Natural Church Development: A Review

A Book By Christian Schwarz



1.      Background

The author of Natural Church Development is Christian Schwarz, a 39 year-old German church growth consultant who has been working among Germany’s churches for a number of years.  His books on the theory and practice of church growth have been published in 34 countries.  In recent years, from 1994-1996, Schwarz has turned his attention toward the international church and subsequently initiated and supervised what may be the most comprehensive research on church growth ever conducted.  More than 1000 churches in 32 countries on all six continents took part in his study.  In the end, nearly 4.2 million responses were analyzed.  Mr. Schwarz is currently the head of the Institute of Natural Church Development located in Germany and has published several other materials such as the Implementation Guide to Natural Church Development, The ABC’s of Natural Church Development, Paradigm Shift in the Church, and the Natural Church Development Survey.  These books and materials have been published through Church-Smart Resources and can be ordered directly through them at 1-800-253-4276.  Schwarz studied theology in Bochum, Bethel, Wuppertal and Mainz, Germany, and in Pasadena, California.  He presently lives with his wife and three children in Northern Germany.


2.      Publication Data

Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches was first published in 1996 by C&P Publishing based in Germany.  It’s 1998 edition was translated in English from German by Lynn McAdams, Lois Wollin, and Martin Wollin and printed by Church-Smart Resources, 350 Randy Rd., Suite 5, Carol Stream, IL 60188. 




3.      Intended Audience and Purpose

Schwarz’s Natural Church Development (NCD) primarily targets the globe’s pastors, church leaders, and church planters.  The reference to “global” is used here because Schwarz believes that the principles he sets forth are universal, transcending culture.  With a backdrop of dozens of new church planting and church growth books written in the past decade, from Peter Wagner’s Church Quake to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church (1995), Schwarz purposes to offer not another “how-to” manual, but what he sees as timeless truths rooted in the Scriptures.  Schwarz intends to free those in ministry from debilitating mythologies while helping these leaders revitalize their congregations.   Schwarz would ultimately say, however, that Natural Church Development is for every church member since church growth is a subject every believer must take seriously. 


4.      Summary of the Book

In Natural Church Development, Schwarz presents the findings of what is said to be the most thorough study to date on the causes of church growth.  The survey developed by Schwarz and the Institute for Natural Church Development[1], was translated into 18 languages and completed by thirty members from each of the over one thousand participating churches.  Through this survey, Schwarz hoped to find an answer to one fundamental question.  That is, “what are the essential qualities of a healthy, growing church, regardless of culture and theological persuasion?” 


Having processed the nearly 4.2 million responses generated by the survey, Schwarz and his team came to some interesting conclusions.  Just as crops grow all by themselves if the weeds are taken out of the way, churches will experience growth when those barriers to growth are removed.  The foundation for this comment is rooted in Jesus’ words in Mark 4:46-29.  Here, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how.  For the earth yields the crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head.  But when the grain ripens immediately he puts in the sickle because the harvest has come.”


Therefore, since growth is a natural occurrence among living things, our job is to minimize the obstacles to growth.  Christian summarizes, “We should not attempt to manufacture church growth, but rather release the biotic potential which God has put into every church.  It is our task to minimize the obstacles to growth—both inside and outside the church.  Since we have very little control over outside factors, we should concentrate on the removal of obstacles to church growth and multiplication of churches, then church growth can happen all by itself.  God will do what He promised to do.  He will grant growth. (I Corinthians 3:6)”[2]


Schwarz’s conclusions in Natural Church Development decries the unhealthy emphases that imply that church growth is accomplished mainly by the skills and wisdom of men in using scientific studies and formulas. This does not mean that Natural Church Development does not use "scientific" methods per se, but rather recognizes that church growth is a spiritual phenomenon similar to the natural phenomenon of a growing plant or garden. For Schwarz and his team, Natural Church Development means leaving behind superficial pragmatism, simplistic cause and effect logic, the fixation with quantity, and manipulative marketing methods.  It means leaving behind human-made prescriptions for success and moving on to growth principles which are given by God Himself to all of His creation.[3]


