Church Strategic Planning Literature Review (Part 1)

INTRODUCTION

A discussion on church health cannot stop at the descriptive level of what a church should be and should do.  The discussion must include how the church is to strategically plan towards health and growth.  The health of a church may be described as the church’s condition when viewed against the New Testament teaching about the Church of Jesus Christ, including its effectiveness in fulfilling the Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20) and the Great Commandment (Mt 22:37-40).  The growth of a church refers to both its quantitative and qualitative growth which are observable and measurable.  Strategic planning in the context of a church may be defined as a systematic process of envisioning a desired future that is aligned with the Bible and translating this vision into broadly defined goals or objectives and a sequence of steps to achieve them.1

Apart from the obvious that a church’s vision must be aligned with the Bible, there are four other key elements in the above definition about strategic planning that we must note.  One, strategic planning begins with the church’s desired end or vision and works backward to its current status.  In other words, to quote Steven Covey’s third habit in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we “begin with the end in mind.”2  Two, strategic planning deals with the broader picture, the church’s vision, and is flexible about the methods to reach it.  Three, strategic planning calls for the development of an intentional plan to achieve the defined goals that lead to the realisation of the church’s vision.  And four, strategic planning requires a process.

The purpose of this paper is to review significant literature about church strategic planning that is focussed on the health of the church.  The literature is reviewed under the following categories that I have termed as: Characteristic-Development, Process-Driven and Congregational-Culture strategies.3  The teaching and practises of these approaches are not mutually exclusive of each other as they overlap at some points.  However, their respective emphasis is also evident.  These will be highlighted and discussed as I review the publications.

 

THE CHARACTERISTIC-DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY

The study and practise of church health may be approached from a few angles.  One of them may be termed as the “Principle approach.”4  The principal proponents include Christian A. Schwarz and Stephen A. Macchia.5  They have a list of quality characteristics which they deem to be essential to the health of churches in general.  Schwarz’s Natural Church Development (NCD) 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.6  Macchia’s ten characteristics are: God’s empowering presence, God-exalting worship, spiritual disciplines, learning and growing in community, a commitment to loving and caring relationships, servant-leadership development, an outward focus, wise administration and accountability, networking with the body of Christ, and stewardship and generosity.7  Their lists are not identical, but their approach to church health is similar.  They believe that a church must be strong, by maintaining high quality levels, in all the essential characteristics of a church.

A characteristic-development strategy typically begins with an analysis of the health of the church.  This is done with the use of a church health analysis tool that includes a questionnaire survey.  Schwarz’s NCD has a 91-question Natural Church Development Survey8 and Macchia’s Leadership Transformation Inc. has a 72-question Church Health Assessment Tool (CHAT)9 that churches are encouraged to use to evaluate their health.  The completed questionnaires are submitted to NCD or CHAT for a computer generated report that gives a snapshot of the church’s present health.  Included in the report are recommendations that the church leadership team may take to develop greater health for their church.

It appears that NCD is the only church health specialist that gives a definite strategy, beyond providing churches a tool to conduct a church health analysis.  Its strategy is based on one of NCD’s key tenets called “the minimum factor” which theorises that the growth of a church cannot rise beyond the level of its lowest quality characteristic.  Hence, the prime strategy is for the church to give the greatest attention to its lowest quality characteristic.10

What does a church actually do to improve on the quality of its health characteristics, and in particular for its lowest characteristic?  NCD is one of the few church health specialists that has a whole workbook produced for this purpose, the Implementation Guide to Natural Church Development.11  Included in the book is a section detailing “ten action steps” and another section on “how to improve your minimum factor” for each of the quality characteristics.

The strategic process, such as the one advocated by NCD, of analysing, reporting, recommending (solutions) and implementing (the steps), with a follow-up evaluation, is critical for all churches that desire to develop church health.  However, addressing the “minimum factor” may not necessarily be the primary issue that a church needs to focus on.  Sometimes the “minimum factor” is simply a symptom of a deeper issue or it may have at its source another primary issue that requires greater attention.

(To be continued)

Church Culture in a Pandemic

After 30 years as a pastor I came to realise (I’m a slow learner) that one of the most important ingredients differentiating poor, good and great churches is church culture. Does a church have the right kind of culture for it to be a good or great church?

The unexpected disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has made the issue of church culture even more important.

For one, the cohesiveness of the church is very much put to the test because in-person meetings have been curtailed. This is especially disruptive for corporate worship, which is traditionally the main church event.

As I write this, Malaysia is reeling from a third wave of the virus, and much of the country was again under a Movement Control Order for the last two months. Churches have resorted to the use of online technology.

Will a church survive—nay, thrive in the pandemic? I believe the answer depends very much on its culture.

A Crisis Shows Up a Church’s Real Culture

Aubrey Malphurs, in his book Look Before You Lead: How to Discern & Shape Your Church Culture, defines a church’s congregational culture as “its unique expression of its shared values and beliefs”(p20). That is, a church’s congregational culture is made up of three components: its beliefs, values and behaviour. When beliefs and values are held in common by the majority in the church and are then actually seen in the people’s behaviour, they become culture—they give expression to the church’s unique identity.

