Session 8:Natural Church Growth
and Healthy Churches
By the end of this session you should be able to:
Discuss ideas of what it means to be a “healthy” church which grows as a natural byproduct of this “healthy” nature.
Consider what implications models such as “natural church growth” and “healthy church” have in the local context, in particular in more “traditional” models of Anglican parish churches.
Begin with a time of prayer asking God to teach you new things about the mission to which we are all called and the part God wants you to play in this.
Part 1 - Traditional Models of Church
There can be a temptation to view “traditional” models of church as not being suited to missional engagement in our post-modern, contemporary context. In this session we are going to question this perception and consider whether there are ways in which more traditional parish churches are actually in a strong position to engage with mission in a local context.
In thinking how we can “do” traditional church well, let us first watch the following video to consider how not to “do” traditional church well… (Apologies for the language used, but the video does provide an interesting parody of an unhelpful model of traditional church leadership…!)
Aside from “angry vicars”, what other stumbling blocks could be presented by a traditional, inherited model of church seeking to engage in our contemporary context for mission? Take a moment to think of some possible areas which may be problematic.
One issue often identified with more traditional models of church life is the lack of space to ask questions. One example of this can be seen in the television series “Desperate Housewives” where one of the characters is looking for answers after a tragedy befalls their community - watch the video to view the clip.
While it isn’t impossible to provide space for questions and further reflection in more traditional, “inherited” models of church worship, we have, for the most part, inherited models of worship and teaching which are not suited to providing this space.
When considering characteristics of our life as a church, be it an inherited or more “fresh” expression of church, there is a need to consider why we do what we do. All church activity should either express something of our Christian faith or of God’s mission. One helpful way of considering the value of any activity of the church can be to consider a model of action which is “up, in or out”:
Up: engaging with God in worship or prayer
In: engaging with one another as God’s community in a particular place or context
Out: reaching out in service and mission.
What is the intention behind our activities as “church”? Do they have value in building relationship with God, with one another and engaging in the work of God’s Kingdom?
Take a look at a regular pattern of activity in your home church context. Look at a “usual” week or month. What activities could be considered to be “aiming” up/in/out? Are there any activities which engage with more than one “direction”? Are there any areas (up/in/out) which are focussed upon more or less than the others?
Part 2: Models of Church
At the heart of a lot of the thinking around “doing” inherited and/or traditional church, as well as a way of encouraging natural church growth, is the image of the growth of a plant. If a plant is watered, situated in a place where it will receive suitable levels of light, and is planted in good soil, then the plant will grow. In the same way a church community which is “healthy” and “sustained” within appropriate conditions will grow. We are going to briefly explore two models of church growth which are grounded in this concept of “getting the basics right” to enable growth.
Within these models you will hopefully spot some crossover with Jackson’s ideas from last session…
Model 1 - Shwarz
Our first model is taken from Christian Schwarz in The Natural Church Development Handbook (1996). Schwarz lists 8 characteristics of church activities which should be seen as goals to work towards within these areas of church activity.
Church leaders who encourage others and support them in developing a sense of personal vocation and growing new leaders
Developing the programme of the church’s activity around the strengths and talents of the church members and leaders
A strong and deep spiritual engagement and life of prayer throughout the church membership
The organisational side of the church works well and efficiently
Inspiring Worship Services
Acts of worship which are engaging, educational and emotionally moving
Holistic Small Groups
Have smaller relationship groups within the church community which study the scriptures,
pray, perform ministry and engage in mission together
Proclaiming the gospel in word and action in ways that speak to and reach the wider community
The relationships between members of the church are modelled upon the love of God in Trinity
Schwarz’s model encourages church communities to seek to uphold these standards across the life of the church, then leave the growth to God. The church leadership, in collaboration with the wider church family is encouraged to evaluate the life of their church community in line with these 8 qualities, ideally identifying areas where they need to improve as areas for the focus of future development.
A significant critique of Schwarz’s model of Natural Church Growth is that it is heavily inward looking. There is little “outward” looking at the relationship between the individual church community and the wider world outside of the church. Arguably a strong focus on this model could lead to a church which simply revolves around itself and relies on God “sending” people to the church.
