Signs of Life … Canadian Congregations Thriving in a Pandemic
Dr. Joel Thiessen is Professor of Sociology, Ambrose University, Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute
In our next four updates, our research team will provide snapshots from our just released book, Signs of Life: Catholic, Mainline, and Conservative Protestant Congregations in Canada. In this book we ask what does it look like for a congregation to flourish? We address this question with national survey data with over 250 congregations and 9100 church leaders and congregants, theological insights, and practical considerations for churches who wish to flourish. In offering ways forward, we are quick to acknowledge that flourishing is conceptualized, pursued, and embodied differently in distinct theological, demographic, and social environments; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to flourishing. No church flourishes in every way, nor are most churches absent of flourishing in at least some way(s).
Given where congregations are currently positioned in the midst of a global pandemic, it is fitting that we begin our snapshot by looking to the end … the postscript. It is our contention that congregations will never return to “normal.” The question becomes how do congregations navigate the turbulent waters right now, and prepare well for what life will look like in a post-COVID-19 era. Five observations …
First, there are always exceptions, but in general, congregations who were flourishing before the pandemic are likely to continue doing so during and after COVID-19. I say this because some of the constituent elements of congregational flourishing before the pandemic – such as innovation and adaptability, shared leadership, clear structures and processes for communication or leveraging people’s gifts, or engaged laity in the activities of a congregation – are the type of qualities most needed in uncertain days like these. Without doubt, some congregations will rise to the occasion during COVID-19 and experience new signs of life, while others will struggle in areas they used to thrive in.
Second, it is valuable for a congregation to keep its mission and identity front and center, including a faith-stretching vision that compels people to want to be part of this congregation. Why does this congregation exist and why should people want to be part of this congregation? Clearly articulating the answers to these questions, repeatedly keeping those responses in front of the congregation, and providing avenues and outlets for individuals and the collective community to live into this mission and vision is invaluable for a congregation to thrive through the pandemic.
Third, congregant engagement is paramount. What those forms of engagement look like will vary by theological tradition and congregant demographics. For example, weekly Zoom gatherings, tuning in to a livestreamed or pre-recorded service, joining for online prayers or discipleship groups, volunteering to ensure the essential tasks of congregational ministry continue, participating in a congregation-wide games night online, providing food or clothing to those in need in the neighbourhood, or lending a listening ear on the telephone to fellow congregants and family members. The point is not so much what congregants do, but that congregants are engaging congregants in varied and repeated ways. The longer that a congregant is disengaged from the life and activities of a congregation and fellow congregants, the less likely they are to re-engage post-pandemic. While some congregations may not wish to think this way, the less engaged congregants are, the less likely they are to provide the resources essential for congregational sustainability short and long term, such as finances or volunteering.
Fourth, pay attention to how people, circumstances, and environments are changing so that congregations ask good questions and prepare accordingly for what lay around the corner. For instance, how do decisions today regarding worship services, fellowship, discipleship, neighbourhood impact, volunteers, and finances position a congregation for the months and years ahead? These questions and actions should be grounded in a congregation’s mission and vision for existing.
Finally, live graciously and charitably with one another. Church leaders and congregants alike have diverse perspectives and experiences on the pandemic, including how churches are responding (or not) during COVID-19. Some research suggests that church leaders are most concerned about the internal disunity, complaints, and disregard for one another amidst the shared experience of discomfort and less than ideal circumstances. What an opportunity to embrace the diversity of perspectives and experiences within a community of faith, by acting charitably and hospitably toward one another.
For more on many of the traits associated with congregational flourishing that we discovered in our research, pick up our book here … and track along with our next three newsletters in particular for added signs of life that we notice in Canadian congregations.
Win a copy of our new book!!
Tweet us or tag us in a Facebook post with one resource that has been particularly helpful to your church during the pandemic. We will randomly draw one name and mail the winner a complimentary copy of our book!
What We Are Reading
Signs of Life: Catholic, Mainline, and Conservative Protestant Congregations in Canada
Bill McAlpine, Joel Thiessen, Keith Walker and Arch Chee Keen Wong
What does it look like for a congregation to flourish? This is the book’s central question, drawing on Canadian-based social scientific research with Catholic, mainline, and conservative Protestant church leaders as well as those in the pews. The flourishing congregations construct that anchors this book deals with organizational elements (self-identity, leadership, innovation, and structure and process), internal factors (discipleship, engaged laity, hospitable community, and diversity), and outward dynamics (neighbourhood involvement, partnerships, and evangelism) in congregational life. Alongside social scientific observations and analyses, this book deals with a range of challenging theological insights and questions, plus offers numerous practical considerations and possibilities for congregations who wish to flourish. Readers will be left challenged, stimulated, encouraged, and mobilized in fresh ways for their local ministry.
Resources for Church Leaders
February Learning Centre Book Club from New Leaf: Join us in the online Learning Centre in February as together we read through Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization
For generations, the Bible has been employed by settler colonial societies as a weapon to dispossess Indigenous and racialized peoples of their lands, cultures, and spiritualities. Given this devastating legacy, many want nothing to do with it. But is it possible for the exploited and their allies to reclaim the Bible from the dominant powers? Can we make it an instrument for justice in the cause of the oppressed? Even a nonviolent weapon toward decolonization? Click here to register.
The Global Leadership Summit Special Edition, February 25: Ready to launch into the new year but feel like some additional momentum is needed to give you that extra edge? Patrick Lencioni, Vanessa Van Edwards, and Jerry Lorenzo, are coming together to bring you a leadership boost of encouragement and insight to start your year with clarity of vision and new energy. Click here for more information and register.
Hopeful Economics unconference, March 3-5: Hopeful economics is a way of looking at the world of the assets and abundance that it has and making that work for everyone. An unConference is when topics and discussions are informed by the people who show up! Click here for more information and register.
Researching the Impacts of Covid-19 on Congregations
Several research studies are emerging on the impacts of Covid-19 on congregations. Click Here to learn from these data-driven insights.