It is this congregational culture that determines whether a church simply survives or thrives in this present challenge. Unsurprisingly, it is in a time of crisis that the real culture of a congregation becomes clearly evident. For example, is there a real culture of commitment, sacrifice, faithfulness and the like in the church? Or, were they just aspirational values? Or, worse yet, were they simply wishful thinking?

In particular, does the church have a culture where every member is connected, committed and participating in a small group? At a time when large gatherings are curtailed, small groups are the best vehicles for fellowship, discipleship and even outreach. This may be done online, in-person or in a hybrid form.

It is never too late to start a small group ministry or to encourage members to get into one. However, it is much more advantageous if small groups were already part and parcel of the culture of the church. The difference between the two is like an athlete fumbling to put on his running shoes when the starting pistol goes off and an athlete who already has his shoes on.

The Roles of the Pastor and Consultant in Shaping Church Culture

If the culture of a church is vital to the success of the church, it is inevitable that conscious effort is taken to shape the church’s culture so that it produces a healthy church. Malphurs states that the person that has the greatest responsibility to shape a church’s culture is the pastor (p129). It is by no means an easy task, because shaping congregational culture requires change. Malphurs explains that preparation, personnel and process are required to shape the culture of a church (p10-12).

I believe that church consultants have a role to play to help pastors and church leaders understand the importance of church culture. They can act as the leaders’ sounding board as the latter pursue a conscious effort to shape their congregational culture. Moreover, church consultants can study and analyse the real culture of the church (which the leaders may have blind spots), and suggest ways to develop the church’s unique and desired congregational culture that is Scripture-faithful, healthy and life-giving.

The importance of shaping congregational culture as a strategic means for developing healthy churches is found in Malphurs’ statement, “we’ve discovered that it’s a waste of time and money to attempt to lead a culturally toxic church that clings to the traditions of men rather than the clear teaching of Scripture through the strategic-envisioning process,” (p17). Hence, I believe that shaping congregational culture is an indispensable requirement to develop healthy churches.

Reference: Mulphurs, Aubrey. Look Before You Lead: How to Discern & Shape Your Church Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013

This article was first written for the the Society for Church Consulting blog posts on 15 December 2020. You may access it here.

 

Church Health Literature Review (Part 3)

(Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2)

THE ORGANIC-MISSIONAL APPROACH TO CHURCH HEALTH

With reference to the last point above, indeed one of the criticisms levelled against church health teaching, especially the principle approach, is that it is too much focussed on the church body.  Charles Van Eggen remarks that seven out of NCD’s eight quality characteristics, the possible exception being “need-oriented evangelism”, are concerned almost exclusively with the internal life of the church.1  Ed Stetzer, who propounds a missional matrix of christology, ecclesiology and missiology, comments that the Church Health Movement focuses largely on ecclesiology in order to grow.  Hence, Stetzer argues, “by emphasizing ecclesiology, with a limited Christology and an absent missiology, the Church Health Movement stepped outside of the scriptural and theological foundation leading to blindness to the world outside the church walls.”2  That is to say, if missions or the Great Commission is not the focus and pursuit of the church the latter cannot be deemed to be healthy.

This is where the organic-missional approach to church health needs to be seriously considered.  The primary proponent of this approach is Neil Cole who wrote Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens.3  The purpose of “organic churches” is to multiply healthy disciples, leaders, churches and movements,4 and this multiplication can happen anywhere and everywhere.5  They endeavour to accomplish their purpose by emphasising on the health and the natural means of reproducing the foregoing.[end_notes]Ibid, 23[/efn_note]  Cole argues for the organic nature of the Kingdom of God.6  He uses the agricultural-setting parables of Jesus as his Scriptural basis for organic churches: the sower7 (Mk 4:3-20), the growing seed8 (Mk 4:26-29), and the mustard seed[end_note]Ibid, 97-98[/efn_note] (Mk 4:30-32).

As far as the organic nature of the church is concerned Schwarz and Cole are in agreement.  How they apply that biblical truth, however, differ.  Schwarz would say that we need to produce a healthy environment for the church to grow.9  Cole would say we need to produce the right DNA at every level: the individual disciple, small groups, church and movement so that growth and reproduction take place.10

The stress on the organic nature of the church may at first appear to be the overriding characteristic in Cole’s idea of the church because of the name given to it, namely “the organic church”.  However, the missional aspect of his idea of church cannot be glossed over as secondary.  Missions is at the very heart or thrust of the organic church.11  Indeed his understanding of the DNA of the church is made up of Divine truth, Nurturing relationships and Apostolic mission.12  This DNA may also be seen as Cole’s short list of characteristics of a healthy church, and missions is not only one of three critical components it is also the outward thrust for the church.

