The upright will flourish like the palm tree, will grow like the cedar of Lebanon. Planted in the house of Yahweh, they will flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they will still bear fruit, will remain fresh and green, to proclaim Yahweh’s integrity; my role, in whom no fault can be found. (Psalm 92:12-15: NJB*)
“Well, is this a fleeting fad, this flourishing stuff . . . Is this notion of flourishing just a new bumper-sticker for the same old?” I think this is a fair question in response to our use on this website and in our research of the phrase “flourishing congregations.”
It is true that words such as vibrant, vital, thriving, alive, healthy, happy, well-being, blessed, proliferative, successful, prosperous and burgeoning have witnessed a renaissance in our more recent rhetoric and lexicons of description when we want to describe and imagine (out loud) what we’d like to see more of in congregations. It is a rather welcome break from the PLOMS** dis-ease that so frequently plagues those of us who love Jesus Christ and His Church (**the tragic Poor Little Old Me or Us Syndrome).
The healthy skeptic’s imputation of this phrase as merely marketing or branding garnish is understandable but not fair without a further examination of the motivations of users. In a literal sense “to flourish” has meant to “flower,” to “lengthen the stem,” or to “grow vigorously or profusely.” Right off the bat, I would say that we are less interested in neologisms, denotation and connotations than we are in manifestations. For us there are a variety of meanings on spectra of: ideal to real, subjective to objective, intuitive to empirical, natural to supernatural, material to spiritual, metaphysical to phenomenal.
Put simply, we are on a search to bring description to what is working in congregations – giving wide-berth to seeing the unexpected, to observing the predictable, to hearing the witnesses of miracles (i.e., God doing what God chooses to do), to observing common sense and good old fashion hard work in action, to puzzling with synchronicity (apparent acausality), to rejigging our various stipulative and assumptive definitions and to doing some deep learning from the situated experiences and traditions of other Christians and those different from us.
Ancient to contemporary commentators enthusiastically chime in for our edification: From Aristotles’ notion eudaemonia (happiness), as living our lives in the company of friends in accordance to our most commended and habituated virtues (Book 10 of Nicomachean Ethics), to indexes of Canadian wellbeing (https://uwaterloo.ca/canadian-index-wellbeing/about-canadian-index-wellbeing), to the contributions of burgeoning fields such as positive psychology (i.e., subjective well-being) and positive organizational studies (positive deviance), to the plethora of Church growth books offering lists, and more lists, of features, qualities, attributes, and characteristics that are root and fruit of healthfulness, together with the best and latest homily or sermon on being the prevailing Church. We are allowing ourselves to play in an array of conceptual sandboxes but our strong urge is to enter into the life-worlds of congregations and leaders across Canada and to join our senses with those of our partners to make sense of what we are able to learn from each other.
Given this, we are using the phrase “flourishing congregations” for a wide-open range of possibilities that privilege our noticing what God is doing and what His people are experiencing across Canada. Yes, we admit to being tired and worn down by deficit language in conversations about the dire state of the Church. I’d suggest this inquiry of ours isn’t so much a “same-old, same-old thing” (though the allied notions of flourishing have been with us for a long time). We do not have in mind a set of new clichés or to put on a store-bought wardrobe to hide an old and atrophic body. Neither is it about hopping onto a new fad bandwagon with adjectival sizzle to reify fading glory or to prop up organizational nominalism. No – I suggest that for us - this is a “flip of the switch” that permits us, against our propensities or tendencies to “bad-finding” and self-critique, to see ourselves at our contextual or situated best rather than beating ourselves and others up. This is a call for us to be mutual witnesses of our flourishing congregational lives as we bring to description the root attitudes and actions that give rise to God-glorifying communities of faith, across Christian traditions in Canada. This research encourages us to tilt our sights to what we imagine it would be like to experience more and more of what God loves and we were made to delight in.
For us, the joy in this journey will be the presence of the Lord and our ever-welcome co-journeyers.
*New Jerusalem Bible