I just read the 9Marks review of Christian Schwarz’s “Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches“, and if you’ve been part of a church who has gone through the NCD surveys like I have, then I highly suggest this you read this short review of the book. The reviewer, Greg Gilbert, is an Elder at Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, a PhD student in Church History at SBTS, and Director of Research for Southern’s President’s office. I met him personally when I went to visit Third Avenue in September, which was great to put a face behind the publications I’ve read from him.
I have not read much of anything on the Natural Church Development (NCD) model of church growth, and so, it was good to finally read a review from a respectable Christian source. I myself have done the NCD survey and answered that big list of NCD questions when my home church here in Toronto did it. I had never been for it, but at the time, it looked like the least pragmatic church growth model I knew of and also the least poisonous in my opinion at the time. Further, I was also concerned when my home church implemented the Willow Creek “Promiseland” children’s program for its lots of fun but little on Scripture methods. Today, a few years after all the NCD hoopla, now being a Southern Baptist, and very much affirming of the biblical principles of growing a church like the “9 marks”, I am continually concerned with all pragmatic “research-based” church growth methods. Believe you me, I have all the intention of studying more on the Church Growth Movement, but for now, let us see what our friends at 9Marks have concluded.
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.
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.
I share Gilbert’s concern about the use of statistics in NCD and what it all really means. Correlation and causation are two very different elements, and even if the stats for a Quality Characteristic show low percentages, that may not necessarily mean that it is causing the church to not grow. Gilbert concedes, “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.” I question the conclusiveness of such evidence also, because apparently my church had issues with not having an inspiring worship service!
I have always wondered why these 8 Quality Characteristics?
- empowering leadership
- gift-based ministry
- passionate spirituality
- effective structures
- inspiring worship service
- holistic small groups
- need-oriented evangelism
- loving relationships
While these 8 points seem related to the growth of a church, I really had hoped that there was substantial biblical basis for them. But apparently, I was fooled — it’s only in Schwarz’s research that he’s found these eight to be relevant to church growth. It is certainly disheartening to realize that this was not at all founded on the bedrock of Scripture, but rather some “pre-studies”.
Further, I wonder with Gilbert about why biblical principles of church growth are not included in these eight? Indeed, whatever happened to expository preaching, the correct administration of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and evangelical theology? I mean, compare that 8 NCD points to Mark Dever’s 9 Marks:
- Expositional Preaching
- Biblical Theology
- Biblical Understanding of the Good News
- Biblical Understanding of Conversion
- Biblical Understanding of Evangelism
- Biblical Understanding of Membership
- Biblical Church Discipline
- Promotion of Christian Discipleship and Growth
- Biblical Understanding of Leadership
Do you see what is missing? My sister asked me why I looked frustrated at lunch today; she asked whether it was because the sermon wasn’t good. I couldn’t lie — yes!–rightly hearing the Word of God preached, explained to me is important to church, its health, and its growth. And it should also be, for our spiritual health and growth. Am I really alone in feeling disturbed when Scripture is not rightly exposited in today’s pulpits?!? I could go on to talk about the admission of believers and not only Baptized believers to the Lord’s Supper, or calling sprinkling by water Baptism, or the biblical qualifications of women for the office of Elder… but I won’t. They’re huge topics for discussion in another blogpost. It does seem that these issues are things which are important to the New Testament church according to Scripture, are not, according to the Natural Church Development model. If this is not disturbing, I do not know what is.
Churches do really grow, “all by itself”, by the power of God and the saving work of the Holy Spirit. I can’t really disagree with Schwarz on that, for when we pray pray and pray for our churches to grow, and step out of the way to let God work through the channels and methods He has ordained in Scripture, our churches will grow — in His time and according to His will. The ministry of Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening is revealing to us today — even if we get the biblical model right and keep doing it, genuine revival and church growth may or may not happen. For when a church grows, it is God who adds to its number, and it is the work of God that saves people.
Salvation belongs to the Lord; and so does church growth.