Colin Marshall and Tony Payne’s The Trellis And The Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift That Changes Everything13 has similarities with Cole’s Organic Church.  The trellis refers to the structures and programmes that support the ministry of the church.  The vine essentially refers to the people who are part of the Body of Christ or who will eventually be incorporated into His Body.  Marshall and Payne write, “This is what the growing of the vine really is: it is individual, born-again believers, grafted into Christ by his word and Spirit, and drawn into mutually edifying fellowship with one another.”14  In essence The Trellis and the Vine is the authors’ argument for the church to make paramount disciple-making.  “Church health” is not a term they use, but it would be right to say that in their view when a church gives attention to the vine work of making disciples the church will be healthy.  Their follow up book The Vine Project: Shaping Your Ministry Culture Around Disciple Making15 provides a detailed roadmap for churches who wish to embark on this journey.  The two key things that such churches must do is one, to develop a culture of making disciples16 and two, multiplying gospel growth through training co-workers.17

It seems odd that while the title of the book is The Trellis and the Vine, nothing significant is said about the trellis.  When the trellis is mentioned it is written with a negative view—that churches have allowed structures, programmes, polity, management and the like to stifle disciple-making.18

Cole’s Organic Church has a better balance, to use Marshall’s and Payne’s imagery, of the trellis and the vine.  Cole writes, “Structures are needed, but they must be simple, reproducible, and internal rather than external.”19  He goes on to draw an imagery from the exoskeleton and endoskeleton of the human body.  He writes, “The structure should not be seen, yet the results of it should be evident throughout the body.  Organization must be secondary to life and must exist to help support the organic life of the body.”20  The church as a living spiritual organism must inevitably be organised.  However, the structures must not dominate the church’s missional purpose of making disciples but to serve it. 

 

CONCLUSION

Each individual approach to church health, principle, biblical and organic-missional, is insufficient to provide us with a comprehensive study and understanding of church health.  The three approaches should be woven together if we are to have a better grasp about what constitutes a healthy church and how we are to measure it.  The student of church health must begin by studying what the Bible says about the church—what it is and what it is to do, as the advocates of the biblical approach would counsel us.  What the Bible says must form the foundation for any definition and set of characteristics of a healthy church.

However, simply knowing what the Bible says about the church is, by itself, insufficient to determine the health of a church.  The latter needs to be analysed, and the process of analysis should include the use of social science research tools. This is one aspect that the principle approach to church health has to offer.  To be certain, the areas to be “measured” are not simply from an organisational aspect, collections and attendance at worship services.  What the Bible says about the life and calling of the church must be our guide.  In this sense the commitment and effectiveness of a church to its missional calling and the Lord’s commission to make disciples, that the organic-missional approach stresses, must play a prominent part in the assessment of the health of a church.

Church Health Literature Review (Part 2)

(Click here for Part 1)

THE BIBLICAL APPROACH TO CHURCH HEALTH

The advocates of the biblical approach to church health primarily look at what the Bible says about the church—what the church is to be and to do.  One of the most significant contributions to church health literature in this vein is Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.1  He disagrees with the focus on pragmatism and numerical church growth of popular models of church.2  He also disagrees that appearances of relevance and outward responses are key indicators of being a successful church.3  Instead he opines, “We need churches in which the key indicator of success is not evident results but by persevering biblical faithfulness.”4

The first five of Dever’s nine marks of a healthy church concern the right preaching of the Word of God: (1) expositional preaching, (2) biblical theology, (3) the gospel, (4) biblical understanding of conversion, and (5) biblical understanding of evangelism.  The last four marks concern discipleship: (6) biblical understanding of church membership, (7) biblical understanding of church discipline, (8) Christian discipleship and growth, and (9) biblical understanding of church leadership.5  Dever admits that these are not the only marks of a healthy church and may not even be the most important.6  What’s critically important is that the teaching on these aspects of church health are derived from Scripture itself, hence the qualifying word “biblical” accompanying most of the marks.

Dever states that the first mark, expositional preaching is the most important, which in his mind is the only form of biblical preaching.7  By expositional preaching he means preaching a message from a passage of Scripture in its context.8  In other words, the text determines the point rather than the text being used to support a pre-conceived point.  A healthy church is one whose beliefs and practices are derived from the Bible, such as Dever’s nine marks themselves.

Most of Dever’s nine marks of a healthy church fall under the category of spiritual health.  They are also described primarily from a spiritual angle.  While the church is a spiritual entity, a comprehensive understanding and evaluation of the health of a church must, nonetheless, include its organisational health.  The latter comprise the structures, systems and processes by which a church uses to develop the marks of a healthy church.  A biblical-only approach to the study of church health does not appear to address the church’s organisational health.

John Stott’s The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor9 would fall into the category of a biblical approach to church health.  The purpose of Stott’s book is to set out the biblical and essential marks that characterise an authentic and living church.10  It is obvious that Stott does not mean to stipulate an exhaustive list of such characteristics.  From Acts 2:42-47 he determines that there are four essentials in the kind of church that God envisions: (1) a learning church, (2) a caring church, (3) a worshipping church, and (4) an evangelising church.11  In the remaining chapters of the book he discusses different aspects of church life.  Some are directly related to the four essentials mentioned above, others do not have any connection to the four essentials; such as ministry, giving and impacting our world for social change.

