8 Universal Principles for Natural Church Growth

A review of C.A. Schwartz's book "Natural Church Development" and its application to the New Testament ministry system being studied from Acts chapter 2 in this seminar.
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Church growth and development is a field of study that has produced many theories, books and seminars. Unfortunately, much of what has been written comes from ministers of large "mega churches" who have packaged their various growth formulas into books and systems which propose to help other, usually much smaller churches, reproduce in themselves the success that the mega churches have had. The problem, in my opinion, with this is that trying to reproduce a growth model by simply copying the system or the approach of another church rarely works. This is why, for example, there is only one Saddleback Church (20,000 in attendance) or one Willow Creek Church (36,000 attendance). They export their system to all kinds of churches but rarely reproduce their size in other locations because these huge churches are unique to their time and place, and cannot be multiplied simply by copying their structure or implementing their programs. They do provide helpful information on how to improve existing ministries and manage large church groups, but rarely duplicate their success and numbers in other places.

There is one book, however, that is the result of an exhaustive research project about church growth around the world that I think is very valuable. It was written by researcher, Christian Schwarz, and contains many worthwhile ideas on the topic of church growth. Schwarz conducted the most extensive survey of churches around the world studying a thousand different congregations of every type and size in 32 countries with over 4 million responses analyzed. The purpose of this study was to determine the principle characteristics shared by growing churches, and thus he titled his work, "Natural Church Development: Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches."1

There was another book that came out by a man named Stephen Covey a couple of years back entitled, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People."2In his research, Covey poured over two hundred years' worth of success-type literature in the form of biographies, systems and profiles of successful people from every walk of life. He then distilled all of this information down to seven key character traits that all successful people he had studied shared, regardless of time or culture. His findings confirmed the important idea that success is not about how much you acquire or how great your success but rather what kind of person you are.

I mention Mr. Covey's book because Christian Schwarz has done a similar thing with the subject of church growth. His research has revealed that all growing churches, regardless of country or position on doctrinal issues, share eight specific quality characteristics, and possess these at a level far above that of non-growing churches. Although his survey included information from churches from every denomination, size and culture, the final result was specific about two points:

  1. No matter what the church, if it was growing it possessed these eight characteristics.
  2. These growing churches had a high level or degree of these characteristics.

Characteristics of Growing Churches

Before I describe these characteristics, I want to explain the difference between models for church growth and principles for church growth. These are not the same.

A model is an existing congregation that for whatever reason has experienced success and church growth. The systems that are used in the model are then copied in other places in order to apply them to churches hoping to experience the same growth. In other words, the Saddleback church (20,000 members) will export its system to another church for them to copy and implement. That's a model.

A principle is something that applies to every church at all times. It's generic. It's biblical. It's universal in its application. Church models are usually seen in a few very successful and innovative churches that have high profiles and export their model for others to copy. Church principles are seen in many churches of all sizes and shapes, and they promote a more natural approach to church growth.

My point is the following: instead of copying a successful model, we should implement principles and characteristics that all growing churches have and share in the natural growth that they experience. Natural church growth is about principles not models.

One last explanation before I share the list with you. The researchers also discovered that growing churches not only shared eight similar characteristics and experienced them to a certain high level, they also learned that each characteristic had a particular quality. For example, a person is not just a skater, she's a figure skater or a speed skater, or a man is not just intelligent, he's intelligent in math or he's a genius in physics. Therefore, each characteristic that they found had a specific quality to it that contributed directly to the growth of that church. Let's remember this idea as we go through the eight quality characteristics shared by all growing churches.

1. Empowering Leadership

Not just leadership, all churches have leadership in one way or another, but growing churches had empowering leadership. In other words, leaders of growing churches concentrated on empowering other Christians for ministry. Empowering leaders don't simply enlist members to help them achieve their personal ministry goal or vision; they assist members in developing their own giftedness and mentor them in reaching their own spiritual goals.

  • Leaders visit members, but empowering leaders bring a member with them to visit other members and train them in personal work.
  • Leaders teach and evangelize, but empowering leaders are always on the lookout to find and disciple members who have spiritual gifts and provide opportunities for them to use these gifts.

