Chapter 4: Reference Frames for Using Metrics for Mission and Planning

Employing numerical measures as an aid towards the goals of Christian mission is not a new phenomenon or practice.  This chapter examines some of the more prominent schemes which have actively engaged metrics, of various kinds, to inform and guide the development of their strategy and direction. 

The Church Growth Movement

If there is one particular area of ecclesial development which has been more closely associated with the use of numbers and data than others, then it is surely that which became known as the Church Growth Movement.  To help understand and assess the place and value of quantitative data within this area, it is key to understand its origins and the motivation behind it, the philosophy and theology it employs, as well as the practical tools which it commended for use by church leaders.  To simply look at the various numerical tools in isolation from the overall scheme, may lead to misunderstanding and misjudgements.

Church growth, as a distinct system for helping the Christian church and local congregations be more effective in mission, is credited to the work and the enthusiasm of Donald A. McGavran.  McGavran was a missionary, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, determined to fulfil the Gospel imperative to go and make Christian disciples,

it became clear to me that God was calling me to be a missionary, that he was commanding me to carry out the Great Commission….that decision lies at the root of the church-growth movement (D. A. McGavran, 1986, p. 53). 

McGavran was opposed to what he saw as a sea change in the core philosophy of mission arising from the works of William Ernest Hocking (Hocking, 1932) and H. Richard Niebuhr, which saw a primary focus on a social gospel. 

Hocking’s view within the Re-thinking Mission report gave a clear expression of this new emphasis,

We believe that the time has come to set the educational and other philanthropic aspects of mission work free from organised responsibility to the work of conscious and direct evangelism.  We must work with greater faith in invisible successes, be willing to give largely without any preaching, to cooperate whole-heartedly with non-Christian agencies for social improvement (Hocking 1932). 

McGavran stood apart from this method and although he viewed social action by way of education programmes, improvements in living conditions and political change as by no means bad, he did not view mission in the same way.

It was not that he saw these activities are unnecessary, on the contrary, they provided means towards leading men and women into discipleship. What McGavran objected to was a perception that this new approach was becoming the raison d’etre of Christian mission, a perception which found support as he read the preparatory document of the 4th World Council of Churches assembly due to be held in Uppsala in 1968 – a situation which McGavran considered unbiblical.

Instead of seeking to disciple panta ta ethne, winning them to Christian faith, and multiplying churches among them, the effort would be to spread brotherhood, peace and justice among all people regardless of what religion or ideology they espoused (D. A. McGavran, 1986, p. 54).

In 1955, McGavran set out his own approach in the book Bridges of God which has been termed the ‘Magna Carta’ of the Church Growth Movement (Wagner, Arn, & Towns, 1986, p. 22).

McGavran had been stimulated by his own experience of mission and by the research writings of J. Wascom Pickett and Roland Allen considering how churches grow.  His own extensive research in India and Asia generally, convinced him that effective Christian mission was best served through the operation of what he termed ‘people movements’ (D. A. McGavran, 2005, p. 26).  This approach was contrasted against the ‘mission station approach’ in which the church focused its available energies in the creation of an enterprise which evidenced limited growth through a philosophy of local social action and individualistic Christian conversion.  

For McGavran, the aim of mission was the growth of the church (Donald Anderson McGavran, 1955, p. 107).  He held that effective mission could be measured, at least in part, by numerical increase in the local church. Since ‘responsible church membership’ (Wagner, 1985) was set as the ‘fruit’ or ‘validating criterion for discipleship’.

From the outset, McGavran understood that an emphasis on numerical measures would raise objections and arguments concerning quantity versus quality.  However, he is forthright in how he views this argument

Some people question any emphasis on numbers….no numbers of redeemed persons are ever ‘mere numbers’… We consider any disparagement of ‘numbers’ of converts ridiculous and do not believe that on second thoughts many would advance the objection (D. A. McGavran, 2005, p. 97).

The Church Growth Movement has always struggled to distance itself from the simplistic interpretation that its only concern lay in numerical increase.  McGavran, Wagner and others considered this to be a vital indicator of overall health, which would normally (though not exclusively) indicate such a condition. 

