Book Review: Natural Church Development, by Christian Shwarz
In its opening paragraph, Natural Church Development (NCD)distinguishes itself from common church growth approaches. “Critics of the church growth movement have often emphasized the need for quality congregations.” The author, Christian Schwarz “wholeheartedly agrees”, believing Christians should not “focus on numerical growth”, but “concentrate on qualitative growth”. Unfortunately, the thrust of the book is common. Let me explain.
The intent of Schwarz’s book is to introduce the eight essential qualities every church must have in order to be a growing and healthy church. These qualities can be seen in the Bible, in nature, and in research data (13). The nature/natural motif, which is very creative, runs through the whole book. Initially flipping through the book, you might be tempted to think it was a junior high biology text. The book is divided visually, using color-coded chapters, into five parts. Schwarz touches on why “technocratic” or method driven approaches to church growth are flawed in the introduction. His alternative approach centers on “biotic potential”. Instead of scheming to make something grow, he believes we should provide the right environment and minimize obstacles to natural development. The “all-by-itself” principle requires this. Growth takes place and we cannot understand or make it happen; we can simply reduce hindrances to it. This growth mechanism was designed by God and implanted in all living organisms including the church.
The first part of the book discusses the eight quality characteristics. He describes the breadth of the research and what it revealed about the characteristics. Some characteristics are empowering leadership, gift-oriented ministry, passionate spirituality, functional structures, inspiring worship service, and need-oriented evangelism.
The second part describes what he means by “the minimum factor”. Essentially, he makes the point, using other analogies, that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The lowest quality characteristic must be given attention if the church is to maximize retention of God’s blessing.
The third part of the book lays out six principles that must be incorporated. These principles are in sharp disagreement with the “technocratic” approach to church growth or development. He illustrates this by comparing how a robot is different from a person. One is assembled after all its parts are gathered together; the other is formed from an organism. One is a machine and the other is living. His principles are interdependence, multiplication, energy transformation, multi-usage, symbiosis, and functionality.
The fourth part of the book synthesizes the previous parts. Schwarz is ready to compare and contrast the paradigm he is proposing with the alternative models of church growth. His paradigm carefully avoids the dangers inherent the “technocratic” and “spiritualistic” paradigms.
The last section of the book moves toward implementation. While program-driven approaches to growth are bound to fail, Schwarz insists, “Principles must always be converted into applied programs” (105). His ten action steps include building spiritual momentum, monitoring effectiveness (2 NCD consultations per year), setting qualitative goals, applying biotic principles, and utilizing NCD tools.
Schwarz should be commended for a few reasons. First, he rightfully wants to move away from a programmatic approach to developing churches, recognizing that some of the assumptions involved in that kind of approach are simply unbiblical. Second, Schwarz has concisely packaged a large amount of research data. His research covered six continents, 32 countries, and 1,000 churches. He intends to offer a more biblical approach that can be empirically verified, and the book serves as quick introduction to his method and consulting services.
Unfortunately, Schwarz’s basic approach is unsound. I want to show why this is the case. My largest concern about NCD is its use of Scripture, which communicates a low view of it.
In his whole book there are fewer than 25 references to the Bible. (That is about one reference for every five pages of the book.) Granted, one can talk about Christian ideas without explicitly attaching scriptural references to them, but the defense of adistinctive approach from one or two verses hardly constitutes a firm foundation. In comparison to the wiry number of references made to Scriptures, there is an ample number of analogies drawn from nature and empirically verified data.
For example, the first part of NCD (eight character qualities) is telling. There are no references to the Bible and about 25 diagrams/graphs highlighting his extensive survey results. To be fair, this part of his book is about what he discovered about churches with regard to the eight quality characteristics. However, we need to think about the reasoning behind selection of those characteristics. In other words, who came up with the criteria to evaluate churches against these characteristics? The standard used to examine the churches, if determined by Scripture, was never explained. Who could argue with some of them? Some seem fine or even biblical, but they are finally Schwarz’s formulation. These assumed characteristics are not understood to be universally agreed upon or revealed through creation itself. We learn nothing from creation about the church.
