Ignoring the Principles?

God detests the prayers of a person who ignores the law. (Proverbs 28:9 (NLT))

Which law is the Preacher referring to? Is it the law that governs all of creation, the law that God has woven into everything He has made, the principles that Christian Schwarz and Stephen Covey and Andy Stanley – and many others – write about? Principles that are unchanging and unchangeable and self-evident (when you really think about them)?

God detests such prayers because they are prayers He cannot answer the way the pray-ers are wanting Him to answer. Such requests are like a person who sows carrot seed in the garden, and then prays that God will cause parsnips to grow!

What can God do with a prayer like that?

Does this have anything to say about giving thanks before eating food we like rather than food that is good for us?

The whole idea here is that we are praying to God for things that, if He were to answer by approving our requests, would cause the whole creation to fall apart; prayers that God simply cannot answer, prayers He detests because if He were to answer the way we want Him to, He would be denying Himself, acting in opposition to His own nature.

Are some of our prayers for evangelism and church growth like that, that is to say, God cannot answer them because He would be denying His character?

What do you think?

Does Natural Church Development Work?

Having read your article, I would be interested to hear of any congregations that have done this assessment and made changes, and what difference it has made to the effectiveness of their ministry!

A good question.

In his book, ‘Color Your World with Natural Church Development,’ Christian Schwarz writes:

“Recently we selected all of the churches that have done three NCD Surveys and compared their initial numbers (at the time of their first survey) with their most recent results (at the time of their third survey, which was completed, on average, 31 months later). At the time of the third survey, the quality of these churches had increased by an average of 6 points. [These numbers] indicate considerably more love, more forgiveness, more answers to prayer, more wisdom, more spiritual power, and countless other quality factors in those churches. Great. But what about the quantity? Did the focus on church quality actually result in numerical growth, as NCD claims it does? Here are the results. By the time of the third survey the average growth rate of all participating churches had increased by 51%. If a church had been growing at a rate of 10 people per year before beginning the process, 31 months into the process, that number had grown to 15 people per year; if there had been 200 people per year joining the church previously, now there were 302.”

I have a congregation in this country that, in 2012, had an attendance at worship of 120. Four years later that number had climbed to 830. The NCD assessment revealed a remarkable, above average, level of church health. Was this because of the NCD process? Perhaps. Or was it because the responsible people knew intuitively how to lead a church to higher levels of health? We cannot make claims that we cannot substantiate. All we can say for sure is that improvement in quality coincided with increase in quantity.

My recommendation to any church is: If you don’t seem to be increasing quantitative numbers, then change your tack and work on improving the numbers that relate to quality. If you want to know more, contact me.

What is Reality?

The wife of a missionary couple serving in PNG became ill and was treated for malaria – given quinine. She did not respond to the treatment as expected and was taken to a clinic where the medical resources were somewhat better than the local situation. It was discovered she was suffering from bronchitis! She did not have malaria – which she was being treated for – and the quinine was slowly killing her. It was the wrong treatment for what was ailing her. Could it be this is happening in some of our churches? They are being treated for an illness which they do not have; the treatment is not improving them and, in some cases is making them even sicker. We need to be sure the measures we are taking to improve our churches are the measures they really do need at this point in their life.

If you have been lost in an unfamiliar city (without a map or a GPS), but have managed to make phone contact with one who knows their way round, they will always ask one question: ‘Where are you now?’ Until they know where we are, they cannot tell us how to get where we want to go.

One of the axioms Bill Hybels advocates is Facts are your Friends. In his book, Axiom, he tells about a pastor who didn’t like the ‘facts’ and, partway through a planning session, asked Bill to leave. Jim Collins (Good to Great) discovered that a characteristic of leaders who took their companies from Good to Great was they faced the truth. He says, “All good-to-great companies began the process of finding a path to greatness by confronting the brutal facts of their current reality.” Max DePree said the task of a leader is to define reality. Whatever field we are operating in, we need to know exactly where we are before we can get to where we want to go.

The Natural Church Development church heath assessment can help church leaders discover the facts of their current reality in order to know where they are starting from.

If you want to know more about Natural Church Development please contact me.

NCD: A Common Denominator

There was a time when going to church was a bit like going to MacDonald’s; that is, you could predict what the experience would be like.

Not anymore.

Very few churches are the same today, even when they are from the same denomination (stream) and have the same label.

