So far, we have had over 4,000 congregants fill out our church/parish national survey. I have started to analyze some of this data and present some of the preliminary findings for a number of speaking engagements. One of the areas that I have been focusing on is discipleship or faith formation. Sifting through the data, I began to wonder about the importance of spiritual formation to a thriving congregation. Oftentimes, we think that the congregational culture drives spiritual formation or shapes discipleship. However, what if spiritual formation drives church culture? In other words, how and what a congregation is learning is critical to building a flourishing congregation. I began to ask myself a number of questions: What might a lifelong spiritual formation look like? What Christian formational practices are congregations using to help them deepen their relationships with God, enrich their connections with each other, and contribute to the thriving of their communities.? If Christian formational practices are evident and sustained in a congregation, how has it facilitated in discerning the gifts (charism) and shed light on the mission, and determine alignment with current ministries and to address the changing context and lives of people in the congregation?
John Roberto gives a number of principles and practices around adult faith formation worth reflecting on:
Adult faith formation addresses the diverse life tasks and situations, needs and interests, and spiritual and faith journeys of adults in the many seasons of adulthood.
Adult faith formation addresses the diverse religious-spiritual identities among adults today.
Adult faith formation is person-centered, not content- or program-centered.
Adult faith formation programming is targeted and tailored to the lives of adults—at each stage of life and in each generation.
Adult faith formation address the distinct ways each generation of adults likes to learn.
What might this look like in the congregation that you are involved with?
 John Roberto, “Twenty-First Century Adult Faith Formation,” Vibrant Faith, May 30, 2018, accessed August 9, 2019, https://vibrantfaith.org/2018/05/because-god-is-always-calling-2/
Congregations Who Partner
Dr. Joel Thiessen, Professor of Sociology, Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute
Less than two years ago, Stronger Philanthropy partnered with the Flourishing Congregations Institute to fund a national survey of Canadian congregations. This Fall we enter the final phase of recruiting congregations for this survey. To date over 120 congregations and 4,000 individuals have completed our survey, across Canada and Catholic, mainline, and conservative Protestant settings.
Several interesting and important findings are emerging. We previously posted a blog with preliminary results on evangelism. As our survey research draws to a close, in the next few issues of our newsletter we will share research findings on three topics: partnerships, discipleship, and neighbourhood involvement. I begin here with partnerships.
A few years ago our research team interviewed over 100 church and denominational leaders across Canada and theological sectors, asking them to characterize a flourishing congregation for us. Partnerships emerged as an oft cited variable, among ten others, which we summarized in this article: What is a Flourishing Congregation? Leader Perceptions, Definitions, and Experiences. Now we turn to our survey data, mostly with those in the pews, to see how important they believe partnerships are, who their congregations partner with, and possible lines of inquiry that denominations and local churches may wish to consider moving forward.
As seen in Figure 1, the majority of respondents agree or strongly agree that a flourishing congregation partners with others. This, of course, does not mean that congregations actually partner with others (more on that shortly). We simply see here that there is a belief or attitude among most that partnering is a “good” thing associated with congregational flourishing.
If churches are partnering, who are they partnering with? The data reveal that congregations are more likely to partner with groups who are more like themselves, starting with other churches within their denomination, churches in other denominations, and then other religious groups (see Figure’s 2-4). Sociologically these findings are not surprising given that most social groups tend to gather with “their own,” however defined. We do not know from this survey data how frequently churches partner or the exact nature of those ties. However, our phase one interview and focus group data suggest there is a range, from annual gatherings (e.g., joint Good Friday service), to monthly service projects, to weekly children and youth programming collaborations.
At a more general level, a sizeable proportion of congregations claim that other organizations (e.g., daycares, community associations, counselling groups) use their church building, plus many partner with various social service agencies (e.g., those who work with diverse marginalized populations) (see Figure’s 5-6).
Not shown in any of the Figures above, there are relatively few differences in responses across theological traditions. Further, when we compare those who believe their congregations are declining in size, remaining the same size, or growing, again there are virtually no differences.
For denominations and local churches who wish to take partnership seriously, a few questions for consideration.
Are your clergy trained in their formal schooling or on the job to develop and value skills necessary for building partnerships? Some leaders are and others are not, and my observation is that flourishing congregations do, in fact, place high importance on developing partnerships and training leaders to excel in this regard.
Are there opportunities to partner and leverage strengths of other groups, to help you mutually achieve your respective visions and missions for existing? My recommendation for churches is first to be clear about your core vision and mission, who you are and who you are not; and then seek partnerships that help you toward the things you believe you are called to for this season of ministry.
Who in your congregation is skilled and passionate to work in this area? Partnerships are not solely dependent upon paid clergy, though leadership in this regard is an asset. There may be lay members in your church who are skilled and passionate about bridging the gap between the local church and many other organizations. Leverage these individuals, give them space to lead and experiment, and help to resource such initiatives.
Want to know more about the Flourishing Congregations Institute, get involved in our national survey, or access free resources to arise from our research? Check out our website for more information and sign up there for our newsletter.
Reimagining Faith Formation for the 21st Century: Engaging All Ages and Generations
Reimagining Faith Formation for the 21st Century is targeted to pastoral leaders who want to see a fresh vision for faith formation for all ages in their parishes. The book centres on five important questions:
How to address big adaptive challenges facing churches and faith formation.
How to reimagine faith formation with a vision that honors the pass and is open to the future.
How to build a new faith-forming ecosystem that supports faith transmission and growth.
How to design new models with the best understandings and practices of learning and faith formation.
How to engage all people—wherever they may be on their spiritual journey.
Each of the five chapters addresses one of the above questions. Chapter 1 argues that adaptation is essential because of two large shifts: faith formation is contextual and faith formation finds itself in a new contextual reality. Chapter 2 examines the necessity of a new ecosystem in faith formation centered on a reimagined vision of faith formation. Chapters 3 and 4 give a model for faith formation that incorporates face-to-face and electronic connections and that curriculum needs to support this model. The final chapter looks at the responsibilities of the pastoral leader for this new paradigm of faith formation of one who is the originator and the source of all the resources to someone who is a “curator” of resources.
Include your congregation in a national congregations survey, and receive a free report with your church's data! To learn more about this opportunity visit our website, and to sign up your congregation, contact our Research and Program Coordinator, Joy Epp, at 403-410-2000 ext. 2987.
Register and find out more about the Global Leadership Summit for October 17-18th at: globalleadershipnetwork.ca/summit2019
Church Planting Canada Congress 2019 for October 22-24. Click here for more information and to register.
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