by Victor C. Gavino

Introduction and Thesis

In this age of church decline, growth strategies and leadership traits have come to the fore in what is said to be a “tight religious market.”1Bibby, 2011 Church settings manifest several characteristics analogous to those identified in social entrepreneurial organizations. the analysis of church growth strategies and leadership behaviour via the lens of theories and models of social entrepreneurships should yield new and useful perspectives on “how to do church” in the 21st-century.

The Decline in Church Attendance, North America

Religious affiliation and church attendance in Canada has been in progressive decline over several decades.2Eagle, 2011; Hiemstra & Stiller, 2016; Pew_Research, 2013; Statistics_Canada, 2001a, 2001b, 2011 Canada census data from 20113Statistics_Canada, 2011 and 20014Statistics_Canada, 2001b presented in Table 1 is illustrative. Within the decade, the number of self-declared Christians decreased by -9 percentage points relative to the total population. Over the same period, those who claim no religion rose by 8 percentage points. The contrasting variance of similar magnitude may have arisen in part from Canada’s abandonment of religious practice. Exhibiting a slight increase in percentage points are the Pentecostals (+0.2) and the Presbyterians (+0.1). These small increases in the Protestant sector could have partly arisen from lateral shifts coming from other religious groups such as the Anglicans (-1.9 percentage points) and the United Church (-3.5 percentage points). The census data for religions other than Christians provide a contrast: Over the same decade, Moslems and Hindus increased by 1.3 and 0.5 percentage points, respectively. Data other than government census reports also show a decline over a wider time interval. Figure 1, extracted from the In Trust Center for Theological Schools website5Hiemstra & Stiller, 2016 tracked weekly attendance in Christian religious services from 1946 to 2015. The numbers were obtained from opinion surveys6e.g., Ipsos-Reid and the General Social Survey. From a high of close to 65%, church service attendance steadily dropped to less than 10% of the Canadian population.

It is likely that immigration has attenuated the drop in religious affiliation. Figure 2, from a website report of the Pew Research Centre,7Pew_Research, 2013 tracks the religious attendance of individuals born in and outside of Canada. The data is from the Canada General Social Survey. While the percentage of church attendance among the foreign-born has remained constant over a span of 14 years, the trend for those born in Canada has dropped by 9 percentage points over the same time period. Given the natural increase in total population, this means a net increase of church attenders from the ranks of the foreign-born.

Trends in church service attendance among self-declared Protestants can further be differentiated according to growing versus declining congregations. In a study on mainline Protestant denominations8Anglican, United Church, Evangelical Lutheran and Presbyterian in southern Ontario, the congregation and clergy of growing churches exhibited traits of theological conservatism in contrast to those that are declining.9Haskell, Flatt, & Burgoyne, 2016 The authors defined growing churches as those that report an annual growth of 2% or more from 2003 to 2013. Correspondingly, churches in decline were those that reported an annual 2% decrease in attendance over the same decade. A total of 22 churches were recruited, 13 of which were declining and 9 growing. Multivariate analysis revealed that theological conservatism on the part of both congregation and clergy was a statistically significant predictor for church growth. Other traits positively correlated with church growth are linked to theological conservatism: higher frequency of prayer, Bible reading, recognition of authority of Scripture, Christian exclusivity and evangelism as primary mission. With respect to demographic, declining churches have a higher proportion of older congregants and older clergy whereas growing churches have an emphasis on youth and contemporary styles of worship. Lastly, serious internal conflict is a predictor of church decline, a correlation that almost requires no explanation.

Church Growth and Church Leadership

The decline of the Christian church in in the West, particularly in North America, has spawned a plethora of literature on church growth. Using “church growth” as the search phrase, alone reports a list of over 20,000 books in its inventory. There are multiple websites dedicated to church growth, many with lists of “all-time favourites” on the topic. A quick perusal of the titles and authors on the lists of “favourites” or “most popular” reveals an under-representation of scholarly offerings from academia, and an over-representation of experiential accounts of local success conveyed as universally applicable. The explosion of literature on church growth reveals at the very least an anxiety among Christian communities and the fear for survival in the 21st-century.

The connection between church growth and church leadership is not hard to make. Parallel to the heightened interest and the proliferation of literature in the church growth sector is the increased volume of books and guides on church leadership. lists over 10,000 titles in its inventory using the search phrase “church leadership.” A casual Google search using the terms “christian + (seminary OR seminaries) + leader* + program + (certificate OR degree)” returned over 600,000 hits. Even if several of these hits point to the same institution, e.g., Tyndale University, the magnitude of the result of this casual Google search points to an intense interest on the part of the global Christian community on the practice of church leadership, and a corresponding response of seminaries, Bible colleges and theological schools to service the demand.

