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This is how I began my sermon one Sunday morning in January, not too long ago:
So, how's it going? Did you get enough sleep last night? Did you have trouble finding a good parking place this morning? Were the doors clearly marked? Did the people welcome you as you came in? Did the building seem nice and neat? I wonder, did the church's name make it more difficult for you to decide whether to come in? Or maybe that was part of the reason why you decided to come in.
And when you did come in, were the people friendly and welcoming? Any trouble dropping the kids off? And what do you think about the stained glass? I know I have the best view of it, but it's really pretty, isn't it? Then again, maybe it's a little too traditional for you.
Are the pews comfortable? Do you have a good view of all the activities from where you are sitting? Can you see clearly? Can you hear okay? Is it warm enough for you right now? Do you feel pretty comfortable?
And how about the bulletin? Nice, clear, simple, pretty straightforward, wouldn't you say? Not too complicated. Maybe a little too staid. Did you notice all the announcements in it? And did you see all the programs listed in the church card? There are a lot of them, aren't there? Probably more than you've even read. Of course, it's easy to read, but I guess the print is kind of small, isn't it? And there aren't any pictures. I mean, it's so type-heavy. That probably tells you a lot about the church, doesn't it? You think this is probably the kind of church where they'd rather have the thousand words than the picture, right?
And what about the people sitting around you? Are they the kind you like to go to church with? Yeah, I know you're too nervous to look around you right now, but you know who they are. What do you think? Are they the right age? Are they the right race? Are they the right social class? Are they just like you?
And what about the service so far? I mean, was it too difficult switching between the two hymnals? You know, most churches just use one and here you've got two; you've got to go to the green one and then sometimes the beige one. Has the leader seemed informed, yet not know-it-allish? Competent, yet not overbearing? There weren't too many announcements in the service, were there? I don't think so this morning. Have the prayers been involving? Have they engaged your heart and mind?
It is a bit unusual these days to read so much Scripture in church, isn't it? You don't often find that done.
And of course, there's the music. You know, we're still trying to get some things worked out, as you can tell — contemporary or traditional, classical or more modern, liturgical or more informal. As with every other church in America this very morning, there are probably some people who have come to this church in the past who this morning are out looking at other churches because they would like a different musical experience. And, you know, there are probably some people who are still here, in part, because they like this musical experience.
And how's it been for you with the offering? Can you believe that? They actually took up an offering in public with visitors and all! That is the kind of thing they tell you in seminary these days you should never do. How did it make you feel? Did it make you feel that the church is full of a bunch of money-grubbing people who just want to get from you when you come?
What are you doing here? Whether you've been coming to this church for fifty years or this is your first Sunday — why do you come?
And now, of course, well, you know what's coming now. Maybe it has already begun: the sermon! For some people, this is what you just have to sit through to get to the good bit — maybe some more singing, or meeting and talking to people afterwards.
The preacher does have a difficult job, doesn't he? He has to be someone that you feel you could relate to and talk with and let your hair down with or trust in some measure. But he needs to seem holy, too. But not too holy. He needs to be knowledgeable, but not too knowledgeable. He needs to be confident, but not too confident. He needs to be compassionate, but not too compassionate. And his sermon needs to be good enough, relevant enough, entertaining and engaging enough, and certainly short enough.
There is so much to consider when you are evaluating a church, isn't there? Have you ever really stopped to think about it? There are so many different things to think of and, as much as Americans move these days, we have to evaluate churches. It happens all the time. We have to ask ourselves what makes a really good church.
In my study I have shelf after shelf and stack after stack of books about exactly this question: What really makes a good church? And you would be amazed at how widely the answers vary. They range from friendliness to financial planning to pristine bathrooms to pleasant surroundings to vibrant music to being sensitive to visitors to plentiful parking to exciting children's programs to elaborate Sunday school options to the right computer software to clear signage to homogeneous congregations. You will find books written and sold that advocate all of those things as the key to a good church.