 We who are in the field of church growth too frequently hear the criticism that we are ‘playing the numbers game’. Or that we stress quantity to the detriment of quality.  This is unfair, because church-growth leaders consistently declare that their intension is to build the Body of Christ in its full biblical sensewe know that church health is of vital importance to church growth.  Churches grow because they are healthy.  When churches are healthy they grow (Wagner, 1985, p. 12).

Alister McGrath, like many observers, considers much of what is presented as ‘Church Growth’ ‘disturbing’ since it appears that ‘Spirituality became a matter of playing the numbers game.’ (McGrath, 2002, p. 53).

Whatever was claimed by the proponents of the Church Growth Movement, it has always been difficult to shake off this accusation, given that many of the resources produced to help churches towards a local Church Growth strategy, attempt to utilise tools derived from research dealing with statistics, surveys or polls.  Counting, in one form or another, has always been important, not for the numbers themselves but for what they represent – people.  In particular, McGavran was interested in helping ‘lost people’ come to a saving knowledge of Jesus.

To be sure, no one was ever saved by statistics; but then, no patient was ever cured by the thermometer to which the physician pays such close attention Similarly, the facts of growth will not in themselves lead anyone to Christ.  But they can be of marked value to any church that desires to know where, when and how to carry on its work so that maximum increase of soundly Christian church will result (D. A. McGavran, 1990, p. 67).

It was recognised that quality was as important as quantity, albeit more difficult to measure and identify.

Quantity is not enough without corresponding quality.  But quality is not self-explanatory (Wagner, 1985, p. 24) 

Peters likewise cautioned using simple quantitative measures for assessment, 

Quantitative growth, however, can be deceptive.  It may be no more than the mushrooming of a mechanically induced, psychological or social movement, a numerical count, an agglomeration of individuals or groups, an increase of a body without the development of muscle and vital organs (Peters, 1981, p. 23).

It, therefore, became important that the ‘quality factors’ for church growth were identified.  Peter Wagner together with Richard Gorsuch of Fuller University, attempted to draw up a list of such factors which are presented below in order of importance (Wagner, 1985, p. 25ff). [1]

1          Bible knowledge

2          Personal devotions

3          Worship

4          Witnessing

5          Lay ministry

6          Missions

7          Giving

8          Fellowship

9          Distinctive life-style

10      Attitude towards religion

11      Social service

12      Social justice 

Wagner acknowledged that if this list was to be useful, it would require work on validation and application methodology.  A mechanism for measuring spiritual quality was produced by Fred Smith in his PhD Thesis, which acknowledged its role in completing the work begun by Wagner and Gorsuch (F. H. Smith, 1985, p. 71).  The Spiritual Life Survey (SLS) was the practical result of the study.  Smith suggests that further research would need to be undertaken to identify whether the quality growth identified via SLS is directly correlated to quantity growth in a particular church (F. H. Smith, 1985, p. 193).

Church Growth Developments

Various lists of supposed important characteristics for church health and/or church growth have been presented by a wide variety of church leaders, each proposing to define the ‘essential’ or basic activities and/or attitudes which would lead a church towards greater health and/or growth.  For example, George Peters gives consideration to qualities apparent in the early New Testament church and derives from his study a list which he considers essential qualities for ‘fitness’ (Peters, 1981, p. 139).  Stephen A. Macchia claims to have extensively researched growing churches and this, allied to information derived from a series of surveys of church leaders, arrived at a set of ten Characteristics of a healthy church (Macchia, 2003).  Mark Dever looked more directly at biblical teaching to arrive at his own Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Dever & Harris, 2004).  Neither Dever nor Macchia claim their list to be exhaustive and indeed this is something noted from amongst the various publications -there does not appear to be a critical list of attributes which are agreed by all.[2]

It is clear that for some writers, their list of ‘essential’ activities to stimulate church growth is derived from their own experience within a bounded cultural and ecclesiastical context and may or may not have external relevance (although many obviously believe it is the case).  In fact, the historical development of the Church Growth Movement saw a distinction emerge between what might be termed ‘Classical Church Growth’ and ‘Popular Church Growth’ (McIntosh, 2010),the latter often moving beyond the basic principles set out by Donald McGavran and sometimes specifically rejecting particular elements of his work.  A difficulty emerging over time is that not everything given the title ‘Church Growth’ would be acceptable to all those within the Movement.

