Review: Christian A. Schwarz, Natural Church Development

Published 1998; 128 pages (originally published in Germany as Die Naturliche Gemeindeentwicklung, 1996); see also the shorter pamphlet, The ABC's of Natural Church Development, 1998; 28 pages, published by and obtainable in Canada from The International Centre for Leadership Development and Evangelism, P.O. Box 41083 RPO South, Winfield, B.C. V4V 1Z7; e-mail: <> or phone (250) 766-0907.

J.H. (Hans) Kouwenberg is the minister of Calvin Presbyterian Church, Abbotsford, BC.

In spite of — or indeed, because — the sovereign Spirit of God in Christ ultimately brings about the growth of our Lord's church (Zechariah 4:6; Matthew 16:18b), we ought to pay accomplished (compare, for e.g., "see or study the lilies of the field, how they grow" Matthew 6:28). Of course, there have been many books, articles and interpretations published about "church growth" principles during the last twenty or thirty years but, to my mind at least, this book offers and delivers a singular in-depth analysis and useful understanding of what God is doing can do in the local church.

Christian Schwarz, from Germany, whose denominational or theological persuasion is unstated in the book, worked with Christopher Schalk, to discover certain principles of "natural church development." They conducted a comprehensive research project with over 1,000 large and small, growing and plateaued participating congregations throughout much of the developed and under-developed world. Unfortunately, it appears that Canada wasn't included in this research by the time his book was written; the map on page nineteen — picturing countries which had participating churches in it — leaves Canada "blank"; however, a couple of prominent Mennonite Brethren and Pentecostal Assembly Canadians do endorse the results of Schwarz's and Schalk's work on the cover of the Canadian edition.

Schwarz tells us that the results of his research, along with the results of his observations of the way God's creation works, and of his study of Scripture, led him to what he calls "natural" or "biotic" church growth principles. He wanted to answer the question: "What church growth principles are true, regardless of culture and theological persuasion?" Further, he asked himself the question: "Is growth the appropriate criterion?" He concluded that inner qualities, as much as the more obvious outer quantities — usually cited in other church growth circles in terms of all kinds of demographic statistics and numerical growth — sets the appropriate standards of measurement for any "growing" church.

The results of over ten years of research work showed Schwarz that there are eight quality-control characteristics of growing churches:

  1. empowering leadership,
  2. gift-oriented ministry,
  3. passionate spiritually,
  4. functional structures,
  5. inspiring worship services,
  6. holistic small groups,
  7. need-orientated evangelism, and
  8. loving relationships.

Perhaps these quality-control characteristics may not be so new to many people who have studied the "church growth" movement; they deal with issues which are important to any church interested in authentic "growth."

But Schwarz is certainly on to something when he states church growth cannot (and should not) be "manufactured" or engineered; it will only arise from such natural healthy dynamics at work in any given church. Schwarz's research indicated "there is no one single factor which leads to growth in churches; it is the interplay of all eight qualitatively (and quantitatively) can afford to overlook any one of these quality characteristics (p. 38). Further, Schwarz concludes when all eight characteristics operate above a 65% level of effectiveness, it is 99.4% certain that that church will grow "automatically." Thus for Schwarz, the key question congregations should be asking themselves from time to time is, "According to these quality-control guidelines, where are we reasonably healthy and where are we least healthy?" It is his contention that by setting qualitative goals and identifying its weakest areas of ministry and dealing with what can be done about them, a congregation will help to "release the biotic potential — the growth automatism, by which God himself grows his church" (p. 11). "The shortest stave determines how much water the barrel can hold" (p. 52). Pay careful attention to minimal congregation performances in any one of the eight areas of quality-control and the church will ultimately grow to "hold more water."

Schwarz is not into any particular "model" of church growth. He is interested in applying tests to see whether what he names as six "biotic" principles have been released in a given congregation: interdependence (working as a team), reproduction through multiplication, energy transformation (e.g., using new converts in evangelistic ministries), multi-usage, symbiosis and functionality, to allow that church to grow (pp. 61-80). He reminds us to recall that each of his eight quality-control characteristics, which speak to things that exist in virtually every church, is prefaced by a "biotic element." For example, it is not just "leadership" that churches should be concerned about — every church has some form of leadership; but is the leadership in this church "empowering?" That is the crucial, biotic quality-control factor. These are principles well worth studying. It takes a while to learn to think biotically.

Schwarz adds an excellent chapter of theological and practical reflections on whether we can "make a church grow" a little, a lot or not at all. I'd sure like to know his theological background; he suggests that "natural church development" reflects a "reformation principle" (p. 101).His answer as to whether we can help the church grow is what he calls a "bi-polar" response. There are some things about which we can do something and there are somethings about which we can do nothing. He cites a biblical phrase from the apostle Paul, taken from 1 Corinthians 3:6: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the increase." Schwarz concludes, "One plants, waters and harvests; what one cannot do is cause the growth. Nevertheless diligence in planting and watering has an influence on the upcoming harvest" (p. 99). Hence effort and energy can be directed towards ensuring the congregation's "organization" is in harmony with God's or biblical principles so that the "organism" can develop in an unhindered, healthy and "natural" manner.

Schwarz concludes the book with ten practical "action steps" for any congregation wishing to practice "natural church development principles" to follow: build spiritual momentum; determine your minimum factors; set qualitive goals; identify obstacles; apply biotic principles; exercise your strengths; utilize biotically-based tools (resources); monitor effectiveness; address your new, current minimum factors; and, multiply your church (pp. 101-125).

I am glad that The Presbyterian Record has stated in its April issue that it intends to run a series of articles on this book and its principles. Presbyterians will benefit from understanding and applying "natural church development!" Its theology is biblical and the primer is practical and colourful! I have already introduced the brief pamphlet to the Session at Calvin Presbyterian Church in Abbotsford and obtained a positive response. We intend to conduct several workshops on the topics contained in the pamphlet. Take a look at Schwarz's material for yourself soon.