Aspects of the “Missional Landscape” in Contemporary North America

I am currently involved in three collaborative projects: an interdisciplinary study on flourishing congregations in Canada; a book comparing “religious nones” in Canada and the United States; and another book, on millennial attitudes, experiences, and behaviors in Canada. (For my American friends, know that I also waded through the American literature on each of these topics). I want to pull strands from each project to help us think carefully about a few aspects of the “missional landscape” in contemporary North America.

Clear Self-Identity

Congregations that flourish know who they are and are not.  They know where they have come from, where they currently are, and where they are going. When North American church planters, for example, consider the “missional landscape” today, it is critical to grapple early and often with the purpose and mission for starting a new church and then filter all decisions and activities toward such ends. Congregations cannot be all things to all people. Thus, be clear on your mission and purpose; develop the structures and processes to help you toward such things, and evaluate your effectiveness against these values.

missional landscapeWhat is your church’s reason for existing? What would you like to see happen in and through your church? What demographics are you trying to engage and why – sociologically, theologically, and practically? Do you aspire to grow primarily from disenfranchised religious folk, “religious nones,” transfer growth, or another group?

How you tackle these queries will shape what questions you ask about the missional landscape, the conversations you have, and the steps you take in your ministry. Having a clear identity does not mean you will flourish; yet rarely do churches flourish without a clear self-identity.

Religious Nones

Those who say they have “no religion” are the fastest growing “religious” group in North America. They represent 20-25% of adults and around 30% of teens and millennials, depending on the region. As I outline in The Meaning of Sunday, religious nones are a diverse group, with a range of beliefs and practices regarding the supernatural, the afterlife, prayer, meaning and purpose, and so forth. Many “nones” in North America were raised in Christian families, though increasingly “nones” are raised by unaffiliated parents. Few “nones” say they are open to greater involvement in a religious group.

I hear of many church planters launching new initiatives for religious nones. Unfortunately, we lack good empirical data to track the effectiveness of such efforts. The best (and limited) data suggest most initiatives grow mainly due to transfer growth from other churches. I’m not here to dissuade such efforts. Rather, I want to pose a few candid observations and suggestions for reflection.

  • Like any good missionary, it is essential to study the culture and know your audience. If your core mission is to “reach” religious nones, then read social scientific research on religious nones to know how they actually think and behave in the world (not how you think or wish they view the world).
  • Form long-lasting and meaningful personal relationships with religious nones. Sociological evidence is clear that a lead reason for someone joining a religious group is because someone they know and trust invites them. Rarely do unaffiliated individuals “randomly” show up to church, regardless of a church’s best “outreach” intentions.
  • Be honest with yourself and others. If you want to be a church for religious nones, then anchor and measure your ministry effectiveness in this direction. If your congregation grows, be truthful about the source of that growth … and if religious nones are not filling your church, consider ways to pivot around this core identity in your church’s life.

Millennials and Adult Influences

Millennials (a third of whom are religious nones) today confront an interesting paradox: they are raised to embrace a wide array of choices in most aspects of their lives without being equipped in how to make good choices. Social scientific research reveals that the more choice a person has, the more likely they are to question their decisions.

missional landscapePerhaps more than ever before, the opportunity is ripe for intergenerational mentorship of young people. Research on millennials in religious groups reveals that they want adult influences to speak into their lives. One concept I have come to appreciate in the book, Growing Young, is “keychain leadership” – leaders who hand the keys over to younger leaders, and who equip and empower them in the process.

Are there ways for you to foster sustained and meaningful intergenerational interaction in your church? How might you strengthen and mobilize longstanding members to invest in younger members in your church? Are there areas where you can and should train and develop young leaders, to give them a seat at the table and a set of keys? What are the risks of not taking such steps, now and in the future?

Clear self-identity. Religious nones. Millennials. Distinct topics to be sure. Yet I believe these subjects coalesce in important ways as church leaders grapple with the missional context of North America in 2018 and beyond.

Joel Thiessen
Author

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, www.joelthiessen.ca.

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