So, what do you think? What makes for a healthy church? You need to know that. If you are a visitor today, looking around for some church where you can come regularly and to which you can commit yourself, you need to consider this question. Even if you are already a member here, you need to consider this question — you might move, you know. And even if you don't ever move again, you need to know what constitutes a healthy church. If you're going to stay in the church and be a part of building it and shaping it, don't you need to know what you're trying to build? What you want it to look like? What you want to aim for? What should be foundational?
Be very careful how you answer these questions. As I said, you'll find experts who will tell you the answer is everything from how religion-free your language is to how invisible your membership requirements are.
So, what do you think? Are secure nurseries and sparkling bathrooms, exciting music and look-alike congregations really the way to church growth and church health? Is that really what makes a good church?
And so I began the series of sermons that has become this book — Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. The purpose of this book is to ask and answer the question, what distinctively marks a really good church?
I suggest nine distinguishing marks of a healthy church. You can find them listed in the table of contents. These nine marks certainly are not the only attributes of a healthy church. They're not even necessarily the most important things that could be said about a church. For example, I address only in passing the topics of baptism and communion, even though these are essential aspects of a biblical church, commanded by Christ himself. This book is not a complete ecclesiology. It focuses on certain crucial aspects of healthy church life that have grown rare among churches today. Though they may often be misunderstood, baptism and the Lord's Supper have not vanished from most churches; but many of the attributes that we will consider in these pages have disappeared from many churches.
Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect church, and I certainly don't mean to suggest that any church I ever pastor will be a perfect church. But that doesn't mean our churches can't be more healthy. It is my goal to encourage such health.
The first mark of a healthy church is expositional preaching. It is not only the first mark; it is far and away the most important of them all, because if you get this one right, all of the others should follow. This chapter will help you to understand what pastors are to give themselves to, and what congregations are to demand of them. My main role, and the main role of any pastor, is expositional preaching.
This is so important that if you were to miss this one and happen to get all the other eight marks right, in a sense they would be accidents. You would have just happened to get them right. They may be distorted, because they wouldn't have sprung from the Word and they would not continually be reshaped and refreshed by it. But if you establish the priority of the Word, then you have in place the single most important aspect of the church's life, and growing health is virtually assured, because God has decided to act by his Spirit through his Word.
So what is this all-important thing called expositional preaching? It is usually contrasted with topical preaching. A topical sermon is like this chapter — it takes a subject and talks about it, rather than taking a particular text of the Bible as its subject. The topical sermon begins with a particular matter that the preacher wants to preach about. The topic could be prayer or justice or parenting or holiness or even expositional preaching. Having established the topic, the preacher then assembles various texts from various parts of the Bible and combines them with illustrative stories and anecdotes. The material is combined and woven together around this one topic. The topical sermon is not built around one text of Scripture but around this one chosen theme or idea.
A topical sermon can be expositional. I could choose to preach on a topic and pick one passage of Scripture that addresses exactly this concern. Or I could preach with a number of texts that address this same theme. But it is still a topical sermon, because the preacher knows what he wants to say and he is going into the Bible to see what he can find to say about it. For example, when I preached a version of this material as a sermon, I largely knew when I set out what I wanted to say. When I preach expositionally, this is not usually the case. In preparing my normal expositional sermon, I am often a bit surprised by the things I find in the passage as I study it. Generally, I do not choose series of expositional sermons because of particular topics that I think the church needs to hear about. Rather, I assume that all of the Bible is relevant to us all of the time. Now, I trust that God may lead to some particular books, but very often when I'm working on a text and reading through it in my quiet times the week before preaching, and working with it very seriously on Friday, I will find things in it that I didn't expect to find at all. I will sometimes be surprised by the point of the passage and therefore by what must become the point of my message.
