Photo of Arch Wong
Arch Wong gives a presentation at GC43. Photo: The United Church of Canada

New Research Shows How Churches Flourish in Changing Times

What comes to mind when you think of a flourishing United Church congregation? For many this question evokes images of churches in the 1960s, when pews and Sunday schools were packed and coffers were overflowing. This is not the reality for churches today.

The good news is that a growing number of communities of faith are redefining what it means to thrive in a climate of dwindling membership and donations.

At a GC43 workshop, the Rev. Arch Wong, professor of practical theology at Ambrose University in Calgary and associate director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute, presented research that shows what flourishing congregations have in common. The Institute interviewed more than 100 pastoral leaders from Catholic, mainline (United and Anglican), and conservative Protestant churches across Canada. Here are some of the qualities that flourishing churches have in common. They are a guideline of sorts to help your community of faith thrive in changing times.

How to be a flourishing church

  • Be abundantly clear on your mission and vision. This means knowing your identity and purpose for existing. Let this shape all your church’s decisions and discussions.
  • Create effective organizational structures and processes that focus on addressing the key priorities of your church. This means examining whether boards drive vision, or function as decision-making bodies that stand in the way of getting work done. Wong notes that church boards tend to focus on bottom lines and results, but what many vibrant churches have in common is investing in relationships, and the positive outcome of this work cannot be seen immediately.
  • Create meaningful and diverse opportunities for people to experience God.
  • Focus on giving congregants’ transformational experiences. Ask how their lives are being uplifted through their participation in your church.
  • Support church leaders. Flourishing churches empower their leaders, ensure they have work–life balance, and train and equip them to grow and meet the changing needs in the church. Ask: How well does our board do this? What can be improved?
  • Flourishing congregations hire, or promote from within, at all levels of leadership. They recognize the role that lay people and volunteers play and don’t expect clergy to do everything.
  • Develop younger leaders at all levels, and have a succession plan for clergy, laypeople, and volunteers.
  • Be innovative, take risks, and see failures as seeds for learning and growth. This includes trying different types of ministry and providing new social services.
  • Acknowledge, plan for, and manage transitions. For example, if young people have aged out of your youth programs and new children are not participating, redirect your church’s time and efforts instead of clinging on to an initiative for the sake of tradition.
  • Determine how your church defines, encourages, and measures discipleship. This may mean empowering parents to be active volunteers and participants in the life and work of your church because research shows that helps keep children and youth engaged in spiritual life as they grow up.
  • Think outside the building. Your church needs to be so much more than a place that hosts worship services. Consider how you can include partners such as non-profit organizations and social justice initiatives that align with your vision, purpose, and mission.
  • Value and encourage all types of diversity, and welcome people who question what you do.
  • Think of ways to get people more involved in the church. Research shows that active participants feel a greater sense of pride in, and connection with, their church.
  • Ask yourself whether the community would notice if your church shuttered. If the answer is no, this is a sign that your church needs to be more actively involved in the neighbourhood.

Looking to renew your ministry? See what resources EDGE has to offer. E-mail flourishingcongregations@ambrose.edu to be part of the Institute’s ongoing research.