“Supporting, inspring and connecting Christ-centred leaders and congregations within the United Church of Canada”

Natural Church Development
By John Maich


This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain. ~ Mark 4: 26, 28

The man who scattered the seed did not know how it grew. Today we know how seeds grow and yet we in the Church lament the piteous state of our gardens. Why? We have, at this particular point in human history, a staggering amount of knowledge that should make our gardening a breeze. Yet, so many congregations appear to excel only at producing empty pews. Again, why? We have mastered crop rotation and soil science. We can lay out irrigation networks to provide everything a seed would need to flourish. But we continue to lament our decline year after year after year. In the name of all that is Holy, why?

Considering the above passage I think that the answer is obvious. We have forgotten that the Church is a living thing, and we have been carrying on as if it is nothing more than a simple machine. We have lost our agrarian touch, coated our green thumbs in the crude grease of the axle, and have taken an industrial approach to a living body. How could we have forgotten that the church is a body? And why would we do such a thing?

Let us briefly consider the how and the why. Growing a garden takes diligence, and more than a little wisdom. Certain soils will not support certain plants, and plants can be particular about the amount of direct sunlight that they will tolerate. Assuming that a gardener has done the prerequisite work to locate a flowerbed where soil and light are optimum, the gardener then spends precious time nurturing the seeds by ensuring they get enough moisture, and removing the weeds that compete for valuable resources.

Growing a garden is a commitment, and even the most faithful gardener knows that an evening’s frost can bring all of their patient nurturing to a premature and unsatisfactory end. Conditions that the gardener has no control over also influence how well the garden produces.

The industrial age has taught us to hate uncertainty and eliminate unpredictability, and so we attempt to turn an organic process into a mechanized one. We transform the garden into an assembly line, so that we can control the outcome in an easy and efficient manner. There will be precious little variation from one bloom or blossom to another.

The assembly line also takes minimal maintenance. A shot of grease here and there typically keeps belts and pulleys operating smoothly. Should a part break, it is easily replaced by parts kept in stock.

All things considered, an industrial effort is easier than an agrarian pursuit. If we don’t have the time to deal with squeaky gears we can shut the whole line down until we can make the time to get to them. Better still, so long as all the various mechanisms are functioning properly, our workload is exceedingly light. So it is no surprise that we would seek to transform a garden full of living organisms into an assembly line of fixed parts and processes.

Immediately a question arises: Why is such a transformation no longer working for us? We will be tempted to point to the “good old days” of full-to-bursting Sunday schools and packed worship services being held on ordinary Sundays, between the rushes of Easter and Christmas, as proof of how well the transformation to industrialization improved the Christian Church.

I suspect, however, that the transformation never really worked for the Church. What we thought was a sign of vigour, was simply the stock that the industrialized operation had begun with (stock produced during our agrarian time), and our continued decline is because we continue to rely on old and worn out parts to keep the machine running. The assembly line is failing because we are trying to run a state-of-the-art program with antiquated parts.

The only solution to the problem of our decrepit “assembly line” congregations and denominations is to recover the living organism that they were meant to be. As you can imagine, that won’t be anywhere as easy as it sounds. Generations of industrial thought are not going to be unlearned overnight, and generations of pieceworkers are not going to be impressed at having to stick with a product from start to finish. Many are going to want to continue doing what they are doing, even though the end result is going to be more of the same.

For those who wish to recapture Church as an organism, there is help. The Institute for Natural Church Development (NCD) is dedicated to treating Church as a living entity, and has acquired enough experience in dealing with organic Church to offer profound help. Those looking for a one size fits all fix are still employing industrial thinking and they will be disappointed that NCD doesn’t honour that kind of thought. So, with the help of my own limited gardening ability let us envision how NCD helps us to retransform from machine to living being.

If we consider the congregation as a garden and presume that the issues of light and moisture are not impeding potential growth, the first step is to take stock of the condition of your soil. The soil in your actual garden requires a balance of 20 separate nutrients in order for seeds to grow. The health of that growth will depend upon the abundance or paucity of those nutrients. A specially selected fertilizer fixes that problem. The soil in your congregation requires a balance of eight separate qualities in order for the Church to grow. The health of congregational growth will depend upon the abundance or paucity of those qualities. NCD’s minimum factor strategy is the equivalent of fertilizer to balance our soil.