See the difference? Empowering leaders invest most of their time in discipleship, delegation and multiplication. In my experience, empowering leaders are not the superstars of mega churches. One of the problems with having a superstar, whether it be the dynamic preacher or youth minister, is that when the superstar leaves, much of what he has built deteriorates. That's what happens with a superstar who has built a ministry powered by his own dynamism. However, if you have an empowering leadership, even if that leader leaves, he or she (because women in the church serve as well, and in many instances they also exercise leadership in a particular ministry area - e.g. children's ministry, benevolence ministry, etc.) have empowered others to continue the work after they leave.

Empowering leaders, therefore, are not the superstars of mega churches but rather people who know how to cultivate spiritual qualities in others. Speaking of superstars, Jesus only had 12 apostles. He was the Son of God and He had only 12 apostles, and we know that one of them betrayed Him. He certainly would not be considered successful as a mega-church minister today with such a small devoted following, but when we consider how He prepared these men for service we recognize that quality mentoring is far more effective than the quantity of people you attract.

Here are a few other interesting findings based on the research in the area of leadership: formal theological training had a negative effect on church growth. In other words, the more theological training the leaders possessed, the less growth the church experienced. This is not to be confused with knowledge of the Bible which is absolutely necessary for spiritual growth. The theological training mentioned was that which is offered at mostly liberal universities that reject the inspiration of the Bible and treat Christianity as simply one of the major religions to be studied and classified.

The Bible, however, teaches that Christianity is the only true religion and Jesus the only Savior,

there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.
- Acts 4:12

Churches that espouse the liberal view that all religions are valid have many admirers but don't make converts, and you don't grow the church of the Lord by denying the fact that He is the Son of God and His word is not the Word of God.

Research also showed that leaders who sought help from outside the congregation, outside their normal circle, were usually the ones who were leading growing churches. Leaders who recognized that they needed help did better at growing their churches than those who thought they knew it all, proving once again that humility is a key ingredient for successful, empowering leadership.

2. Gift-Oriented Ministry

The research demonstrated that it was not simply people serving in ministry, but people serving in their area of giftedness, their area of strength who had success in growing the church. When people serve according to their giftedness, they are more likely to be serving in the power of the Lord and not according to their own strength.

For professional ministers, identifying and training members in the use of their gifts should be a major part of their actual work. The minister is like a baseball scout looking for talent. The minister helps Christians identify and use their gifts, and this contributes to church growth more than any other activity. Building each other up builds the church.

3. Passionate Spirituality

Passionate spirituality is not about "speaking in tongues" or rock & roll worship services with lights flashing and people jumping up and down in excitement. The research showed that growing churches had members who cared deeply about spiritual things. They cared about Christ and their lives as Christians. It was important to them. Their passion was in pleasing and serving the Lord. That kind of passion.

Churches whose focus was only getting the forms right, meaning that they focused mostly on the correct way of doing things (especially in the area of public worship) like one cup or 16 cups for communion, or exactly two prayers and then a song during worship, were not growing and had little enthusiasm. And I dare say that this is one of the main problems in the Churches of Christ. We have focused for so long on the externals, we have forgotten about the meaning and purpose of our worship. This is why the very first chapter in this book about church growth was not based on the book of Acts but on Ephesians because if we can be the church that Paul describes in Ephesians, we will be a loving church and have the true pattern for a New Testament church well established. Churches, therefore, where the focus was on getting their lives in sync with Christ found that their enthusiasm for all things, including the proper forms, promoted growth. When people become enthusiastic about being Christians and how they treat each other in Christ, they begin experiencing the passion for their faith that naturally produces personal as well as corporate growth in the church.

4. Functional Structures

Every church has some kind of structure and organization, but not all structures promote growth. Functional structures are those that promote church life, effective ministry and clear communication. What is especially interesting about this research is that it confirms statistically what I've been teaching about church organization and structure for many years and have included in this book.

For example, the most effective structure for the church is the one that is outlined for church organization in Acts 2 (ministry system with the five biblical ministries working together). It is encouraging to have the conclusions originally drawn only from the study of God's word confirmed statistically and scientifically by someone else's research. Schwarz's studies concluded that the closer to this organizational model the church was, the greater the growth; and the further away you strayed, the less success you had in growing the church.

5. Inspiring Worship Service

I need to make a distinction between style of worship and inspiring worship. There are many styles of worship: high church with imagery and ceremony - Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox churches; high impact worship with music, performance and emotional participation by members - charismatic churches; millennial worship with multi platform presentations including instrumental music, singular performances, charismatic evangelist, all streamed to multiple locations - Church.tv; seeker services geared to introduce worship to nonbelievers - evangelical churches; traditional non-denominational a cappella style (no instruments) worship which is the practice in New Testament churches - Churches of Christ.