Critics may, at first glance question the spiritual validity of conducting such a research project on church growth claiming that such management techniques should have no room in the church.  However, Schwarz was compelled to investigate the principles that God himself was seemingly using in the church today rather than simply asking pastors of growing churches what the secret of their success had been.  After all, every pastor questioned would likely offer a different answer.  Some may, for example, point to their contemporary worship while others their “seeker-service” model.  Such results would be confusing to someone interested in church growth, as they would be confronted with various models rather than endearing principles.  What Schwarz did, therefore, was to listen not only to the leaders of churches but to study the churches themselves… seeing if there are any common denominators amongst all growing and declining churches throughout the world.   Because of this, Natural Church Development is referred to as a “principle-oriented” approach to church growth rather than a “model-oriented” approach.[4]


In part one of Natural Church Development, Schwarz identifies distinctive quality characteristics which are seemingly more developed in growing churches than in those he sees as experiencing zero or negative growth.  Because of the breadth of his research, he believes that these characteristics are “keys to success” which will produce a soil suitable for viable church growth.  The following represents a summary of each of the eight principles, which for Schwarz, characterizes, universally, all growing churches:


A.     Empowering Leadership.  Leaders of healthy, growing congregations concentrate their energy on the empowerment of other Christians for ministry.  In this they purpose to help Christians attain the spiritual potential God has for them.  These pastors, church, and lay leaders equip, support, motivate, and mentor individual members, enabling them to be all God wants them to be.  The study shows that pastors of growing churches need not be spiritual “superstars” and, in fact, the superstar pastor typically becomes a hindrance to what God is wanting to do in a church.  Schwarz notes that pastors of growing churches are not only those who purpose to equip and release others into ministry but are those who regularly seek counsel from people outside their own congregations.

B.     Gift-Oriented Ministry.  The role of church leadership is to assist its members in the identification of their gifts and to integrate them into appropriate ministries.  This is vital since over 80% of over 1600 believers questioned could not identify their spiritual gifts.[5]  Of all the variables extracted from this part of his study, Schwarz sees that the most effective churches are those who provide lay-training for their staff… helping them to minister within the realm of their engiftedment.  What undergirds this principle is Schwarz’s conviction that God has already determined the engiftedment of each church member and has a place for each member in the body of Christ.   Thus, the pastor seeks to place the appropriately gifted person in the proper ministry position.


C.     Passionate Spirituality.  Healthy churches are passionate about their walk with Jesus… living committed lives and practicing their faith with joy and enthusiasm.  Passionate spirituality comes from every believer realizing his/her place in Christ and the Body… accepting responsibility to pray and reach the lost with the compassion of the Lord.  Interestingly, Schwarz confirms the notion that individuals walking in spiritual passion also demonstrated great enthusiasm for their particular congregations.  He also notes that congregates from healthy, growing churches experience prayer as an inspiring experience.


D.     Functional Structures.   The false paradigms, which consciously or unconsciously influence many Christians, must be understood. Traditionalism stands as a polar opposite to functional church structures.  While only one in ten qualitatively above-average church struggles with traditionalism, every other declining church of lower quality is plagued by it. But “Functional Structures” goes beyond this, asking leaders to consider whether their leadership style is demeaning, whether church services are conducted at inconvenient times, or whether church programming is really reaching their intended audience.


E.      Inspiring Worship Services.  Inevitably, members of growing churches describe the worship services at their churches as and ‘inspiring experience’.  People attending truly ‘inspired’ worship services indicate that church attendance is fun!  Thus, when worship inspires, it draws people to the serves all by itself.  Schwarz warns churches, however, against seeking to reproduce a particular worship model at a growing congregation with the hopes it is causing growth in your own church.  Here, the idea of church model and principle is being confused.


