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Greg Gilbert

Natural Church Development

By Christian Schwarz
Reviewed by Greg Gilbert

St. Charles, Illinois, Church Smart Resources, 2006, $20.00

naturalThe stats on the back of Christian Schwarz’s Natural Church Development are truly impressive. First published in 1996, the book—which is really only the tip of a whole iceberg of programs and services—has been implemented in more than 45,000 churches in 70 countries. Moreover, the program claims a remarkable success rate: Those churches which implement the Natural Church Development (NCD) program show an average increase of 6 points on their "quality index" (more on that later), and a 51 percent increase in their rate of growth.

Despite all the statistics, Schwarz is adamant that NCD is not your typical church growth program. He’s right, at least in some respects. In other ways, though, NCD reads and acts like any number of other church growth books. It uses the same tech-inspired (and sometimes inscrutable) language, trades in the same social-science tools of surveys and statistics, and promises the same results. Let me put the bottom line like this, in the spirit of Natural Church Development: Schwarz’s book may not be the same species as other church growth programs, but there’s no doubt it’s in the same genus.


I think it is fair to say that of all the church growth books I have read, I probably learned the most from this one. There are genuinely noteworthy chapters of this book that I’m sure will affect the way I think about long-term planning.

What most noticeably sets NCD apart from much other church growth literature is Schwarz’s emphasis on what he calls the "all by itself principle." By this he means, growth in a church cannot be manufactured, systematized, or caused. Like plants in the field, church growth happens "all by itself"—which Schwarz is quick to say on page 14 is really "a work of God." All we can do is remove impediments to that growth. We can plant, we can water, we can even out the pH of the soil, but we cannot cause growth. Growth happens "all by itself" when nothing stands in the way. Schwarz puts the idea like this: natural church development means "releasing the divine growth forces by which God himself grows his church" (15).

It seems to me that this emphasis—and it is an emphasis in Schwarz’s book, not just a head-nod—leads to some good correctives to the typical church growth mentality. Take Schwarz’s approach to numerical church growth, for example. He hopes primarily not to see churches increase in quantity, but rather in quality. He wants to see churches grow first in eight specific "quality characteristics"; and if that happens, numerical growth will naturally follow. The shift is perhaps subtle, but it is important. The major emphasis is not on the size of the church, but on the life of the church. Moreover, in a sharp three pages of his book (104-106), Schwarz sets NCD apart from the overt pragmatism that marks so much of the larger church growth movement. Here are his points about pragmatism:

1. "Pragmatism as a worldview is rooted in the a priori rejection of binding principles." While church growth leaders may not mean the word to carry that connotation, "it is fitting to ask why they use this term at all, considering its historical background."

2. "The pragmatic approach has the inherent danger of making success the ultimate theological criterion." In other words, anything that leads to numerical growth must be a good thing.

3. "Pragmatists always ask the same question: ‘What is most effective in this situation for church growth?’" That question is short-sighted, looking for immediate results rather than long-term maturation.

4. "Pragmatists have a tendency to determine their own opinion on what is important for the kingdom of God," rather than looking to biblical principles. "The end does not always justify the means."

5. "Pragmatism conflicts with the biblical principle which states that a good tree bears good fruit (Matthew 7:17)." Pragmatists tend to fall for artificial fruit, pointing to it as evidence that their techniques must be good ones.

6. "Pragmatic thinking easily becomes fertile soil for opportunism. Going with the flow, adjusting to questionable current trends, using manipulative marketing methods, even cooperating with corrupt political leaders—all for the well-being of the church, of course—these can be consequences of a strongly developed ‘pragmatic’ thinking."

That is a good critique of pragmatism, and it’s also concise enough that it could be printed or even memorized for use when the need arises.

Another really helpful part of Schwarz’s book is his discussion of what he calls "the NCD growth spiral." The idea is that church leaders should lead their congregations through a series of six different thought processes over a period of time, say a year. The cycle is a circle, Schwarz insists, so there’s no specific starting point—you begin wherever you determine your church is at the moment—but the six steps are Perceive, Test, Understand, Plan, Do, and Experience. There’s no need to explain fully the ins and outs of each of those steps here, but they seem to comprise a pretty good thought-structure for church leaders to use as they think about the future of their churches.


If you do pick the book up for the reasons above, however, let me offer a heads-up about a few things before you delve into it.


First of all, there are parts of the book that were, to me at least, utterly opaque. I could not understand them, and I tried hard. Most of Part 4, "A New Paradigm," which lays out Schwarz’s theological justification for the book, I found to be almost entirely confusing. I got the large point Schwarz was trying to make—that NCD is neither technocratic nor spiritualistic—but I still have no idea why he insists on calling spiritualism "dualistic" and technocratism "monistic." (And I don’t find his illustration about the speakers on page 90 to be all that illustrative of the point, either.)

Nor am I sure what it means to say that the dynamic pole produces the static pole and the static pole stimulates the dynamic pole, though all that seems important. If you’ve read the book, perhaps this is clearer to you than it is to me. And if you haven’t, then you already see my point.