The research showed that the style did not impact growth one way or another. Unfortunately many church groups experiment with different styles of worship trying to get the right "mix" of elements that will attract the greatest number of people, and as a result alienate their core members who are usually the ones who do most of the work and contribute most of the funds.

Inspiring worship is that worship where the Holy Spirit of God is truly at work in the worshipers' lives and they are inspired by His presence among them. You cannot manipulate the Spirit of God with your style of worship. Doing so is akin to practicing magic, for this is the basic definition of the occult: trying to influence the spirit world by practicing certain activities in the physical world.

The only factor that style in worship plays is if the worshipers are offering their worship to God in an acceptable manner (which He dictates, not man), and with a believing heart. This is true about worship both in the Old and New Testaments. The "styles" of worship between the two periods are very different but what remains exactly the same is that in both instances God established the acceptable manner in which He was to be worshiped, and required worship from those whose faith was sincere. In both Old and New Testament times worship is always about what God wants, not what we want.

The inspiration for worship, however, does not come from externals like the type of building the worshipers meet in or the talent of the worship leaders and the particular style they use to worship God. Inspiration for sincere worship is produced by an ongoing dynamic played out between the worshiper and God throughout the week (usually referred to as the process of sanctification) and shared with others on the Lord's day. The spin-off benefit of this kind of inspired worship, produced as a result of the sanctification process generated by the worshiper's continual submission to the Holy Spirit is the overall growth of members who worship because of inspiration and not duty.

6. Holistic Small Groups

The researchers found that this characteristic truly separated growing from declining churches. Many churches have small groups or they have a "program" but don't experience any significant growth as a result because the small groups are just one among many programs the ministry staff operates. However, holistic small groups are different.

These small groups are designed to help members use their gifts, share their lives, minister to each other, pray and support each other, and not simply eat together. Fellowship is not about food, it's about sharing Christ.

Schwarz says,

"...There's an enormous difference between church leaders discussing evangelism, and loving relationships, or gift oriented ministry in its staff meetings, and having Christians integrated into a small group and go through a process in which he or she actually experiences the meaning of these things in real terms within the confines of the group."

If the group is meeting simply to eat together, this is pleasant socializing and edifying to a point. However, if the small group is meeting together to think about how to best evangelize the local community and someone comes up with a great idea, and everyone gets excited with different people sharing their insights and volunteering their skills, that's growth in fellowship...and by the way there's pizza and Dr. Pepper if anyone is hungry.

As I said, small groups are nothing new. The research simply points out that when these are used to mentor and minister to the saints, the overall church grows.

7. Need-Oriented Evangelism

Research in this area revealed a lot of interesting facts, one of which was that only about 10 percent of members have a gift for this particular ministry. This runs counter to the idea that 100 percent of the church should be involved in evangelism. This is like saying that 100 percent of the men in the congregation should be involved in song leading. Most understand that this would be unrealistic because not everyone has the ability to lead singing, even if they receive instruction. We are ready to accept this reasoning concerning the ministry of song leading in public worship but have difficulty believing that the same could be true about the ministry of evangelism.

The important point to note, however, is that as Christians we are all responsible to share our faith, but only a few (and according to the research the few account for about 10 percent of us) have a natural gift for evangelism, just as only a few have a gift for song leading, teaching a class or writing books, etc. However, when all the members work together and pool their respective gifts in the service of the church, we produce a fully functioning whole able to exercise a variety of gifts that ultimately meet the needs of all five areas of biblical ministry.

Another statistic that revealed how even those with little ability in the area of evangelism could be productive was that each member (regardless of their area of talent) had about eight contacts in their family and social circle. These contacts included people who were not members of the church or believers who were not committed disciples. This meant that even though a member was not known to be a natural "soul winner" they still had access to people in their immediate circle of family and friends who were candidates for teaching and preaching of the gospel.

Growing churches were those that capitalized on this number by creating opportunities for these candidates to be exposed to the gospel and come in contact with those in the church that did have the skill in developing a relationship with someone with the primary goal of teaching them the gospel. The leaders in these churches (especially those tasked with leading and managing the evangelism ministry) understood that it was easier to approach and develop the eight contacts that everybody already had than trying to create contacts with total strangers through mail solicitation or a door-knocking campaign. Add to this a variety of practical services (e.g. free eye clinic for kids; free classroom supplies for back to school days; mom's day out program; men's "power" breakfast; summer youth camp/activity) that the church could provide as a way for each member (gifted or not) to link their contacts to someone or some service of the church.

