A Look at Natural Church Development

   The "biotic" principle? Is that post-modern jargon, or something more familiar to the Bionic man?

   And by the way, what's a paradigm? And what possible difference could any of this make
to my understanding of the church, and maybe more importantly, my own journey in discipleship with the Lord?

   These are good questions, and I've asked them myself.

   The term "paradigm" was first popularized by Thomas Kuhn, American historian and philosopher of science. Kuhn was educated at Harvard University and taught at several universities. In 1962 Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which claimed that science doesn't actually progress scientifically! He didn't necessarily make himself popular with this assertion!

   Kuhn argued that the scienctific community is the interpretive basis for science, and that scientists work within a paradigm (set of accepted beliefs), which eventually weakens until new theories and scientific methods replace it. A paradigm is like a model of reality, but it's more than merely a theory. It's closer to an interpretive framework, a set of glasses through which we view the world.

What Color Are Your Glasses?

   For example, until recently Newtonian physics governed the way we view reality. Most of us think in terms of cause and effect. However, when Einstein came along the simple Universe of cause and effect broke down, and probabilities and "relationships" became the standard. Since that time Heisenberg and others and the rising science of Quantum physics have made the predictable world even less predictable.

   The scientific western world view of Newton has a parallel in theology that is walked out practically in many churches. This world view says that miracles don't happen, and looks for natural explanations for apparently supernatural phenomena. In effect, the paradigm is a natural or technological world view. That world view is then imposed on the Scripture and interprets it, instead of allowing the Scripture to interpret experience.

   But it isn't only traditional churches who have blinders on or who are subject to error because they are influenced by a false paradigm. Most of us are influenced by faulty thinking in one way or another. In the fourth section of his book Schwarz lists some examples of technocratic thinking:

  • Once ordained, a pastor is automatically endowed with all spiritual authority for ministry.
  • Celebrate your services in this way, and the Holy Spirit will automatically descend upon your congregation.
  • Use this church growth program, and your church will automatically grow.

   And that's why Schwarz' work is relevant to church life. Schwarz exposes faulty thinking and false paradigms in our churches as well as in the church growth movement. In the process he makes some very helpful discoveries about the way God has designed the church. THAT is an understanding worth pursuing, because if we understand the biotic principles of growth that God has built into the church, we can "catch the wave" and get in on what God is already doing.

Natural Church Development

   There are three paradigms in operation among Christian churches in our day: the technocratic paradigm, the spiritualistic paradigm, and the biotic paradigm. Of these, the first two are far more common. From my own experience I would estimate that more than 90% of Christian churches operate out of one of the first two paradigms. And it becomes even more complex since different leaders in the same congregation may operate out of different paradigms.


   Schwarz argues that the common paradigms are dualist or monistic. The dualist paradigm separates spirit and matter, giving validity only to the spiritual realm. In essence, this is an ancient heresy called "docetism," which itself was a form of gnosticism. Docetists denied the reality of the incarnation, since matter (and flesh) were bad and only spirit was good. Therefore Christ could not really have taken flesh.

   The modern equivalent is seen anytime things get "hyperspiritual." I can hear hints of gnosticism in many sermons and many exhortations on worship or prayer. It will often be felt as a subtle imbalance in emphasis; at other times it is more blatant. "The worship didn't break through and so God didn't show up." "Enough of these meetings to talk about church life; we need to just pray." "Cancer isn't a physical problem, it's spiritual. We'll pray for you so you will be healed."

   The monistic, technocratic paradigm is the opposite of the spiritualistic, meaning that only the institutional church is important. The emphasis is on structures and the effort of man. The result is clericalism, sacramentalism, dogmatism and church growth technology. Technocrats can't see the difference between spiritual gifts and ordination, between attending church and experiencing the living presence of God. Church life is like a vending machine: do this and get this result. It is close to magical thinking, enforced by a security mentality where trust is in the system rather than in the living God.


The Bipolar Paradigm

   Reality is a whole, and "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." In contrast to the dualistic and monistic paradigms, the bipolar paradigm reflects reality as we know it. God has given us pointers to the nature of reality all around us: at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels.

