Daryl and Cecily Brenton both completed their Bachelor of Ministry degrees at the Christian Heritage College Scho9ol of Ministries and served as missionary translators in Papua New Guinea with the Summer Institute of Linguistics. This article discusses their research findings from a huge data base compiled by Christian Schwartz.
Much has been written about Church Growth since McGavran’s seminal book Understanding Church Growth was first written in 1980. However, the ‘fog’ surrounding Church Growth still exists. What are church growth factors that are truly necessary to the growth of local churches, and by extension, to denominations and the Kingdom of God as a whole?
Church Growth Research
McGavran made much of accountability in church growth. The main reason for energy and resources being wasted on unproductive ventures was what he called ‘the fog’, an imprecise evaluation of mission effectiveness. Many times decisions are not converted into disciples and sometimes hard to reach groups were preferred to those that are more receptive (McGavran, 1990, p.36).
Christian Schwartz tackled this predicament. His desire for an objective evaluation of church growth principles prompted him to start a worldwide survey of churches from every continent. Designed by a social-scientist/psychologist, this project has generated a database of over 4.2 million responses, allowing for a statistical analysis of one hundred and seventy variables that were thought to affect church growth. Such a database allowed for an objective search for principles that transcend culture and theological biases (Schwartz, 1996, pp. 18-19, 33).
Any effective approach to analysing church growth must distinguish between models derived from specific churches and principles that have been distilled from many examples (Schwartz, 1996, pp. 16-17).
Christian spirituality, either individually or collectively, has two seemingly disparate poles. On one hand, church growth is seen as totally dependent upon God’s sovereign action. On the other hand, human programs and organisation are seen as essential to facilitate church growth. Emphasis on one of these poles at the expense of the other leads to erroneous paradigms. Concentration on God’s sovereign ability tends to a ‘spiritualistic’ view that undervalues, or indeed, opposes methods and organisation. The danger of the other extreme is that God’s role is minimised and church growth is considered as just human endeavour that God automatically approves.
The writings of the Apostles on the life and structure of the church cover both of these aspects (see 1 Peter 2.5; Ephesians 2.21, 4.12; 1 Corinthians 3.9). The action of the Spirit constantly stimulates the organisation of programs, rules and institutions (Schwartz, 1996, pp. 84-85). This is analogous to the growth of the skin and bones of a person that are formed during gestation and are completely replaced every month of life. Schwartz maintained that the dynamic pole produces the organisational aspects of a church, which in turn encourages spiritual formation in the people. Like a spiral staircase, this dynamic has both a cyclical and a vertical movement (Schwartz, 1996, pp. 96-97).
There are some aspects of church life that can be developed and there are some that are in the hands of God alone. This is much like the case of a farmer who ploughs, plants, weeds and irrigates his crops but has to rely on the weather and the life force in the seed to form the desired crop (Schwartz, 1996, p98-99). Understanding the dynamic of Christian spirituality allows one to become a junior partner with God in church growth.
One of the most difficult tasks of church growth is to isolate those factors essential to church growth. To be able to tell which of the multitude of social, environmental, historical, demographic, or various other influences are the real influences can be overwhelming. This is evident from the multitude of lists of such factors by church growth authors.
Schwartz’s survey results give an unprecedented opportunity to analyse what factors are trans-cultural and independent of personal theologies. Covering over one thousand churches in thirty-two countries, this survey was designed by a social scientist to avoid bias in the analysis of the resulting data. Many pastors have been disappointed, having adopted a model of church growth from a successful church without considering the various differences in culture and environment. Schwartz approached the issue by analysing the results to distil those abstract principles that are relevant for all churches and then to individualise those principles in a plan for a particular local church (Schwartz, 1996, pp. 16-19). Denominations could also benefit from this course of action to develop policies for the growth of their local congregations.
Many authors assume that an increase in attendance at worship services is church growth. However, those churches that were committed to raising the quality of their congregational life were found to experience numerical growth on a more consistent basis. When the quality of Christian spirituality in a congregation improves dramatically, church growth is almost a ‘by-product’ (Schwartz, 1996, p. 42; cf. Peters, 1981, p. 23; Patterson, in Winter, 1981, p.613). It is important to identify those qualities that directly affect the growth of a congregation, both numerical and spiritual.