Criticisms of the Church Growth Movement

Some criticisms levelled against the Church Growth Movement have already been encountered, in particular, that it is over-concerned with numbers and values, quantity over quality.   Already noted in the formation of the movement by Donald McGavran is that it arose partly as a reaction against the ‘Social Gospel’ movement in mission.  It might, therefore, come as little surprise that some critics have been unhappy about the priority given to evangelism over ministry.  Leslie Newbigin concedes that the Church Growth school of missiology 

contains important elements of truth (Newbigin, 1995, p. 124).  

However, he remained unconvinced about the role or meaning given to numbers as a way of assessing or monitoring the ‘success’ of a church (Newbigin, 1995, p. 140).  Robin Gill suggests that Newbigin’s objections are, however, ‘more moral than theological’ (R. Gill, 1988, p. 76).  His view is that there are methods which a church in decline may usefully employ and points toward the value of functional membership, population statistics and other empirical data to inform mission and strategy (R. Gill, 1988, p. 81).

Three additional common criticisms might be added; firstly, that of pragmatism, secondly a concern for the possible uses of manipulative strategies and thirdly, a dislike for the ‘homogeneous unit principle’.


A key principle operational within the Church Growth Movement is neatly expressed in the phrase, 


if it is not unbiblical, and if it contributes to the growth of the church, then do it (Rainer, 1993, p. 30)

This kind of permission-giving to engage in a wide range of activities, though echoing the sentiment expressed by the apostle Paul 

I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22 New International Version, 1984).

has often been seen as a dangerous route to travel.  The issue for many Evangelicals centres around the role of the Bible in the determination of church activity and ministry methods.  While the Church Growth Movement might argue that if it is not disapproved of in the Bible, it may be acceptable; more fundamentalist voices want to contest that, to be legitimate, the Bible needs to give more explicit approval.

Pragmatism also allows scope for creative cultural engagement.  This is evident in the desire of some churches to be ‘user friendly’ or ‘seeker friendly’, an obvious example being Willow Creek community church which began with the idea of 

a weekly seeker service that would provide a safe and informative place where unchurched people could come to investigate Christianity further (Hybels & Hybels, 1995, p. 41)

This congregation, though highly successful in terms of numerical growth, is continually criticised for its desire to be culturally relevant, which affects how the church looks and feels and what kind of service and content is offered.


In an effort to find effective tools for mission, George Barna and others found the insights provided by the strategic use of marketing techniques helpful.  In publishing his first book on church marketing, Barna was denounced by many church leaders, and for many, his book was ‘scandalous’.   He became 

a persona non grata in many places  (Barna, 1992, p. 13).

In essence, the use of ‘business’ approaches in the realm of church and ministry endeavour has often been viewed suspiciously, given the aim of business is to sell a product or a service with the result of generating profit.  This seemingly unspiritual and worldly backdrop does not sit well with many critics, who are also suspicious that marketing techniques may involve forms of psychological manipulation.

The mission and ministry potential of marketing is easily seen in the definition of marketing provided by Stevens and Louden, 

Church/Ministry Marketing is the analysis, planning and management of voluntary exchanges between a church or ministry and its constituents for the purpose of satisfying the needs of both parties.  It concentrates on the analysis of constituents’ needs, developing programs to meet those needs, providing these programs at the right time and place, communicating effectively with constituents, and attracting the resources needed to underwrite the activities of the organisation (Stevens & Loudon, 1992, p. 4).

Churches are naturally involved in marketing, using a variety of methods, though they will often prefer to use terminology which is less commercial and controversial.[3]

Homogeneous unit principle

Bill Easum, a noted advocate of many aspects of Church Growth, commenting on the homogeneous principle said that it

destroyed much of the integrity of church growth.  It does not reflect the diversity of biblical faith or the richness of American culture (Easum, 1996, p. 30).  

The principle itself is, of course, sociologically descriptive, highlighting a common feature in human behaviour, namely that 

People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers (D. A. McGavran, 1990, p. 163).