The governance of church communities, ecclesiastical polity, may be categorized broadly according to the seat of authority. Authority in Episcopalian polity originates “from above” structured in a network of bishoprics organized hierarchically. For example, the apex of human authority in Roman Catholicism is the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. Governance in Presbyterianism is executed by a hierarchical network of councils in place of bishops. Polity in Congregationalism dispenses with any form of national or global hierarchy; each local community or church is autonomous. The ultimate seat of authority resides collectively among the members of the congregational church, to whom the minister answers.

In spite of differences in structures of governance, all church communities justifiably operate on principles and theories of organization and leadership, disciplines that have been extensively studied in the business sector within the last century. A thorough examination of organizational and leadership elements in church communities through the lens of business and entrepreneurial principles should yield insights in the phenomenon of church growth and decline. In turn, these insights will be useful in constructing programs designed to maximize organizational and leadership health of church communities, factors critical to congregations planning for church growth. In addition, these insights should constitute a teaching module in leadership/church growth programs in seminaries and theological colleges.

Centrality of Change in Church History

Christianity in its early centuries (from 200 to around 500 or 600 CE) was one of several competing religious currents in the Greco-Roman world.10Blasi, Turcotte, & Duhaime, 2002 Essentially, the Jesus movement that gave rise to Christianity was characterized by its drive to differentiate itself from its Jewish roots as well as from its pagan milieu. Illustrative of the former is chapter five of Matthew, known as “The Sermon on the Mount” with its repeated declarations: “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” Another example is found in chapter 2 of the Gospel of John:

The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body.
(New Revised Standard Version)

John 2: 18-21

Years later, chapter nine of Acts recounts the dramatic 180-degree transformation of Saul of Tarsus from a zealously religious Jew who hunted and imprisoned followers of Jesus, to one who in spite of risk to bodily harm brought the message of Jesus everywhere in the known world of his time. His name change from Saul to Paul is emblematic of the change, a type of differentiation from his former life.

The centrality of change in the Jesus movement and into the ensuing centuries in early Christianity should be immediately recognizable in business circles. In the their book “Passionate Visionary”, Ascough and Cotton focuses on change as the nexus between the business world and the dynamics of Christian communities:11Ascough & Cotton, 2006

If corporate leaders have the time and inclination to go to church, they probably hear Paul’s words most Sundays… a great deal of Paul can be found in postmodern approaches to leadership: passion, continuous dialogue with followers, a focus on the future… a search for new ways of seeing the world… when the old ways need changing. If there is one word at the centre of current leadership thinking, it is change.

All of the above justifies a closer reading of organizational and leadership principles in business, always alert to contact points with the particulars of church organizations and their leaderships.

What is “Entrepreneurship”?

Entrepreneurship is a broad subject with four general and overlapping sub-categories. Dacin et al.12Dacin, Dacin, & Matear, 2010 proposed four broad groups: conventional; institutional; cultural; social. Of these, social entrepreneurship is the most contested with respect to its definition and boundaries. Dacin et al in their paper listed thirty-seven definitions of social entrepreneurship proposed in the literature from 1991 to 2009. They identified a common thread in these definitions: social entrepreneurship is “the ability to leverage resources that address social problems.” This common thread begs other qualifiers such as: the nature or type of social problems addressed; the social value(s) generated; the resources that are accessed; sustainability; profit or non-profit; remunerated, volunteer or mixed. Still another definition approaches social entrepreneurship from the perspective of purpose. For example, do government social programs that are managed using business principles belong to the category of social entrepreneurship? Still another point of view takes all entrepreneurship as contributive to social value in the form of employment and tax revenue, both of which ultimately yields benefits to society in general. Integral to all these thirty-seven definitions cited by Dacin et al refer directly or indirectly are leadership traits and skills. Entrepreneurship traits/skills centre on degree of motivation, ability to identify opportunities, talent for inspirational leadership, and resourcefulness and the ability to recruit resources.

Of the four entrepreneurship sub-categories proposed by Dacin et al, Christian communities or churches possess traits listed for institutional, cultural and social entrepreneurial organizations. Table 2 from Dacin et al.13Dacin et al., 2010 is reproduced below.

