Natural Church Development

Natural Church DevelopmentI just read the 9Marks review of Christian Schwarz’sNatural 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?

  1. empowering leadership
  2. gift-based ministry
  3. passionate spirituality
  4. effective structures
  5. inspiring worship service
  6. holistic small groups
  7. need-oriented evangelism
  8. 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:

  1. Expositional Preaching
  2. Biblical Theology
  3. Biblical Understanding of the Good News
  4. Biblical Understanding of Conversion
  5. Biblical Understanding of Evangelism
  6. Biblical Understanding of Membership
  7. Biblical Church Discipline
  8. Promotion of Christian Discipleship and Growth
  9. 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.

5 thoughts on “Natural Church Development

  1. Really I don’t know about this book “Natural Church Development” thank you for informing about this book and its a great review of the book, thank you for sharing this article info.

  2. Hi
    I was interesting to see what you wrote about NCD. The interesting thing about what you are proposing is that 7 of your 9 characteristics are about understanding, one is about “promotion” and one about “discipline”.

    However, these things do not necessarily produce a healthy church. I can take you to some places which tick those boxes but because there is not love they are unhealthy places to be. It is not that I think the things you list are wrong, but that other things need to be in your list! I’m sure you would agree and say “love comes under Christian dicipleship”. Well, sure that’s right but I would say that done well, Expositional Preaching and Biblical Theology are part of inspiring worship. For please note in NCD, inspiring means the “spirit inspiredness” of services rather than its entertainment value or the Christian duty to attend. When worship is inspiring it draws people to the services “all by itself”. A church in which worship services are a high point of the week for the majority of the congregation.
    As 1 Thess 5:16-19 puts it, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Jesus Christ. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire”

    The point of NCD is not that the eight characteristics are all that matters. However there are things that are needed at the core for a church to be healthy. Would someone want to say that all the NCD characteristics are not good things? Are they unbiblical. When examined carefully looking at the NCD definition of inspired and need-based, I don’t think that they are but they do need careful looking at. I am not uncritical of NCD, I think some principles of the kingdom of God may be applied to individual churches but here is the product of some of my thoughts over the past weeks. What do you think? Here is my thoughts on the biblical / theological foundations of the NCD characterisitcs:

    Empowering leadership A church in which leaders are developing and equipping other leaders Eph 4:12
    “…to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up”
    Gift-oriented ministry A church in which nearly every Christian is using his or her spiritual gifts to edify the church; 1 Peter 4:10
    “Each one should use whatever gift they have received to serve others faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms”

    Passionate spirituality A church in which most members are living out their faith with power and contagious enthusiasm; Romans 12:11-12
    “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer”

    Functional structures A church in which church structures are evaluated onwhether they serve the growth of the church or not; The church in Acts restructures after the controversies about food distribution; Jesus has the three,, the twelve, the 72 etc.
    Mark 2:27
    “The sabbath was made for man not man for the sabbath”

    Loving relationships includes being involved in people’s life, spending time together outside of church activities John 13:34-35
    A new command I give you. As I have loved you so you love one another. By this all men shall know that you are my disciples if you love one another

    Holistic small groups members sharing life with each other— in groups which display intimate community, practical help and intensive spiritual interaction Acts 2:46-47
    “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people

    Need-oriented evangelism. This means focussing evangelistic efforts on the questions and needs of non-Christians. This is not reducing Christianity to seeking “rice Christians”, but is meeting people where they are at, and loving them as ourselves. Examples of this are the Gospels: Jesus began with people’s needs and questions and healed,delivered and taught them.
    1 Cor 9:20-22 “To the jews I became like a jew… to those not having the law I became as one without the law… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some”

    The fact that the churches I have just started leading just scored terribly on the NCD results does not mean that I am going to reject the results. It does not mean I am going to jettison my biblical principles either. It does mean that I need to hear what the spirit is saying to the churches – through the word of Scripture, the whisper of the spirit and the views of my people as it comes in the questoinnaire. After all it was only when the people’s voice was heard in Acts 6 that the disciples sorted themselves out.

    I have difficulty with Gilbert who says, “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.” Maybe not the percentages but the Bible does! Those who labour labour in vain unless the Lord builds the house! If inspiration is the inspiration of God then I am in trouble if I don’t want my worship services inspired by him!

    In Christ,

  3. 8 quality characteristics or 9 Marks are good as a starting point.

    Both can work out but both could be a failure. It is not the theory itself but the willingness of obendient / submission to God.

    “For all things God will do it for the good of those who love Him.”

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