McClintock sees in McGavran’s principle an example of poor sociological understanding

From a sociologist's viewpoint, it is difficult to regard the sociological content of McGavran's missiology with respect. The inherent weaknesses in his sociology that have been identified in this paper are so fundamental that they undermine his whole missiological approach (McClintock, 1988).

Wagner was a strong advocate of the principle and saw it not only as a pragmatic approach to mission work but also one which was morally important

When the Gospel moves cross-culturally, it is unloving to require the people of the second culture to adopt the behaviour patterns or the language or the socioeconomic level of the preachers or missionaries on order to become Christians.  They should not even be required to come halfway – they should be encouraged to become Christians right where they are (Wagner, 1978, p. 13).

Critics see in this principle at least two major issues, firstly the call upon Christians to be ‘counter cultural’ appears to be challenged if Christians are not required to renounce at least some aspects of their cultural background.  Secondly, in attempting to plant churches using this principle, there is a fear that it would create segregated congregations, hence the concern of Easum to have churches containing a diversity of people groups and ages.

To suggest that McGavran desires segregated Christian communities, or that he sees the Gospel as less than counter-cultural, is to misunderstand him.  McGavran’s view was that whilst the ‘perfecting’ processes in discipling are necessary, as a secondary stage, the first task is to lead men and women to conversion, which must be arrived at without having to cross human barriers (D. A. McGavran, 1990, p. 168).   Peter Wagner, who took over as the leader of the Church Growth Movement, sought to gain academic credibility and approval for the homogeneous principle through the production of a PhD thesis on the subject (Wagner, 1978).

Church Health

There have been many detractors from the outworking of the Church Growth Movement.  The emphasis on numerical growth being a particular area of dispute seems to have led on to a reframing of ‘growth’, now, not in terms of numbers, but in relation to a concept of ‘health’.  Indeed, even the leading advocates of the Church Growth Movement, including Peter Wagner, undertook this shift of presentation, writing books on what might constitute ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ churches (Wagner, 1976, 1979, 1985, 1986; Wagner & British Church Growth, 1988).   

Wagner makes frequent use of health metaphors as he looks towards the creation of church growth strategies.

Lack of church growth is a serious disease, but in most cases it is a curable one  (Wagner, 1976, p. 41).

healthy churches, like healthy people, exhibit certain vital signs.  If the Church is the body of Christ, then there is some biblical justification in taking a rather clinical approach to analysing the health of a church (Wagner, 1976, p. 32).

Wagner proposes seven vital signs of a healthy church

1.      A pastor who is possibility thinker and whose dynamic leadership has been used to catalyse the entire church into action for growth.

2.      A well-mobilized laity which has discovered, has developed, and is using all the spiritual gifts for growth.

3.      A church big enough to provide the range of services which meet the needs and expectation of its members.

4.      The proper balance of the dynamic relationship between celebration, congregation and cell.

5.      A membership drawn primarily from one homogeneous unit.

6.      Evangelistic methods that have proved to make disciples.

7.      Priorities arranged in biblical order.

Wagner went on to write extensively about these signs, though he is most noted for the emphasis placed on the role of leaders and the use of spiritual gifts in church development and health.  Many publications have followed Wagner’s lead to continue with this new presentation (Dever & Harris, 2004; R. Warren & Warren, 1995).

Some approaches to Church Growth or Church health have drawn up their own particular lists of critical factors, some of which have become popular and therefore significant within the UK context.  These include the seven signs of a healthy church as proposed by Peter Wagner and assessed in the UK by Paul Beasley Murray and Alan Wilkinson (Beasley-Murray & Wilkinson, 1981). The seven ‘marks’ of a healthy church as proposed by Robert Warren and presented in his book The Healthy Churches’ Handbook  (Robert Warren, 2004).  The eight quality characteristics as suggested by Christian Schwarz arising from his international research related to church health and administered in the UK via Healthy Church UK.  The five purposes arising from Rick Warren’s writings on The Purpose Driven Church (R. Warren & Warren, 1995) and in Scotland the Church of Scotland report entitled Church without Walls offering their own ‘marks of a healthy church shaped by Jesus’ (Church of Scotland, 2001).

