Check Your Church’s Pulse: 8 Principles (May-Jun 1998)

By Matt Dabbs

by Lynn Anderson
May – June, 1998

When it comes to studying church growth and health, two mistakes are commonly repeated. First, we tend to examine the booming mega-churches, primarily those in America. Second, we tend to mimic specific local programs or methods which these mega-churches claim as keys to their success, rather than looking for universal and transferable principles.

While we thank God for giant churches, they are scarcely universally replicable models. Mega-churches tend to be phenomena peculiar to their own place and time, often led by an unusually gifted charismatic leader. The formula of their success may become a recipe for failure if copied in another community and another mix of leadership skills.

Even if the context and leadership mix of that church we admire is identical to our situation, copying is still dangerous as may be copying the wrong things. Sometimes leaders of large healthy churches mistakenly identify some of their favorite bells and whistles for the source of their success, while some matrix of less visible factors may actually be the key to their growth. So we may wind up merely mimicking some of their external programmatic “bells and whistles” and miss the less obvious but universally transferable principles of church health and growth. A locally effective method is one thing. A universally transferable principle is quite another.

Conclusion: attempting to transfer features from one church to another may prove ineffective at best, and disastrous at the worst. Besides, not all large or rapidly growing churches are healthy.

Of course, this does not mean churches cannot learn things from one another. Nor does it mean there are no universally identifiable ingredients contributing to church growth and health. In fact a research team out of Germany has demonstrated a way to surface some of these universal and transferable principles. In a few moments, we will describe what this team did and outline their discoveries. But, first, note some bedrock assumpions under-girding their research.

Churches are bodies, not mechanisms. Human beings can create dolls. But dolls cannot create dolls. We can co-operate with God and create babies. Babies can then grow to produce more babies in cooperation with God. Only God can grow churches.

Churches are organisms, not organizations. For plants to flourish, we must co-operate with God who grows the plants, but we cannot grow plants. Just so, God grows churches. We do not. As the apostle Paul put it, “I planted. Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” The best we can do is cooperate with God by removing limiting human hindrances to growth and supplying conditions friendly to growth.

And we cannot create seeds, but we can plant and water seeds, and God makes them grow. So it is with churches. God is sovereign. Sometimes, even when we set up the best conditions, a church may not grow. Apparently God makes sovereign choices. God causes some churches to flourish despite poor conditions. Generally, however, church health and growth result from co-operating with God.

In addition, no single factor produces church growth and health. As in all bodies, health and growth in churches results from a symbiotic balance of a number of factors or principles. We cannot grow churches mechanistically simply by mixing up the right formula or assembling all the pieces and pushing the right buttons. Church growth and health is of God. And “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” for, as Jesus said, “apart from me you can do nothing.”

Note also that church health and numerical growth are not necessarily the same thing. Obviously, there is usually some strong correlation between numerical growth and health. But a few very healthy churches are not growing numerically because of some unusually contextual circumstance(s). And no doubt many churches, which are growing numerically, are not healthy. Some are merely large crowds gathering for the emotional “loaves and fishes.”

With the foregoing assumptions under their belts, two German believers, Christopher Schwarz, a Lutheran minister, evangelism enthusiast and Ph.D. from St. Andrews, Scotland, and Chris Schock, Ph.D. from a German University in Organizational Psychology and statistical analysis, launched their massive research into church health and growth. Rather than examining only American mega churches, they have studied more than a thousand churches, rural and urban, small and large, right and left, state and free – across ten years, thirty-two countries and five continents. And rather than looking for methods to transfer from church A to church B, they looked for universal principles. They define principles as ingredients which are: (a) found universally among flourishing churches around the globe, and (b) which are also compatible with scripture. Fully aware that numerical growth and health are not the same thing, Schwarz and Shock evaluated churches with interest in both features: health and numerical growth.

While their research will be ongoing, after ten years they surfaced eight key ingredients or principles they found in healthy and growing churches. These are not methods, nor are they programs. They are universal. (On Schwarz and Schock’s testing instrument, churches that are unhealthy and declining scored below 50. But if a church scores above 65 there is a 99.4% likelihood it is a healthy and growing church.) And these ingredients are all grounded in scripture. As you look at the list, place your emphasis on the adjective. Here they are:

Empowering leadership: Not merely stable or visionary leadership, but leadership that gives permission and supplies skills.

Gift-based ministry: Where people get skilled to serve in areas of their giftedness, not merely where square pegs get shoved into round holes.

Functional structures: Not merely stable structures. But structures that get the church where it is trying to go.

Passionate spirituality: Where people are openly excited and verbal about their faith and their church, and where they serve, pray, fellowship and read scripture as a life-style.

Inspiring worship: Not necessarily contemporary or traditional but inspiring in ways appropriate to the worshipers.

Holistic small groups: Groups that are many-functioned microcosms of full spiritual care and development.

Need-oriented evangelism: Rather than program-oriented evangelism. Where people build authentic relationships, serve others and thus build bridges for Christ to walk over.

Loving relationships: Not merely common corporate membership and church attendance.

Schock and Schwarz have now made available testing instruments (questionnaires) that can be used to evaluate your church in each of these eight areas, scoring them against the global mean. You can clearly determine how well you are doing in each of these extremely crucial areas, compared to growing and declining churches worldwide.

In addition, Schwarz and Schock have developed a manual of exercises and focus group processes addressing each of these eight areas. These exercises and focus group processes give you a “track to run on” as you mobilize and empower your church to employ its strengths to upgrade itself in its weakest areas.

Several months ago some generous brothers made it possible for me to attend training to apply the testing instrument and access the computer software that does the statistical printout. At Hope Network Ministries we are available on a limited basis to help churches walk through this process. However, since this kind of testing is most helpful when done annually, across several years, to monitor progress, we recommend that someone in your church be sent to the training institute. That way you can administer the process for yourselves, to great benefit.

To get first-hand information, call an organization called ChurchSmart at 1-800-253-4276 and ask for information on training in Natural Church Development.

Among the congregations we have assisted with the test, a number see clearly their weaknesses, and understand what needs to happen to address those weaknesses. But they feel that they lack the skills needed to pull that off. We at Hope Network are keenly interested in helping congregations upgrade the skills they need to take them where they believe they need to go. We can be reached on the web at www.hopenetworkministries.com. Or e-mail hopenet@dhc.net or phone 214-874-0857.
Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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