In no order of importance, those eight quality characteristics are: Empowering Leadership, Gift-oriented Ministry, Passionate Spirituality, Functional Structures, Inspiring Worship Service, Holistic Small Groups, Need Oriented Evangelism and Loving Relationships. If any one of these eight qualities is missing, there will be no growth in the garden. Even if there is a slight improvement in the lowest quality, it can have explosive impact upon future growth.

Right here is where we face the first challenge between industrial and agrarian thinking. Upon running a soil analysis, the congregation will find that of the eight essential qualities there are some that are more present than others and there will be an impulse to play to the strengths of the soil and add more of that quality. While that is smart work on the assembly line, it will kill your garden. Gardening does not improve by building on its strength; it improves by addressing its weakness. Think for a moment; if your garden is drying out, will adding more sunlight fix that particular problem?

NCD’s minimum factor strategy uses an assessment tool to identify which of the eight qualities is lacking in your congregational garden. With that quality identified, NCD then brings a checklist which can be employed to improve the conditions of the congregation, so that this quality may be strengthened. NCD expects that each congregation will take roughly a year or so to address this particular shortfall before testing the soil once more.

Another important difference between the assembly line and the garden is that an assembly line is a collection of linear connections whereas the garden is a web of relationships. If a gear breaks on the assembly line, all of the belts and pulleys that depend upon it will have to come to a stop. If an essential quality fails, however, the other qualities will not cease to exist or function. They simply will not be at their optimum health. If a gear is fixed on the assembly line, nothing else is touched; and yet, with NCD, as soon as the minimum essential quality begins to improve, there is a corresponding improvement in other essential qualities.

How long does NCD take? It takes as long as you want the garden to last.

How much time does NCD suggest we spend addressing our minimum factor? That also depends on how long you want the garden to last. The good news is that, with eight essential qualities to manage, it is unlikely you will spend a tremendous amount of time on one single quality. It is certain that improvements to one quality will also yield improvements in at least one other quality.

When does the process end? As long as you have the strength to garden, it never ends. Eventually, much like a regular garden, there will be a harvest.

Research done by NCD shows congregations which reach a defined level in each of the eight essential qualities eventually do what all living things are designed to do. They reproduce. Isn’t that a problem we would love to have?

What is the value of NCD’s approach? It allows congregations to remain individual. The deficiencies in the essential qualities are not determined by programs that are or aren’t running in a congregation. They are determined by the behaviour patterns of the congregation itself.

NCD uses a diagnostic evaluation, a survey of 91 questions for lay members and 79 questions for paid accountable ministers. It asks that the sample size be no less than 30 members in order to produce the most accurate analysis. To be blunt, NCD suggests that the reason congregations struggle is because everyone in the congregation struggles. By addressing our individual behaviours, we create a climate in our congregations that is conducive to healthy growth. If you don’t think that is possible, try scowling at everyone you meet in the Church this coming Sunday and see what consequence that reaps for you.

What are these survey questions like? They are typically short and reasonable. Let me share with you a few examples. The following questions are found on the Lay member’s questionnaire:

“How much time do you spend per week (excluding church meetings) with friends from church? A) less than 1 hour; B) 1 to 2 hours; C) 2 to 3 hours; D) 3 to 5 hours; or E) More than 5 hours.”

“In my opinion, Christians should never engage themselves in politics. To what degree is this statement true? A) To a very great extent; B) to a great extent; C) average; D) hardly; or E) Not at all.”

Please note that there is no right or wrong answer to these questions. They are determining the degree to which attitude or action is present. It is the degree to which these attitudes or actions are present that determines the health of the corresponding quality in the congregation.

NCD stresses that if we invest our energies in creating a garden that can sustain growth, all that will be needed from that point on is making sure that we continue to plant seeds. In a healthy garden, just as in the opening parable, a planted seed will sprout and grow all by itself. Living things want to grow and living things want to reproduce. Assembly lines have no such desire or ability. Which image do we most want our churches to resemble?