Posts Tagged ‘Natural church development’

Reflections on Christian Schwarz and Natural Church Development

January 13, 2011


There was much that impressed me about Christian Schwarz and what he said about Natural Church Development at the Leadership Conference of the Canadian M.B. Convention 2000. His sincere Christian faith and his commitment to the church were quickly evident.  He clearly practiced what he preached.  He demonstrated critical openness with regard to his own thinking.  He even dared to question some of the claims of current church growth gurus.  Schwarz is a very gifted communicator.  He served us well.  However, some of my initial misgivings were reinforced as I listened to Christian Schwarz’s explanation of his research program and his advice to the church. 

 Science and the Bible:

Let me first comment generally on his research program.  There can be no doubt about the seriousness with which the research is being conducted.  Data is being collected worldwide and is being fed into sophisticated computer programs which in turn generate instructive analysis about natural church development.  Again and again we were reminded of the scientific basis underlying this research program.  At one point Schwarz even challenged us to suggest any other way one might be able to find out what leads to healthy growing churches.  My answer – the Bible!    And here is my first concern – science has replaced the Bible as the authority of what we should do in church. 

This concern, of course, raises the question of the relation between the findings of science and the Bible.  Ultimately, for Christians there should be agreement between what the Bible says and any conclusions drawn from authentic scientific research.  Both are an expression of God’s Word.  And Christian Schwarz was careful to observe that the eight quality characteristics of growing churches that he had discovered via his research could all be affirmed by the Bible.  But why seek empirical confirmation of that which is already found in the Bible?  Is this approach not finally a betrayal of trust in God’s revelation? Is it not further an unnecessary accommodation to the scientism that grew out of the Enlightenment?  In my college teaching, I spend a good deal of time unmasking the pretensions of science.  I was therefore somewhat shocked to discover that the M.B. church itself has succumbed to these very same pretensions by inviting Schwarz as the main speaker of our convention. 

Surely at a church convention, the Bible should be held up as the ultimate and the main authority for any pronouncements that are made.  Jesus is the head of the church, not science!  I was therefore disturbed that in the leaflet advertising Convention 2000 and which was distributed to all the churches, Christian Schwarz was described as “an engaging speaker.  He’s easy to listen to, and his messages come from a level of knowledge which make him deeply credible.”  Surely credibility should be based on theological foundations, not scientific expertise.  Surely at a church convention, expository preaching should be the dietary staple – but there was little of this at our convention.  We have here just another illustration of David Well’s portrayal of the decline of theology within evangelical churches.

 Gaps and Biases:

Reliance on scientific methodology, of course, brings with it the problem of bias which is very common in scientific research, and there is evidence of bias in Christian Schwarz’s research program.  There are some noticeable gaps in the eight quality characteristics that are identified as essential to healthy growing churches.  For example, Bible teaching is not cited as one of the eight qualities.  My Bible, however, tells me that this is central to a healthy church.  Preaching, teaching, and the prophetic word are identified as the higher gifts that we should be striving for in the church (I Cor. 12).  But Schwarz said, “Scientific research shows that churches with pastors with a classical theological training are declining in quality and numbers.”   Really!?  Is there perhaps some other factor that is the determining cause in this alleged scientific analysis?  As any first year student in the philosophy of science can tell you, it is all to easy to identify a wrong cause because of bias in your methodology.

One of our senior church leaders identified another missing quality in Schwarz’s list of healthy churches – tithing and sacrificial giving.  Again, there are good biblical grounds for identifying this as an important characteristic of a healthy church.  Paul spends a good deal of time on this topic.  Should this characteristic therefore not also be confirmable by scientific research?  And I wonder whether its omission as one of Schwarz’s eight characteristics occurred because of a bias in the questions asked of churches in his international study – perhaps questions about tithing were not even raised in the research.  And what about suffering as another defining characteristic of a healthy growing church?  Or, obedience?

