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Essential book, but could have been better...
on June 3, 2014
Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (9Marks) I had read portions of this book years ago and cite it frequently but recently decided to study the whole thing again. In any organization you have to define the standard-- what is healthy? What structures, policies, procedures, and best practices need to be actively in place in order for this organization to be sustainable?
Mark Dever admits that this is just one book in a long line of similar books, and even provides a bibliography of dozens of recently-published books; he provides his own grain of salt, in other words. There is nothing new under the sun, and nothing written today that wasn't written about 100 years ago. Dever also gives the caveat that this book is not a comprehensive list, but only the major points. Yet, this has now turned into a ministry by which you can find churches in the U.S. that aspire to the Nine Marks.
Weaknesses of the book:
Dever's audience is primarily Southern Baptists, so the book is both a call for SBC churches to find better moorings but also as a way for us to judge churches as "health" or "unhealthy," on a scale from zero to nine.
He is also taking clear aim at megachurches where elders are unable to have personal contact with all the "members," membership roles are not clearly dileneated, and the preaching is not expositional. The book he cites most frequently in Nine Marks is Os Guiness' Dining With the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity.
The book is very America-centric. I can think of congregations overseas that would think Dever's criticisms are off-base or say "Really, Americans have built their churches this way? Why?"
His examination of church history deals exclusively with SBC in 1800s, Puritans in the 1600s. His sermon illustrations are almost always from colonial New England.
The book also ignores what we know about church polity in the first centuries of the church. Much has been written about elders and discipline in that first era after the Apostles that is valuable to today's church. Harkening only back to the Puritans is problematic for many reasons.
While I agree with all of Dever's points, I find his method of delivery to be a minus. The book is written as a compilation of sermons. Now, I listen to Dever preach regularly and I'm also reading his book compilation of Old Testament overview sermons. But he has a folksy way of delivering his sermon (probably what he grew up on in Kentucky, as it sounds very similar to my ear) that could be made much more succinct for a book.
That said, the book lays out some very good guidelines and a way to judge a church (on a scale from 0 to 9) on how "healthy" it is. If a church doesn't meet the Nine Marks, I would ask it why it considers itself healthy. Now, the marks:
Mark One: Expositional Preaching
Expositional preaching, roughly defined, is working through entire passages of Scripture as opposed to picking a topic and then picking a few verses to support it. One can, however, teach a themed or topical message expositionally. The preacher does not have to use expositional preaching exclusively-- Dever has preached several topical sermons just this year-- but primarily.
"Expositional preaching is not simply producing a verbal commentary on some passage of Scripture. Rather, expositional preaching is that preaching which take for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture. That's it."
"Be very careful before you ever join a church that does not stress expositional preaching, or help to call a preacher who is not an expositional preacher, who is not committed to preaching all of God's Word, regardless of how uncomfortable parts of it may be."
I agree with the centrality of this point. A pastor friend recently commented that "the most important thing I can do as a pastor is teach the congregation to read the Bible (for themselves)." That's the heart of it, preaching should inspire us to dig deeper into God's Word and learn more about it.
I contrast that with a very well-known Baptist-rooted megachurch pastor who intentionally avoids quoting Scripture and makes it a point to never say "the Bible says..." It's not a pastor (or preaching elder)'s job to give his opinions or advice-- it's his job to "preach the Word."It's good advice, but his congregation is biblically illiterate.
I disagree with Dever on this point:
"Permit me to suggest the one-sidedness of preaching is not only excusable but actually important...God's Word comes as a monologue to us."
If that is true, then why did the Word of God (Jesus) repeatedly ask questions and engage in dialogue with his audience as he taught? One of the best (expositional) preachers I know uses a Socratic method to engage with his audience in a conversation. That style creates for a memorable sermon, and permit me to suggest that actually remembering what you heard in a sermon is important. Having the audience actively engaging their brain is something that rarely occurs in a preacher's monologue. I find preachers often dismiss proven pedagogy in order to maintain tradition-- even those with formal pedagogical training. Research shows time and again that the "sage on stage" method does not help facilitate classroom learning, and that methods like the "flipped classroom" work better at helping students retain the material and engage with it-- and requiring them to dig into the textbook material themselves (which is partly the goal of expositional preaching). Yet we Christians ignore that and put huge emphasis on a "sage on stage" monologue every Sunday morning. Would someone please reconcile this for me?
Mark Two: Biblical Theology
Dever condenses all of biblical theology-- the basic arc of Scripture -- into one chapter, which is quite a feat. But the underlying point of the chapter is that God is sovereign and very active in human history and we should hear Him preached as such.
Mark Three: The Gospel
Harkening back to Marks One and Two, the church and its preaching should present an accurate picture of the sinful, helpless state of man in need of redemption. The cross of Christ should be prominent in its preaching.
Dever's critics might argue that Dever puts too much emphasis on the cross and not enough on the resurrection and the power of our risen Lord and His church which can now see things with "resurrection eyes." However, in Dever's sermons I find there is often talk of the power, joy, and hope of the resurrection.
My criticism of Dever's point here (from a Reformed standpoing) is that the Gospel I hear him preach and describe in this chapter is of the "two chapter" sort relating to personal salvation rather than a full "four chapter" Gospel. Other Reformed pastors such as Tim Keller equally emphasize the role of all creation-- including work-- in God's redemptive plan. (See this series by Hugh Whelchel for more on this topic). I suspect that this is in part because Dever's thinking is heavily influenced by Baptist thought of the 1800s that was being increasingly influenced by dispensationalist thought, but someone might correct me on this point.