One reason for this is that church hierarchy have encouraged their pastors to shape the local church to fit the community where that church is located. The idea seems to make sense, but there is one very large hitch. Pastors, like all human beings, do not come without bias. They are not able to shape anything without putting their own personal stamp on it. Even our perception of God is biased! When a pastor seeks to fit the church to the community, (s)he also unintentionally (or intentionally) shapes the church to fit him- or her-self.

Another reason the worship experience from church to church is so different these days, could be that many of them have removed denominational labels and named themselves simply ‘Anytown’ Community Church.

Local churches are becoming more individualistic (the truth is, like siblings, they always have been different – unique – even when they looked similar), looking different from one another. Comparing churches these days is like comparing apples and oranges; they appear to be so different.

Is there any way we can find common ground between churches that appear so different?

Yes, there is a way.

A church leader I know who had responsibility for the oversight of some twenty churches in his denomination, decided to invite them all to complete a Natural Church Development church health assessment. The great value for him was that in each church’s regular review he now had a measure that was common to them all no matter the size of the church; no matter how many (or how few) programs the church was running; no matter what leaders and/or pastors said about their church; no matter what kind of worship team, or music (even untuneful – make a joyful noise) or other components of the worship experience.

Natural Church Development (NCD) takes us to bedrock, to what is essential in any church.

·       Empowering Leadership

·       Gift-based Ministry

·       Passionate Spirituality

·       Effective Structures

·       Inspiring Worship Service

·       Holistic Small Groups

·       Need-oriented Evangelism

·       Loving Relationships

These are like the vital organs of a human being; it is difficult to go on living if someone removes one of our vital organs. And a group could scarcely be a church if any one of these is missing.

The good news for our leader who asked his church to complete the health assessment was they all registered a score in all eight qualities. The not so good news was that some were quite low. But that’s another story.

Change and Natural Church Development

The church is just over twenty years old. It’s a suburban church. It was planted with the intention of providing a worship experience that would appeal to the unchurched of the suburb. One might suppose that would be the purpose of every church, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The pastors – a married couple – and their team worked well together. The church was established and built around the gifting of the pastors. It reached a peak attendance of just over 250 in the Sunday morning service.

Since the founding pastors moved on eight years ago, there have been three changes of pastor couples (with another taking up the challenge early 2017).

The last two sets of pastor were there for three years each – the last six years. And it was six years ago the church decided to engage with the Natural Church Development health assessment. They were somewhat disappointed to get this result:

Taken by itself, this is an encouraging result. But this church and the pastors were disappointed. They were especially disappointed because the church had a reputation for great worship. They were also disappointed because the pastor’s previous church had been healthier.

Five years, five surveys and a change of pastors, and all their efforts, and not much else has changed (although the level of frustration has risen!).

All six surveys have shown the same pattern – Minimum Factor: Inspiring Worship Service. Maximum Factor: Holistic Small Groups. Visitors to this church love the worship; why have the most influential lay people responded to the NCD health test so that it consistently showed this result?

At the beginning this church demonstrated so much promise.

What might be the trouble?

The NCD Process: Commitment

Why do church leaders do one or two or even more church health surveys, and then quit?

Why do they not commit to the process, and follow through to becoming a healthy church?

Perhaps the answer is hinted at, in part, in the front page of the NCD Story Guide (see picture):Story Guide

Notice how the results are set out. There is a column with common church Themes and another showing a list of the eight Quality Characteristics, in a different order than we may be accustomed to seeing them. Both of these columns run from strongest to weakest. The bold line in the centre has the caption at the top, ‘Comes more naturally to us,’ and at the bottom, ‘Comes less naturally to us.’

Changing a church culture in order to address weaknesses (read ‘health issues’) is no easy road. Changing oneself is difficult enough, yet that has to be the place where one begins.

There is no suggestion here that NCD is suggesting that we should ‘play to our weaknesses.’ When we think of ‘teams’ and ‘talents’ and ‘spiritual gifts’ each person must play to their strengths. They should focus on those things that ‘come more naturally’ to them; and the same applies to a church. When it comes to character issues, the fruit of the Spirit, or health, we cannot rely on others to compensate for our deficiency.