In this way, need-oriented evangelism encourages each Christian to use their gifts and resources to serve non-Christians with whom they have a relationship and see to it that they hear the Gospel and create that all important connection to the local church.

8. Loving Relationships

Growing churches have a high love quotient and declining churches have a low love quotient. Does this seem strange to us that the God of love would be worshiped by a church of love? The research repeatedly demonstrated that a loving church was more powerful than one whose only ministry was that of evangelism, or a church that prided itself on the number of programs that it offered, or a church that saw itself as the last bastion of truth.

If a church claims to be evangelistic or busy, and the pillar of the truth, but is deficient in love then there is something missing. There is some teaching or attitude that is incorrect, because where the Spirit of Christ is, there is love. People come to Christ and His church because of the gospel, and ministry, and teaching, but they stay in the body because of love.

Forgive me as I share a personal witness here to make my point:

When I was a 30 year old who had been "on the road" for several years in order to find myself and what to do with my life, I saw an article in the local paper that was entitled, "Sinners are Welcome at the Church of Christ." It spoke of Christ seeking and saving the lost and had an open invitation to worship at a small congregation near my apartment in Montreal. The title and invitation intrigued me so I attended their Sunday service.

I walked in, not too sure of what to expect, and this smiling Jamaican lady invited me to sit next to her. She helped me with the song book and explained what to do with the communion elements (having the bread and wine brought to you in the pew was a new experience for me since I was raised in the Catholic Church where the people went to the front to receive only the bread from the priest). She handed me a bulletin and quietly answered my questions as the service moved along. She treated me like her favorite nephew. When the service was over she gave me a hug and said, to what must have seemed like a most unlikely candidate for conversion wearing black jeans and a black shirt sporting sun glasses and a bulging package of cigarettes in his pocket, "Will you come back?" I said, "Maybe," and she said, "I'll be here." And she was when I returned the following Sunday. She was my first contact in the Church of Christ, a divorced mother of three studying to be a nurse with this nice singsong way of talking. I saw her recently at a funeral I was conducting for a mutual friend of ours. There she sat in the pew, now 88 years old, still my aunt in the Lord, still faithful, still that Jamaican lilt in her voice.

No love = no growth

When people come to you, they are not looking for theology, they are looking for love. That young mom who is alone with two little kids because her husband decided he didn't want to be married anymore, and now she's got to make ends meet, and she's tired all the time and then somebody invites her to church. Do you think she cares for one minute that we don't use instruments in our worship? Do you think she cares about that? Do you think she cares about male spiritual leadership, or how we serve communion, or if it's ok to eat in the building? Really, do you think any of that is important to her as she walks in to your church building? The only thing she cares about is, "Are these people going to love me? Are they going to accept me? I have a broken marriage, two kids and I'm not sure how I am going to make it. Can I find a place here for me?" No research necessary here. She'll be able to tell by your faces. She'll know.

There will be time to teach her the Word, absolutely, and there will be time to explain why we do things the way we do them, and there will be time to answer the question, "You know, I've noticed that it's just men that go up there to pray, why is that?" There will be time for that, but if there's no love, I guarantee you there will be no time to teach her anything including the gospel of forgiveness.

Growing churches are churches of love.


There they are, the eight essential characteristics for growing churches, principles that can be applied to any church, anywhere. They are biblically based and have been statistically proven through the most extensive survey ever conducted on church growth. Most churches have some or all of these characteristics to a lesser or greater degree. The point of the research was that growing churches had all of these and had them in abundance.

Allow me to close both this chapter and book with a question: "Do you want to be a growing congregation?" If you do, then these are the principles that you must cultivate and this is the pattern or structure that you need to follow and implement. Combine these two things and add fervent prayer, and nothing will stop your congregation from becoming a leadership church. People will come to your church to learn how to grow and this will honor God and bless your church beyond measure. God bless you and your efforts at producing Unlimited Growth.

  1. Christian A. Schwarz, Natural Church Development: Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches (St. Charles, IL: Churchsmart Resources, 1996).
  2. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1989).

Discussion Questions

  1. Explain why one model for church growth does not fit all, especially small churches.
  2. What is the difference between a model and a principle and how should we view them in church growth?
  3. Explain each of the following principles of natural church growth.
  4. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
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