Turning the Tide

Paul Beasley-Murray, as minister of Altrincham Baptist Church, became interested in the thinking and methodology of the Church Growth Movement and in particular the Seven Vital Signs as proposed by Peter Wagner.  In 1977 Beasley-Murray was keen to examine whether the insights gained in the USA could be useful in the UK context and developed a survey which was conducted with a sample of UK Baptist Churches.  The results are reported in the book co-authored by Alan Wilkinson called Turning the Tide (Beasley-Murray & Wilkinson, 1981).

Beasley-Murray believes that the results support Wagner’s proposition that ‘dynamic leadership’ is a key component for growth although he goes on to suggest 

it is perhaps more important that he should have a willingness or ability to delegate or share his responsibilities with the members of the fellowship (Beasley-Murray & Wilkinson, 1981, p. 38). 

The dynamic of a visionary leader with a committed and active membership, is one Beasley-Murray endorses, although there seems to be little attempt in the survey to assess whether active lay involvement is related to ideas of spiritual gifting which, for Wagner, would be an important consideration.

The findings from the survey did not give any support to Wagner’s third vital sign in that no direct correlation could be found between the number of church activities and rates of conversion (Beasley-Murray & Wilkinson, 1981, p. 42).  The fourth vital sign relating to cell, congregation and celebration dimensions of church activity was another area that Beasley-Murray had some difficulty relating directly to the UK context.  Looking at the size of different church activities, Beasley-Murray concluded that, 

as the percentage of cell activity increases in the total programme, so does the probability that a church is a growing one (Beasley-Murray & Wilkinson, 1981, p. 46).   

An examination of the survey data for evidence to support Wagner’s fifth vital sign, the Homogeneous Unit Principle, was unsuccessful.  Beasley-Murray saw no indication that the surveyed congregations were drawn primarily from one ethnic, cultural or one sociological group  (Beasley-Murray & Wilkinson, 1981, p. 47).

Beasley-Murray is much more confident in Wagner’s sixth vital sign being supported by the evidence he collected; for example, he said, 

It came as no surprise to find that the more evangelistic activities undertaken by a church, the greater is the probability that the church is growing (Beasley-Murray & Wilkinson, 1981, p. 48)


However, he comments he is not convinced that it is the programmes themselves which generate the results but rather ‘faith, expectancy and commitment’ and ‘love and witness’ of the people (Beasley-Murray & Wilkinson, 1981, p. 50).

The final vital sign of Wagner’s list argues for a priority of evangelical activity over social work or social action.  In Turning the Tide, Beasley-Murray validates this sign by noting that churches which placed outreach activities as a high priority, had a ‘strong bias towards growth’ whereas those who placed community focused activities high ‘had a definite bias towards non-growth’ (Beasley-Murray & Wilkinson, 1981, p. 51)

In addition to Wagner’s seven signs, Beasley-Murray notes an important characteristic of growing churches to be that of faith.  He says, 

Growing churches seem to be those, predominantly, that are expecting great things from God and have that conviction underlying all their activity’ (Beasley-Murray & Wilkinson, 1981, p. 75).

Disease - Wagner

The model of health active for Wagner was clearly based on a biomedical understanding that, for health to be present, possible church ‘disease’ would need to be absent.  In his book Your Church can be Healthy, Wagner sets out eight ‘diseases’ which he said 

…are maladies which occur in churches with significant frequency (Wagner, 1979, p. 15). 

The first two church diseases listed by Wagner, ‘Ethnikitis’ and ‘Old Age’ he characterizes as ‘terminal illnesses’ (Wagner, 1979, p. 28) both being ‘local contextual factors’ and so outside the direct control of the church.  The others, albeit serious, he suggests are recoverable because they have an institutional dynamic which can be altered.[4]  

In putting forward the imagery of disease in the body of Christ, Wagner created stimuli encouraging others to give consideration to this metaphor and to expand upon it.  Dr Hollis Green, a student of the Church Growth Movement, presented his views on the necessary requirements for church health in the provocatively named book, Why Churches Die (Green, 2007), as he identifies some thirty-five reasons that might lead in that direction.  Donald McGavran in the foreword commends this work for use by American churches.

