In our early church planting days, we were hugely impacted by an influential book called 'Natural Church Development' by Christian Schwarz. It was such a fresh voice at the time amongst a raft of church growth books, in that Schwarz majored on qualitative development in church communities, rather than just strategies for numerical growth.
Over the years since, these principles remain valid, although I now prefer to talk about 'Healthy church' and to shy away from any strategies that seek to overquantify growth in percentage terms.
Essentially, church communities who have prayerfully assessed their strengths and weaknesses, aware of their unique culture and context, will begin to engage more fruitfully with the mission that God has for them. This focus on the quality of our life and call together, rather than just a count of numbers attending, is a much more truthful measure of life.
God has given us a model in nature - A healthy plant will simply grow. Give it the right conditions, and the DNA takes over, growth and life comes, up to the measure that is inbuilt within it. So it can be with local churches, rooted in the nurturing soil of God's presence and purpose.
What does this look like in practice? Healthy churches see no tension with the question that so many wrestle with - are we here for the lost or for discipleship? Are we here for mission or for worship? Inward or outward?
A healthy church says a resounding 'Yes' to each of these questions - seeking to find what God uniquely wants for us in our context, facing the necessary change, and going after these few things as a community, but with the intention of living them out excellently and authentically.
A healthy church says 'Yes' to a DNA which naturally embraces both inward and outward ideals without conflict or imbalance. Loving The Lord with all our hearts and loving our neighbours inside and outside of the church community become the the integrating principals.
This is more organic than organised though, shaped around mission, not around ministry. A healthy church prioritises mission, simply doing ministry and one anothering on the journey, we begin to create a community on the move not in a cuddle huddle.
What do such healthy church communities look like in practise? Well, it depends where you are and who you are. But look behind the context and a healthy church should look much more like a Tolkien adventure than an episode of Friends, growing old together and never venturing out of the apartment!