Statistical Snookering

Another warning: Through much of the book, especially Part 1, "Eight Quality Characteristics," I could not help but feel that Schwarz was pulling the statistical wool over my eyes. He does not include anything approaching a full report of his survey’s results. He only gives us the results, here and there, of a few questions from the survey, and I found it hard sometimes to see how the results of those questions supported his point.

One example should suffice, though I could tease out several if I had the space. On pages 32-33, Schwarz makes the case for one of his quality characteristics—an "inspiring worship service." One of the survey questions whose results he lets us see is this: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: "Attending our worship services is an inspiring experience for me." Now, 80 percent of members of "high quality, growing" churches answered Yes to that question, which seems to be the most important point Schwarz wants us to take away. But here’s the rub: 72 percent of members of "high quality, declining" churches also answered Yes. And so did 60 percent of "low quality, growing" churches. I’m no statistics expert, and Schwarz doesn’t tell us what raw numbers stand behind those percentages, but I can’t see how these percentages by themselves establish any kind of conclusive evidence that an inspiring worship service correlates with growth, or even perhaps with quality. It certainly doesn’t seem to support Schwarz’s statement that "It is this criterion which demonstrably separates growing churches from stagnant and declining ones."

More to the point, the reason I felt a bit statistically snookered is because of the color-coding on Schwarz’s graphs. In almost every graph Schwarz uses to press home the importance of his eight quality characteristics, there is a huge gap between the pink "high quality" churches and the orange "low quality" churches. In every characteristic, "high quality" churches answered Yes to questions about Schwarz’s "quality characteristics" at much higher rates than "low quality" ones did. But the problem with that, of course, is that he's defining "high quality churches" precisely as those which, among other things, have inspiring worship services. It's tautological, akin to being amazed that 85% of conservatives believe in small government, after you've defined "conservative" as "someone who believes in small government." How much does it really tell us to say that huge numbers of churches in the "high quality" category answered Yes to the questions that would get them into the "high quality" category? Moreover, on many of the questions (like the one above about inspiring worship services), it is hard to see much correlation at all between those quality characteristics and whether a church is growing or declining. If you want to explore that correlation, though, you’ll have to ignore Schwarz’s color-coding on his graphs, because the visual impact of them is the usually enormous (and not surprising at all if you think about it) drop-off from pink "high-quality" to orange "low-quality."

Why These Eight?

That brings me to another point, which is perhaps the biggest weakness of Schwarz’s book. It’s not clear at all where Schwarz comes up with his eight quality characteristics, nor is it clear why these characteristics should be favored over any other eight that one might devise. Here are the eight characteristics Schwarz identifies: empowering leadership, gift-based ministry, passionate spirituality, effective structures, inspiring worship service, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism, and loving relationships. The closest that Schwarz comes to giving us the origin of these eight points is on page 40, where he says that these characteristics "had already proved to be relevant to church growth in our pre-studies." There’s no explanation beyond that, and to be honest, I have seen so many lists claiming to be "proven" by "research" to be the key to church growth that it’s going to take more than an assurance of pre-studies proving their relevance to church growth to cause me to put any stock in them.

Beyond that, I just do not see anything all that inspiring or even helpful about this list of quality characteristics. None of them are distinctively Christian, and several of them seem to spring from early-90s fads. Spiritual gifts inventories were in hot vogue when I was in high school, and small groups, too, only recently hit the big-time. Here’s an interesting thought experiment: Would any church in, say, early Puritan America or Reformation Europe have scored very high on Schwarz’s quality index? For that matter, what would happen if we gave these surveys to some of America’s growing Mormon wards? Are we going to say that those are "quality churches," too? Schwarz says he is in the process of writing a third book about NCD, one "which will present the foundational authority behind the principles of NCD: Scripture" (5). It will be interesting to see the scriptural case for holistic small groups.

On top of that, one cannot help but notice the absence of a few things that Scripture itself might hold out as "quality characteristics." Does preaching not have anything to do with whether a church grows or is a quality church? What about the right administration of the ordinances? What about an evangelical theology? I’m not saying that every book needs to be a systematic theology, but these eight characteristics just seem a bit arbitrary to me—as arbitrary as any other of the hundreds of lists of "research-proven" characteristics or techniques that you can find at your local Christian bookstore.


All in all, Natural Church Development is a mixed bag. Schwarz comes up with a few really useful ideas, but he has also fallen into what I consider the great trap of church growth literature—the idea that research can identify a list of things which, if a church were to implement them, will almost certainly lead to numerical growth (see Schwarz’s assurances, for example, on pages 3 and 41).

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. You can look at a thousand different research projects, compare their thousand different results, and it will still be better, safer, and simpler to base your church’s practice on Scripture, to do what it commands, and, in the best tradition of natural church development, to then leave the growth to God.Greg Gilbert is an elder at Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, the director of research for the president’s office at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Ph.D. student in church history.

January/February 2008

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