His concluding chapter on “Looking for Timothys” is not really a conclusion.  It could even be seen as another mark of a healthy church—the need to look out and raise up Timothys.  As with Nine Marks, The Living Church is necessary and helpful in the study of healthy churches because it presents the biblical teaching on what Stott deems to be the marks of a healthy church.  His gleanings from Scripture regarding these marks are insightful.

In a slight departure from an otherwise biblical-only approach to church health, Stott encourages surveys to be done of the community and the church to determine if a church has organised itself relevantly to the community, or is there a disconnect between them?12  Surveys or studies such as these are critical since the level of effective community outreach is an important component to determine the overall health of a church.

(Click to go to Part 3)

Church Health Literature Review (Part 1)

INTRODUCTION

The subject of church health is less precise than the subject of church growth.  Unlike the latter the former does not have the coherence of the Church Growth Movement (CGM) nor does it have formidable spokesmen that Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner had been for the latter.  As a result, each advocate of church health has his own definition and set of characteristics for what constitutes church health.

The purpose of this review of church health literature is to scope from among the significant authors on this subject for their understanding and criteria of church health.  These views of church health may be classified under three broad categories: The Principle, the Biblical, and the Organic-Missional approaches.1 This is not to say that the principle approach is unbiblical or non-missional.  It is.  However, its emphasis is on the principles of church health.  The same can be said of the other two approaches that make much of their own emphasis.

In this article I will review two significant publications that represent each of these approaches.  Due to the limitation on the length of the article, the second book in each approach is given less treatment than the first book.  I conclude this review of church health literature with a discussion on how all three approaches together may help toward a greater understanding of church health.

 

THE PRINCIPLE APPROACH TO CHURCH HEALTH

The principle approach looks at what constitutes church health characteristics from both Scripture and practice of church life and ministry.  Then it looks at how a church is to improve along the quality scale of these characteristics so that it becomes a healthier church.

Christian A. Schwarz is one of the most quoted proponents for this approach on church health.2  His teaching on church health is found in his basic text titled Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches3 and a later publication called Color Your World with Natural Church Development: Experiencing all that God has designed you to be which was written for Christians to apply NCD principles at the personal level.4  Arising from his extensive research that covered churches around the globe,5 he determined that there are eight quality characteristics that all churches must have.  They are: (1) empowering leadership, (2) gift-oriented ministry, (3) passionate spirituality, (4) functional structures, (5) inspiring worship service, (6) holistic small groups, (7) need-oriented evangelism, and (8) loving relationships.

The health of a church is reflected in the overall quality of these characteristics found in the church.  The health is determined through a quantitative survey done among selected members of the church.6  Furthermore, NCD research reveals that if every quality characteristic scores 65 and above on their rating scale then the church is inevitably a growing church.  This is known as the “65 hypothesis.”7  The point of this approach to church health is for a church to keep improving on the quality of all eight characteristics.  The greatest attention, though, is to be given to the lowest quality characteristic because the growth of the church cannot rise beyond the level of that characteristic.  This is termed the “minimum factor.”8

The strategy also calls for the incorporation of NCD’s six biotic principles: (1) interdependence, (2) multiplication, (3) energy transformation, (4) multi-usage, (5) symbiosis, and (6) functionality. These principles are biotic in nature because a church is an organism and not a machine.9  When these principles are applied they “create an environment that will allow God’s growth automatisms—with which He Himself builds the church.”10  NCD stresses the development of an environment in a church where the church can grow.  In other words, church health naturally11 or automatically12 leads to church growth.  Schwarz terms it “The ‘all-by-itself’ principle”13 found in the parable of the growing seed (Mark 4:26-29).

Another principle approach to church health is found in Stephen A. Macchia’s Becoming a Healthy Church: 10 Characteristics.14  The ten characteristics were determined from a survey done among the Vision New England churches15 where Macchia served as its president from 1989 to 2003.  The study did not only help Macchia and his team to determine the ten characteristics, it also helped them rank the characteristics.  They are: Level 1 – How I relate with God: (1) God’s empowering presence, (2) God-exalting worship, (3) spiritual disciplines.  Level 2 – How I relate with my church family: (4) learning and growing in community, (5) a commitment to loving and caring relationships, (6) servant-leadership development.  Level 3 – How my church ministers and manages: (7) an outward focus, (8) wise administration and accountability, (9) networking with the body of Christ, and (10) stewardship and generosity.16

One of the key concepts for church health advocates is “balance”—a balanced pursuit and presence of all the essential elements or characteristics of a church.  Macchia stresses it.17  Schwarz speaks of the “harmonious interplay of all eight elements.”18  Rick Warren posits that “the five New Testament purpose of the church must be in equilibrium with the others for health to occur.”19  Nelson Searcy who takes a systems-approach to church health states that “The eight systems of every church are interconnected.  While some may be more developed than others, none of these systems can stand alone.”20  Hence, there is a need to ensure that all the systems in the church are functioning properly at a high level and in balance with one another.

