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Flourishing Update - February 6, 2019

Current Musings

I recently gave an interview about my forthcoming book (with Reginald Bibby and Monetta Bailey), The Millennial Mosaic: How Pluralism and Choice are Shaping Canadian Youth and the Future of Canada. After the interview my wife and I moved into our friends’ place to look after their three teenagers for a week (those stories another time!). Some reflections on the possibilities and promise with Canada’s teens and young adults … individuals in your congregations, hopefully.

First, millennials are often labeled as entitled. If this is true, one must ask why? Who hands out participation medals or does things for them (i.e. helicopter parents)? Millennials are a product of their social environment, thus how are we raising (or not) young people to be independent and responsible members of society? And yet, this generation of young people confront several distinct obstacles – broken families, working multiple jobs while attending university, unprecedented school debt, lack of affordable housing, and the list could go on. Are millennials as entitled as the social narrative goes? I’m not so sure.

Second, millennials are raised to value the many choices laid before them – regarding friends, social media, sexuality, gender identity, religion, employment – with few tools provided on how to make good decisions. Research shows that people struggle to make decisions, and to regret their decision, the more options that are available. Opportunities remain for parents, teachers, religious leaders, and mentors to positively impact young people; to not just provide options, but to help teach millennials to discern well and choose wisely among the options.

Third, millennials have much to offer with their skills, interests, and potential. The trouble is that too often adults in their life, especially in congregations, hold too tightly to leadership. Are there ways to pass on the leadership “keys”? Where might young people take leadership in our churches, and what do we risk by not taking seriously this opportunity?


Whose fault is it anyway? Churchgoers’ take on church growth and decline

Kevin N. Flatt, PhD is Associate Professor of History and Director of Research at Redeemer University College

Experts have spilled a lot of ink (burned out a lot of pixels?) over the years proposing theories to explain why churches grow or decline. Rarely has anyone asked the people in the churches themselves why they think churches grow or decline.

My colleagues Dave Haskell and Stephanie Burgoyne and I thought it would be fun to ask them exactly that. As part of our larger study comparing growing and shrinking mainline Protestant churches in Ontario, we asked clergy and congregants from these churches why they thought their church was growing (or shrinking), and what they thought lies behind the general trend of mainline Protestant church decline in the Western world.

We published our results here, if you’d like to take a look at the whole thing. In the meantime, here are some of the more interesting things we found.

(1) People have wildly different ideas about this.

Participants in our study, both clergy and laypeople, gave a whole raft of different reasons to explain why some churches bleed members while others boom.

Some of the themes that emerged to explain church decline included the following:

  • People have a lot more options to keep them busy on a Sunday morning, from shopping to sports to winterized cottages, than their parents or grandparents did.

  • Existing church members are too inward-looking and don’t like change, which makes it hard to attract new people.

  • Some churches no longer really believe that there is anything particularly special about the Christian faith, and don’t feel a need to convert anybody.

Some of the top things people said when we asked them what churches should do to grow (or why their churches were growing):

  • Make sure worship services are accessible and up-to-date.

  • Preach the truth of the Bible—or, from the opposite point of view, let people know your church is open-minded and won’t require them to believe anything in particular.

  • Spend time in prayer and be open to the work of the Holy Spirit.

And this is just a sampling of some of the more common types of answers we received.

(2) People in declining churches blame outside forces; people in growing churches credit internal ones.

One of our most interesting findings is that people in declining churches, especially their clergy, were more likely to see decline as stemming from factors outside churches’ control, while people in growing churches, especially clergy, tended to see what churches do as an important factor in whether they grow or shrink.

On the face of it, this could be explained simply as rationalizations that make people feel good about things. If your church is shrinking, it’s easier to blame it on outside forces than your own mistakes—especially if you’re the minister! Likewise, if your church is growing, it’s appealing to see that growth as a sign that your strategies and decisions are paying off.

There’s a whole body of scholarship, called “attribution theory,” that has found similar patterns in other places like the business world. Had a good quarter? That marketing strategy must be paying off. Had a bad quarter? Must be the recession’s fault.

But there might be more going on here. As we ask in our article, what if people’s explanations of growth or decline not only reflect their experiences of failure or success in this area, but also shape what happens next?

If a minister or church leadership team, for example, is convinced that inexorable social forces are going to grind their church into the dust until the last aging member dies off, there isn’t a whole lot of incentive to run an Alpha course, invite their neighbours to a barbecue, or try a new worship style. When, predictably, the church continues to shed members, it simply reinforces this passive attitude.

(3) Most church folks seem to think about this in purely human terms.

This one surprised us. Most of the answers we got explained church growth and decline in terms of what we, human beings, do or don’t do. Members and leaders of declining churches in particular rarely mentioned God as a possible factor in the equation. The one person (out of 150 participants) who said churches are declining because of the work of Satan stood out like a sore thumb.

In part, this may reflect the fact that the people asking the questions were academics, and participants may have felt like “God-talk” wasn’t entirely welcome in an academic setting. But we think there may be something more going on, a kind of “internal secularization” whereby churches have unwittingly come to think of the world and their place in it in purely human terms.

The clergy of growing churches bucked this trend somewhat, however. They talked about God a fair bit, especially when explaining why their churches were growing. In general, they had a more traditional view of God as someone who is miraculously active in the world, especially compared to declining church clergy who took a more skeptical view of such matters.

Are clergy (and members) with more traditional theological beliefs more hopeful about the possibility of church growth because they have a different view of God? Is this one of the reasons theologically conservative churches in our study were more likely to grow? In the future, we hope more researchers look into this question. Turns out a lot of interesting things can happen when you ask the “non-experts” what they think is going on.


We’re Reading…

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

Col. Chris Hadfield

A captivating read of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s experiences and insights as Commander of the International Space Station, for life on earth. Hadfield offers several lessons related to human interaction, leadership, and excellence. These messages include paying attention to detail, training well for all scenarios, aiming for zero as a leader (you’ll need to read this chapter to learn more!), helping one’s colleagues succeed, embracing the surprises and pleasures and small experiences of life, and modeling humility.

Enjoy the many stories and take note of the ways that Hadfield might contribute to enhanced leadership and social interactions in your congregation.


Upcoming Opportunities

  • Joel Thiessen will be giving the Simpson Lectures at Acadia Divinity College on February 11-13 and the lectures are free to attend, and can be watched live streamed at: -

  • We've updated the website!

  • Take a look around the website at some of the new resources and updated content.

  • May 7 - 8, 2019 - Flourishing Congregations Institute is partnering with the Ambrose Pastors Conference to share our research on Discipleship at Ambrose University

  • Ambrose@Large invites you to be a contributor to . . .The Volunteer Project- Share the insights, tools and resources that you've discovered and used in tackling the challenge of enlisting, equipping and encouraging ministry volunteers. These contributions will be curated into an easy to access tool kit for staff and ministry leaders in Canada. Find out more.

  • Missed our National Gathering in November at Ambrose University?

  • Watch videos from many of the presentations here.

  • Missed our latest newsletters?

  • January 23, 2019

  • ​January 9, 2019

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