Fr Andris, who is my ‘mission partner’, meaning he comes and has coffee with me every few months and we talk about how the mission development process is going, lent me Natural Church Development by Christian Schwarz. It wasn’t a work of great complexity and I was able to skim through its 130 large-printed pages in something over an hour. The book arises out of a research project carried out in the early 1990s among 1000 churches across 32 countries, so it represents a lot of data. The central contention is that it shouldn’t be hard for a church community to grow: growth should, and does, happen naturally when the right factors are in place, and those factors turn out not to be any particular form of worship, ideological assumptions, or even structures, but things such as whether people are enabled to develop and deploy their gifts, whether there are groups smaller than the church as a whole to let this happen, whether loving relationships within the church are facilitated. There are eight of these elements, Christian Schwarz avers, and none can be missing, drawing on the metaphor of a barrel which can only hold water to the top of its shortest strut. He then goes on to talk about ‘six biotic principles’, concluding from the way nature works that there are principles behind organisational development which reflect God’s will, and that bit of the book I find a bit harder to swallow; but the basic idea seems sound enough and reflects what I see looking around.
I sat down and tabulated Schwarz’s eight growth factors alongside our Twelve Church Principles, the diocese’s Twelve Transformation Goals and the Church of England’s Eight Signs of a Healthy Church (phew), and drew the connections between the statements, making a complicated, multi-coloured network: proper ‘messy church’, that is. The multifarious links make the point that these independently-derived systems are grasping at the same sort of ideas, which gives me some optimism.
I’ve already said to my lot, basically, you can’t choose to be a growing church, but you can choose to be a good church, and this research suggests that if you are a good church, you’re likely to grow. The caveat is that 1996, when the book was published, was a long time ago and much has happened since then. Many churches are much weaker, and the Church’s connection with society is much reduced, meaning that the pool of likely activists, likely well-wishers, and likely converts we have to draw on is that much shrunken. For many churches, growth may be beyond them, no matter what they do.