Mac Brunson and Ergun Caner in their book Why Churches Die – diagnosing lethal poisons in the Body of Christ similarly draw up a list of twelve of what they consider to be the most 

debilitating diseases in the body of Christ… an autopsy of churches that have died and a biopsy of churches that are seriously ill (Brunson & Caner, 2005, p. 5).

Of course, in order to diagnose ‘disease’, tests would be required.  Charles L.Chaney and Ron S Lewis in Design for Church Growth (Chaney & Lewis, 1977) in a chapter entitled ‘How to diagnose the growth health of your church’  suggest a battery of six ‘tests’:


1      The numbers test (membership Statistics)

2      The percentage test (rates of growth/ decline)

3      The body count tests (types of growth)

4      The geographical test (local opportunities)

5      The leadership test (numbers involved in active ministry)

6      The time use test (priority audit) 

The tests proposed focus primarily on quantifiable indicators and measurements and generally do not address issues relating to the qualitative aspects of being church and any relationship they may have to overall church health.

Christian Schwarz - Eight Quality Characteristics

How to measure ‘quality’ was also a concern of Christian Schwarz.  Schwarz received part of his theological training at Fuller Theological Seminary where he was exposed to the theories of the Church Growth Movement.   In order to inform his own thinking about church growth and possible quality indicators involved in church growth, Schwarz initiated a major research project which initially involved over one thousand churches in thirty-two different countries. Each congregation was asked to complete a number of questionnaires, the aim of which was to attempt to determine universally valid quality indicators for growing churches.  

Schwarz engaged the assistance of Christoph Schalk, who acted as scientific and statistical advisor.  Schalk studied Organizational Psychology and Theology at Wuerzburg.  His areas of study included organizational diagnosis and organizational development.

On the basis of the study, Schwarz makes the following statement, 

To my knowledge, our research provides the first worldwide scientifically verifiable answer to the question, ‘What church growth principles are true, regardless of culture and theological persuasion?’ (C. A. Schwarz, 1996).

On the basis of a scientific analysis of the evidence collected, Schwarz proposed a new approach to church growth.  His findings are presented in a number of publications, most notably, Natural Church Development Handbook (1996) with practical advice in the further volume Natural Church Development Implementation Manual (C. Schwarz & Schalk, 1998) and a theological underpinning in Paradigm Shift – How Natural Church Development can transform theological thinking (C. A. Schwarz, 1999).  A number of further publications have expanded and clarified his original works.

Key to his findings is a set of eight ‘Quality Characteristics’.

1           Empowering leadership

2           Gift-based ministry

3           Passionate spirituality

4           Effective Structures

5           Inspiring Worship Services

6           Holistic small groups

7           Need-orientated evangelism

8           Loving relationships 

These characteristics, allied to a process of implementation which includes a ‘minimum strategy’ and utilisation of what Schwarz terms ‘growth forces’, provide a health development model for churches.  A key factor within Natural Church Development (NCD) is the belief that growth will happen when potential barriers to growth are removed.  Schwarz calls this the ‘all by itself’ principle (Schwarz 2006: 14) or ‘pneumatic functionality’ (Schwarz 1999, p74).

The model indicated by Schwarz is that of the church as a living organism.  He explains: 

The natural approach follows entirely different laws; it is the logic of life versus the logic of machines.  Regretfully, much of church growth literature in recent years comes closer in its thinking to the ‘robot’ model then to the ‘organism’ approach (Schwarz 2006, p:66).

A key concern in the thinking of Schwarz is related to what he terms ‘functionality’ which are those activities and attributes useful for the proper working of the church which enables it to grow and develop appropriately.  His thinking is stated in this manner, 

The criterion for all churches should be whether faith, fellowship and service become a reality; whether God becomes manifest in them; whether the Holy Spirit works in them; whether their many forms and structures are such that love is facilitated and encouraged.  In other words, the criterion for every institution should be how useful it is for building up the body of Christ.  To the extent that it fulfils this criterion, it is a ‘true church’ (Schwarz 1999, p73).

