AN ANALYSIS OF: NATURAL CHURCH DEVELOPMENT
Study, as both an art and a science, creates a quandary for those who are presented with facts that may disrupt self-perceived truth. Information as a tool in the right hands can become a powerful force that challenges those who observe its tenants, shifting in their patterns of thinking. Christian A. Schwarz, in Natural Church Development, (Church Smart Resources, Carol Stream IL, 1996), has presented a thorough and thought provoking analysis of both the Church Growth Movement and more importantly, an in depth survey of large churches around the world. The conclusions Schwarz reaches may not be definitive, but they are significant, as: “a minimum of 1000 different churches on all six continents was required” (p. 18), for this intensive look at church growth. Those who are advocates of Church Growth as a discipline, and the Church Growth movement’s opponents, may be startled by Schwartz’s conclusions.
Introducing the reader to terminology that ultimately becomes germane to the final outcome of the book, Schwarz challenges the inquirer to become familiar with three primary terms: the “technocratic,” “spiritualistic,” and “biotic paradigms” (p. 14), as they relate to the topic of Church Growth. Found within these three worldviews, that are applied to Church Growth understanding, is a vast spance of information and understanding. Natural Church Development attempts to reorient pastors and Christian leaders into a new way of comprehension when observing how churches grow and stratify. The three paradigms Schwarz identifies as being the dominant views embraced as a living reality within most churches draws attention to the polarization of the majority views pertaining to the structures of church government and operations. The danger of extremism is exemplified in Part 4, which highlights the problems of a spiritualistic worldview and the technocratic perspective (p. 95).
Schwarz correctly points out the discrepancies of only accepting growth in churches as a consequence of faith without human action. It is in this hyper-spiritualisms’ rejection of growth principles, or in this case, a system that: “attempt(s) to do away with institutions all together” (p. 90), that the reader is forced to confront those who use “God” as an excuse for non-productivity. By creating a division between the churches existence in a very natural world and its proximity to God, a type of Gnostic dualism may be formulated (p. 90) that significantly impacts the churches effective implementation of ministry in a real world. This is a salient problem that apparently exists in many divergent church expressions that needs to be adequately addressed, regardless of personal preferences in style and composition when church life is examined. When embraced as a philosophic approach to life’s tangents, the Corpus of Christ stands in the midst of society as an irrelevant participant in the hyper-spiritualistic model of ministry, rather the holder of truth and the resolver of humanities many dilemmas that are created in a fallen world that has been affected by sins ravaging, stigmatic consequences. Further research in this application could easily be warranted.
Equally as dangerous, yet diametrically opposite of the spiritualistic paradigm, is the technocratic approach to ministry. As a functional way of doing business, the technocratic system embraces action over spirituality as a primary model of enacting the mandates of Scripture when interaction with society and the various people groups that are composed of the human masses that comprise the race of humankind takes place. The inevitable result is a church that can easily resemble any corporate business structure over the biblical revelation of what church is meant to be in light of a caring, compassionate community of believers that the Great Commission instructs the church to become Matt 28:18-20). Or, as Dr. Elmer Towns has stated in 10 of Today’s Most Innovative Churches, (Regal Books, Pasadena CA, 1990): “Business is measured by the bottom line profits…when the church is controlled by the methods of business, it is on the dangerous edge…There is a point of balance between the church as ministry and the church as business” (Towns, Innovative Churches, p. 220, 222,223). Dogmatism, narrow theological understanding, exclusivist action and eccliasticism, are just any number of problems associated with the technocratic viewpoint (p. 88). The deficiency of this approach is the formation of institutions that can effortlessly exist outside of the boundaries of faith’s expression. By creating organizations that model efficiency over life expressions such as winning souls, caring for the sick, and other ministry aspects, a structure can be erected that is devoid of eternal purpose.
Natural Church Development attempts to bring these two seemingly extremes, that appear to be at odds, together by identifying the bipolar or biotic paradigm (p. 86,7) where church life is concerned. This synthesis of the two seeks to exploit the strengths of both the spiritual and technical systems of ministry. As such, it is neither dualistic nor monistic. The bipolar model views the churches spiritualistic tendencies as being a dynamic and necessary compliment to the technocratic, static position. Each is an appropriate stimulant for the other. Each creates both atmosphere and structure for the polar opposite view that given the right opportunity creates a vigorous and robust environment for the counterpart to thrive within, thus, allowing the essential qualities necessary for health and growth to occur (part 1).
Schwarz identifies eight components that should exist within the church if growth is to be achieved in a substantive fashion. These eight principles are: empowering leadership, gift-oriented ministry, passionate spirituality, functional structures, inspiring worship services, holistic small groups, need oriented evangelism and loving relationships (p. 22-36). Great insight is captured in this exposition, as Schwarz points out the critical need for all eight elements to be present if a church is to be a healthy expression of Christ in any community. The need to strengthen the weaker planks of the ministry barrels staves (p. 52-3) is a powerful presentation that is particularly effective through an evocative illustration (p. 53).
Of all the various conclusions and hypothesis presented in Natural Church Development, the segment on: Are Large Churches Good Churches? (p. 46) may be the most compelling and controversial. Schwarz concludes that smaller churches may be healthier overall than their larger counterparts. This can be seen in the statement: “On nearly all relevant quality factors, larger churches compare unfavorably with smaller ones” (p. 46). These views are advanced further when Schwarz compares church growth with natural growth. By drawing parallels between nature and the church, the conclusion is postulated that even as “organic growth sooner or later reaches its natural limits” (p. 46), so to will a church reach natural boundaries. When these limitations are broached, division, not expansion, becomes the preferable mode of extension. The creation of new churches is Schwartz’ stated goal in this point of discussion.
It is in this area of approach, comparing organic growth with church growth, that cautionary notes need to be sounded. Churches by nature are not natural in composition or creation; they are supernatural in origin when properly submitted to the invisible Lordship of Jesus. It seems to be appropriate to draw analogies from nature, as points of illustration in so far as these illustrative illumines do not become binding principles. This could be viewed as a dilution of Thomistic views of theology from the limitations of nature (Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, Hesselgrave, David, Zondervan Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1991, p. 56-7) being super-imposed upon Church Growth thought. Further research in these varied implications could easily be pursued at a later date. The comparisons between Church Growth dynamics and natural processes may prove to be Schwarz’s fatal flaw of exposure.
With that cautionary challenge being presented, it is important to also state the value of Natural Church Development. As a relatively new paradigm, there appear to be difficulties in the positions as suggested in the book. This however, does not denigrate the powerful observations Schwarz identifies throughout this work. The biotic incorporation of technocratic and spiritualistic tendencies is an invaluable point for due consideration by leaders within the church community as a whole. Altogether, Natural Church Development is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in Church Growth, both as a discipline of study and as a model for implementation into the parameters of the church.