F.      Holistic Small Groups.  Schwarz states, “If we were to identify any one principle as the most important, then without doubt it would be the multiplication of small groups.  They must be holistic small groups which go beyond just discussing Bible passages to applying its message to daily life.”[6] The vision to see these small groups reproduce, characterizes the healthiest of churches surveyed.  Indeed, 78% of growing churches consciously promotes the multiplication of small groups through cell division[7]. The great majority of growing churches also indicated that it was more important for members to be involved in a small group than attend church.


G.     Need-Oriented Evangelism.  While fulfilling the Great Commission is the responsibility of all believers, Peter Wagner estimates that no more than ten percent of all Christians have the gift of evangelism.[8]   However, all believers must use his or her gifts to serve non-Christians with whom one has a personal relationship.  Churches with the highest growth rates, according to Schwarz, appear to have a clear understanding of which member s of their church has the gift of evangelism.


H.     Loving Relationships.  Growing churches posses, on the average, a measurably higher ‘love quotient’ than stagnant, declining ones.  They practice hospitality as believers regularly invite the unchurched as well as other church members into their homes.   People do not want to hear us talk about the Gospel… they want to see authentic Christianity expressed through the love of Christ.  Schwarz’s research also demonstrates a very strong link between churches characterized by a ‘light-heartedness’ where there is laugher and joy, with churches that are growing.


Schwarz’s research demonstrates that no church desirous of growth can neglect a single one of these eight characteristics.  This brings us back to a proposition posed earlier.  That is, for a seed to grow, the soil composition must be conducive to such growth.   And each of these principles has a positive relationship to both quantitative and qualitative growth.  Thus, when these eight principles are applied, Schwarz believes that the church’s natural “growth automatisms”[9] will inherently generate growth.  For this reason does Schwarz claim that church growth will not happen as a result of the workings of human wisdom and endeavors but rather by the releasing and developing the potential God has laid in the church.  When this happens, growth take place all by itself.  Thus, when a church member asks a pastor or elder what they must do in order to see growth happen in their church, the response is to bring each of the eight areas.  And, according to Schwarz, if a church can bring its quality index over 65, it will begin to grow.  This is a rule for which Schwarz found no exception.


Once a church accepts the premises Schwarz offers in Natural Church Development, their job would begin by determining their “minimum factors”[10], that is, those least developed characteristics which may be hindering the church from growth.  Of course, there are no churches without this minimum factor.  The trick seems to be determining what this factor is.  Surprisingly, leaders who attempt to determine their minimum factor by intuition alone, according to Schwarz, often get it wrong.  The fact is, the category which they rank as lowest is often their greatest strength since it is in this area that they are most hard on themselves.  For this reason does Natural Church Development encourage churches to conduct a church profile based on Schwarz’s “scientific” analysis.  He describes this process, in general terms, in Natural Church Development.[11]


5.      Evaluation

Anyone taking hold of Christian Schwarz’s Natural Church Development will be struck by its “textbook” look.  Sold only in hardcover, the book is organized into short, clear sections organized into five chapters.  The first chapter asks, “what should we do?”, the second asks, “when should we do it?”, the third, “how should we do it?”, and the fourth, “why should we do it?”.[12]  Of course, the “it” in each of these chapters refers to church growth.   Even the casual reader will be struck by the great number of colorful illustrations demonstrating the various lessons learned by Schwarz through his church growth study.  These charts and graphs transcend what could be dull statistics.  Rather they bring to life, in an easy to use manner, the heart of what Schwarz is communicating.  It appears that he went to great length to keep the book and its visuals as concise as possible.  For certain, this makes it easier for a pastor to hand copies over to lay ministers and elders in order to caste vision for Natural Church Development.

While the organization of Schwarz’ book makes it quite appealing, there is a sense in which it appears amateurish as well.  Perhaps we have become too accustomed to wordy, black and white pages, associating that with true scholarship.  Yet, the lack of even a bibliography makes one ask who Christian Schwarz is as a statistician and church growth expert.  Can one develop an balanced book based solely on his own research without consulting the body of church growth literature                                     (other than the Bible)?  The reader will have to determine this for her or himself.   In the end, the format and style of Natural Church Development is thoroughly appealing and inviting.


