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Imaginative Risk Taking In Canadian Congregations

Our Flourishing Congregations Institute research team—based at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta—spent April to June 2016 interviewing and facilitating focus groups with over 100 Catholic, mainline Protestant, and conservative Protestant leaders in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, SW Ontario, and Halifax regions. The purpose? To explore how leaders of self-identified flourishing congregations describe and explain the optimal traits and characteristics of a flourishing congregation in a distinctly Canadian context, and to hear these leaders share their insights and experiences that contribute to flourishing in their setting.

I want to focus on one small but important aspect of what we learned: leaders and congregations who take risks and think outside of the box. It became clear early in our research that many leaders could be classified as mavericks, willing to push the boundaries in creative and innovative ways.

An Anglican leader expressed to us, “I think a flourishing congregation is a congregation that can contemplate imaginatively a variety of different possibilities.” A focus group participant stated, “Willingness to risk I think is probably something that’s really important in flourishing congregations. It’s okay to try something and have it not work.” In response, another member of the focus group added, “Not working means that it didn’t explode and there’s not 500 people involved. ‘Oh it was a failure, right?’ But it’s getting over that and going ‘sometimes things are only going to be a flash in the pan and they need to be for other things to happen.’ That’s okay.”
Examples of innovative ideas to emerge in our study include: purchasing multiple properties to expand social service opportunities in the neighborhood, trying new liturgical forms to engage people in weekly services, planting churches, hiring communications and marketing personnel, incorporating the Alpha program as an evangelistic tool, and investing funds into a new ministry without a clear sense of its likely success. The ideas are endless.
From a sociological standpoint a key catalyst for many of these congregational initiatives was the awareness of how secular Canadian society is and how ineffective many congregations are in reaching ordinary Canadians. With their backs against a wall they had nothing to lose in imagining and experimenting with new initiatives. Desperation helped to set the conditions for fresh thinking and acting.

Canadians who say they have no religion (adults)

Decreasing figures identifying as Christian

With growing rates of Canadians who say they have no religion (24% of adults and 32% of teens) and decreasing figures identifying as Christian (67%) or attending religious services weekly (around 15%), it is fair to suggest that Canadian congregations should be desperate.

If I am a church leader in Canada, there are three questions worth considering.

First, what is our congregation’s core vision and set of values, and how do those determine our priorities? It is one thing to aimlessly take risks and experiment with new possibilities. It is another to embed such innovation against the backdrop of a clear organizational direction and purpose. So far as we can tell at this phase of our research, congregations who successfully think and act outside of the box do so with a clear self-identity in mind.
Second, do we have the right mix of paid and/or lay leaders who can help us as a congregation to think imaginatively, and to take tangible steps toward that end? Do I have members on my leadership group who encourage our congregation to think differently and to step out of its comfort zone? If the majority of your leadership group is stuck in a “this is how we have always done things” narrative, this should cause concern and signal an opportunity to diversify the leadership group. Who might you consider inviting into church leadership to help in this area?
Third, what are the possible risks that our congregation should take? This question is not to suggest that congregations should try what other churches are doing, though that may be the case. Every congregation has its own story and context, thus a risk in one setting may not be a risk in another environment. Identify possible new endeavours and courageously step out to try one of those.
Dr. Joel Thiessen is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University, in Calgary, Alberta. In addition to publishing several articles, he has written two books: The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Perspective (co-authored with Lorne L. Dawson) (Oxford University Press, 2014) and The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). More information can be located on his website,
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*

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Finding the Keys to Culture and to the Human Heart (part 1)

It’s amazing I get to meet with such wonderful people like yourselves. It’s always a great honor; I never take it lightly. It’s a privilege to be here, particularly among a group of people who love the Gospel and who believe in the Gospel – it has brought us together and we are committed to proclaiming it.
It’s precisely at the time in this country where the word “evangelical” is under threat, which I believe, is to what really constitutes a gospel people. I believe it always has to look like Jesus and I think it’s a critical time for us to be talking about evangelism and the Gospel – that these stand behind it. So it’s a privilege to be able to do that now.
It’s hard to know what to say at the end of a conference, which I believe has been amazing – I only arrived last night. What can I add that hasn’t already been said? So I thought I’d start off with a bit of a story which no one else can tell because it’s a very personal one.  But it’s one that will highlight something that has triggered in my life a serious search and research into a topic that I believe relates directly to the issue of evangelism in our time.
So about a year and a half ago, my dad passed away. Now we’d been living in America for about nine years. He’s not been well for a while. So you know dad goes in the hospital, you think: “Do I go back (to Australia)? Is it the last time?” Nonetheless, my brother called me and said, “Look, I do think this is the time – he’s not…he’s going.” And so we packed up and off we went back to Australia to be with him in his last time. And true enough he really wasn’t well. So we were there.
My dad…you cannot accuse him of being a believer in God. He didn’t believe in God. He was somewhat of a naughty kind of man. And, you know [he] is always kind of having “a go” at the “Christian thing.” He didn’t quite understand. He was a Jewish dad and he never understood how his two Jewish boys became these amazing kind of “believer types.”

