Christian Schwartz has authored a book, Natural Church Development which is considered the most comprehensive study on church growth. Schwartz heads the Institute for Natural Church Development where he has worked among German churches for many years. To write this book, Schwartz extended his study of church growth to include one-thousand churches from thirty-two countries and five continents. Through his empirical review of 4.2 million survey responses, his observation of nature and through his study of Scripture, Schwartz has produced “the first worldwide scientifically verifiable answer to the question, “What growth principles are true, regardless of culture and theological persuasion?’ (19)” The conclusions in this study are valuable to every church leader who has felt the pressure to choose between quality and quantity.
Jesus instructs his disciples to study the lilies of the field to see how they grow, and in studying God’s creation, Schwartz contends, one will see God’s design for how the church should grow (9). This growth is natural to the way God designed church and therefore, [w]e should not attempt to ‘manufacture’ church growth, but rather to release the biotic potential which God has put into every church. (10)” Schwartz quantifies this growth potential using what he calls a Quality Index (QI). A churches’ QI is determined by how well they reflect the eight essential ministries of a healthy growing church. These indispensable characteristics are empowering leadership, gift-oriented ministry, passionate spirituality, functional structures, inspiring worship, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism, and loving relationships. From this intensive study, Schwartz makes the following assertion: “Every church in which a quality index of 65 was reached for each of the eight quality characteristics, is a growing church” (p. 39). In other words, any church with a minimum QI of 65 in each of the above eight categories is statistically guaranteed to be a growing and healthy church (p. 40).
This compelling discovery contradicts much of the conventional wisdom in church growth doctrine which has heretofore proposed that there must be two different methodologies for growth; one leading to quality and one to quantity. Based on this new finding, the goal of natural church development is to release the autonomic growth potential given by God to every single church (13). The uniqueness of Schwartz’s approach is that it rejects pragmatism and replaces it with principles. He deemphasizes the qualitative approach of numbers in favor of the quality of church life. He makes no effort to “make” church grow, but rather release the natural potential within the church.
The study presented in this book includes a number of provocative conclusions that are sure to challenge much of the conventional thinking and encourage many pastors who have felt left behind. Samplings of some of these assertions are as follows: Small groups have the highest correlation to numerical growth (p. 3). A church can only grow as big as its weakest quality characteristic will allow (p. 38). Setting numerical goals for growth is not a principle of church growth (p. 44). The larger the church grows, the lower its quality index becomes (p. 46).
At the end of the book, Schwarz outlines a ten-step process a church can follow to implement the insights from his work (p. 106). He also includes several helpful charts to help illustrate this application on a practical level. Schwartz contends that if a church concentrates on developing quality ministries which exhibit these eight characteristics the church will grow “all by itself” since that is God’s design (p. 12).
The author’s purpose is to present a biotic or natural approach to church growth that emphasizes God’s natural principles of development rather than waste energy on human-made programs (7). Schwartz is persuasive in making his case and the study which backs his conclusions is quite impressive in size and scope.
It is refreshing to see that Schwartz is willing to correct some of his own previous writings on church growth based on this research (28). And while culturally he is more familiar with the church in Germany, the scope of his study which included 32 countries demonstrates that too some degree his own cultural bias has been ameliorated.
One of the most helpful diagrams presented by Schwartz is his chart on the four kinds of churches. Figure one below is a summary of the chart presented on page 21 where Schwartz describes these four kinds of churches. The spectrum runs from growing churches that are of a high quality to shrinking churches which are of a low quality. The place a church falls on this diagram is determined by its measured Quality Index (QI).
The most important part of this figure is that it shows not all churches are good because they are large. This result is important because far too many churches assume that a large numbers of attendee means that the church is healthy. The results of this study should give pause to any who think this way and provide a good basis for a healthy self-evaluation.
Another important find in this study is that the seeker service is not a church growth principle. The seeker service is “not typical of any single category of churches, neither growing or declining, neither qualitatively above average nor qualitatively below average. (30)” The most important characteristic to consider is whether or not the service enables the participants to experience the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit (32).
One weakness of the book is that Schwarz justifies his biotic principles from Scripture citing the various parables and metaphors from nature. The assertion is that since Jesus used the natural world to illustrate God’s Kingdom then we can also use the natural world to demonstrate God’s principles of church growth. For example, Schwartz uses the parable of the secret seed from Mark 4:26–29 to say that churches grow by the work of God alone (12). As mentioned above, this is what the author calls the “all-by-itself” principle where all the church’s efforts are focused on releasing the automatisms of Divine growth. Based on his reading of Jesus’ parable, Schwarz concludes: “I understand this principle to be the very essence of church growth (12).” And while the distinction may be subtle, it is important to note that Schwartz’s application to church growth is really not the meaning of the parable. The context is not about church growth, and to assert this as a direct meaning is somewhat of a stretch. A similar criticism can be levied in his earlier use of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 6:28-29. One is hard pressed to see how Jesus intended the mechanisms of growing a lily to be interpreted as a blueprint for church growth (9). So while Schwartz may be absolutely correct in his understanding of what principles are present in growing churches, his method of tying these to Scripture through the parables of Jesus is not a solid exegetical approach.
Some of the strong points that have solid application to my own ministry begin with his observation about leadership in growing churches. Schwartz says that “Leaders of growing churches concentrate on empowering other Christians for ministry. They do not use lay workers as “helpers” in attaining their own goal and fulfilling their own visions. Rather, they invert the pyramid of authority so that the leader assists Christians to attain the spiritual potential God has for them (22).” He goes on to say that pastors of growing churches “invest the majority of their time in discipling, delegation, and multiplication (23).” For me, as a church planter, this provides a very solid outline of where and how I need to spend my time in the coming months. It is obvious that one of the key variables that will determine much of my success is how well I am able to equip and train leaders for ministry. Of all the variables associated with the quality of a church, “lay training” is has the greatest correlation with church growth. (25)
Equally challenging to me is Schwartz’s observation that small to medium churches are far more effective in reaching the lost. He observes that “evangelistic effectiveness of minichurches is statistically 1,600 percent greater than that of megachurches! (48)” What a great admonition not just to grow one church but to grow many churches that will grow the Kingdom.
I think this is one of the best books I have read in recent years on church growth because it offers some solid conclusions based on real studies rather than anecdotal evidence. For church planters, this book is a must read. And for those who are looking to grow a healthy church, I will quote at length Schwartz’s description which is the best possible summary of what his research offers every church leader.
[Without exception, a healthy growing church in one] in which the leadership is committed heart and soul to church growth; in which nearly every Christian is using his o her gifts to edify the church; in which most members are living out the faith with power and contagious enthusiasm; in which church structures are evaluated on whether they serve the growth of the church no not; in which worship services are a high point of the week for the majority of the congregations; in which the loving and healing power of Christian fellowship can be experienced in small groups; in which nearly all Christians, according to their gifts, help to fulfill the great Commission; in which the love of Christ permeates almost all church activities. (40)