I was recently invited by a group of Canadian church planters to share five insights from my sociological research on religion, with an eye toward engaging “religious nones” – those who say they have no religion. I said the following:
Be clear on your objectives and how you will measure and monitor those objectives. For example, if you plant a church with the intention of reaching and growing via religious nones, then measure your effectiveness as a church plant against such indicators. Too many congregations attribute growth of any kind to reaching the “nones and dones,” when data suggest transfer growth is a primary vehicle for church growth (for better or worse, depending on your view).
Think and act like missionaries – know your audience. If you aim to reach religious nones, read empirical research on this population, on their beliefs, practices, and experiences. On this area, I and others are actively publishing and speaking.
Emphasize relationships. The number one reason a person joins a religious group is because someone – a trusted friend or family member – invites them in; it is rare that someone suddenly shows up at your church.
Find common ground. Some research indicates that religious nones who become actively involved in a church do so because they find a common cause with those in a church (e.g., serving food to those in need), they then find community with those in that church, and then they embrace that congregation’s beliefs.
Equip and empower leaders and engaged laity. Invest time and energy to develop other leaders, and garner collective ownership over the church’s vision and mission.
More could be said, of course. Yet in the spirit of our work at the Flourishing Congregations Institute, I hope that some of these insights – rooted in empirical research – would contribute to data-informed and hopeful practices for church plants across Canada.
What is a Flourishing Congregation? Leader Perceptions, Definitions, and Experiences
Joel Thiessen, Arch Wong, Bill McAlpine, and Keith Walker
How do Canadian congregational and denominational leaders in Catholic, mainline, and conservative Protestant settings perceive and define what constitutes a flourishing congregation? Drawing on our phase one interviews and focus groups with leaders across Canada, our team highlight three central findings: (a) there is a divide between those who believe that flourishing entails numeric growth and those who do not; (b) depending on the Christian tradition in question, there are several partially overlapping and conflicting pictures of what constitutes a flourishing congregation; and (c) supernatural discourse figures into how leaders discuss flourishing congregations over and against secular or human-controlled narratives.