He wasn’t a very thoughtful man, but he would dig around in pop culture to find things that make sense…as everyone will, right? Which I will make a point of, later.

In the 80s there was a guy called Erich von Däniken. Some of you might remember him, he wrote the book The Chariot of the Gods. It was like this cheesy thing about the aliens coming, and they got hold of some kind of animals and experimented and then created the human race. They would visit us from time to time – and the pyramids and all that. And for some reason that was dad’s schtick. So here we are and we’re visiting with him – my wife Debra was with me and my brother and they’re all believers – he’s asking about the rod and the staff in Psalm 23. And now I’m thinking I know what he meant by that. Because he believed the rod and the staff were things that the aliens gave to Moses that gave him superpowers so he could split the waters and stuff. He had this sort of theory now. But of course, all the other Christians in our group were thinking, “He’s asking about the Bible” and I’m thinking, “No, he’s not. He is putting the bird up at us – right on his deathbed!”
So I was a little angry with him on this – I thought “Really dad? Right at the end? Should you be taking pot shots at us?” Anyway, so one night we were having a meal together, and they phone from the hospital and said, “He’s dying. You should come in now.” So off we go, a very fraught moment. If you’ve been around a family member that is dying, it’s awful. I’ve seen both my parents go that way. Awful. Anyway, we’re all around the table and it’s a fraught moment. So I think, “Well you know he’s dying – he can’t say anything – let’s read some Bible to him. I spotted a Gideon Bible right next to the bin. So I got the Bible, but couldn’t read because I was too emotional. Deb said, “Well, he’s been asking about Psalm 23 the whole week, why don’t we read him Psalm 23?” And I said, “That’s a good idea.”
But we couldn’t read it, so we handed it off to my brother, and my brother begins to read. And I’m looking at my dad, as the Bible reading goes down the line. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…and your rod and staff will comfort me.” And literally on that verse – he dies. Literally. On that verse.
I’m thinking, “What does that possibly mean? How do we understand…how do I understand this thing?” And the fact that this has kind of been his “bugbear” verse all this time. And he goes into eternity with that ringing in his mind. I thought, “I’ve got to take this seriously.”
On reflection on that [whole experience], it was a rebuke to me because I believe that people are often giving us the keys to their life. And I believe that I was dismissive of dad like, “Don’t be stupid about the aliens and all that stuff…well that doesn’t make any sense. Who created the aliens? You still have to deal with the issue of ‘God.’” But actually I never really listened to him on that, I never really pursued it with him on his own terms. And for him it was important. For whatever reason, it was something that he did his research on – for whatever reason. I never really respected that. And the thing is that I felt like something of a rebuke – I’m not responsible for him in that regard. But I felt a rebuke to think that my dad was giving me the key to his heart and if I had pursued that, maybe, maybe that was his way to find God. And, I missed the opportunity.
And so, it really got to me – the idea that I should, now, pursue this idea of “keys to the human heart.”
I believe that people are, in so many ways which we do not recognize, giving us keys that say, “Here!”
It’s the same with the culture. The culture’s been giving us the keys all along, but we just stand and look at them because we are not attuned to them. And this is partly because our frequencies as Evangelicals, at this point in time, are tuned to 16th century issues.
For more talks like Alan’s and more information on Amplify, go to:

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The Need for Multi-Denominational Church Planting Networks in Our Cities

In 2007, I had coffee with a church planter in New York City who had recently moved there from Dallas, TX. This was at the height of the urban church planting craze and I was looking to plant in an urban city with the denomination I belonged to at the time. I was intrigued by this planter because, although he came from a Baptist background, he was part of a multi-denominational church planting group and was being mentored by a Presbyterian pastor in Manhattan. (Any guesses?)

I’ll never forget what I learned from him in that noisy Starbucks at 34th and Park Ave. I took it with me when I planted a few years later:

You need to have mentors from outside your tribe because, in a diverse and complex environment, one tribe can’t teach you everything you need to know.

I’d venture to say that most church planters have found this to be true. We need the benefits of multi-denominational partnership.

About two decades ago, multi-denominational church planting in North America started taking off. Some of it was in response to a slow-down in church planting experienced by denominations. Entrepreneurial leaders were willing to manage the tension of theological and philosophical differences for the sake of the kingdom.

But, also, some networks were started with the vision of seeing the Church at large work together as a testament to the Gospel and Jesus’ unifying mission. These networks weren’t just starting churches around tradition and funding. Churches were aligned around core theology, ministry context, and passion for their own cities.

Today, the growing trends seems to be that multi-denominational church planting networks are regionalizing and becoming city specific.