Few at all could argue with Schwarz’s vision here in Natural Church Development.  Indeed, the eight characteristics or qualities of growing churches, which he outlines for us, represent clear Biblical principles which can not easily be disputed.  His presumptions, well outlined in his introduction, also appear to base themselves in Scriptural principles.  For example, Schwarz often speaks of discovering the biotic principle, which is “the inherent capacity of an organism or species to reproduce and survive.”[13]  That is, God has built into the genetic framework of all mankind the capacity to reproduce.  This same capacity is built into the genetic code of the church as well.  As in the natural world, there exist obstacles to seeing living things grow.  Thus, church growth has more to do with minimizing the obstacles so that the church’s natural propensity to grow may begin and develop on its own. 

Because the bulk of Natural Church Development’s content is based upon the empirical research conducted by Schwarz and his team, the reader is able to see beyond the scope of the author to the thousand churches interviewed and studied.  Rather than pointing to a particular church growth model such as Hybel’s Willow Creek model or George’s Meta-Church model, Natural Church Development points people to timeless principles.  As Paul said, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow”.[14]  Through Natural Church Development, we are better equipped to distinguish between the inorganic aspect of church growth (working to develop the eight qualities in our churches) and the organic aspects, which can only be done by God, who himself causes the growth.  Therefore, rather than bearing the burden of church growth, we can focusing on the planting, watering, and harvesting!

While the principles set forth in Natural Church Development can not easily be dismissed, several approaches Schwarz takes may be in need of reform.  For example, he goes to some length to prove his premise of the “biotic principle” through theologia naturalis, or natural theology.  Here, it attempts, at too great a cost to the passages, to demonstrate the laws of organic growth in order to substantiate the biotic principle.  His notion of growth automatisms seems to get stretched beyond this writer’s comfort.  In other words, will the development of the eight qualities presented here, through causal effect, produce a growing church?  It would appear that a church will not grow qualitatively without them in place but will they alone release the church’s natural propensity to grow?  While Schwarz’s study says yes, the answer seems to be broader than He identifies.  For this reason, the broader body of literature on church growth ought to be investigated as well.


6.      Significance for Ecclesiological Studies

The Body of Christ represents a community of believers gathered together under the banner of Jesus Christ.  In every way, this church is His.  Jesus Himself said, “I will build my church.”  He also said that if we lift up His name, He would draw all men unto us.  So, at the most foundational level, church growth is about the worship of the majestic Creator and King.  This principle is what Schwarz is getting at.  That is, our job is to focus on the watering and planting while letting God take care of the growth.  What His study has done is to help the church determine the fundamental nature of this watering as expressed in the eight qualities of healthy, growing churches.  It helps leaders understand what elements exist which may be stifling the church from seeing quantitative and qualitative growth.  For this reason, its relevance to the body of ecclesiastical literature is stark and therefore should be read by believers who desire to see their church be all that God is calling it to be in Christ.


Review by Craig Simonian



















A Review of Christian Schwarz’s Book,

Natural Church Development


by Craig Simonian














Theology of the Church

Professor Siu

Fall 1999

Alliance Theological Seminary

[1] Most important to Schwarz’s research team was Christoph Schalk, a social scientist and psychologist, who coordinated the project and served as its scientific advisor.

[2] Christian Schwarz, Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches (Carol Stream, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 1996), p. 9.

[3] Ibid., p.14.

[4] Models are, of course, concepts that one or more churches have experienced positively.  But imitating these principles in our own churches may not be the right answer for our situations.  Principles, on the other hand, are those ideas, which have proven themselves to apply to all situations everywhere.

[5] Ibid., p. 24.  Participants in this pole were all Germans living within Germany.

[6] Ibid., p. 32.

[7] Ibid., p. 33.

[8] Ibid., p.34.

[9] Ibid., p. 12.

[10] Ibid., p. 108.

[11] Ibid., p. 108.

[12] Ibid., p. 7.

[13] Ibid., p.10.

[14] I Corinthians 3:6.