Church health proponents have varying opinions as to what constitutes the essential characteristics of church health.  Sometimes it is simply the use of different terminologies or different ways of classification.  Barring this, the principle approach rightly recognises that the quality level of these characteristics in a church determine the overall health of the church.  Since they are all important, a high quality level for every characteristic and balance among them are key to the health of the church.

One of the features of the principle approach is that it is not simply theoretical and descriptive about what a healthy church should look like.  Many of them have developed tools to evaluate the health of the church based on their criteria of church health characteristics.  NCD has its 91-question Natural Church Development Survey.21  Macchia, who went to found Leadership Transformation Inc., developed the Church Health Assessment Tool (CHAT) with 72 questions covering the ten characteristics.22  These objective instruments are necessary to produce quantifiable data and measurable results to accurately assess the health of a church.

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Church Growth Literature Review (Part 2)

(Click here for Part 1)

DIVERSIFICATION OF CHURCH GROWTH TEACHING

In 1982 Wagner invited John Wimber to teach the course MC510: Signs, Wonders and Church Growth at Fuller’s School of World Mission.  As a result of Wimber’s influence Wagner’s views on the work of the Holy Spirit, like spiritual gifts, began to shift.  His shift moved even further in the following years through the influence of people like Cindy Jacobs and Chuck Pierce.  While Wagner was still focussed on church growth, he was, however, looking at other factors of church growth that were not under the classical Church Growth radar like spiritual gifts, prayer and spiritual warfare.  In the revised third edition of Understanding Church Growth (1990) (done with the consent of McGavran) Wagner added a whole new chapter on “Divine Healing and Church Growth”.1 

In Church Growth State of the Art (1986) there was a whole section consisting of four chapters on “Church Growth and the Holy Spirit”.2  One chapter was on the supernatural anointing of the Holy Spirit for ministry and another was on the importance of power encounter for church growth.  The latter chapter being a contribution by John Wimber. 

While Wagner’s shift did not in itself precipitate the diversification of church growth teaching, it however, left an open field for new ideas about church growth to be introduced3 by practitioners (pastors) demographers and church consultants.4  Gary McIntosh has drawn a helpful chart showing the various sub-branches of what he calls the “Popular Church Growth prong”: (1) Systems Research, (2) Survey Research, (3) Polling Research and (4) Anecdotal Research (Stories of Growing Churches).5

Many books published during this time were about principles and strategies for numerical church growth.  They were mostly written from the perspective of the church as an organisation (albeit a biblical, living, spiritual organism). 

The following is a  sampling of such publications. Carl F. George’s How to Break Growth Barriers (1993).6  The basic thesis of his book is that if a pastor is to lead his church to growth he needs to move from being a shepherd to that of a rancher.  In other words, instead of being the primary caregiver the pastor needs to develop others to care for the members of church and do the work of ministry.  Gary L. McIntosh’s One Size Doesn’t Fit All (1999).7  He says that the size of a church determines how it “does church” including how it is structured, the role of the pastor, how decisions are made, and the strategies it deploys to overcome obstacles and grow the church. 

From a more business approach George Barna wrote a highly controversial book called Marketing the Church .8  It was about using the marketing tools of the business world to reach out and to win a church’s target group.  McIntosh comments, “This marketing emphasis effectively turned many people away from the popular notion of church growth, and caused a reaction toward a new paradigm of church health in the mid 1990s.”9

Then there were the books that proposed models of what churches ought to be and do so that they may grow and fulfil the Great Commission mandate. Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church (1995)10 was one of the first books that provided a balanced approach (The 5-Purposes) to grow a church.  It detailed a process (The Life Development Process) depicted by the baseball diamond and a plan to move people from Community to Core.  It also incorporated the HUP (although he does not attribute to it) by describing Saddleback’s target group, aka Saddleback Sam and Samantha.  

 

CONCLUSION

As I draw the review of church growth literature to a conclusion, I return to the three questions I posed at the beginning of the article.  First, is church growth teaching to be defined by and limited to McGavran’s and Wagner’s views during the classical Church Growth period?  Advocates of CGM are adamant that church growth teaching must employ “as its initial frame of reference the foundational work done by Donald McGavran and his colleagues.”13  While I concur with this, I believe it would be limiting the usefulness of Church Growth teaching if it did not allow for additional structures to be built on that foundation.  A case in point would be Wagner’s “discoveries” in the healing-prayer-spiritual warfare factor of church growth.14  He was disappointed that McGavran and others did not see that it was very much a part of and concerned the Church Growth field and agenda.  Church health teaching falls in the same vein (I will pick up this thread again when I answer the third and final question).

