What We’re Learning: The Engines of Thriving Churches

By Dr. Nancy Going
Director of Research & Resource Development

In 2020, we  launched a new research project focusing on faith formation and congregational thriving with 30 churches from six denominations. It’s funded by the Lilly Endowment through their THRIVING CONGREGATIONS initiative. 

Since our focus at Vibrant Faith is the conviction that “vibrant faith in Jesus Christ formed in community changes everything,” we’re working with our THRIVING CHURCHES to explore how innovation around faith formation and discipleship fuels a thriving church culture. Our gut and our history says it does. This is a look at what we’ve seen and learned in our first year, despite many plans that had to be cancelled and re-arranged because of the pandemic. 

Last fall, we asked our churches to focus on the example of  thriving Christian community in the book of Acts. We helped guide those conversations using a small book called Thriving Communities, by Cavin Rowe and Greg Jones. You can access that book HERE.

Rowe and Jones found these characteristics made all the difference for the early Christian church… 

1.  Churches loved Jesus 

2.  Churches focused on RELATIONSHIPS

  • They cared for the weak
  • They were deeply networked with other Christians
  • They shared their lives.

3. Church leaders addressed CONFLICTS

4.  Churches focused on PRACTICING their faith

5.   Because of those faith practices, Christians were VISIBLE in their communities

6.  Churches helped God’s world to THRIVE

Over the coming weeks we’ll highlight each of these characteristics, and paint a picture of what it looks like to lean in and innovate around the model of the early church. Today, let’s take a  look at the second of the relational bullet points…

Churches are deeply networked with other Christians.  

In our competitive, kill-and-eat world, deeply networked churches often run counter to the norm. At Vibrant Faith we’ve often been surprised by how difficult it is for churches to create space to DEEPLY connect.  They might share stories, compare resource recommendations, but rarely do they pray for one another as churches, and champion others’ ministries. Once, when I asked a group of ministry leaders about their relationships with other churches in their community, they jumped in to tell me about local agencies that their churches partnered with—but not about the church down the street (or even other churches in their denomination).  

Competition kills life-giving community.  

Now, if you and your church ARE deeply networked with other Christian churches, we thank God for you. You’ve had the courage and creativity to model the kind of thriving that God has always had in mind for the church. Churches in our Thriving Congregations project are organized into cohorts of four or five, so they’ll be deeply connected to one another, regularly praying for one another’s ministries, and embarking on their individual innovation experiments TOGETHER.  

How about you? What would it look like now to support, learn from, and pray for the ministry of the church down the street?

Dr. Nancy Going serves as the Director of Research & Resource Development for Vibrant Faith. Nancy lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband Art, an Anglican priest, and they have launched two new families from their children.


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