Schwarz might explain these omissions by claiming that these characteristics are subsumed under the categories of worship or passionate spirituality.  But could not worship itself be subsumed under passionate spirituality?  And why not place empowering leadership under gift-oriented ministry?  These questions raise another problem: Which characteristics should be included under which category?  Is there not a good deal of arbitrariness involved in selecting these specific eight categories as essential to healthy churches?  Might there be some other features that could be equally well highlighted as universally characteristic of healthy growing churches?  And what about the qualifiers attached to some of these eight characteristics, qualifiers which place a lot of emphasis on feeling and emotion.  “Passionate spirituality.”  “Inspired Worship.”  My Bible tells me that zeal without knowledge is dangerous (Romans 10:2).  It is important to pray with the spirit together with the mind (I Cor. 14:15).  Marva Dawn has recently warned us about the idolatries of excitement and charismatic personalities that govern much of the church today.

 The Mystery of the Gospel:      

Christian Schwarz describes his program in terms of “Natural Church Development.”  There is something odd about the use of the term “natural.”  Surely the church is also supernatural!  I realize that Schwarz would agree with this, but he tends to dichotomize the natural and the supernatural. Surely even the human contribution to church growth needs to be divinely inspired if it is to have any effect.  And can the supernatural be captured in terms of precise, measurable, and natural categories?  We must not eliminate the mystery that is at the heart of the gospel.  We must also be careful not to expect the precision of science to apply to people and to dynamic organisms like the church.  Church profiles can be wrong?  Gift-discernment also simply cannot be reduced to precise measurement as is assumed in various current programs advocated by Schwarz.  There are any number of people who think they have certain gifts based on these “precise” programs, but who have got it wrong, and who, as a result, are an embarrassment to the church, and who are ultimately hurting the church because of the errors involved in “scientific” self-assessment.  Again, we must remember that a genuinely religious phenomenon, at its heart and in its totality, escapes the net of scientific theory and analysis. Scientific naturalism, at its core precludes the divine, and hence there would seem to be a basic incompatibility between the biblical doctrine of church and Schwarz’s scientific analysis of a healthy church.

Quality and Quantity:

One final concern is the tension between quality and quantity in Schwartz’s approach.  At times he was careful to distance himself from thinking of church growth in terms of quantity.  Qualitative growth (healthy churches) is what we are after.  But excessive concern about a church’s spiritual health can lead to a kind of spiritual hypochondria.  Schwarz used the analogy of a thermometer to encourage us to make repeated us of his church profile to measure the health of the church.  We can be too concerned about measuring church health.  Might it not be better to wait for God’s final evaluation, “Well done”? 

On the other hand, Schwarz did at one point say that our motivation should not even be a healthy church.  Quality also is not a goal in itself.  Now I was confused!  What are we after?  In the end, it became clear that the dominant concern is growth in numbers.  Schwarz’s approach is very much an outgrowth of the church growth movement which is dominant in many evangelical quarters.  Success is where it is at.  But, the Bible teaches that faithfulness, not success, should be the norm.  In fact, some Old Testament prophets were specifically told that they would not be successful (Is. 6:9-13).  There is a danger in evangelical churches that we make an idol of church growth and success.  Christ wants a pure church (Eph 5:25-7).  And the last book of the Bible “calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints” (Rev. 13:10). 

Does the above critical analysis entail that Christian Schwarz’s program should be completely dismissed.  I don’t think so.  I agree that biblical norms for healthy churches should be open to scientific verification to some degree.  We must just be very careful to recognize the limits of science, and hence of Schwarz’s program.  We must also be careful not exaggerate the precision of the research results, church profiles, or gift-discernment programs used. Aristotle long ago warned us not to demand more precision than the subject matter allows. The church is finally a divine institution, and therefore not entirely subject to scientific analysis and prediction.  Above all, let’s allow the Bible to be the primary and final authority in defining the characteristics of a healthy church.

 (This article first appeared in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Sept. 22, 2000, pp. 6-7, under the title, “Reflections on Natural Church Development,” and is here slightly revised.)