Health is achieved when there is a creative cycle achieved between what Schwarz calls the ‘dynamic pole’ (organism) and the ‘static pole’ (organisation) of church (Schwarz 1999, p16f).  When such a cycle is not present or is limited to some degree, the NCD process is offered as a mechanism to examine the extent of present functionality and to highlight those areas of church life that require development.

In the UK, administration of NCD material is administered by the national partner, Healthy Church UK, which was the successor to the British Church Growth Association.

Over the period 1997 to 2010, Healthy Church UK collected 1,054 NCD church surveys, of which 56 surveys relate to 34 unique Church of Scotland congregations,[5] some congregations having undergone multiple surveys.  The survey is intended to provide an initial diagnostic tool, the results of which the church is expected to use for church development and movement towards greater health.  

The Healthy Churches Handbook

Canon Robert Warren had been involved in a variety of initiatives commissioned by the Church of England to investigate how to help churches develop missionally and to grow as a result.  In the course of his work, Warren identified a number of attributes or values which he noted as common to ‘Healthy Churches’ and became interested in examining these factors.   In the book The Healthy Churches Handbook Warren sets out, ‘the fruit of over ten years of research and reflection’ (Robert Warren, 2004, p. 1).  This he codified in his seven marks of a healthy church (Warren 2004, p47f),

1.     Energized by faith

2.     Outward-looking focus

3.     Seeks to find out what God wants

4.     Faces the cost of change and growth

5.     Operates as a community

6.     Makes room for all

7.     Does a few things and does them well 

Warren became aware of NCD after the development of his own seven marks of a healthy church and he views the insights of NCD not in opposition but as complementary to his insight.  The key difference, as he sees it, is that 

the marks of a healthy church identified here are expressed in terms of values, goals and characteristics…whereas in Natural Church Development they are expressed in terms of activities (Warren 2004, p5).

He suggests that his material is more user-friendly being based less around numbers and statistics. It is certainly true that Warren’s scheme has the advantage of having a significantly shorter questionnaire than NCD.  It is, however, based on a narrower statistical base and is much more general in nature.

The Purpose Driven Church – Rick Warren

Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church, sets the scene in saying,

The problem with many churches is that they begin with the wrong question.  They ask, ‘What will make our church grow?’  …The question we need to ask instead is, ‘What is keeping our church from growing?’ (Warren 1995:15) 

He goes on to explain

I believe the key issue for churches in the twenty-first century will be church health, not church growth (Warren 1995, p17).

The Purpose Driven Church outlines five key activities which Warren suggests ought to be adopted by churches seeking to establish greater health,

1    Warmer through fellowship

2    Deeper through discipleship

3    Stronger through worship

4    Broader through ministry

5    Larger through evangelism

Whilst Saddleback church is based in the USA, its influence is noted in the UK through the operation of Purpose Driven Ministries UK (2015) which promotes and retails the purpose driven materials – often with UK adaptation.  The launch in 2011 of a UK version of the Purpose Driven Church Manual, highlights the UK presence of this programme.

Rick Warren and the Purpose Driven ministries do not set out to identify specific disease or problem but to create systems and structures which they believe to be based on the twin biblical themes of ‘The Great Commandment’ and the ‘Great Commission’.

The UK

Prompted by the Lausanne Congress of 1974, conversations took place in the UK between those committed to church growth.  This led to the formation of the British Church Growth Association (BCGA) in 1981.  This was supported by the Bible Society and the Evangelical Alliance both of whom produced church growth materials and publications.

Dr Roy Pointer, in presenting Church growth thinking, looked to the insights of Dr Orlando Costas to argue that church growth should be holistic and encompass four key growth dimensions (Pointer, 1987, p. 6).

1.    Growing up to maturity – conceptual growth

2.    Growing together in community – organic growth

3.    Growing out in service and evangelism – incarnational growth

4.    Growing more in numbers – numerical growth


Philip Walker, formerly director of the British Church Growth Association, argued that in the UK many found the terminology of ‘growth’ difficult, particularly at a time when churches were evidently in numerical decline.  With this backdrop, BCGA became Healthy Church UK, an international partner of NCD International.  Walker explained, 

It is time to change, develop and move into a new millennium.  For there is a new paradigm arising: health before growth... (Walker, 2004, p. 8).