A network like Austin Church Planting Network gathers church planters from multiple denominations such as Anglican, Bible Churches, Evangelical Covenant Church, Free Methodists, and Southern Baptists, just to name a few. Planters meet as Missional Hubs all over Austin to learn best practices and to build friendships.

The Sent Network (not to be confused with the Send Network of the Southern Baptist Convention) focuses on planting churches in the Baltimore and DC region. Churches in their network are more closely aligned and are committed to a covenant which consists of a confession of faith and shared mission and Gospel DNA.

In Chicago, Chicago Partnership for Church Planting (CPCP) focuses on planting churches in the city proper. Many church planters are finding CPCP to be the place where they can learn from others who are experiencing similar urban church planting issues. Chicagoland Church Planting Alliance (CCPA) launched earlier this year and has quarterly gatherings that rotate from the city to the suburbs. These gatherings are designed to encourage church planters and to champion church planting in the greater Chicago area.

Here are three things the Church in North America is discovering as city and regional multi-denominational networks continue to pop up and grow in value:

1. Unified mission to a city is an extremely important apologetic.

You might say, “An unbelieving world doesn’t care about denominations, so why would they notice now that we’re planting churches together?”

Multi-denominational church planting isn’t a strict rational argument for Christianity, but it has subversive effects that will help the cause of the gospel over time.

Just think about this. For the last two generations, denominational tribalism and disunity have been a cause for people to either be confused about Christianity or skeptical about the Church as an institution. This is largely due to two reasons: (1) the last two generations saw the rise and decline of Protestant North America, both Evangelical and mainline (as well as Catholic Church controversies), and (2) it’s not uncommon for flagship denominational churches to do what they think is in their best interest over the interest of other city institutions.

These two reasons have caused people to distrust denominations. But if you understand this, then you should also realize that much of the distrust people have towards the Church in North America is based on what is, now, the declining older Protestant Church. It’s not necessarily against the growing kingdom-minded Church that at times has been subtle, but has always been around and is emerging today at a quicker rate.

When you birth new churches for new generations that are city-positive and kingdom-minded, you’re not only constructing a new Protestant narrative in North America, but you’re also removing the power given to the old argument that says the Church isn’t unified.

God is still building his transcendent kingdom Church. And multi-denominational church planting is helping to usher in that reality.

2. A welcoming atmosphere is more conducive to new planters than a hostile one.

Almost five years ago I moved to Canada to plant in downtown Toronto with the North American Mission Board. The multi-denominational network in Toronto was still in its developing stage and our denomination’s regional team was trying to stay afloat while planting a few dozen churches in a metro area of over 6.5 million people.

The work was hard enough and the support little enough that if the pastor of the church plant in the community next to us told me to roll over and quit, I probably would have. But he didn’t. Instead, he took our team under his wing and breathed life into us. He even sent people from his Presbyterian congregation to join our Baptist congregation.

Later, as our church was getting off the ground and growing, a Mennonite Brethren network approached us. We intentionally told them that we didn’t want funding; instead, we wanted camaraderie in the city and we’d be willing to come alongside their vision and their planters. We didn’t know much, but we did know this:

A welcoming environment is more conducive to new church planters than a hostile one.

Planting in downtown Toronto was difficult and very slow at times. And the multi-denominational welcome was a part of what kept us in the game. Because we received this welcome, we wanted to provide it for other church planters as well.

3. Denominations refine and rediscover their missional roots.

A funny thing happens when you tell your church planters that they’re allowed to learn and to play with other tribes and networks. Your church planters become more savvy in leadership and culture. And they end up having a bigger picture of what God is doing outside of their own church and their own denomination.

Every considerate church planter will want to take what they’ve learned and share it with their own tribe. It’s the communitas that Alan Hirsch describes in his book The Forgotten Ways. It’s the brotherhood that leaves their tribe and that’s birthed out of adventure, challenge, and mission. And when they return home, they now have something new and fresh to offer.

It’s been my experience that the best church planters honor their denominational roots. They study history in order to better understand the present. They know that they stand on the shoulders of many other women and men. They acknowledge the weaknesses and shortcomings (and often embarrassments) of their tradition, but they also build on top of what historically has been passionate—albeit imperfect—movements of the kingdom.

What church planters learn outside of their denomination is often brought back to create positive change within their tribe.

As far as we can tell, multi-denominational networks haven’t led to denominational decline. Quite differently, in many instances, they’ve challenged denominations to better equip church planters and to take the mission of God in North America seriously again.

I’ve shared three discoveries that have come out of city and regional multi-denominational church planting networks. And I don’t think these networks will disappear anytime soon. What we’ll probably see is how they’ll continue to refine and distinguish themselves as a valuable part of North American missions. We’ll also likely see denominations continue to rebrand their tradition in new and relevant ways and become better mission agencies in order to reach a fast changing culture.

If you belong to a city or regional multi-denominational network, let me hear back from you on what you’re discovering and how your network is helping to champion church planters and church planting in your city. Email me at


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