Much church growth literature assumed that a task oriented leadership style was a characteristic of churches that are growing. However, this was not shown to be the case. Growing churches were shown to have pastors who were usually more relationship oriented than task focussed. Rather than losing themselves in friendships however, these pastors were partnership oriented. They typically have a mindset that views non-clergy as people to be served, trained, equipped and supported in participating in the work of the ministry. These leaders have realised that they can empower themselves by: empowering others; discipling; delegating work; and multiplying leadership to do many times more than their own individual efforts.
The church must train believers in body ministry skills according to the Holy Spirit’s giftings. Thus leadership will be in the position of being able to invest time and effort into the making of disciples, bringing overall growth to the church and denomination (Schwartz, 1996, pp. 22-23).
Gift oriented ministry
One of the major tenets of the Reformation is still unrealised in German-speaking Europe. The ‘priesthood of believers’ was one of Luther’s most radical doctrines, with the potential to transform the life of the church of his times. However, a bureaucratic paradigm prevailed. Volunteers are mostly sought to fill the positions determined by the pastor. Allowing Christians to work with their God-given gifts releases them from human striving to an unprecedented degree. This usually results in an increase of cooperation with the Holy Spirit. A correspondence between this gifted ministry and the personal contentedness of such Christians was also seen in the survey results.
As Christians serve in the area of their giftedness they are more likely to function under the power of the Holy Spirit instead of their own strength (Schwartz, 1996, pp. 24-25).
A vibrant and contagious expression of faith was found to be more important than a charismatic persuasion or otherwise or whether one practiced spiritual warfare or used traditional liturgies or other such issues. A passionate spirituality is found wherever Christians express their faith with a contagious enthusiasm and practical expression. This is the opposite of a moralistic legalism.
This is a quality that separates the growing from non-growing churches. A growing church will always be able to answer “Yes” when asked: “Are the believers in this church ‘on fire’, living prayerful, committed lives with joyful and enthusiastic faith?” (Schwartz, 1996, pp. 26-27)
This quality basically assumes that any structures that are put in place are designed to see that the other qualities are promoted (Schwartz, 1996, pp. 28-29). This will sometimes mean the restructuring of previous structures to fulfil their purpose. Rather than forming a rigid exoskeleton like a crab’s shell, functional structures are more like a human skeleton, which is renewed regularly and increases to accommodate the growth of the body. Functional structures require a balance between the extremes of an overly spiritualised approach and that of a technocratic, ‘super pragmatism’.
Life and form both spring forth when God breathes His Holy Spirit into formless clay. A creative act occurs when structure and form knit together in God’s hands.
Inspiring worship service
Such innovative strategies as using seeker sensitive services, did not show up as church growth principles. Issues of whether to use traditional terminology and liturgy or a casual and modern approach were not seen to be particularly important. The deciding factor was shown to be whether the service was inspiring to the participants. It is the concrete impact of the Holy Spirit’s presence that is ‘inspiring’ and draws people to the services without the need for pressure tactics (Schwartz, 1996, pp. 30-31).
Though seeker services are a method of evangelism and worth consideration, they make no difference to overall church growth. If the presence of the Holy Spirit can be felt/seen permeating the church then the service and worship are most certainly going to be inspired.
Holistic small groups
A holistic group is one that goes beyond just studying the Bible. It must allow Christians to discuss issues of personal concern to provide the natural place for Christians to learn to serve others with their spiritual giftings. Through the multiplication of these small groups, leadership is trained in a ‘hands on’ situation. Discipleship is more fully developed in this sort of situation than in any large group discussions (Schwartz, 1996, p. 32).
Different teaching methods have various effects on those who are listening. Kraft determined that monologues, that is, sermons/lectures, have little impact on the hearer and result in an increase of knowledge but little change in lifestyle. Small group discussion has great potential to produce changes in thinking patterns, due to greater interaction. However, it was life involvement or individual discipleship that had the potential to transform total life patterns (Kraft, 1991, pp. 140-141). It is of great benefit to Christians to note in what situations that Jesus used these teaching methods and why.
Small groups are the pillars of church growth. Their multiplication could be seen to be the ‘most important’ factor of all eight characteristics. Small groups can overcome cultural and personality differences often found in many large churches. The needs of the people can be met in the small group situation.