Model 2 - Warren
Another model, which has proved to be very influential within the Church of England, is from Robert Warren’s Healthy Churches Handbook (2012). Warren identifies 7 characteristics of the life of a church which can be used to measure the “health” of a particular church community. A healthy church is:
Energised by faith:
instead of being focussed on “keeping things going” or simply fighting to survive, a healthy church is a community within which people genuinely experience God’s love. It has a real desire to serve God, engages with scripture in creative ways and helps people to grow in, and share, their faith
Has an outward-looking focus:
Deeply rooted in the local community, working in partnership with other denominations, faiths, secular groups and networks, makes connections between faith and daily living, and responds to human need by loving service
Seeks to find out what God wants:
Asks God for the Spirit’s leading rather than trying to please everyone. Develops vision and
Faces the cost of change and growth:
Embraces the past while taking on new ways of doing things. Admits when things are not working,
and learns from the experience.
Operates as a community:
Doesn’t view itself as a club or an organisation. Is a community within which relationships are
nurtured and people are accepted and helped to grow in faith and service.
Makes room for all:
Genuinely welcomes new members and nurtures longer standing members. Children and young people are truly valued, and are encouraged to contribute. Is made up of people from different social and ethnic backgrounds, mental and physical abilities, different ages and phases of life. This diversity is seen to be more a strength than a source of tensions.
Does a few things and does them well:
Is focussed rather than frenetic. Does the basics well. Enjoys what it does, and is relaxed about what is not being done.
A healthy church may not score 100% on all of the above, but to be considered to be a “healthy church” a Christian community should certainly lean more towards the positive side of a clear majority of the above characteristics and values. Warren concludes that healthy churches tend to be churches which grow, and unhealthy churches tend to struggle to increase in number or to increase their missional impact upon the wider world.
One significant critique often aimed at Warren’s model is that it is simply not within the realm of reality for a significant number of churches. This is particularly true for churches with the burden of administration falling on a small core group of people. For many churches , particularly smaller churches, many of the ideals identified in Warren’s model are simply not achievable or sustainable.
There is no “one size fits all” recipe for guaranteed church growth. Across a significant majority of the models available there are a number of commonly held factors:
- Numerical growth and spiritual growth are not competing agendas
- There is a need for intentionality about seeking growth among church leaders and members
- Collaboration and cooperation of lay church members, clergy and licensed lay ministers in leadership and vision
- Recognition of the importance of variety and individuality when engaging in nurture of members and leaders
- Worship which is genuinely focused upon enabling people to meet with God
- The importance of good relationships with God and with one another
- Welcoming, nurturing and empowering children and young people
- Being outward looking and being willing to change in response to new arrivals or contexts
Choose a model of factors associated with growth from either either Warren or Schwarz
(or another model which you have found in any wider reading that you may have done)
and consider your own church context in light of this model…
- How does your church community “measure up”?
- What areas of strength can you identify within your church community?
- What areas for improvement are highlighted to you in reflecting upon your church
context when considering your chosen model of church growth?
Share some of your thoughts on the Forum
Spotlight on Doctrine
In 'The Provocative Church' Graham Tomlin argues that the New Testament says very little about “Evangelism”. The New Testament authors instead appear to hold the assumption that if the life of the Church is really in line with the image of the Church presented in chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles, then people will naturally be drawn to explore what is going on within the church community, and will naturally be drawn to seek to become a part of it.
Firstly; would you agree with Tomlin’s reading of the New Testament? Are there many examples of evangelism (the deliberate act of spreading the gospel message through preaching and teaching) being discussed in the New Testament?
What are your thoughts about the idea, presented by the New Testament authors, that, ‘A church which holds faithfully to an expression of church as presented in Acts 2, naturally draws people to faith and thus the church grows in number’?
Spotlight on Spirituality
A significant amount of time has been given in this session to consider growth. When we speak of church growth we ideally should be referring to spiritual, missional and numerical growth… however, we do tend to focus upon numerical growth at the expense of spiritual growth and growth in the amount of missional activity carried out within our churches.
Take a moment to consider what Spiritual growth might look like in your church. What might Spiritual growth look like in your own persona journey of faith?
Make a note of your reflections and share some of your thoughts on the Forum
What has been the most significant thing you have learned from this session? What has been the most challenging thing?
Blessed are you, Lord our God, for you love all of your creation. May we not become so caught up in matters of the Church that we fail to act on matters of mission. May we always be seeking ways to reflect your love to the world as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen
To Do in Church This Week
You have thought a lot about your church and the models presented in this session. Now ask someone else in your church what they think about its health and growth. Then, if you want to go a step further ask someone outside the church what they think about it - the comparison may be very interesting!
Share some of what you have found on the discussion board in the Forum.