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Flourishing. Really?

At the outset of this research project we delineated five traits from existing literature on flourishing congregations: clear self-identity, committed leadership, desire to grow, hospitable community, and vibrant spiritual life. We loosely held these five traits as starting points for conversing with leaders across the country, not because we set out to prove and reinforce these points but rather to engage what leaders would add, emphasize, or take away from this list. This was a fruitful exercise that will culminate in a different set of traits and descriptors at the conclusion of this study, as we expected. The following blog emerged out of one conversation where we were drawn to the reality that these traits could very well be found in congregations that are not flourishing. This healthy push back, which we openly welcome, reveals an important part of the discourse at the heart of this entire study, which we believe will yield a more robust set of categories and descriptors in the end.

Joel, Arch, Bill, and Keith

I had the privilege of hosting the Flourishing Congregations research team in Kitchener in late June and I genuinely enjoyed the experience. Excellent to see people on the front lines and some of us who serve as coordinators interacting on the questions of what makes congregations flourish.

I did struggle with the five headings of the traits. I found that if I (strategically) covered the descriptions, I could see in the headings characteristics I have identified in congregations which have failed to flourish (either temporarily or permanently). Here would be my concerns about the five traits based on over a decade of being an interdenominational observer of Canadian congregational life:

  1. Clear Self Identity – Some of the congregations I have connected with could articulate who their individual members were, valued traditions of their church and some goals or mission or vision statements, but were also clearly failing to flourish. They knew who they were, they were often happy to be who they were, but they were aging and dwindling.

  2. Committed Leadership – A few congregations had very committed leadership … to the extent that they did not realize they were blocking others from opportunities to lead. Some churches have watched generational cohorts of young leaders leave for other opportunities and have not recognized that they actually discouraged involvement (… so they could experience control or hold onto their leadership title or resist new cultural expressions of worship or were impatient in the ability of others to grow into a role, etc.).

  3. Desire to Grow – It is very common to encounter struggling groups who strongly express their desire to grow. At some point in the downward spiral it becomes a survival instinct. The more difficult tests come when they try to imagine what they would change in order to develop in new ways, actually make changes (or not) and evaluate whether their ideas put into action contributed to growth (…or what kind of growth they actually experienced).

  4. Hospitable Community – Unless there is ongoing conflict, most church groups can describe the ways in which their community is hospitable. When you talk to the people who are still part of the congregation (as opposed to those who have already left or those who have not yet visited), they can usually give reasons why they stick around. The key question is: Hospitable to whom? Do they have a “holy huddle” or have they learned how to make “outsiders” feel welcome?

  5. Vibrant Spiritual Life – This all hinges on how we define “vibrant.” It is not unusual for struggling congregations to feel comfortable with their current spiritual practices (although there may be mixed feelings). How can we identify the ways we can take risks that stretch our faith and identify the Holy Spirit at work in our midst and our surrounding community?

For those of you who have read the descriptions of the five traits, it is obvious that my ability to harpoon the traits is nullified by many of the details already used to define the traits. I suspect clarification of these definitions will be one of the big “wins” in doing research into flourishing, Canadian congregations over the next three years. The more carefully we can reflect on the “angel” of our congregation (Revelation 2-3), the greater success we will have identifying new ways that God may be opening up for us to flourish.

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