Natural Church Development is the result of a survey of 1000 churches in 32 different countries, including some non-Western countries. What they found was that churches with high quality and that were growing all shared the same eight characteristics:
- Empowering leadership
- Gift-oriented ministry (that is, people served in ministries that matched their spiritual gifts)
- Passionate spirituality
- Functional structures (structure organized by function, rather than, say, by how tradition dictates)
- Inspiring worship service (the Holy Spirit is obviously at work)
- Holistic small groups
- Need-oriented evangelism
- Loving relationships between church members
Schwartz observes that living things work differently than manufactured things. So assembling a robot with a list of instructions works well, because manufactured things cannot reproduce. Manufacturing works well with linear thinking (from A to B). Living (“biotic”) things do not work the same way; living things reproduce “all by itself.” You can stimulate the growth mechanisms of biotic things, for example by planting a seed, watering it, fertilizing it, but it grows all by itself. Biotic things have more of a circular pattern, where one thing influences another, which influences the first. So a tree’s leaves will decay and fertilize the tree, enabling it to produce more leaves.
Living things have two different “poles,” and the attraction of these different poles enables the “all by itself” mechanism. Human reproduction happens all by itself because the two poles (men and women) attract. Similarly, the Church has two poles: a dynamic, spiritual pole (growth, freedom, faith) and a static, structural pole (structure, organization, building). The dynamic pole is the “all by itself” pole and is what God does. It produces the static pole. The structure produced then stimulates the dynamic pole.
We tend to make one pole out of the two, and become either spiritualists or technocrats. Spiritualists see the dynamic pole as the only important pole, so they see structure and organization as unhelpful, if not downright harmful. Furthermore, since the dynamic pole is what God does, spiritualists get stuck being unable to influence anything, because the action of the Holy Spirit is what God does. However, this viewpoint is functionally gnostic: it is essentially the same “spirit is good, matter evil” worldview of the gnostics. It is certainly not biblical, and it is not the model that God uses in nature.
Technocrats merge the two poles into one, and see only a static pole of structure. The static pole is the “man-made” pole, what we can do. So technocrats look for the right doctrine, the right technique, the right principle that will cause everything to work. Technocrats tend to be formulaic, thinking at A always produces B, like a vending machine always produces a product if you put a coin in. This thinking looks for guarantees, whether it is the right doctrine guaranteeing that you will be saved or the right organizational or leadership principle will create a growing church. However, the static pole can only stimulate the dynamic pole; there are no guarantees to be had. Even worse, because living things have feedback loops, looking for the one “key” principle can appear to produce no result because multiple things are required, or it may throw off the feedback loop and destroy the thing.
So Schwartz offers six “biotic principles”:
- Energy transformation (turning opposing forces into forward momentum, the way a surfer uses the opposing force of the wave to move forward)
- Symbiosis (not competition where diversity harms each other and not uniform monopoly, but diversity which benefits each other)
He also suggests an approach to church growth. First, measure the eight characteristics by surveying actions. This is important because we tend to view our strengths as weaknesses due to having high standards in those areas. So instead of “how loving are we (1-10)”, ask “how many times have you invited a church member to coffee in the last two months.” Then, find the area that is weakest and work on that. Apply biotic principles and use your strengths to improve that area. Now, measure again, and repeat the cycle.
Natural Church Development brings good, data-driven insights into social structure, namely that organizations are living and use different principles than the manufactured things we have learned to reason about. Schwartz is the first author I have encountered (in my limited social science reading) that identifies two opposite poles that create the living dynamic. He is effective at describing the limitations of technocratic and spiritualistic thinking, although he is less effective at communicating biotic thought. So while it is easy to recognize the two poles as an important idea, it is less obvious how to incorporate that into my thinking about life.
The book is also light on fleshing out details. It reads kind of like a summary of his thinking, rather than taking each idea and examining how it plays out. The advantage is that the book is short, punchy, and quickly readable. The disadvantage is that he often makes statements that, while they may be backed up by the data, are not substantiated in the book. The train of argument is a short, express train.
This is a very different way of thinking about organizations, and particularly church growth, than any I have encountered. Schwartz identifies principles that others have clearly internalized at some level, but have not been able to express. Unfortunately, it feels like he has expressed them and not fully internalized them, as of the writing of the book. The book is also a little awkward because of unusual expressions due to the fact that Schwartz is a native German speaker. However, for a short investment of time, you will reap a large reward of a new way of thinking.
- All things that God designs (“biotic” things) grow “all by themselves”: you plant the seed and you water it, but it grows into an adult plant all by itself.
- The opposite of this is “technocratic"growth, where we do all the work ourselves. It’s like pulling a cart with square wheels rather than round ones; nobody has a bad heart, but one way takes a lot more effort than the other.
Ch. 1: Eight Quality Characteristics
- This was a result of a study of 1000 churches in 32 countries in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia (Russia, South Korea, India).
