President's Blog

The Traits of a Flourishing Congregation from a Major New Canadian Study, Part Two

Last week I introduced you to a new Canadian research study on what defines a flourishing church.

Sociologist Dr. Joel Thiessen of Ambrose University, and other academics, completed an initial exploratory study interviewing 109 church leaders face to face, and another 66 individuals within nine focus groups made up of Catholic, mainline, and conservative Protestant leaders. This study has led to a further study whereby Dr. Thiessen and his team are surveying hundreds of Canadian congregations.

The current completed study concluded they could not anticipate a single shared definition or perception of what constitutes a flourishing congregation, however this first exploratory study did discover points of convergence and divergence.

church on a hill part 2

Here are the common traits of flourishing congregations in Canada:

  1. Organizational Ethos:
    1. Clear self-identity: Congregations are clear on who they are, where they come from, and where they are going. They are clear on their central mission.
    2. Leadership: Congregations thrive with strategic leadership by creating congregational ownership to the group’s identity, vision, and mission via leadership development.
    3. Innovation: Congregations flourish when they take risks, experiment, and think and act entrepreneurially. They must be willing to let go and change. Interestingly, this topic was never raised by Catholic leaders and among mainline Protestant leaders, openness to innovation was sometimes motivated out of desperation due to decline.
    4. Structure and Process: Organizational structures, processes, systems, and governance were viewed as means to an end – the attracting, retaining, and spiritual growth of people (disciples).
  2. Internal Factors:
    1. Discipleship: A congregation’s sign of flourishing was its ability to:
      • “Make disciples” – the process of people living in relationship with Jesus, who make other disciples (evangelical comment)
      • “Discipleship is living out holistically the Christian identity and life…” (mainline comment)
      • “…a well thought out and planned liturgy, culminating in the Eucharist to facilitate people’s experience with God.”… (Catholic comment).
      • In all three cases, discipleship is a reference to a transformed life.
    2. Hospitable Communities: Congregations flourish when they offer a “home” to those inside and outside the church where people are known in a safe, loving, and accepting community.
    3. Engaged Laity: Congregations flourish when congregants are regularly involved in the life of their local church. Differing faith groups measured involvement in varying ways. Catholic leaders emphasized attendance at mass, while conservative Protestant leaders added behaviours such as tithing and prayer.
    4. Diversity: Congregational diversity surfaced as a perceived indicator that a congregation was flourishing. By diversity, leaders singled out: race, social class, age, gender, and sexual orientation to those in the pew and those in leadership.

People praying together

As one Catholic leader put it, “it’s the only place where the poor and rich, healthy and unhealthy, young and old, educated and uneducated, can sit beside each other. When any one of these feels excluded, I don’t think it’s a flourishing congregation anymore.”

Mainline Protestants spoke most strongly about diversity and embracing the LGBTQ community. In fact, some mainline readers criticized conservative Protestants for saying they are open to the LGBTQ community, but limit full involvement in their local congregation’s ministry.

III. Outward Variables: 

Congregations that flourish must be outward focused in at least one of the following areas:

  1. Evangelism: Conservative Protestants spoke most favourably of people needing to get “saved”. Catholics spoke of “new-evangelization” or the re-evangelization of those who identify as Catholics but have fallen away from the faith. Mainline Protestants conveyed ideas of reaching out and getting involved with our neighbours, but “not walking down manipulative, shallow ways of relating to people [to] shove it down their throat…”
  2. Neighbourhood Involvement: Congregations that flourish have a community impact, are community-minded, and seek to benefit the community. They ask themselves, would our community notice if we were no longer here? If we only care for ourselves rather than go and gather, we’re a social club, not a church.
  3. Partnerships: Flourishing churches seek partnerships participating with other congregations within their denomination, outside it, or with other religious faith groups or various secular agencies.


Catholic (40% of Canadians), mainline (16%), and conservative (10%) Protestant leaders appear to share the following views on the cause of a flourishing congregation:

  • Self-identity
  • Strategic leadership
  • Structure and process
  • Hospitable community
  • Neighbourhood involvement
  • Partnerships
  • Supernatural discourse

However, Catholic, mainline, and conservative Protestant leaders differently prioritized the cause and effect of a flourishing church in the following areas:

  • Innovation
  • Discipleship
  • Engaged laity
  • Diversity
  • Evangelism
  • Numeric emphasis

These variations can be attributed to areas such as theology, polity, organizational structure, and demographic realities. These distinctions serve as the important boundaries that mark “our” tradition from “their” tradition. For example, Protestants valued innovation, whereas Catholic leaders did not. Mainline Protestants framed their need for innovation against the backdrop of their numerical decline. Evangelism and discipleship emerged across all three traditions, but especially among conservative Protestants. Nowhere were differences most noticeable along theological traditions than on the topic of diversity, the only occasion where strong accusations were voiced between the three traditions.

These findings are from the first exploratory study. Dr. Joel Thiessen and his team are currently completing a second, larger study surveying hundreds of local churches in Canada.

Stay tuned for more information on what makes a flourishing congregation.