If the survey result reveals that a church’s strength (something that comes naturally to the church) is Need-oriented Evangelism, and church leaders are somewhat bemused at the lack of newcomers turning up, perhaps a closer look at those things that ‘come less easily to us’ – the Minimum Factors – might just give a clue. As will be very clear, Need-oriented Evangelism is never going to work as it should in the church represented by the diagram above without real attention being given to Loving Relationships. Jesus made that very clear.

Christian Schwarz (Founder and Director of NCD International) has demonstrated the eight Quality Characteristics to be interdependent. If one is weak, without appropriate attention being given to it, it will drag the others down. The church will continue to limp along (like an unhealthy person going about their business) only a fraction of what it could be, not measuring up to what God has in mind for it.

Perhaps church leaders are not committed to the NCD process of becoming healthy; they did a survey out of curiosity and they are finding the changes required to improve church health are just too difficult for them. So they have decided to ignore the survey result and go back to what they were doing before.

If your church fits into this category, let me encourage you to pick it up again; this time, really commit to the process. Follow through. Of course, if you do that you may have to lead the change that is required. As someone once said, “Be the change you want to see.”

Natural Church Development and Principles

In his Empowerment Diary, entry #127, Christian Schwarz (Founder and Director of NCD International) said: “Today I had an interesting discussion about the question of why we focus so consistently (the person I spoke to called it, “fanatically”) on principles throughout all of our NCD tools (the criticism was, “Not practical enough!”).

The answer is simple:

Principles are valid whether you believe in them or not. They will influence your life, even if you should decide to reject them. They apply regardless of your theological bent, your philosophy of ministry, or your favourite church model. And they even apply should you decide not to utilize them. In other words, whenever we are dealing with provable principles (rather than mere models or inspirational examples), we are on solid ground. Once we have identified the principles (which in our case works in a blend of empirical research and biblical/theological evaluation), the second step is to apply them to complex realities of an individual church – the core of any Mutual Empowerment Process.”

Stephen Covey (7 Habits) says: “I do not agree with the popular success literature that says self-esteem is primarily a matter of mind-set, of attitude – that you can psyche yourself into peace of mind. Peace of mind comes when your life is in harmony with true principles and values and in no other way.”

One such principle (and how they work) is referred to in a paper published at Harvard Business School where Michael C. Jensen, Werner Erhard and Steve Saffron explore the relationship between integrity and performance. Of integrity, they say: “Like the law of gravity, the law (principle) of integrity just is, and if you violate the law of integrity . . . you get hurt just as if you try to violate the law of gravity with no safety device.” (‘Legacy’ James Kerr, page 127)

Integrity is one of the principles that is unchanging and unchangeable. No one can ignore or ‘break’ the integrity principle without being seriously damaged themselves.

And integrity is just one of them!

People may accomplish remarkable things while ignoring these principles, but their work will prove unsustainable in the long run.

Natural Church Development and “Legacy”

This is an appropriate time to recommend a book: “Legacy” by James Kerr. Subtitled, What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life. It’s an appropriate time because we are in the middle of the 2015 World Rugby Cup in England, and the All Blacks are about to play a quarterfinal against France this coming weekend.
Let me select a very few choice pieces:
After the game, while the country is still watching replays and schoolkids lie in bed dreaming of All Black glory, the senior All Blacks are tidying up after themselves. They have had the debrief; now they have picked up brooms and are sweeping the shed. Doing it properly. They have a servant spirit.
Character before Talent:
Wayne Smith (one of the coaches) said: “Talent was irrelevant.” We used certain game stats that determine the player’s character, and that’s what we were after. We picked high work rate, guys that were unselfish and had a sacrificial mindset. It is the identity of the team that matters – not so much what the All Blacks do, but who they are, what they stand for, and why they exist.
Leadership and Empowerment:
The All Blacks have developed a leadership culture. The structure of the working week: The Sunday evening review meetings are facilitated by the coaches, thought significant input comes from the on-field leadership. Then over the course of the week, you see a gradual handing over of responsibility and decision-making. By Thursday, the priorities, intensity levels and other aspects are all ‘owned’ by the players. By the time they play on Saturday the players have taken over the asylum. Graham Henry (head coach at the time) says that enabling his players to take charge of their own environment is, of all his achievements in rugby, the thing of which he is most proud.
What would the church look like if pastors operated this way?
If you are able to make the connection, this is a great book on discipleship and leadership. It fits very well into the principles of Natural Church Development. I do not hesitate to recommend it.