   For example, the atom has both positive and negative charges. Humanity is both male and female. Individually, we are both flesh and spirit. In the incarnation, the Word and the Spirit were one.

   Biologically, the brain has both a right and a left side. The right side seems to be the center of creative thinking, the left side the center of structured thiking. Humans need two eyes in order to perceive depth; a single eye gives only a flat, one dimensional image.

   In the same way, the church is not either an institution or an organism: it is both. The church that God birthed is both static and dynamic: a building of stones, and a living temple. It is a body, and it is God's building.

    In the second image from Schwarz' book, the two poles are in a reciprocal relationship. The dynamic pole always creates organization. The purpose of this organization is to develop further the dynamic pole, just as the skeleton in the human body provides form and enables the body to act in the world.

   The circle represents the work of the Holy Spirit; it is He who causes growth. Where the circle breaks down, the bipolar paradigm has been replaced by one dimensional thinking.

Implications: Wine and Wineskin

   The implications are obvious. We need both spirit and word to build the church. We work in a real world of real human relationships. We need to develop both the horizontal (human and communal) dimension of church life at the same time as we work at the vertical and spiritual (God-ward) dimensions. We need to take seriously both the commandment to love God and the commandment to love our neighbor. The Word really did become flesh and walk among us!

   In this world where flesh and spirit intermingle, a seminar on communication skills is equal in importance to a workshop on intercession. A ministry feeding the hungry is equal in importance to a Bible study.

   From the perspective of renewal, we need both the wine and the wineskin. We need both the fire and the fireplace. We should not fear structures, but rather ensure that they are relevant and effective. Structures must always assist us in building the kingdom, and not hinder us. Gordon Cosby commented that,

   "Of greatest importance is our own attitude…. Do we believe that the people in our congregation are as vital to the life of the Body as we are? Do we give lip service to the concept of the ministry of all believers while being seriously threatened by the reality of it when these ministries begin to emerge?

   "The structures of the church must be geared to implementing this conception. This newness will not emerge because we are eager for it to happen. Nor will it come because we preach on the ministry of all believers. These ministries will emerge when the whole congregation is engaging in its ministry in the world and when the whole structure of the congregational life expresses this intention. When the structures thus express such an aim, a person in his first encounter with the church will sense that the church exists as a servant in the world…." Call to Commitment, Harper and Row, 1963, p.104

   Charles Hummel in Fire in the Fireplace, notes that this problem of the relationship between organization and the life it is meant to nurture plagues all churches. He writes that,

   "Every organism requires some degree of organization to channel its energy and fulfill its mission. So it is natural for the church to develop confessions of faith, services of worship and programs of activity. Imperceptibly, however, the inner life tends to wane even though the outward form persists. Throughout church history the flame in many organizational fireplaces has flickered and died. Though the fireplace was designed initially to foster a blaze, accumulations of soot eventually clogged the flue and smothered the fire. . . .

   "So the rekindlers of the flame are tempted-or sometimes forced-to move their fire out into the middle of the floor. At that point one of two things is likely to happen to it: either the fire rages out of control, or its isolated coals die down for lack of a proper hearth. Samuel Shoemaker was right: the best place for a fire is in the fireplace, even when it calls for cleaning and remodeling."

   We need to view the church through a biotic lens. The church is a living organism, and every living thing is organized on life principles. Living things are constantly in flux, always growing and changing in response to a changing environment. Elizabeth O'Connor comments:

   "We never have expected to hit upon the final structure. This is important for a church to understand, for when it starts to be the church it will constantly be adventuring out into places where there are no tried and tested ways. If the church in our day has few prophetic voices to sound above the noises of the street, perhaps in large part it is because the pioneering spirit has become foreign to us." Call to Commitment, Harper and Row, 1963

Finally, is there a place "Beyond Church Health?"

Lest we think all we need is a better model, Robert Capon has us laughing HERE.

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• © 2005-2007 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated in April, 2007