Expositional preaching is not simply producing a verbal commentary on some passage of Scripture. Rather, expositional preaching is preaching that takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture. That's it. The preacher opens the Word and unfolds it for the people of God. That is not what I'm doing in this chapter, but it is what I normally intend to do when I step into the pulpit on Sunday.
Expositional preaching is preaching in service to the Word. It presumes a belief in the authority of Scripture — that the Bible is actually God's Word; but it is something much more than that. A commitment to expositional preaching is a commitment to hear God's Word — not just to affirm that it is God's Word but to actually submit to it. The Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles were given not a personal commission to go and speak, but a particular message to deliver. Likewise Christian preachers today have authority to speak from God only so long as they speak his message and unfold his words. As loquacious as some preachers may be, they are not commanded simply to go and preach. They are commanded specifically to go and preach the Word.
Many pastors happily accept the authority of God's Word and profess to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible; yet if they do not in practice regularly preach expositionally, I'm convinced that they will never preach more than they knew when they began the whole exercise. A preacher can take a piece of Scripture and exhort the congregation on a topic that is important, but that isn't really the point of that particular passage. You can pick your Bible up right now, close your eyes, open it to a certain place, put your finger down on a verse, open your eyes and read that verse, and you can get a great blessing from it for your soul — but you still might not learn what God intended to say through that passage. What is most important in real estate is most important in understanding the Bible: location, location, location. You understand a text of Scripture where it is. You understand it in the context in which it was inspired.
A preacher should have his mind increasingly shaped by Scripture. He shouldn't use Scripture as an excuse for what he already knows he wants to say. When someone regularly preaches in a way that is not expositional, the sermons tend to be only on the topics that interest the preacher. The result is that the preacher and the congregation only hear in Scripture what they already thought before they came to the text. There's nothing new being added to their understanding. They're not continuing to be challenged by the Bible.
In being committed to preach a passage of Scripture in context, expositionally — that is, taking as the point of the message the point of the passage — we should hear from God things that we didn't intend to hear when we set out to study the passage. God surprises us sometimes. And from your repentance and conversion to the latest thing the Holy Spirit has been teaching you, isn't that what it means to be a Christian? Don't you again and again find God challenging you and convicting you of some things you would never have thought about a year ago, as he begins to unearth the truth of your heart and the truth of his Word? To charge someone with the spiritual oversight of a church who doesn't in practice show a commitment to hear and to teach God's Word is to hamper the growth of the church, in essence allowing it to grow only to the level of the pastor. The church will slowly be conformed to the pastor's mind rather than to God's mind. And what we want, what as Christians we crave, are God's words. We want to hear and know in our souls what he has said.
The Central Role of the Word of God
Preaching should always (or almost always) be expositional because the Word of God should be at its center, directing it. In fact, churches should have the Word at their center, directing them. God has chosen to use his Word to bring life. That's the pattern that we see in Scripture and in history.
At a reception I once attended, the conversation turned to a book that had recently been published. I had read it, because I was about to give a speech on the topic of the book. My host, a Roman Catholic, had also read it — for a review he was writing. I asked him what he thought.
"Oh, it was very good," he said, "except it was marred by the author's repeating that old Protestant error that the Bible created the church, when we all know that the church created the Bible."
Well, I was in a bit of quandary. It was his gathering and I was a guest. What should I say? I saw the whole Protestant Reformation flash before me!
I decided that if he could politely be so openly dismissive, then I could be as forthright and honest as I wished. So I came right out and said, "That's ridiculous!" Trying to be as pleasantly contradictory as I could, I continued, "God's people have never created God's Word. From the very beginning God's Word has always created his people! From Genesis 1, where God literally creates all that is, including his people, by his Word; to Genesis 12, where he calls Abraham out of Ur by the word of his promise; to Ezekiel 37, where God gives Ezekiel a vision to share with the Israelite exiles in Babylon about the great resurrection to life that would come about by God's Word; to the supreme sending of God's Word in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh; to Romans 10, where we read that spiritual life comes to us by the Word — God has always created his people by his Word. It has never been the other way around. God's people have never created God's Word."