Number Topic High quality, growing High quality, declining Low quality, growing Low quality declining 1 % pastors graduated seminary 42% 40% 62% 85% 1 Regularly seek trusted outside help 58% 35% 24% 12% 2 My personal ministry matches my gifts 68% 73% 11% 9% 2 Lay volunteers receive training 63% 60% 22% 12% 3 Times of prayer are an inspiring experience for me 71% 65% 67% 52% 3 I am enthusiastic about my church 76% 70% 52% 33% 4 Has department leaders for individual ministry areas 85% 80% 65% 32% 4 I consider our church to be tradition-bound 8% 11% 32% 50% 5 Our worship service targets primarily non-Christians 3% 4% 3% 1% 5 Attending worship services is an inspiring experience for me 80% 72% 60% 49% 6 It is more important to attend small group than church 29% 25% 13% 6% 6 I have a group in this church where I can discuss personal problems 71% 67% 51% 41% 6 We promote multiplication of small groups through cell division 78% 60% 21% 6% 7 Pastor knows which members have gift of evangelism 70% 65% 43% 21% 8 There is a lot of laughter in our church 68% 63% 46% 33% 8 How often have you invited someone from church to coffee or a meal in last two months? 17x 16x 13x 11x
- Empowering leadership
- Leadership style (relational, goal oriented, or partnership oriented) were not different between growing and declining churches.
- Most of the high quality, growing churches were led by unknown pastors; you don’t need to be a megastar.
- Highly gifted leaders cannot be copied; they do not provide a reproducible template.
- Both passion and good doctrine are required for a growing church.
- “On the other hand, ‘pure doctrine’ alone, as countless examples illustrate, does not induce growth.” (27)
- People tend to view structure and life as opposites, but the difference between living and non-living things is in their structure—how the things in them relate to each other.
- “Inspiring” means the Holy Spirit is active. He notes inspiring services draw people “all by itself.”
- Multiplying small groups via cell division is the most significant feature of growing churches.
- This study confirmed C. Peter Wagner’s hypothesis that no more than 10% of Christians have the gift of evangelism. Growing churches use those who have the gift in evangelism and use others in other ministries.
- Both growing and declining churches have the same amount of non-Christian contacts (8.5), so new friendships are not necessary.
Ch. 2: The Minimum Factor
- Instead of trying to improve everything at once, work on the category that is weakest first. A barrel made of wood staves can only hold as much water as the shortest stave. If that one is lengthened, it now can hold more water.
- Beware of models and personal testimony. Just because something worked for me doesn’t mean it will work for you. A model may be helpful, but the problem is rarely a single thing, and is usually a set of things that all have to be solved to see progress.
Ch. 3: Six Biotic Principles
- Technocratic thinking is like assembling a robot according to a set of rules. This works great for machines (and biotic principles do not work for machines: you can’t plant a robot and expect to get a mature robot), because they cannot reproduce themselves. All biotic things can reproduce themselves, and cultivating this ability is how we get living things to grow.
- Technocratic thinking ignores circular repercussions. One African nation established an elephant reserve, which initially caused the elephant population to increase, until the elephants ate all the acacia trees, at which point they had no food and they all died.
- Multiplication: the amount of new churches planted is highly correlated to the quality index of a church.
- We should not be afraid to let things die. A church or ministry that has reproduced many times has carried its DNA to all its children (and their children) and has served its function.
Ch. 4: A New Paradigm
- God’s things have two opposite poles to them, and life works through the mutual attraction of the poles (e.g. men and women). In the church, there is a dynamic pole (organic, growing, freedom, “all by itself”) and a static pole (technical, building, order, “man-made”). The dynamic pole produces the static pole, and the static pole stimulates the dynamic pole.
- When we only focus on one pole we get one-dimensional thinking of either the technocratic kind or the spiritualistic kind.
- Monism: the two poles are the same (the static pole) and as long as that pole is “right” (right doctrine, program, politics, etc.) everything will be okay. This leads to technocratic thinking.
- Technocratic thinking is like a vending-machine or magical approach: do this and the result will follow. It might be believing a teaching and you will be definitely saved. It might be do a method and it will have guaranteed results.
- The problem is that technocratic thinking looks for guarantees, whereas as biotically what happens is that the actions stimulate the organic growth, not guarantee it.
- Dualism: the dynamic pole is separated from the static pole, and forms, programs, structures are viewed as spiritually irrelevant or harmful. (86) This is spiritualism.
- The spiritualistic idea that God does not use structure is more akin to a gnostic framework than a biblical framework.
- The two sides are mutually incompatible, and both perceive biotic principles as from the other camp.
- Biotic growth is not theologically neutral. It is cross-denominational. More importantly, it measures success of a structure or organization on how well it stimulates the dynamic pole. (This is what reformation does.)
- Technocratic thinking looks at things as a straight line (from A to B). Organic thinking looks at things as a circle (effect of B on A). Biotic thinking is like a spiral or a helix: a continuous circle that keeps moving.
- Spiritualists say that you cannot manufacture a church. Technocrats have a formula for doing it. The reality is that the static pole stimulates the dynamic pole, but cannot create it.
- Biotic principles are not pragmatism. Pragmatism is bad for church growth; it rejects the existence of fundamental principles, leads to success as an end to itself, which produces short-term thinking, overlooking the fact that God’s ways are higher than ours, and creates artificial fruit and opportunism. (100-102).
Ch. 5: Ten Action Steps
- Build spiritual momentum: get on fire for God
- Determine your minimum factors: note that this should not be done as a self-evaluation, because we typically evaluate our strengths as weaknesses because we have high standards in those areas. Ask about actual behaviors. So, not “how loving is the church (1-10)” but “how often have you invited someone out to coffee in the last two months”
- Set qualitative goals
- Identify obstacles
- Apply biotic principles
- Use your strengths to improve your weaknesses
- Use biotic tools
- Monitor effectiveness: the NCD evaluations should be done on an ongoing basis, because they are just a snapshot in time, and you want to know your trajectory in the eight areas.
- Address the new minimum factors
- Multiply your church
- Address new minimum factors