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:

  1. Empowering leadership
  2. Gift-oriented ministry (that is, people served in ministries that matched their spiritual gifts)
  3. Passionate spirituality
  4. Functional structures (structure organized by function, rather than, say, by how tradition dictates)
  5. Inspiring worship service (the Holy Spirit is obviously at work)
  6. Holistic small groups
  7. Need-oriented evangelism
  8. 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”:

  1. Interdependence
  2. Multiplication
  3. Energy transformation (turning opposing forces into forward momentum, the way a surfer uses the opposing force of the wave to move forward)
  4. Multi-usage
  5. Symbiosis (not competition where diversity harms each other and not uniform monopoly, but diversity which benefits each other)
  6. Functionality/fruit

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.

Review: 8.5