The second question I posed was: what are the irreducible principles for church growth?  From the review of church growth literature, I believe they would be:

  1. Quantitative and Qualitative Growth.  Churches commissioned by Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20 must grow both numerically and in spiritual maturity.
  2. Research and Analysis.  Research must be done to learn (a) about the people the church is attempting to reach with the Gospel, (b) the best means to reach this specific group of people, and (c) the hindrances to the growth of the church, and
  3. Strategic Planning.  Determine the best strategies to be deployed based on the research and analysis to accomplish the purpose of the church with the use of planning and programming.15

However, to say that the above three principles of church growth are foundational does not mean that they are exhaustive.  Upon these foundational principles of church growth I believe there should be an openness to allow for other well-tested tenets of church growth to be added to them.  These would include the contributions of specific subjects such as church leadership, spiritual gifts and ministry strategies as they are applied in the church growth context. 

Finally, what influence did church growth teaching have on the later development of church health teaching?  Church health teaching came about as a response to church growth teaching, whether as a correction in relation to some of the misgivings of the latter or as a development of the latter.  The bottom line is that we cannot separate the two.  Church health is a necessary factor for church growth.  The growth of a church, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, is dependent on the health of the church.  I will look further into this as I review church health literature in a subsequent article.

 

Church Growth Literature Review (Part 1)

INTRODUCTION

Part of the interest in my research concerns the correlation between a church’s health and its growth, especially in view of the Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20).  This article is a review of literature on the subject of church growth.

The literature review shows two distinct phases in the development of church growth teaching.  The first phase was the classical Church Growth period1 led by its founder Donald A. McGavran and his successor C. Peter Wagner.  McGavran’s publication of The Bridges of God in 1955 birthed the Church Growth Movement (CGM).  The second phase began around 1988 when Wagner moved into other areas of interests.  While his new interests were still in relation to the subject of church growth, they were nonetheless perceived as detours from classical Church Growth teaching.2  When he retired from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2001 it left CGM leaderless and rudderless.  As a result, the teaching on church growth that was already evolving became even more diversified.  Thom S. Rainer’s The Book of Church Growth (1993) provides a very helpful overview of the history and diversification in church growth teaching.3  For a more detailed and personal account of these changes in church growth teaching one may read Wagner’s fascinating memoirs Wrestling with Alligators, Prophets, and Theologians (2010).

While this article is a review of church growth literature it does so with three questions in mind: First, is church growth teaching to be defined by and limited to McGavran’s and Wagner’s views during the classical Church Growth period?  Second, what are the irreducible principles of church growth?  Finally, what influence did church growth teaching have on the later development of church health teaching?

 

THE CLASSICAL CHURCH GROWTH TEACHING

Innumerable books on CGM teaching were published during the heyday of the movement from the 1970s to the mid-1990s.  The most important books to consider would be those by McGavran as the founder of the movement and Wagner who succeeded him as its leader and chief spokesman.

As previously mentioned the publication of The Bridges of God (1955) birthed the CGM, but it was McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth (1970) that spelt out his mature thinking on the theology, sociology and methodology of Church Growth.4  Wagner said, “Understanding Church Growth is one of those classics which has become the indispensable foundational text for an academic field.  No one can claim to be a serious student of church growth who has not read and absorbed the content of Understanding Church Growth.5

The most persuasive point of McGavran’s book is that God wants lost people found.  The church cannot be content with just searching (Search Theology6) but to win the lost to Christ (Harvest Theology7).  Hence, evangelism is critically important and must have absolute priority over any other activity of the church.  In God’s schema it is His will for the church to grow numerically, for this would mean lost people are found.

In order to accomplish this evangelistic growth to the greatest effect, McGavran posits that the church should invest the greatest amount of its resources to the most (or more) receptive people (Theory of Receptivity8).  The way to determine who the receptive people are and what the best means are to reach them is through research, including the gathering and analysis of statistical data (Social Science Research9).  With the necessary information a church is then able to strategise (for example, by building bridges to receptive people) and to set goals to grow the church (Planning and Goal Setting10).

McGavran’s church growth principles are derived from well researched data of growing and non-growing churches in the mission field such as Ghana, South Korea and India.11  He quotes studies that he or others had done.12  Backed by such serious studies it is hard to ignore the findings, conclusions and principles of Church Growth teaching.

In Church Growth and the Whole Gospel (1981) Wagner writes to elaborate and defend the tenets of CGM.  For example, he defends the priority of the evangelistic mandate vis-à-vis the cultural mandate.13  Another concerns the Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP).  It was not the most important tenet of CGM teaching but it became the most controversial.  McGavran observed that “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.”14  Wagner defends the principle by saying that “McGavran’s statement is descriptive, not normative.  It is phenomenological, not theological. …Secondly, McGavran’s statement relates to discipling, not perfecting.  It is a principle of evangelism, not Christian nurture.”15  If HUP is accurate, it then provides the church with a useful key for “effective implementation of the evangelistic mandate.”16

In a later book Strategies for Church Growth (1987) Wagner starts by revisiting some of the basic church growth principles.  He explains how the advocates of CGM understand the terms commonly used in Christian circles.  For example, what does “make disciples” mean?  Wagner says that “The raw material of making disciples in the Great Commission sense is unbelievers who need to commit their lives to Christ for the first time.  The raw material of modern ‘disciple making’ is Christians who need to be helped along the continuing road of Christian discipleship.”17  Hence, he argues, “If we concentrate on church growth, we get to the heart of the Great Commission.  The more we evangelize and the more disciples we make, the more churches will be multiplied and grow.  And this is why, in planning strategies, we aim for church growth.”18

In other words, “making disciples” or winning the lost through evangelism is the goal of church growth and developing and carrying out strategies to accomplish this goal is critical to its success.  We can, therefore, understand why planning strategies is one of the hallmarks of CGM teaching.  Much of the book Strategies for Church Growth focuses on the importance as well as the practical steps to develop these strategies.

