Dr Frederick Marais

Consortium Paper

The NCD survey claims to be a “trustworthy tool” for every local congregation because it uses “universal principles” that emerge from studies done in 40,000 churches in 70 countries.[1] Schwartz, the founder of NCD, claims that the problem with the church growth movement was the lack of discernment on proven principles for growing churches.[2]

“Fuller Theological Seminary has learned many good things.  But in the end, I realised that despite 40 years of church growth studies, there had not been a single study that answers the question: What really are the proven principles that globally apply to all growing churches?”[3] Schwartz claims that this is precisely what their research was able to establish:

It has become possible to assess the quality of a church quite precisely. Today when a local church does the NCD Survey, the computer compares the answers of the members of that church with a formula based on all of the 168 million answers that have been collected in our research so far…(T)he objectivity of the instrument has enabled thousands of churches (from the most diverse backgrounds) to base their planning on the results that they got from the survey.[4]

There is no doubt that such universal principles, if they exist, would be of help for local congregations to utilise in their own process of strategy development and discernment. The question in this paper is simply the following: Are the NCD principles as objective and universal as they claim to be?

Since NCD was inspired by the Church Growth Movement and are developed mainly from research done in Independent Churches, the question is clear: can the NCD profile, for example, measure correctly in mainline congregations, or are the theological and ecclesiastical assumptions in different traditions and cultural contexts so different that the questions in the survey would be understood incorrectly? Do, for example, concepts like leadership, worship, and evangelism have the same meaning in an independent charismatic congregation and in a reformed mainline congregation? Since NCD claims to be objective and universal, the answer to these questions is of real importance for the reliability of the NCD profiles. 

In order to start answering the questions posed above, I will compare results from the NCD profile and the Ministry Needs Questionnaire developed by BUVTON[5] done in the same congregation in 2002. The Buvton Questionnaire[6] was developed to help mainline congregations in the reformed tradition to measure what their congregants’ perceptions are of the quality of the ministry in the congregation.

The congregation in question was, like most congregations in post-apartheid South Africa, challenged by the new context they find themselves in at the turn of the century. It draws its members from a suburb in a middle/upper class neighbourhood in South Africa and is a member of the Dutch Reform Church of South Africa.  The official membership of the congregation was slightly more than 3,000 in 2002, the year the NCD profile and Buvton questionnaire were done. The congregation had lost a considerable number of members during the previous 5-10 years, and the leadership wanted some answers about possible reasons for this drop in numbers. In terms of Alice Mann’s grid, they can be classified as a “corporate church”.[7] That means that they were especially interested to receive feedback on leadership and worship issues. Key to the Corporate Congregation’s effectiveness, according to Mann, is visionary leadership, the Sunday service, and teamwork.

They decided to do the NCD-profile on the eight quality characteristics of growing churches, and they received the following profile from NCD:

Empowering leadership          41

Gift-oriented ministry             42

Passionate spirituality             13

Functional structures             22

Inspiring worship                   10

Holistic small groups               31

Need-oriented evangelism      14

Loving relationships               46

It is clear that, loving relationships, gift-oriented ministry, and empowering leadership seem to be their strong quality characteristics. This puzzled the leadership, and they decided to do the Buvton Questionnaire a few months later.

The Buvton report categorised the outcome of their questionnaire in the following four categories:

   1. This is our congregation’s strong points…
   2. We feel satisfied about…
   3. We are concerned about…
   4. We need to take urgent action on…

The congregation received the following report from Buvton:

   1. Our congregation’s strong points…

No score

   2. We feel satisfied about…
         1. Worship
         2. Spiritual formation
         3. communication
   3. We are concerned about…
         1. Community service
         2. Evangelical witness
         3. The fostering of values in our community
   4. We need to take urgent action on…
         1. Gift-oriented ministry
         2. Leadership
         3. Relationships in the congregation

In order to make a fair comparison of the two surveys, we should take note of the fact that the Buvton report obviously does not use the same “characteristics” or statistical methodology as NCD. To compare the results of the two surveys, we should focus on the position of the characteristics in the list that each survey presents.

It is interesting and disturbing that the top three characteristics of the NCD survey are more or less the same as the bottom three on the Buvton list:

NCD(top three)
Buvton(bottom three)
Loving relationships Gift-oriented ministry
Gift-oriented ministry  Leadership
Empowering leadership  Relationships in the congregation

The two results for consideration by the congregation’s leadership were conflicting. How is it possible for two surveys done within months of each other to deliver such conflicting results?

This brings us back to the question of this paper: Is the NCD survey objective and universal?  This case study clearly shows that, at least in this case, the NCD survey is not universal. The case study does not provide us with reasons for these confusing results, nor does it provide an answer to the question of which survey was more correct in its analysis.  We should however take note of the fact the NCD survey claims to be universal while the Buvton Questionnaire does not make this claim.

What the result clearly shows us is that concepts and words do operate within “hermeneutical systems of meaning” and that NCD may not attend to these hermeneutical issues enough, to make the claim to be a universal instrument for congregations. When using the NCD survey, congregations make use of the language, the metaphors, and the symbols developed by NCD.  In doing so, they evaluate themselves within this framework without really understanding what the questions mean. Take leadership, for example. To evaluate the quality of leadership, as the NCD survey ask us to do, one would surely be influenced by the theology in a non-denominational congregation and in a reform congregation. A number of theological and ecclesiastical assumptions will determine the evaluation of leadership in these congregations. If these congregations are in different cultural settings, evaluation becomes even more complex. It might not even be a good idea to ask the leadership question in certain cultural settings.
It is a basic rule in the hermeneutical process that one should be very careful not to claim to understand or to be understood, without an attempt to understand the context and (theological) framework of the given text. The same word or concept can have vastly different meanings in two different systems. Concepts like leadership, worship, and spirituality that NCD uses can and will therefore be understood differently by the congregations that make use of the NCD survey.

This may explain why in this case study concepts like  “loving relationships,” “leadership,” and “gift-oriented ministry” were clearly understood differently.  “Loving relationships” receives the highest score in the NCD survey while in the Buvton Questionnaire it came out as the most urgent problem the leadership should attend to.

When congregations consider using the NCC survey, or any other survey that claims to be objective and universal, they should be aware of the above hermeneutical challenges, or they might end up being more confused like the congregation in the case study, and their hope of a better or even growing future could be spent unwisely.

[1] www.ncd-international.org

[2] Schwarz, The ABC of Natural Church Development

[3] Schwarz, The ABC of Natural Church Development

[4] Answer on the question of the scientific reliability of the NCD survey on their website www.ncd-international.org

[5] Buvton is the Bureau for Continuous Theological Training and Research at the Theological Faculty of The University of Stellenbosch, South Africa

[6] The Buvton Questionnaire was develop by the facilitators team of Buvton to help congregations in the  process of re-visioning. The Questionnaire make use the classical reform ecclesiology as develop by Coenie Burger in Gemeentes binne die kragveld van die Gees(Lux Verbi: 1999) as the theological frame and the structure of the questionnaire. After a period of testing it was standardised in 2000 and since then used in more that 150 congregations mainly form the reform family in Southern Africa.

[7] Alice Mann, The In-Between Church: Navigating Size Transitions in Congregations Alban Institute, 1998