Church Without Walls Report (CWW)

In 1999, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, seeking to address questions surrounding the future shape and function of the national church, set up the Special Commission anent Review and Reform.  The task given to the group was 

to re-examine in depth the primary purposes of the church and the shape of the Church of Scotland as we enter into the next Millennium; to formulate proposals for a process of continuing reform; to consult on such matters with other Scottish Churches; and to report to the General Assembly of 2001 (Church of Scotland 2001, p8).

The resulting report entitled A Church Without Walls set the context for more than a decade of ecclesiastical effort, aimed towards the creation of a renewed denomination through multifaceted change, designed to effect positive change in both central and local aspects of the Church of Scotland.  Subsequent reports and deliverances brought to successive annual General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland helped realise a number of structural changes.  

One key focus for the work of the Special Commission and then the later Panel on Review and Reform was to help stimulate the mission of local congregations around Scotland – partly through study of the CWW report.  The report utilises within its proposals, a number of traditional church growth strategies, such as Wagner’s threefold church structure of cell, congregation and celebration as well as suggesting a variety of audit tools to assess effective worship and outreach (Church of Scotland 2001, p75).

Contained within the report in Appendix 3 (2001, p50f) is a list of characteristics which are claimed go towards the creation of ‘A Healthy Church’. Six headings, ‘Integrity’, ‘Body and Soul’, ‘Open House’, ‘Growth’, ‘Local’ and ‘Love and Care’ are given together with a descriptive commentary.  There is no indication in the report how these six characteristics were chosen or any supporting evidence to justify inclusion within in the report.

The CWW report was, however, intended to be the starting point for refocusing on key priorities and the desired renewal within the Church of Scotland.  The various deliverances approved by the General Assembly of 2001, passed responsibility to study and/or implement various parts of the report to Ministers, Kirk Session, Boards and Committees of the church and future Kirk Sessions as appropriate (Church of Scotland 2001, p75ff).  What is clear is that whilst ‘growth’ was a desire indicated by the reports’ authors, growth in terms of membership numbers (nor indeed the slowing of decline) has not been evident.


Measuring the mission and ministry effectiveness of churches using quantitative indicators has a long-established pedigree with a number of competing paradigms, each purporting to be the definitive tool for aspirational congregations.  There are indeed many supporters of each of the schemes mentioned and each highlight examples of successful implementation.  The common thread through each is that empirical measurement, whether direct (as in the case of the Church Growth Movement) or phenomenological (as in NCD), plays a key role in the testing and assessment processes.


A question faced by each scheme is whether growth is being viewed purely as an exercise primarily in numbers, as proposed by their detractors, or whether the aim is for something else.  As has been amply highlighted, the argument linked to each scheme is that quantity is directly related to some element or dimension of quality within church activity.  Furthermore, there is assumed to be some direct correlation between biblical faithfulness and the blessing of God demonstrated in evidence of fruitfulness.  How clear and how far these relationships and correlations exist, is a matter of some debate and certainly, there is an argument that fruitfulness may not always be directly evidenced within a particular time period or geography following faithful work done.

The ongoing missiological debates concerning the strategic role of pragmatic approaches have undoubtedly shaped both the thinking and the practice of Church of Scotland ministers. In the next two chapters, I will survey those practices and views to determine both if and how ministers, and other church leaders, use and respond to empirical information.

Chapter 5

[1] According to Smith an alternate ranking order was originally produced when the various factors were presented to conference attendees by Wagner (F. H. Smith, 1985).

[2] A useful collection of lists of healthy church characteristics from various authors can be found in Reeves (Reeves & Jenson, 1984).

[3] Marketing in a general sense involves the promotion of a business and its services through advertising and other methods, something which churches may refer to as outreach, evangelism, mission, communications or some alternate term.

[4]  The other church ‘diseases’ were termed, ‘People-blindness’, ‘Hyper-Cooperativism’, ‘Koinonitis’, ‘Sociological Strangulation’, ‘Arrested spiritual development’ and ‘St.John’s Syndrome’ (Wagner, 1979).

[5] Excel spreadsheet of scores provided by Dr Philip Walker, Healthy Church UK