The Truth about Flourishing Congregations Regardless of COVID-19
Dr. Joel Thiessen, Professor of Sociology, Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute
I am conflicted. A day rarely goes by where I am not asked to offer my reflections on the impact of COVID-19 on congregations/parishes. Frankly, it is too early to know what the impact might be. And I’m unconvinced of the value to circulate or hang on to the countless well-intentioned though uninformed (empirically at least) speculations deluging the online world. I will not add to that chorus.
Rather, based on our team’s interview, focus group, and survey research with churches/parishes in recent years, I offer preliminary observations to this question: What do physical distancing restrictions mean for the “structure and process” dynamic of congregational life?
Congregations doing okay right now have clear and consistent communication systems to reach those in their congregation. COVID-19 added some new communication challenges, yet for the last couple of decades “regular” church attendance has progressively diminished from weekly to 1-2 times a month. When “normally” communicating with those in your church, what sources do you draw upon (e.g., website, social media, video updates, newsletters, blogs, podcasts, emails, door-to-door mailings, phone calls) and how frequently (i.e., daily, weekly, monthly, annually)? If you restrict communications to weekly worship services, you likely miss many in your congregation. If you have not already done so, this season of ministry might be the perfect opportunity to strengthen your communication channels in ways that will help you well beyond this pandemic. And don’t forget to engage the youngest to the oldest in your midst, drawing upon different communication outlets in the process.
Priorities, Mechanisms, and Progress
What are your church’s core priorities and how do you know you’re progressing in these areas? Congregational interests might range from discipleship to spiritual formation, neighbourhood involvement, hospitable community, intergenerational ministry, or leadership development. Whatever those areas are in your context, our research reveals that flourishing congregations have clear structures, pathways, and mechanisms to help their members get from “here” to “there.” How would you assess your church’s effectiveness to help people move from “here” to “there,” however defined and prioritized in your setting? Physical distancing might elevate the need for clear systems to be in place, though this urgency is not absent pre-/post-COVID-19; this pandemic simply shines a light on pre-existing gaps and alerts churches to new and ongoing possibilities. As one example, if leadership development is central to your church, how specifically are you developing leaders? What activities do you take up (e.g., readings and conversations on the topic with existing and emerging leaders; mentoring activities; sharing leadership responsibilities), and how frequently? These activities can happen virtually or in person.
Adaptable and Collaborative
Congregations with DNA where flexibility and adaptability already exist (i.e., not constantly stuck with “how we’ve always done things”) are most likely to thrive before, during, and after COVID-19. Congregations are not static. They change, adapt, and innovate in response to changing circumstances within and beyond their church. Integral to this DNA are churches who welcome collaborative leadership and involvement. Churches/parishes currently thriving during this pandemic likely have systems and structures that equip, empower, enable, and release its members to lead, innovate, and run with ideas; decisions and activities are not solely restricted to paid leaders or governing bodies. Once more, physical distancing restrictions give congregations another opportunity to further leverage or pursue afresh these critical structures and processes for congregational flourishing.
We expand on these and other features of flourishing congregations in this article. This season of physical distancing is a great occasion to seriously pursue new and clearer structures and processes that will help your church/parish to flourish in many ways now and well into the future.
We're Listening To...
Being Church and Neighbour in the Pandemic: An interview with Preston Pouteaux
"Being Church and Neighbour in the Pandemic” is a recent podcast interview with Preston Pouteaux, author, beekeeper and pastor of Lake Ridge Community Church in Chestermere Alberta. He shares deep encouragement for the Canadian churches finding their feet in this strange and difficult time. The podcast covers how Lake Ridge Community Church initially responded to COVID-19 by reaching out to its neighbourhood and also how the church connected to its own church community through rediscovering the classical Christian spiritual practices. The church is taking its missional opportunities through its relationships to reach out and love one’s neighbour. Pouteaux presents a few thoughts that might help other churches: (1) To just living into moment and enjoy it. This might help understand what churches need to do next. (2) Who to put the attention on: the neighbourhood or people nearby. How might this change the way we do church in Canada? The church just needs to show up with attentive hearts to participant in what God is already doing is Pouteaux’s encouragement.
- Dr. Arch Wong, Professor of Practical Theology, Associate Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute
COVID-19 is having a significant impact on Christian churches and organizations across Canada. In response, the Canadian Council of Christian Charities (CCCC), Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University, Cardus, Rick Hiemstra from The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), James Watson (PhD) from Salvation Army, Sam Reimer (PhD) from Crandall University, and Kevin Phang from WayBase have partnered together along with other Christian researchers to conduct a national survey of all Christian ministries. The purpose of this national survey is to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Christian ministries in support the CCCC and other Christian national associations as they dialogue with the Canadian government. Click here to participate in the national survey.
EDGE-y COVID-19 Resources
We are not alone – we’re going to get through this together. Visit EDGE’s COVID-19 Resource page to find resources for helping ministries, ministers, and everyone staying connected in different ways through these uncertain times
Taylor & Francis COVID-19 Resources
Find other relevant COVID-19 research articles, book chapters and information that can be freely accessed here.