened its doors once a week with this purpose in mind, seeing the number of university students attending grow from 10 in the first week to over 400 each week today.
A suburban congregation hosts a group of nearly 20 organizations involved in the arts to mobilize a stronger network and platform for artists of various kinds.
In response to an aging church as well as an aging community around the church building, one congregation hired a parish nurse to help support families in this phase of life — including practical, relational and spiritual needs associated with dying and death.
One congregation used some of its land for a community garden, which was designed by local university students and funded from a city grant. Much of the produce is then donated to recent immigrants in the neighbourhood.
In reaction to limited public spaces for young people in the community to hang out, one congregation renovated part of its facility and opened a drop-in youth centre with pool tables, computers and other activities. What especially excites this congregation is that several older members in the congregation get behind this initiative by volunteering each week.—JT
Your congregation will also have to ask, "Who is my neighbour?" There was a time when most Canadians attended churches in their immediate neighbourhood. This remains true for some, but increasingly people commute to congregations outside their physical neighbourhood. When we say neighbour, are we talking about the neighbourhood surrounding where the congregation meets? Where the congregants live?
Congregations address this topic differently. Some stress where the congregation is physically located. They desire for their members to live near that building and be involved in that community. Other congregations point toward the many neighbourhoods where their members live, encouraging members to be positively and actively involved in those neighbourhoods.
However congregations approach this topic, it’s essential they are clear and focused in their response, subsequent strategy and engagement with that all-important question, "Who is my neighbour?" Otherwise, we’re sorry to say, it is nearly certain communities would not notice if churches closed down or individual Christians moved out of their neighbourhoods.
Take a moment and answer these questions honestly:
- Would your neighbourhood notice if your church were no longer there, or if you relocated from the neighbourhood where you personally reside?
- How would you know?
- What are the markers?
- Are you satisfied in this area of your congregational or personal life?
- How might you strengthen your church’s presence in your neighbourhood or your personal involvement?
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE FLOURISHING CONGREGATIONS STUDY FINDINGS, UPCOMING RESEARCH ACTIVITIES, AND TO EXPLORE WAYS TO PARTICIPATE IN THE RESEARCH YOURSELF, VISIT WWW.FLOURISHINGCONGREGATIONS.ORG.
Joel Thiessen is professor of sociology and director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Calgary.