Mark Four: A Biblical Understanding of Conversion
Dever hints towards the end of the book that he will not baptise children. He laments that there are too many people who show no fruit of Jesus' work in their lives-- such as not being active in a church-- who claim they are saved because they "know that they know" once upon a time they prayed a prayer to "receive Jesus" and "once saved, always saved" removes any worry about their souls.
Mark Five: A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism
"We need to see an end to a wrong, shallow view of evangelism as simply getting people to say yes to a question, or to make a one-time decision...We need to see an end to worldly people having assurance that they're saved just because they once took a stand, shook a hand, or repeated a prayer. We need to see real revival not being lost amid our own manufactured and scheduled meetings that we euphemistically call 'revivals,' as if we could determine when the wind of God's Spirit would actually blow."
Evangelism should be out to preach a real Gospel to draw true converts-- disciples-- and not be a "how many prayed the prayer?" or baptism contest.
This chapter makes me wonder how many churches think they are doing well on the Nine Marks plumb line but are not to objective observers. I can think of a few flagship Southern Baptist churches that still use to long, manipulative invitations at the end of services and train members to do evangelism in a 5-step plan that presses for a "decision for Christ." The Kentucky Baptist Convention hands out awards and even a free vacation to the pastors with the most baptisms at its annual evangelism conference. That seems to fall short of a biblical understanding of evangelism, but many attendees claim to be Nine Marks aspirants and scarcely criticize the status quo.
Mark Six: A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership
Dever's audience in this chapter is "you." He makes the case for church membership and individual involvement more than anything. But there are some clear notes for Southern Baptist churches. If your church's membership roll has more people on it than actively attend or engage with your church, then you might not have a biblical understanding of church membership.
"Discipleship is both an individual project and a corporate activity as we follow Christ and help each other along the way."
Mark Seven: Biblical Church Discipline
Dever quotes heavily from Gregory Will's Democratic Religion which looks at Southern Baptist history in the 1800s. Interestingly, Southern Baptist churches were growing rapidly while also excommunicating something like 2% of their members annually. Dever uses Capitol Hill Baptist's history to illustrate the various reasons why members were investigated for possible expulsion.
Reasons for expulsion include non-attendance, non-tithing, and other forms of non-participation. What is not mentioned is that in the late 1800s you could also be excommunicated from your Southern Baptist church for arguing that slavery was evil, marrying someone of a different race, and various other things we would now find to be "in error." So, churches can be "healthy" in a Nine Marks sense but also be in error in the eyes of others. But Baptists distinctively have independence to come to their own conclusions about these issues.
Another weakness, however, is that Dever does not define what happens during excommunication. Is the ostracized allowed to attend services? What efforts are made to contact the ex-member and to evangelize? Some real-life examples from "healthy" churches would have been useful here.
Mark Eight: A Concern for Discipleship and Growth
Dever is primarily talking about spiritual growth. Believers corporately sharpening one another, correcting one another, loving one another, toward greater grace and less sin. This mark requires an understanding of the previous eight marks. Discipline, for example, aids spiritual growth by confronting the root of sin.
One strength of the book is Dever's commitment to meet with every member on a regular basis, along with elder elders. To ask key questions like "how have you progressed since our last meeting?" The larger your church is, the harder this obviously is for a senior pastor. Is it necessary for health, or can the congregation be divided up among the elders and deacons? I was reminded of a pastor I know who resigned from his large church in part because he did not like the fact that people were calling him "my pastor" when he scarcely knew them (he later started a house church).
Mark Nine: Biblical Church Leadership
This mark is probably the most famous as it has led to quite the reformation among Southern Baptist churches. Scripturally, congregations should be led by a plurality of elders and not a pastor buffeted by a deacon board.
Dever does a poor job giving the historicity of this outside of 1800s Southern Baptist life. (Southern Baptists appear to have dropped elder rule in the late 1800s, probably as a result of rapid expansion and seemingly inadequate time to wait for elders to emerge.)
Presbyterians have had this figured out for centuries, and the early church of the first few centuries teach us so much about the importance of elder-led congregations; this goes unmentioned in the book. Dever would also seem to want to put more power in the hands of a senior pastor, like himself, over the elder body.
Dever concludes the book with advice for pastors who are wanting to transition their church into an elder-led Nine Marks model.
"I had thought of writing a book for pastors called ‘How to Get Fired…And Fast!’ I could sum up the basic idea of this unwritten book in one sentence of Pauline proportions: A pastor could go into a church members’ meeting questioning the salvation of some of the members, refusing to baptize children, advocating a priority of congregational singing over performed music, asking to remove the Christian and national flags and to stop any kind of altar calls, replace committees with elders, ignore the secular rotation of Mother's Day, Father's Day...the Fourth of July, begin practicing church discipline, remove women from elder-like positions in the church, and state that he had theological opposition to multiple services on Sunday morning…Such a pastor might not get much farther than his next members’ meeting."
He advocates a lot of prayer, patience, and good communication with everyone in the church.
I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. It has obviously held up over time, but it could be better. In fairness, the 3rd edition as well as various articles and blog posts written by Dever over the years may have