Preparing the Soil: The Importance of Gauging Church Health
As a child growing up in the Midwest, farms surrounded me on all sides. My drive to “town”–be it to go to school or shop for groceries–curved through corn and soybean fields, populated with an occasional farmhouse or cow pasture. Farm life was something to which I was constantly exposed, yet knew very little about.
It wasn’t until I was older and visited my uncle’s soybean farm in Indiana that I began to realize the great task that being a farmer truly was. Early every morning, my uncle and older cousin would leave, spending many long, tiring hours working their fields. They would return home at the end of the day, exhausted and dirty.
Some years, their crops would do well and all of their hard work would pay off. Other years, the summer would be too hot or there would be too much rain throughout the season, and all of their efforts would be for naught. No matter the result of a certain year’s crop, there was always more work to be done.
Being a farmer is hard work. However, my uncle truly loved his work; he felt called to toil in the fields, to get his hands dirty, to work for a bountiful harvest. When someone loves what he or she does and feels called to do it, the work is worth the effort. The reward of a fruitful harvest is worth the blood, sweat, and tears.
Working for the Harvest
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus uses the example of soil to illustrate the way the word of God reaches into people’s lives and hearts (Matt. 13:1–23; Mark 4:1–20; Luke 8:4–15). Just as a seed grows different in different kinds of soil, the Word of God reaches different types of people in different ways.
When a farmer prepares a new field for crops, he doesn’t simply go to his new piece of land and carelessly throw seeds out into the dirt, expecting a harvest in the fall. Instead, he begins by carefully plowing the land to ensure the seeds can fall on soft soil. He will take soil samples to determine what elements are present in the dirt. Once he does that, he will add different supplements into the soil to compensate for what is missing. Only after he is certain the ground is ready does he carefully sow his seeds.
Similarly, throughout the growing season, the farmer does not forget about his crops and simply hope they’ll produce good fruit. He spends hours in the field, checking his seedlings to ensure they are growing well, providing water and fertilization where needed, ridding the field of weeds and pests that might destroy his crops. Producing a good harvest is a lot of work!
Natural Church Development: An Assessment Tool
The same is true of church life. A pastor does not simply go into a church and “sow” the Good News of Jesus without first assessing the type of “soil” upon which he is throwing his “seed.” Just as a farmer evaluates the condition of his soil before he plants, a pastor must first appraise the health and condition of his church as a whole.
Natural Church Development (NCD) has created a tool to help with the assessment process; this tool was created based on years of data collected from churches in 32 countries across five continents. From the data, eight quality characteristics emerged as indicators of a healthy congregation. These include:
Inspiring worship service
Holistic small groups
As part of a church assessment, members of the congregation are surveyed on various aspects of these eight characteristics. Once their answers are analyzed, church leadership is better able to determine areas of church life that are healthy and those that need attention. When any one of these characteristics is unhealthy within the church, the entire body suffers. As such, it is vital that churches achieve health in all eight areas in order to function to the best of their ability–in order to produce the most bountiful harvest possible, if you will.
Being a farmer is hard work, as is leading a church congregation. However, just as a farmer continues to work the field with the aim of a plentiful harvest, a pastor or church leader cannot give up simply because the going gets tough. If leaders have been called by God, then they must push through the hard times, working towards the harvest. And, ultimately, when that harvest comes to fruition, may he hear his Maker say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23, ESV).
To learn more about NCD and how it might benefit you and your congregation, check out the “About Us” and “Frequently Asked Questions” sections on our website. Additionally, you may also be interested in reading our introduction booklet, entitled Natural Church Development 101.