Natural Church Development (NCD) is a principle-oriented way of approaching the Christian life that strives to integrate biblical standards and empirical learnings. The growth principles identified by international research and communicated in the NCD books can be applied both by individuals (church members, active believers, nominal Christians, non-Christians) and at a corporate level (local churches, small groups, denominations, para-church organizations, etc.).
NCD has developed an extensive toolbox targeted at helping people relate the principles to their specific contexts and needs. All tools of Natural Church Development are focused on increasing the quality of the Christian life. NCD research indicates that this investment in quality, i.e. increasing health in individuals, is key to activating quantitative growth, i.e. increase of churches and Christianity as a whole (Schwarz, 2006).
A chief characteristic of the NCD paradigm is that all resources are developed on the background of extensive international research that is conducted according to strict standards in terms of objectivity, validity, and reliability (Schwarz/Schalk, 1998, pp. 229-234). By 2016, NCD International had collected data from more than 70,000 churches in 84 countries, which enable previously inaccessible insights into the relationship between quality and quantitative growth. In his research report, Christoph Schalk illustrates with reference to a small number of churches which research methods have been applied in the development of the NCD Church Survey (Schalk, 1999).
The strong focus on international and interdenominational research is meant to provide three practical benefits: (1) The identification of universal principles that apply regardless of culture, theological orientation, or church size; (2) The development of scientific tests that help each user analyze their current situation; (3) The possibility of verifying or falsifying many theological stereotypes that have played an influential role in both academic and popular discourse, but are usually not approached from an empirical point of view (Schwarz, 2005, pp. 82-83; Schwarz, 2006, pp. 18-21).
NCD doesn’t position itself as a non-theological methodology nor as a merely pragmatic approach. The book Natural Church Development presents six reasons why pragmatism is unsuitable to approach church development and criticizes pragmatism as a “dead end road” (Schwarz, 2006, pp. 104-126). In NCD resource development, the empirical discoveries are interpreted theologically, i.e. in the light of biblical teaching. In this interpretation process, the empirical discoveries function as heuristic principle; the biblical standards, as normative criteria.
It is characteristic of the NCD paradigm that the theological reflection is worked out in inter-denominational categories, deliberately not binding itself to the specific traditions or values of a given denomination. Because of that approach, the NCD paradigm strives to exclude those topics where the different branches of Christianity are in disagreement, as long as these elements are non-essentials in terms of church development. Alternatively, it is demonstrated how the different foci, if combined, can potentially contribute to healthy balance (Schwarz, 2005, pp. 23-24).