Here’s another book that Mark Dever was giving away at The Whiteboard Sessions. This is an expanded version of his original pamphlet, and a condensed version of his larger work, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church.
At 126 pages, What Is A Healthy Church? is quite accessible for those who don’t have a lot of time on their hands, but would still like to hear what Dever has to say about church health.
The book is divided into three main sections.
- What is a healthy church?
- Essential marks of a healthy church
- Important marks of a healthy church
In the introduction, Dever asks the reader what you are looking for in a church. Any time you are looking for a new church home you invariably come up with a set of criteria by which you judge those churches you visit. The author is asking us to evaluate those criteria to see if they are biblically based and God centered, or self centered.
What is a healthy church?
In this first section Dever defines the role of the church in the believer’s life, noting that the church is a family, a fellowship, and a body. He argues that if one claims to be a Christian, but shows no desire for community with other believers, you should question whether you are truly a Christian or not.
A true Christian builds his life into the lives of other believers through the concrete fellowship of a local church.
Since the church is a body of God’s people, if we are striving to live the Christian life and love God and others, as Jesus commanded us, then we should care about the health of the local church. Here is his final definition of a healthy church.
A healthy church is a congregation that increasingly reflects God’s character as his character has been revealed in his Word.
Essential marks of a healthy church
In the second section of the book, Dever lays out three marks of a healthy church that he identifies as essential to the church’s health. Without these things, you have a sick church in need of serious medical attention that can only be given by the great physician.
Expositional preaching is the first essential mark. This means taking a passage of Scripture, explaining what the text says and what it means, then applying that meaning to lives of the listeners. The real strength of this style of preaching is, as Dever notes, that
expositional preaching is not so much about how a preacher says what he says, but about how a preacher decides what to say.
The reason this is of essential importance to the health of the church is that God uses his Word to grow his people. No program, no matter how well thought out or executed, will cause Christians to mature in their faith without explaining and applying God’s Word to their lives.
Biblical theology is the second essential mark of a healthy church. Sound doctrine is the topic of this chapter. By this Dever means the church should have a unified and clearly defined biblical theology of salvation. He suggests that baptism and church polity are also important topics. Other doctrines such as eschatology are of lesser importance. The author gives a list of doctrines that he sees as important to hold in agreement, such as total depravity, the atonement, regeneration, and perseverance of the saints. Ultimately he boils it down to a proper understanding of the nature and sovereignty of God.
When confessing Christians resist the idea of God’s sovereignty in creation or salvation, they are really playing with pious paganism.
Strong words, but true.
The Gospel properly understood is the third mark of a healthy church. This is somewhat redundant to the second mark, but important enough to warrant the extra attention. Dever points out that the Gospel is what Christianity is all about and so it should be what our churches are all about.
A biblical understanding of the good news should inform every sermon, every act of baptism and communion, every song, every prayer, every conversation.
Oh how I wish this would happen in my own church and others around the country. One of my pet peeves is modern worship music that is not Jesus focused. To much of this style of music seems to be “me” focused instead. That kind of song does not build the church though, the gospel does.
I particularly enjoyed his explanation of the basics of the gospel.
It’s not the news that God is love…the gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ died on the Cross…and rose again…
This may seem contradictory if you understand the cross of Jesus Christ to be the ultimate act of love, but the distinction is necessary. To say that “God is love” without pointing explicitly to the cross is not the whole truth. Dever quotes J.I. Paker to that effect.
A half truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.
Important marks of a healthy church
The final section of the book deals with six more marks of a healthy church that Dever deems important, but not essential as the first three were.
- A Biblical Understanding of Conversion
- A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism
- A Biblical Understanding of Membership
- Biblical Church Discipline
- Biblical Discipleship and Growth
- Biblical Church Leadership
All of these points will flow naturally from the first three essential marks. I found his discussion of church discipline especially interesting. Church discipline is something we don’t practice much in America, but after reading this book I think it’s something we need to pay more attention to.
I have some disagreements with Dever on his last point of church leadership. He takes a shot at presbyterianism, with which I totally agree (teaching elder vs. ruling elder), but then he goes on to make the same mistake by a different name (pastor vs. elder). I do think there will arise a natural leader in most any situation, who can be viewed as a “first among equals” in the plurality of elders. I do not think that means this person is “the pastor” and the other elders are not.
Other than this topic and his obvious baptist bias toward congregationalism, I found this book to be insightful and instructive. What Is A Healthy Church? should be required reading for all church leaders, and encouraged reading for all Christians.