Need oriented evangelism
Closely related to the previous quality is the need for church leaders to identify those Christians who are particularly gifted to be evangelists. Schwartz’s research verified Wagner’s thesis that only ten percent of all Christians are specifically called to be evangelists. Identifying these people and empowering them to function as God intended them to, frees the other ninety percent from the burden of trying to accomplish what they were not gifted to do and allows those so gifted to maximise their efforts (Schwartz, 1996, pp. 34).
A major benefit of this strategy is that it allows those who are not called to be evangelists to use their gifts to support evangelistic efforts, for example, in follow up, discipling converts and maintaining records for future evaluation of these efforts.
To release the gift of evangelism it is essential for leadership in a church to identify and empower those believers possessing this Holy Spirit inspired gift.
Closely related to the importance of small, holistic groups is the state of unfeigned practical love among the Christians. Analysis of the research data showed that such variables as seeker services, evangelistic crusades or even spiritual warfare should not be deemed as principles of church growth. It is primarily, practical Christian love that generates a drawing power more effective than any program that relies only on verbal communication. Indeed, love is so important that it’s lack was found to be the factor most likely to limit the growth of churches with over one thousand members. Wherever churches were lacking in this Christian love, their development was found to be held back (Schwartz, 1996, p36-37).
The magnetic power of unfeigned, practical love generates more growth than any evangelistic program ever shall. A church full of laughter and loving, caring relationships will have both quality and growth
Integration of the qualities
In natural church development our point of departure is not outward manifestations of growth, but the qualitative causes. …. Quality produces quantity. (Schwartz, 1996, p.42-43)
These qualities are not just individual factors that work independently. For an example of this interconnecting web of influences, just consider how functional structures relate in the area of empowering leadership. One of the goals of this kind of leadership is to develop individuals to fulfil their calling and to multiply a leadership that can delegate. A structure that, for example, institutes departmental heads to develop co-leaders through discipleship allows the pastor to delegate areas of service to others. This offers the opportunity for intimate cooperation and the determination of the giftings of those individuals. In turn, this will promote a passionate expression of faith as these individuals function in their calling and allow them to support the church’s need oriented evangelism. Moreover, with training and encouragement they will be able to replicate this system within the existing congregation as well as in establishing new churches.
The way that these qualities interact is like the balance of the four essential minerals in agriculture. It is common knowledge among farmers that the soil in their paddocks needs to have a balance of nitrogen, lime, potash and phosphorus to be viable (Schwartz, 1996, pp. 54-55). Deficiencies in one or more of these minerals, or an imbalance between them, can spell the difference between success and failure of the crop and potentially of the farmer’s finances as a whole.
The growth of a local congregation is a self-organising phenomenon. When the right principles are put into practice, numerical growth seems to be automatic.
Concentrating on raising the spiritual health of the congregation in the areas of community (that is, in fellowship and organisation) and its practical, enthusiastic expression has some unforeseen benefits. It allows for the breakdown of a seemingly overwhelming job into small, discrete goals. Strategies to improve each quality can prove to be very simple, even mundane. For example, an effective way to improve the occurrence of loving relationships could be as simple as encouraging members to invite each other home for a meal or for coffee. Very few members would feel competent to raise the love quotient of their home group, but most could easily provide some hospitality. Such achievable tasks generate enthusiasm.
The task of the church is to fulfil the Great Commission. On at least five occasions, Jesus commissioned his disciples to be his representatives (John 20.21; Mark 16.15; Matthew 28.18-19; Luke 24.46-48; Acts 1.8). The primary command in Matthew 28.18-19 is the imperative, ‘make disciples’. This is confirmed by the use of participles for the other three instructions. Evangelism that leads to conversion but not service, is sub-Christian. Disciples are followers, pupils or apprentices in the Christian faith. A ministry that truly disciples people will include aggressive evangelism (going), building converts into the community of faith (baptising them into the name) and showing them how to live as Christians (teaching to obey).
Perhaps the greatest weakness in discipleship in most Western churches is the lack of what Eims called the principle of association. Jesus chose his disciples to be with him. Thus, any Christian wishing to disciple someone must be willing to share his/her life with that person (Eims, 1978, p.33).
Strategies for Local Churches
Petersen noted that the church has had, ‘thirty years of discipleship programs, and we are not discipled’ (Petersen, 1993, p.15). If the commission of the church is to make disciples, then this is a serious charge indeed. It is at the level of the local congregation that discipleship occurs, therefore, it is imperative that local congregations should give attention to providing an environment that will encourage this vital interaction. Schwartz identified holistic small groups as the most practical place for Christians to develop discipleship (Schwartz, 1996, p. 32).