Related to Schwarz’s research is also the assumption that the breadth of churches involved in his research is beneficial. He makes the point that churches varied with regard to declining/growing, persecuted and state-subsidized, popular models/unknown, geographic location, language, and charismatic/doctrine (p. 18). However, I am not so sure this is helpful. What does he mean by “church”? Would a state-subsidized church, that happens to be liberal, rejecting the authority of Scripture, be considered a “church” worthy of observation? And if so, then what are we really observing? How is it any different from observing Starbuck’s Coffee or Dell? Schwarz is comfortable understanding “liberal” to be an overemphasis on God the Creator, just as he understands Evangelical an overemphasis on Christ the Redeemer, and Charismatic on the Spirit the Gift-giver (see his The Art of Experiencing God, 14-15). The church is a distinct, because it is God’s new humanity that has been born by his Word and set apart for his service.
Returning to what I see as a low view of Scripture are his interpretive practices, the whole premise of his book (growth happens by itself, therefore minimize hindrances) falls primarily on two passages – Matt 6:28 and Mark 4:26-29. NCD misses the meaning and intent of these passages.
Schwarz’s use of Matt 6 hinges on the legitimacy of using a word that appears once in the New Testament (katamanthanô) in a way that is exegetically reductionistic. Jesus says to “Look” or better yet “look closely” but we have no reason to think that this word should unveil a whole paradigm of understanding church growth. Jesus is simply making an illustration and trying to connect the truth of his subject to everyday life. The context of Matt 6 is not about church growth but about the character and ethics of the Kingdom. Jesus is not saying, “Look extra hard, study closely, and observe diligently the biotic principle which governs the growth of the church.” The point he is making is that Christian living is grounded in God. This God cares for lilies of the field and even more for people made in his image.
Schwarz’s use of Mark 4:26-29 is straining. The farmer’s crops grow as he sleeps and he does not understand how, it just happens all by itself. Schwarz understands this growth automation to not simply be an analogy but a truth. The church grows and we don’t know how, it just does and will all by itself (he recognizes God does it)—“even though it cannot be proven empirically” (12). Therefore, the church’s job is to minimize its own environmental hindrances. This passage, however, is not about the church, but about the kingdom of God. Jesus is trying to describe by way of comparison to what it is like, not the growth mechanism behind it. Jesus is saying that the course of his plan will be carried out and in the end there will be a great judgment. Yes, it is true that God is behind the growth of the church (as seen in individual churches) but Jesus’ intent with this parable is eschatological, not biological.
Schwarz’s low view of Scripture is also seen in his desire to place natural observations and research along side of or verifying Scripture. He qualifies his understanding of their relationship, saying, “Neither the observations of churches nor of nature should ever become the basis for establishing absolute standards…. Not everything in nature is a “biotic principle” to be used in natural church development. Our task is to carefully and biblically discern what is theologically legitimate and what is not” (13). I think Schwarz turns the Bible upside-down. Does the Bible need to be verified empirically and how does one do so? In NCD, you get the impression that the Bible is used to prove these biotic principles of the NCD paradigm. Natural observations are not used to illustrate a principle, instead it seems the Bible endorses the legitimacy of the natural mechanisms and data will prove it empirically.
It is, therefore, no surprise that Schwarz’s book downplays teaching and preaching. Ironically, the biological metaphor “seed” is sometimes used to describe the Word of God (Mark 4:14; Luke 8:11; 1 Pet 1:23). Doctrinal differences are blurred or overlooked in NCD. Those that will want to emphasis doctrine are dismissed as “technocratic” or at other times as “spiritualistic”. When Schwarz lists the ten steps to take toward implementation, his first point (“Build spiritual momentum”) is empty when it should be filled with the Gospel and the life-creating power of God’s Word. He admits that the church development is done for the sake of worship, but he has no advice for how or why a congregation is motivated to worship. His answer is something might happen at a retreat, which gets people asking themselves more about their spiritual experience at church (107). Like the naturalist scientist, NCD has no explanation for the origin of life.
In addition, then, it is no surprise that the evidence he points to in a church that possesses “passionate spirituality” is the “inspiring experience” of its prayer life (26). He places a form of “orthodoxy” against passionate spirituality, undercutting the place of orthodoxy in any true Christian spirituality. People cannot evaluate their own spiritual health according to their experience, they must measure it according to what God has revealed in Scripture.
Having explained why I think Schwarz’s book exhibits a low view of Scriptures, I cannot endorse this book. I would not recommend the book to a pastor, because I think there is more edifying material he could read and spend time pursuing. Even though Schwarz intends to distance his approach from others on church growth, which he might have by stressing principles over methods, at the root of his “paradigm” is his understanding derived from his observations. The purpose and plan of the church are not gained from natural observations and description. They are ultimately revealed, and part of God’s prescribed plan to redeem a people for himself.