Enterpreneurship Patterns in the Church – 1

The characteristics of early Christianity for the most part may be seen as a form of entrepreneurship. First, the essence of entrepreneurship in all its diverse manifestations distills into its classic definition: “…the doing of new things or the doing of things that are already being done in a new way”.14Schumpeter, 1947 In a capsule, entrepreneurship is built upon innovation. The roots of Christianity, as reviewed above, can certainly be understood as both a “doing of new things” and a “doing of things that are already being done in a new way.” The Jesus movement, and subsequently Paul, redefined what it meant to be the people of God in both identity and practice, differentiating itself from what Judaism15and the other co-existing religious cults had for centuries understood it to be.16Horrell, 2002 Thus, while Christianity began as a variant of Judaism, it developed into a movement apart and distinct from Judaism. Schumpeter17Schumpeter, 1947 might have called the Jesus movement a “creative response” rather than an “adaptive response.” It was the former and not the latter because the Jesus movement created a new stream of religious thought and practice rather than buttressing the existing norms.

Eventually, the new Jesus movement itself became the norm. From the time Constantine decreed Christianity as a legitimate religion of the Roman Empire, its governance developed in ways that took on the air of an empire in itself. Christianity became “standardized”, manifested in its canon of Scripture and its normative creedal statements. Centuries later, new ways of thinking and understanding Christianity arose in the Reformation, a monumental movement that differentiated itself from the monolith that Roman Catholicism had become. Once again, Schumpeter might have understood the Reformation as a “creative response” that broke away from the mainstream and created new ground. The Reformation “innovated” in the sense of providing a “new” way of understanding the interface between God and man.

According to Schumpeter, a study of the creative response is “coterminous” with a study of entrepreneurship.18Schumpeter, 1947 The Jesus movement in the first-century, pre-Constantine early Christianity and the Reformation in the 16th-century all bear the traits of a creative response. A study of innovation in the Christian movement from the perspective of current models of entrepreneurship should therefore yield further valuable insight in church growth and decline as well as in church leadership.

Entrepreneurship Patterns in the Church – 2

Early Christianity, in its drive to differentiate itself from its Judaic roots and from its pagan milieu in a real sense changed the prevailing “institutional rules” of the first few centuries CE of the Greco-Roman world and established a new one: the Jesus movement later dubbed “Christianity.” Early Christianity sought to establish its legitimacy by several means, a discussion of which is outside the scope of this paper. Similarly, the Reformation of the 16th-century differentiated itself from its Roman Catholic roots, establishing a new stream of Christianity: Protestantism. Thus, Early Christianity and the Reformation both have traits associated with the sub-category institutional entrepreneurship. Early Christianity and the Reformation also have characteristics of cultural entrepreneurship in that both movements resulted in a change in culture, a redefinition of social, cultural and economic perspectives. Early Christianity drove to shift pagans from polytheism to monotheism. To the Jews it also presented a new socio-religious paradigm of Jesus as God and true Messiah. The Reformation brought iconoclastic streams and common language translations of the Bible. These two alone brought tremendous change in the cultural, religious and intellectual sphere in the Continent. Lastly, liberation theology and its credo of preferential concern for the poor19Gutierrez, 1988 is squarely within the scope of social entrepreneurship. Liberation theology draws from Bible passages that speak explicitly of caring for the poor as a primary concern for Jesus followers. Key passages are Luke 4:18 and James 1:27. Liberation theology began in mid 20th-century in Latin America, pioneered by Roman Catholic priests who saw as their mission and lifework the emancipation of the oppressed and the marginalized poor. This is undeniably a movement for social change and well-being. It also has ideological overtones, overlapping somewhat with Marx-Engels’ conception of sociology and history as a class struggle. Liberation theology has since entered North America, including Canada.20Cole-Arnal, 2000

Today, the stated beliefs, mission and objectives of three mainline denominations in Canada all include sections on social change (The Presbyterian Church in Canada, The United Church of Canada, The Anglican Church of Canada). In the mission statement of the Presbyterian Church in Canada are these lines:21Presbyterian_Church_in_Canada, 1995

  • Our mission, in a world where many are oppressed, excluded or ignored, is to call for personal righteousness, justice and reconciliation in the Church and in the world and to hear, respect and cherish all God’s children;
  • Our mission, in a world of limited resources, is to use God’s gifts wisely and fairly for the good of all;
  • Our mission, in a world of many nations, peoples, denominations and faiths, is to learn from one another and work together for the healing of the nations.

