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Book Review – 9 Marks of a Healthy Church

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Truth be told, I was a little disappointed with 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. The problem is not that it is a poor book but more that I had unrealistic expectations of it. I was hoping this book would be everything the church growth manuals are not; that it would be a knockout punch against church growth. It is not all of this, but that does not mean it is without value. I suppose I expected it to be a rebuttal of the seeker-friendly/church growth movement, but this is not what it is inteded to be. In retrospect, this is far better, for the book begins and ends with the Bible and the wisdom of God rather than with a rebuttal of the the wisdom of men. This book represents an interesting contrast to other books on this topic that have emerged from the Southern Baptist Convention, most notably The Purpose Driven Church. Where Warren’s book claims to be about church health it is clear that the true focus is on growth. In 9 Marks, Mark Dever is able to seperate health from growth, rules from results. The focus of this book is on “being” church rather than “doing” church – on accentuating biblical perspectives on personal holiness above numbers or cultural relevance.

The author, Mark Dever, is pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Washington, D.C., and also heads up IX Marks Ministries. Dever seems to be anything but typical as a Southern Baptist pastor, and with his thoroughly Reformed theology must represent a minority position within the Convention. In this book, as in IX Marks Ministries, he seeks to rediscover the pillars of the church as outlined in the Bible and practiced in traditional Protestant churches. Here is a brief overview of the 9 marks he identifies:

  1. Expositional Preaching – Expositional preaching (otherwise known as expository preaching) is the investigation of a particular passage of Scripture whereby the pastor carefully explains the meaning of a passage and then applies it to the members of the congregation. The point of a sermon, then, takes the point of a particular passage. This is in opposition to the topical preaching showcased in the majority of evangelical churches, where Bible passages are woven together to support a pre-existing point.
  2. Biblical Theology – This emphasizes not only how we are taught but also what we are taught. In a sense this should follow naturally from expository preaching because the careful exposition of a passage should lead to sound theology. The majority of poor theology arises from a lack of careful Biblical exposition. Where there is poor exposition, we should expect to eventually find poor theology.
  3. Biblical Understanding of the Good News – There needs to be a proper understanding and necessary emphasis on the full gospel. Where many contemporary churches teach that Jesus wants to meet our felt needs and give us a healthier self-image, that is not the gospel. The gospel message is that we are sinners who have rebelled against our Creator. But Jesus took the curse that was rightfully ours and all that remains is for us to have faith in Him so God may credit Christ’s righteousness to our account. When we de-emphasize sin and damnation to make the presentation more friendly and less offensive we cease declaring the full gospel.
  4. Biblical Understanding of Conversion – When we have a Biblical understanding of the gospel, we must then also have a proper understanding of conversion. Conversion is a new birth from death to life and is a work of God. It is not merely a change of attitude or a change of affection, but a change of nature. Conversion does not need to be an exciting, emotional experience, but does need to produce fruit to be judged a true conversion.
  5. Biblical Understanding of Evangelism – The way we evangelize speaks volumes about how we understand conversion (and further, what we understand about the good news). If we believe that people are essentially good and are seeking Jesus, we evangelize using half truths and tend to elicit false conversions. When we present a watered-down gospel, we end up with a watered-down church. We need to be faithful to present the full gospel, the good news with the bad, and leave the results to God.
  6. Biblical Understanding of Membership – Church membership is a privilege and a responsibility and needs to be regarded as such. People should only be members if they are dedicated to the church – in attendance, prayer, service and giving. To allow people to become and remain members for sentimental or other unbiblical reasons makes light of membership and may even be dangerous.
  7. Biblical Church Discipline – Discipline guides church membership. The church has the responsibility to judge the life and teaching of the membership since they can negatively impact the church’s witness of the gospel. Leadership need to be firm in discipline as this is an expression of love to the congregation.
  8. Promotion of Church Discipleship And Growth – We need to recover true discipleship – discipleship that causes Christians to live lives of increasing holiness. The emphasis on growth needs to be directed at holiness rather than membership. True discipleship producing strong, committed Christians will present a clear witness to the world.
  9. Biblical Understanding of Leadership – Until recent times, almost all Protestants agreed that in church government there should be a plurality of elders (which means that there should be an office of elder and not merely one or more pastors in positions of leadership). This is a Biblical and practical model that has fallen out of favor in modern times.

Dever presents a convincing argument that a return to each of these nine principles would do much to restore the church to what God intends her to be. He dedicates twenty or thirty pages to each of them, usually tracing how they were understood in church history and showing the effect they would have on today’s church. Perhaps what I appreciated most about this book is that, while he is willing to share from his own ministry, this is not a “do as I have done” type of book. Never once does he tell us how many people attend his church, trying to woo us with human credentials. All we learn about the numbers in his church is that membership decreased, but attendance increased as a result of his pastorate. Very rarely does he portray himself as the model other church leaders are to emulate. Needless to say, this stands in stark contrast to other books written to address the same topic.

So while this book left me a little bit disappointed, I realize that it was my unrealistic expectations that made it so. This is a very well-written and thoroughly biblical book. Dever expounds God’s wisdom on the church and in that way does exactly what he set out to do – he provides godly insight into what makes a healthy, vibrant church that pleases our Lord. I highly recommend it.

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