Understandably, Church Growth teaching during the classical era was not without its detractors.  I have already mentioned some of the criticisms such as those against the HUP,19 the priority of evangelism, and the emphasis on numerical growth.  Perhaps, the chief criticism against church growth teaching is that it lacked a solid theological foundation.  Despite the attempts of CGM to address this issue, strong criticisms were levelled against Church Growth theology or lack thereof.  This is seen in the strong discussion generated in Evaluating the Church Growth Movement (2004).  For example, Craig Van Gelder charges that establishing church growth principles by simply listing some biblical texts does not mean that theology is done.20  Also, Gailyn Van Rheenen questions whether one should even be doing theology “with Church Growth eyes”.  He contends that biblical theology should form the lens through which cultural and contextual issues and praxis are viewed.21

(Click to go to Part 2)

 

My Journey Into Church Consulting

My Journey

I first felt the Lord’s nudging towards church consultation during the later part of my second decade of pastoral ministry. At that time I didn’t know that such a ministry existed nor did I have the term for it. After about 30 years of pastoral ministry, in 2014, I took the first step to make the transition. I had little knowledge about what I was doing. As you can imagine, I was happy for the training I received from Jim Barber and the Society for Church Consulting in 2018. It was extremely helpful.

While pastoring I had read many books including Peter Wagner’s works on church growth, Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church, Christian Schwarz’s Natural Church Development, Thom Rainer’s and Eric Geiger’s Simple Church, Gary McIntosh’s One Size Doesn’t Fit All and Aubrey Malphurs’ Advanced Strategic Planning. They were instrumental in shaping my philosophy of church ministry. The way I led the churches under my care reflected my convictions. I had come to the conclusion that it was critically important for churches to be healthy so that they can grow. On hindsight, the Lord was already preparing me for a ministry of church consultation with a focus on church health.

Secondly, my interactions with other pastors showed me that many of them needed help with developing their churches. I was so glad when I said something or shared something that I had done in my own church which helped them, or when I introduced a book to them that addressed their need. All I wanted was for the Lord to use me to empower others, especially other pastors, on how to do church.

The organiser in me had planned for a long and orderly transition from pastoral ministry to church consulting. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out in my last church and I was thrusted into consulting much sooner than I had planned. I was ill prepared. I also felt that my credibility would be questioned. I had imagined that with success stories of turnaround churches I would be seen as a probable good church consultant. Nonetheless, I have learnt to accept the different outcomes in the two churches I pastored, and to draw from the experiences when I consult churches.

My Challenges

My engagements in church consultation so far have been intermittent. Most of them have been one-off. A few required return visits. Most of them concerned a specific area of ministry like leadership, church structure, small groups or a discipleship program. A few opportunities arose for a church health analysis.

The work of church consultation in Malaysia faces a number of challenges.

  1. Church consultation is a totally new concept among pastors and churches in Malaysia. When I tell people what I do, it will almost always draw a surprised or confused look.
  2. Pastors cannot imagine why they would need the services of a church consultant. They may also be fearful about what a church consultant may uncover in their church.
  3. Pastors don’t understand the importance of church health and the need for a church health analysis.
  4. Church leaders are not willing to pay for the use of church health analysis instruments.
  5. There is none or little follow through with the recommendations. The consultant or other specialists are not engaged to provide guidance, training and assistance in the implementation of the recommendations.

My Dream

Despite the challenges, my dream is to see church consultation teams being formed for every denomination or groups of churches in Malaysia and for every language group under their respective umbrella (Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English).

I believe that church consultants have a role—to come alongside pastors and leaders to help them develop their churches (especially to be healthy growing churches that fulfil the Great Commission). It’s exciting to be a pioneer in this area of ministry in Malaysia, though I do not pretend that it’s going to be an easy journey.

What Will You Write for Your First Book?

If you were writing your first book, what would you write about?

I can’t claim to have a lot of experience in writing books since I’ve only recently published my first book. Prior to this I had written two booklets, but You Walk, He Leads would be my first book-size publication. As I’ve already shared the reasons that led me to write on the topic in the book’s preface, I will not repeat it here.

Let me give you four factors that will help you determine what you may write about, especially if it’s your first book.

  1. Knowledge. 

It seems redundant to say, we can’t write about something we have little knowledge about. You may argue that we can do a study to gain the knowledge. That, however, is like starting with the wrong foot forward if your goal is to write a book. All the more, if this is your first book. It is best to write about something you already know quite a lot and have loads of material at hand. The research is largely to verify and improve on the body of information you already have.

