The Flourishing Congregations Institute probes what is working in Canadian congregations
If your church burned down tomorrow, would the neighbourhood notice? Years ago, that question was routinely tossed around in church circles to spur on good works and neighbourhood engagement. Leaders of flourishing congregations today say it’s still a great question. They claim they simply can’t flourish, theologically or otherwise, if they are not actively involved in their neighbourhood.
This emphasis was universally acclaimed by Canadian Catholic, mainline Protestant and conservative Protestant church leaders who dialogued on this question with our research team during interviews and focus groups in late 2016 during phase one of a national study on flourishing congregations in Canada.
So, how does a church do it well? The possibilities for links between congregations and their neighbourhoods are endless. Issues like poverty, refugees, immigrants, addictions, housing, families, single parents, sexual minorities, rites of passage, community gardens and barbeques, public lectures, evangelism, the environment and racism are just some of the topics and events those in our study mentioned when reflecting on their activities in the community.
It is too early to say what specifically causes a congregation to more effectively engage its neighbourhood or ultimately what contributes to a church’s success. We can only report on what leaders say is happening in their congregations, noting some features that appear to "hang together."
Study the neighbourhood
Without exception, the congregations we identified as flourishing appear to have done their homework on the community where they are situated. They say they know who lives in their community. They know facts about family status, stage of life, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and more. From this information churches identify what possible needs, points of convergence and opportunities exist. Churches garnered this information by speaking with local community association and organization leaders, reading city demographic reports and interacting with neighbours in various social settings around the church property. (A free, practical how-to guide is available at www.TheEFC.ca/CommunityResearch.)
In our study senior leaders seem to be instrumental in having a vision for outreach in the community, to communicate and rally core members as early adopters around that vision (who in turn influence those in their social sphere as late adopters). Senior leaders help create ample opportunity for church members to get involved in neighbourhood initiatives. They also respond positively to congregational members who have a desire and willingness for outreach activities. Again and again we see leaders in flourishing congregations seek to provide organizational space, resources and opportunities for lay members to lead in this way.
WHAT IS A GROUP NARRATIVE?
THE STORIES AND FRAMEWORKS GROUPS USE TO DESCRIBE AND PERFORM WHO THEY ARE AND ASPIRE TO BE. THESE INCLUDE CORE BELIEFS AND PRACTICES THAT SET THEM APART AS A CONGREGATION.
A neighbourly group narrative
Some congregations define themselves as a neighbourhood church — especially those in or near the urban core of a city, where parking is less common and congregants walk, cycle or take transit to church. Many members of such churches talk about the importance of living in the community where the church is physically located, to the point where commuters are discouraged from attending their church in favour of a congregation in their own neighbourhood. Along with varied opportunities for the congregation to come together and serve in the neighbourhood, such groups have a culture where it is common for members to step up and become actively involved in serving the neighbourhood. Theology is integral — the theological beliefs, rituals, customs and practices that anchor these congregations stress hospitality, service, dialogue, diversity and making room for the "other."
Embedded in group liturgy
Group narratives are more likely to be embraced by members when they are lived out, modelled and embodied in group rituals and liturgy such as weekly services, prayer gatherings, volunteer settings and so on. Flourishing churches regularly use social media, announcements, prayers, stories and testimonies, and invitations to highlight needs, opportunities and ways of responding to needs beyond the church walls. In other words, the importance of the neighbourhood and community involvement is consistently in group consciousness.
Flourishing congregations say they entrepreneurially try new things in their community and are willing to fail. They interpret "failures" as seeds to new ideas. There are some contexts where desperation (low membership, attendance or financial numbers) jolted congregations to think and act in fresh and innovative ways toward those outside the congregation. The narrative was, "We have little to lose, so why not try something new and see what happens?" For flourishing congregations the risks worked.
These congregations leverage the strengths of their church and other organizations (faith-based and secular) to collectively contribute positively in their community. Often there are paid or volunteer congregational leaders with skills and expertise in community development as well as partnerships with different organizations toward a common goal. Flourishing congregations work well with others.
Just because someone has past involvement with a given issue does not mean they will take an active role in the community, but it does help. For example, church members who were personally affected by immigration, poverty or addiction are more likely to take an active role in a related ministry.
Across all these features there is no silver bullet, single topic or sole approach that helps a congregation strengthen its neighbourhood involvement. It depends on your local context, the needs that exist around the church, the people and strengths and passions within your congregation, and how central you ultimately want this to be part of your congregational DNA.