What is Natural Church Development?

Posted by on May 24, 2003 in good idea! | No Comments

Natural Church Development (NCD) is a widely-acclaimed program which helps churches in self-understanding and healthy growth. Connie denBok, an Institute Associate and an experienced teacher of the NCD process explains how it works, and why we should pay attention.

Natural Church Development is a systematic approach to a very common process.  

A very kind lady in my church donated a flowering plant to brighten my office and within weeks I had to smuggle the wilted skeleton to my compost bin, the victim of misfortune.  No green thumb here. 

Yet outside my window is a mulberry tree, planted accidentally along the fence by birds, and alive only because the lawnmower blades could never reach it.  It is blasted by heat and drought in summer and cold and salt from the driveway in winter, yet it bears fruit in season, and the birds and squirrels delight in it all summer long. 

Why does this one thrive on neglect, while the other, a precious gift, the recipient of my care, has died? 

Christian Schwarz, a German student of church growth, tried to answer that question through a massive international survey project in the early 1990’s.  The question was, “What do churches share in common that transcend language, nationality, culture, and denomination”?  And the question that arose from that: “What do healthy thriving congregations share that their declining counterparts do not?”

More than 1000 churches in 32 countries on 5 continents were surveyed and tabulated. The surprise was that churches had a great deal in common, from the village house churches of Indonesia to the historic denominational churches of Norway to mega churches in North America. Every church of every tradition and culture, thriving or otherwise, had the same eight components: Leadership, Ministry, Spirituality, Structures, Worship, Small Groups, Evangelism, and Relationships.

The thriving congregations also shared these eight components, but with an important difference.  The quality of each characteristic was higher, based on similar behaviours.  

Thus all churches had leadership, but the healthy churches had a different style of leadership, characterized by the sharing and delegation of ministry, leadership through vision, mentoring, and processes for leading change.  Empowering Leadership was characteristic of thriving churches.

All churches conducted some kind of ministry, but healthy churches understood ministry in terms of spiritual gifts interrelated through the congregation.  People were trained, match-making was done between people and roles, systems were in place to support and challenge lay workers and individuals had an understanding of why their role was important to the whole.  These churches had Gift-oriented Ministry.

Spirituality of one kind or another was part of every congregation but the thriving churches practiced personal and corporate disciplines.  They had a contagious element to their faith which Schwarz called Passionate Spirituality.

Corporate Worship was universal, but the people of some churches recorded feelings of being inspired, God centered and celebrative worship, life transforming preaching, care in the planning of worship, care for children during worship and receptivity to visitors.  These people were likely to identify Inspiring Worship as characteristic of their church.

Some churches have more structure, some have less.  Thriving churches shared Functional Structures as a common denominator.  Organizations and systems were interrelated with one another.  Clear lines of support, accountability and oversight were built into the systems.  Vision, goals, and planning together with creativity in managing change moved these churches beyond tradition, even in very traditional churches.

Every church has small groups, some formal and some informal.  Holistic Small Groups were the mark of healthy congregations.  The groups had a spiritual orientation but also emphasized authentic relationships and community.  They were sensitive to guests and had built in processes to multiply believers, leaders, and groups.

Evangelism happens in every church, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively.  Persons in churches with Needs-based Evangelism developed relationships beyond the church, were trained to articulate their faith, were sensitive to the presence of spiritual seekers, and worked hard at incorporating new believers into the life of the church.

It is no surprise that thriving congregations were more likely to report Loving Relationships.  People reported an atmosphere of trust and affirmation.  They related to each other outside of formal church occasions and valued intentional conflict resolution.

When the survey results were collected, a surprising pattern developed.  Where 50 was the median, every church that scored above 65 on each of the eight quality characteristics was also a growing or reproducing church.  Ten years later, with many more thousands of churches surveyed, the pattern remains unchanged.  There is an undisputed correlation between the quality of those eight characteristics within a congregation and its numerical growth.  In other words a congregation does not get better by getting bigger, but as it become healthier, it is very likely to include and keep new people.

Mark 4:26-28 quotes a parable of Jesus:
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, and he does not know how.  The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”(NRSV)

The Greek word translated here as “of itself” represents the Greek word automaton, meaning “all by itself.” Evidently the sower does not understand how the process works.  But the sower does know that the God who created the heavens and the earth has decreed that fertile ground will always grow something.  Our choice is what it will grow.  And when that appropriate choice is made and followed by appropriate nurture, the development is “all by itself.”

Many church people have pondered, “Why is church so often hard work with little result?  How can it be that we lavish our beloved churches with time, money, and effort and see so little fruit? Are the leaders of healthy churches particularly lucky to have found a good one?  Or are they rare geniuses?  Or perhaps their success is because they’ve sold their souls to darker motives.”

Schwarz argues convincingly that as God’s creation the Church contains the same “automaton” principle as the seed of Jesus’ parable.  The missing component is not the dedication and hard work of our people, or luck or genius or conspiracy theory.  The missing link is our own understanding of the ways of God in the world, and how we partner with God in God’s work, the Church of Jesus Christ.  Same people, same components, same God.  Yet one situation is clearly empowered and propelled by the Holy Spirit in more dynamic ways.

The operative question is: Where to begin?

Using a survey developed by Schwarz, it is possible for any congregation to measure the quality of the eight characteristics named above.  The pastoral staff and 30 lay persons with a leadership stake in the congregation fill in a four page survey.  The data is entered into a special computer program normed to a national standard.  In other words, Canadian churches are compared to other Canadian churches.  The result is a profile of how each characteristic stands in relation to the others.

If we were to imagine each of the quality characteristics as staves of a barrel, some would be higher and some lower. 
The question is: which stave of the barrel determines the water level of the whole? Obviously the shortest one.

The task of bringing a church to health in all eight areas is overwhelming.  The good news, however, is that all a congregation needs to do to change the overall quality is to identify and improve its weakest component, the “lowest stave of the barrel.”   Unexpected areas of the church will then improve “all by themselves.”  Armed with this information, a congregation is able to focus on the one thing that will make the biggest difference.  After an implementation process that lasts about a year the survey measurement is done again, the new “lowest stave of the barrel” identified, and work is underway to raise the quality level of the church. 

One minister commented: “In less than two years we made the gigantic leap from dreadful quality to average.  In two more years we have moved from average in all things to very good quality in some. It may take years, but our goal is to bring the lowest stave of our barrel all the way to 65.”

Information about NCD, including its publications and ordering information, is available at www.ncdcanada.com


The Rev. Dr. Connie denBok has a background in church planting, and is currently minister of Alderwood United Church in Etobicoke. She is also a columnist for the United Church Observer. She and her husband Doug have two adult daughters.

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