Furthermore, this knowledge should have already been processed in your mind and life. That is to say, you have already worked through the information and you have a good understanding of the topic. Perhaps you have even developed strong opinions and clear conclusions about the subject. In other words, the knowledge you possess about the subject matter has become your own, even if you may have learnt a great deal from others.

So, here’s the first question to ask yourself if you’re writing your first book, What am I knowledgeable about?

  1. Passion

If you have no passion for something you are trying to write about, one or both of the following will happen. One, you’ll never complete your book project. If you don’t feel for what you are writing it’ll become a chore—not a delight. If by some miracle you do complete it, it’ll not only be a painful journey for you—it will be a painful read for your readers! Your passion, or rather, a lack of it, will be evident in the way you share your thoughts and ideas with your readers.

Passion for what you are writing about is important because it will give you the drive to write. You write not because you have to, but because you want to. You have something you want to share with your readers. In addition, a passion to put your thoughts in a book will make you want to improve on your writing and communication skills because you want to share as effectively as you can with your readers about what you feel and believe.

So, question two, What am I passionate about?

  1. Life Experience

One of the most powerful subjects to write about is our own life stories. The reasons are very simple—our stories are unique and real. And also because everyone loves a good story.

However, I doubt the average Joe (or Joanne) like us will have a store-full of gripping stories to fill a book. Even if we do, we may not interest many people, beyond our immediate circle of relatives and friends, to part with their money to read the stories of someone who is not well-known.

Despite the foregoing, stories from your life experiences may nonetheless be used as personal illustrations for the points in your book. They tell readers that you don’t only have theoretical knowledge of your subject but also experiential knowledge. Your life experiences give you as the writer credibility with your readers and your stories help your readers to identify with you.

Question three, What have been my life experiences?

If you keep these three questions in mind I don’t think it’s too difficult to narrow down the subject of your first book. Here’s a simple exercise you can immediately do. Take three pieces of paper and separately list down what you are knowledgeable in, what you are passionate about and what life experiences you have gone through. Compare the three lists and look for commonality between them. Pick the subject that best meets all three criteria—and wallah! you have the subject for your first book!

  1. Message

To knowledge, passion and life experience I want to add one more important factor—the message. I don’t believe that it is sufficient to just write a book simply for the sake of publication. I believe we must write with a purpose—to share a message. I suppose this reveals the preacher in me.

In one sense the message is a factor to help you determine the subject of your book. What is the message I want to share with my readers? Your intended purpose together with the other three factors will help you define your topic of interest. On the other hand, the message may be put aside until you have decided on the subject for your book; based on what you know, what you’re passionate about and from your life experience. Diagrammatically, it will look something like this.

I believe if you include all these elements into your book you’re on your way to writing something that is worth reading.

You Walk, He Leads

I’m so glad that my book You Walk, He Leads: Discerning, Aligning & Waking in God’s Will is finally printed and published. The delay was because my printer had to temporary shutdown its operations due to Covid-19 pandemic and the country’s Movement Control Order.

The event that sparked the writing of the book was a seminar I did for a young people’s church in October 2019. It was not my first time teaching the material. However, an evaluation the seminar made me realise that there was just too much material for the participants to digest. I decided that it would be better for me to put the teaching into a book so that people can read it at their own pace. They can also take time to think through the principles and apply them into their lives.

A second reason for the book is because the teaching I have to offer on the subject is really important. I should make it available to a wider audience. I concluded that publishing a book would be the best thing to do. (Besides, writing a book has been one of my ambitions in life.)

Since I already had my seminar notes I didn’t have to start from scratch, which made things much easier. Nonetheless, the journey to publish a book was still a long and challenging process. My seminar notes that were written in bullet points for oral presentation had to be reconfigured for a written publication. While I had the general Christian readership in mind I also wanted to make the language and writing style suitable for the younger generation. That took great effort and submissions for feedback from different people—old and young, mature Christians and pastors. This led to revisions of the draft.

The process of publishing a book has many steps and even layers. They include the hard work of editing, proof-reading, page layout and cover design. I am thankful to the Lord for the people who came around me to help me with these. They made the book look and read so much better than it would otherwise have been.

Then, the final part—printing the book. A slot for early March had been set with the printer to print the book. It was rush time for the layout artist to get everything print ready by the deadline. We managed to do that by a whisker. The printer sent me a mock-up of the book for one final check. And even at that final stage there were still typo-errors. Corrections were made and the file was sent to the printers again with a go-ahead. Then came the MCO!…and a wait of nearly three months!

But now, when it’s all done and the book is finally published—what a thrill! My first book. Hallelujah!

Now, I’ve got to market it, when churches are not physically meeting due to government restrictions to curb the pandemic! That’s another challenge. Nonetheless, I am absolutely certain that as the Lord has caused me to write the book He will also ensure the book will get into the hands of many Christians to bless them. My thanks and praise to the Lord for giving me this privilege to write You Walk, He Leads.