The church is a transforming community of believers, followers of Jesus in fellowship with him and each other. Scripture often refers to it as the family of God. In the doctrine of the Trinity, we see that God is a community of interrelating persons. It is only in relation to each other that we can differentiate each person of the Godhead. The Father and the Son are only so in relationship to each other, for Scripture declares that the Father and Son are co-equal and the Spirit is also known as the Spirit of God and as the Spirit of Christ.
This communal aspect is paramount in understanding what it means for us to be made in the ‘image of God’. Community is an integral part of our make-up. It is as both male and female that God created us in his image (Genesis 1:27). This understanding makes sense of Jesus’ statement that all his commands were encapsulated in the decree, ‘these things I command you, that you love one another’ (John 15:17, NKJ). It is in reflecting the relationships of Father, Son and Spirit that this community is maintained.
This love is intimately connected to keeping the commands of Jesus (John 14:15, 21, 23-24; 15.10, 14). This is the link between the command to love and the Great Commission. It is in small, holistic groups that ‘teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:20a) is naturally carried out. Small groups that allow dialogue and one on one discipling are the only truly effective means of changing the total behaviour of people (Kraft, 1991, pp. 140-141). This is exactly what it means to teach them to obey all that Jesus commanded them to do.
With this aim firmly in mind, it is then possible to concentrate on strategy. Schwartz presented a ten-point plan to develop an individualised program for a church that wants to grow. This plan was designed with the results of the survey in view and was designed to be applicable to all types of congregations.
Firstly, it is important to inspire a new devotion to Jesus. Without this driving passion, no amount of teaching church growth principles will push-start a church. There must be spiritual momentum (Schwartz, 1996, p106-107).
Secondly, there is a need to identify those problem areas that are limiting the spiritual quality of the church. Here it is important to have a reliable diagnostic tool, as it is often possible for a group with high expectations in a certain area to identify their strengths as the limiting factors due to past disappointments (ibid, pp. 108-109).
With that, the third step is to set qualitative goals. These are steps that result from asking, ‘What can we do to increase all eight qualities’? A qualitative goal, within a time frame, becomes a great motivator for improvement. It provides an achievable goal with a specific, measurable outcome (ibid, pp. 110-111).
Fourthly, it is important to realise that there will be resistance to some of these measures. These should be identified and dealt with in a loving manner (ibid, pp. 112-113).
The fifth step is to determine to use what Schwartz termed ‘biotic principles’ (ibid, pp, 62-82). These principles maximise the effectiveness of programs by using integrated thinking patterns (ibid, pp. 114-115).
Sixthly, it is important to exercise the church’s strengths. This concentrates on those strengths that are found in that church’s ‘spiritual culture’. These strengths are thus improved and can then be directed at strengthening those qualities that are limiting growth (ibid, pp. 116-117).
The use of materials that apply these biotic principles is the seventh step. These are directed at improving the spiritual health of the congregation with its accompanying benefits (ibid, pp. 118-119).
Step eight involves regular monitoring of the qualities and what measures will be needed to maintain spiritual health (ibid, pp. 120-121).
This allows for the ninth step: updating the program to meet changes in strengths and minimum factors.
The tenth step is the result of all healthy growth and maturity – reproduction. A healthy church should be able to start other congregations after a suitable time. Needless to say, that this offspring should have an awareness of those principles that brought it into being and be able to reproduce them in its daughter churches (ibid, pp. 124-125).
Then the vision becomes the reality.
Eims, LeRoy. 1978. The Lost Art of Disciple Making. Grand Rapids, USA. Zondervan Publishing House.
Kraft, Charles H. 1991. Communicating with Power. Metro Manilla, Philippines. OMF Literature Inc.
McGavran, Donald A. 1990. Understanding Church Growth. Grand Rapids, USA. Wm. B. Eerdmans.
Peters, George W. 1981. A Theology of Church Growth. Grand Rapids, USA. Academie Books.
Petersen, Jim. 1993. Lifestyle Discipleship. Colorado Springs, USA. NavPress.
Schwartz, Christian A. 1996. Natural Church Development. Carol Stream, USA. ChurchSmart Resources.
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