It will not at all be unusual if these same lines were part of the vision of a secular social entrepreneurial organization. This denomination: (1) seeks to bring about social change; (2) seeks to recruit resources in a manner that is socially responsible; and, (3) seeks to bridge disparate ethnic gaps. The first two are characteristics of social entrepreneurship as discussed previously. The third is a leadership trait associated with successful social entrepreneurship initiatives.22Alvord, Brown, & Letts, 2004

Three lines of the Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion as endorsed by The Anglican Church of Canada also cohere with characteristics of social entrepreneurial organizations.23Anglican_Church_of_Canada, 2012

  • To respond to human need by loving service;
  • To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation;
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

The United Church of Canada has a highly elaborated statement on social justice and value that are identifiable as elements covered by social entrepreneurship.24United_Church_of_Canada, 2018 The section on social justice has this line:

“…eliminate poverty and protect those who are most vulnerable… feed the hungry, care for the sick, and shelter the homeless…

The United Church has developed an immense body of policy related to social, political, and ecological issues. These policies speak of how to live out our faith in light of the challenges the world faces at any given time.”

In sum, church communities as illustrated by three mainline denominations in Canada and by adherents of liberation theology among Roman Catholic churches in Latin America exhibit traits that form part of the trappings of social entrepreneurial organizations.

Entrepreneurship Patterns in the Church – 3

Leadership is a critical element in social entrepreneurial organizations and their success/failure. Similarly, church leadership is also a critical element in the growth/decline of church communities or congregations. Thus, leadership traits and skills also form contact points between former and the latter.

Northouse lists thirteen genres of leadership a number of which are intuitively relevant to church settings.25Northouse, 2016 Models that appear particularly pertinent to concerns over church growth are: transformational leadership; adaptive leadership; and culture and leadership.

Transformational leadership focuses on motivating followers to rise above what they might have expected of themselves. Transformation manifests in changes in values, ethics, long-term goals, emotions and standards – all directed towards moving the objectives of the organization forward in ways that the followers might have initially imagined impossible. This is true of church settings where an important task of the leadership is to inspire and motivate congregants to adopt new ethics, standards, morals, etc., that would be consistent with the vision and mission of the organization. The Christian movement is all about the “new creation”262Corinthians 5:17 that without transformation would be unattainable. If then the objective of a given church organization is to reverse decline and return to a growth phase, the congregants must undergo “transformation”, that is, be inspired and motivated to execute the vision of growth via an articulated strategic plan (or entrepreneurial model) with which they might otherwise not have engaged.

Adaptive leadership is pertinent in settings confronted with challenges that are difficult to navigate. In church settings, examples of challenging circumstances are decline, advent of post-modern sensibilities, relevance to the community, doctrinal, resistance to change, etc. Adaptive leadership will guide/motivate adherents/followers into finding ways to function effectively under changing situations. This means that this genre of leadership will necessarily have elements of the transformational, since adapting to new challenges in a church setting often requires changes in perspectives, in methods,27e.g., liturgical practices or genre of music even in the reception of Scriptures and rethinking/reformulating doctrine.

Culture and leadership is not strictly a genre, but one that recognizes and accounts for the challenges brought on by internationalization or globalization of organizations. In church settings, the challenge takes the form of multi-culture/multi-ethnic and single-ethnic congregations. Leadership in these settings must be compatible, or at the very least, sensitive to the particularities of the ethnic group that constitutes the organization. The challenge for the leadership becomes even more complex in a culturally heterogeneous organization. The Globe Study of 62 Societies have delineated ten cultural groups that manifest significant behavioural differences one from the other, differences that significantly impact the nature of leadership that would be most effective for each.28House, Global, & Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research, 2004 The ten groups are: Confucian Asia; Southern Asia; Latin America; Nordic Europe; Anglo; Germanic Europe; Latin Europe; Sub-Saharan Africa; Eastern Europe; and, Middle East. Nine cultural characteristics or dimensions were identified. These are: assertiveness orientation; future orientation; gender egalitarianism; human orientation; in-group collectivism; institutional collectivism; performance orientation; power distance; and, uncertainty avoidance. As an example, the Anglo group to which Canada belongs are high in performance orientation but low in in-group collectivism. In contrast, Confucian Asia group to which China belongs, is high in performance orientation, institutional collectivism and in-group collectivism. Both groups are results-oriented, but the Anglos are markedly individualistic while the Confucian Asians work in community as well are family-oriented. A mixture of the two groups alone will present challenges to the leadership, be it of the genre transformational or adaptive. Motivational approaches for the two groups would necessarily have to take different forms, even if both are strongly inclined to move forward with results. In Canadian church settings, ethno-cultural considerations are increasingly important in view of the reality of the changing demographic in churches: Figure 2 shows that the foreign-born are replacing the native-born in the pews.

