Natural Church Development
by Christian A. Schwarz
USA edition published
by ChurchSmart Resources,
Carol Stream, IL 1-800-253-4276
reviewed by Brad Boydston
30 March 2000
Natural Church Development has been on my "to read" list for some time. It's not really new; the first edition was published in 1996 and I've read some outstanding reviews. But quite frankly I'm a bit burned out on church growth books. They pretty much all say the same thing and take the same limited approach.
Once I got around to it, though, I discovered that this book is different.
Christian Schwarz doesn't give you the key for doubling your attendance. He doesn't tell you that you need to switch over and have a seeker service with a really hot band. And he doesn't sound like a management guru wearing a clerical collar.
He does take some significant blasts at the pragmatism and the infatuation with methodology which characterized the early church growth movement. Yet, he isn't at all anti-growth. The big difference is that he replaces the emphasis on methodology with an emphasis on principles. And he focuses on quality rather than quantity.
Schwarz, who is the head of the Institute for Natural Church Development in Germany, has done statistical studies on thousands of churches around the world and has come up with what he calls "eight essential qualities of healthy churches."
Numerical growth is not necessarily an indicator of a qualitatively healthy church, he concludes. But generally speaking qualitative growth in the church will generate quantitative growth as a natural "by-product."
These are the key transcultural qualities that characterize healthy churches according to Schwarz
1. EMPOWERING LEADERSHIP
Pastors of growing churches tend to be more oriented toward relationships and partnership development than their colleagues in declining churches. These pastors are passionate about equipping and empowering others to do the work of ministry.
2. GIFT-ORIENTED MINISTRY
Christians in these churches are serving in the area of their giftedness rather than filling slots necessary to keep a program running.
3. PASSIONATE SPIRITUALITY
Growing churches are characterized by a joy and enthusiasm. This passion isn't related to "spiritual persuasions (such as charismatic or non-charismatic) nor to specific spiritual practices (such as liturgical prayers or 'spiritual warfare' etc.) which are cited by some groups as the cause of church growth within their ranks." Passionate spirituality seems to be antithetical to the notion of duty-driven or legalistic spirituality.
4. FUNCTIONAL STRUCTURES
There are vast differences in the structures of various healthy churches but all have put significant energy into the development of a structure appropriate for their context. One of the most important structures developed by growing churches is in the area of leadership development.
5. INSPIRING WORSHIP SERVICE
"Services may target Christians or non-Christian, their style may be liturgical or free, their language my be 'churchy' or 'secular' -- It makes no difference for church growth." Regardless of their style these churches have all developed worship characterized by "inspiring services" (not "feel-good" inspiring but rather a sense that the Spirit is present). "People attending truly 'inspired' services typically indicate that 'going to church is fun' -- as opposed to a matter of fulfilling a duty."
6. HOLISTIC SMALL GROUPS
"Our research in growing and declining churches all over the world has shown that continuous multiplication of small groups is a universal church growth principle." Furthermore, these are holistic groups where the focus goes beyond merely having a Bible study to that of practical discipleship.
7. NEED ORIENTED EVANGELISM
Not all growing healthy churches have evangelism programs but all focus on need-oriented (as opposed to manipulative pressure driven) evangelism. Only about 10% of all Christians have gifts of evangelism and the leadership in growing churches knows who these people are and helps them develop their area of ministry. Surprisingly, Schwarz has concluded that "Christians in both growing and declining churches have exactly the same number of contacts with non-Christians (an average of 8.5 contacts). Challenging Christians to build new friendships with non-Christians is most certainly not a growth principle. The point is rather to use already existing relationships as contacts for evangelism."
8. LOVING RELATIONSHIPS
Members of these churches spend time with each other outside of official church-sponsored events. The church doles out compliments on a regular basis. The pastor is aware of personal problems. "To put it even more pointedly, whereas a 'seeker service' cannot be called a church growth principle any more than an 'evangelistic crusade' or the practice of 'spiritual warfare' (as valuable as they may be), it can be demonstrated that there is a significant connection between laughter in the church and that church's qualitative and numerical growth."
A few other tidbits that may dethrone some commonly held perceptions:
+ Only 31% of all above-average growing churches studied set quantitative growth goals.
+ Healthy churches averaging under 100 in attendance grew by 13% over a 5 year period. But churches over 300 in attendance only grew by 3%. "The growth rate of churches decreased with increasing size."
+ The same was true in the area of evangelism. "Churches in the smallest size category had won an average of 32 new people over the past five years; churches with 100-200 in worship also won 32; churches between 200 and 300 averaged 39 new individuals; churches 300-400 won 25. So a 'small' church wins just as many people for Christ as a 'large' one, and what's more, two churches with 200 in worship on Sunday will win twice as many new people as one church with 400 in attendance."
+ The real shocker comes in terms of evangelistic efficiency and mega-churches (churches averaging over 1,000 in attendance). "Thus we can conclude that the evangelistic effectiveness of minichurches is statistically 1,600 percent greater than that of megachurches!"
Schwarz spends considerable time talking about how to develop your own programs and unpacking the theological consequences of his new paradigm.
There are a few aspects of Schwarz's book that are annoying. While the book is colorful the typesetting is inconsistent in the area of paragraph set-up. It's a very small matter but it is a noticeable quality defect in the book's production. Also, more significantly, Schwarz feels like he has to invent a whole new language to describe his research paradigm. So we end up with a lot of clunky metaphors from Life Science 101. None of these are fatal obstacles to digesting the content.
At the very least Natural Church Development should get the creative juices flowing as you begin to think through a growth strategy that is appropriate for your context.
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If your German is up to speed you might check out the Institute for Natural Church Development site.
+ In the US