Further contact points between social entrepreneurial organizations and church communities may be gleaned from the studies of Alvord et al on traits common to seven successful entrepreneurial initiatives.29Alvord et al., 2004 All seven were organizations that advocated for the marginalized. They were successful in creating ways by which even the meagre assets of the marginalized were mobilized to advantage. In church settings, the first trait is analogous to the theology of preferential option for the poor and the oppressed. The second trait is analogous to the mobilization of church volunteers in such a way that this resource, often meagre, becomes more effective than just a sum of its parts. Alvord et al. also identified leadership traits, skills and behaviour that are common to these seven successful entrepreneurial initiatives. Their leaders have the capacity to work with and bridge very diverse stakeholders. Secondly, their leaders invest effort in forming organizational and management systems focused on growth. Thirdly, their leaders when confronted with resource deficits have the skill to build partnerships and alliances to whom they can then farm out operational activities. In church settings, the first leadership trait is critical in multi-cultural congregations. This is an area that merits intensive study in view of the changing demographic in churches (Figure 2 above). The second trait has to do with using church polity constructively rather than as means of maintaining authority. This too merits further exploration. The third trait as might be relevant in church settings has to do with inspiring and empowering the congregants into taking responsibility for critical roles. Church congregations being voluntary as opposed to church leadership which would normally be remunerated (the minister or ministers) could bring about highly asymmetrical workloads biased towards the leadership. The ability of the leadership to form “partnerships” with volunteers from within the church as well as from the community-at-large is essential in attaining the mission of the church.

Research Directions

The previous sections identified some of the significant contact points between church communities and social entrepreneural organizations. More points of contact may be teased out from a list of research questions proposed by Austin et al.30Austin, Stevenson, & Wei-Skillern, 2006

Research Question: What are the effects of market forces on the formation and behavior of social enterprises?
Contact point: The new social enterprise from the perspective of church would be new religious movements. The current decline of the church in general would be expected to lead to competition for adherents and members. These would be analogous to market forces that shape entrepreneurial activity.

Research question: What is the entrepreneurial process of identifying opportunities for social entrepreneurship?
Contact point: Limiting the scope of the research question to new religious movements, identifying opportunities for church communities would take the form of demographic studies, resource availability in terms of infrastructure and talent. For example, a target population of predominantly millennial-aged individuals would require a post-modernist setting. On the other hand, a community of the elderly would require the garnering of different types of resources, both material (e.g., organ/piano for music) and talent.31e.g., leaders trained in care of the aged as well as hospice ministry

Research question: What gives the mission statement force?
Contact point: A well-to-do church community in the West might be open to supporting a mission statement that includes social work in poor countries, for example. In this setting, such a mission statement will have a certain degree of force, for example, in the form of an appeal to altruism that would lead to a sense of having helped others less fortunate. In contrast, an identical mission statement will have much less force when applied to a congregation without little resource, or to a congregation that depends on beneficence for survival.

Research question: What are the most effective ways for a social entrepreneur to mobilize and manage volunteers?
Contact point: Church organizations famously run on the goodwill of volunteers. Without question, this research question is analogous to that concerning the nature of church leadership and management.

Research question: How can one measure social-value creation?
Contact point: Church organizations have so far been considered charitable for tax purposes. This designation reposes on the assumption that congregations generate social value which if monetized would be equivalent to the cost of a government-funded program with the same objectives. Generated social values could take the form of: free soup kitchens; free shelters for the homeless; after-school programs; youth programs; hospice care; meals-on-wheels.

The list above is certainly not exhaustive of the nexus between social entrepreneurship and church organizations.


As stated in the introduction, church decline in North America has led to to increased attention to leadership traits and church growth strategies in view of what is said to be a “tight religious market.”32Bibby, 2011 There are significant contact points between patterns of church communities and social entrepreneurial organizations. The analysis of church growth strategies and leadership behaviour via the lens of theories and models of social entrepreneurships should yield new and useful perspectives on “how to do church” in the 21st-century.


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