Now, I can't remember exactly what happened in the rest of that conversation, but I remember that part very clearly because it helped to crystallize for me the absolute centrality of the Word.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nine Marks of a Healthy Church"
Copyright © 2013 Mark Dever.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword: Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by David Platt,
Preface to the Third Edition (2013),
Preface to the New Expanded Edition (2004),
Mark One: Expositional Preaching,
Mark Two: Biblical Theology,
Mark Three: The Gospel,
Mark Four: A Biblical Understanding of Conversion,
Mark Five: A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism,
Mark Six: A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership,
Mark Seven: Biblical Church Discipline,
Mark Eight: A Concern for Discipleship and Growth,
Mark Nine: Biblical Church Leadership,
Appendix 1: Tips for Leading the Church in a Healthy Direction,
Appendix 2: "Don't Do it!" Why You Shouldn't Practice Church Discipline,
Appendix 3: The Original 9 Marks Letter,
Appendix 4: Medicines from the Cabinet,
What People are Saying About This
“It is astonishing that the apostle Paul describes the local gathering of Chris- tians as ‘the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood’ (Acts 20:28). That raises the stakes of church life and health and mission about as high as it can be. We are dealing with a blood-bought body of people. I do not want human ideas. I want God’s word about the church. I turn with hope and confidence to Mark Dever’s radically biblical commitment. Few people today have thought more or better about what makes a church biblical and healthy. I thank God for the book and for 9Marks ministries.”
John Piper, Founder and Teacher, desiringGod.org; Chancellor, Bethlehem College & Seminary; author, Desiring God
“Books on the church are a dime a dozen. This one is different. Only rarely does a book on the church come along that marries responsible biblical and theological reflection to godly, experienced, good judgment and practical appli- cation. This book is one of them. If you are a Christian leader, be careful of the work you are now holding in your hand: it may change your life and ministry.”
D. A. Carson, Theologian-at-Large, The Gospel Coalition
“In a day when a church is most likely evaluated on her cosmetics, it’s vital to know how to assess her true health. They put cosmetics on corpses! Mark Dever gives the biblical criteria for discerning the spiritual well-being of a church, not what it looks like on the outside before the world, but what it is on the inside before God. This is a foundational work which I highly recommend.”
John MacArthur, Pastor, Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, California; Chancellor Emeritus, The Master’s University and Seminary
“Nine Marks of a Healthy Church is one of the very best, most readable, and useful books for learning how to lead a church into spiritual change. Its focus is not on church growth but on church health, which is the proper goal of a God- centered ministry. Each chapter gives the biblical rationale and offers practical suggestions for preaching, evangelism, discipleship, or some other aspect of church life. These principles and practices have been tested in Dever’s own dynamic ministry as senior pastor of a thriving urban congregation.”
Philip Graham Ryken, President, Wheaton College
“Postmodern America is awash with spiritualitybut not with authentic Chris- tianity. Clear evidence of this fact is seen in the loss of a biblical ecclesiology in so many sectors. Reformation is always directed to the churchand we must pray to see the church reformed in our age. Mark Dever points toward a truly biblical recovery of the New Testament church in his manifesto, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Every page is loaded with thoughtful analysis and careful consideration. It belongs in the hands of every faithful pastor and all those who pray for reformation in this age.”
R. Albert Mohler Jr., President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“The future of biblical Christianity in the Western world is inextricably bound to the future of the local church. Mark Dever knows this, and his Nine Marks of a Healthy Church is a biblical prescription for faithfulness.”
Ligon Duncan, Chancellor and CEO, Reformed Theological Seminary
“A powerful and passionate call for congregations to take seriously their re- sponsibilities, for the glory of God and the saving of lost souls.”
Timothy George, Research Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University; general editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture
“In the tradition of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott, Mark Dever calls the church to rediscover her biblical heritage. Perhaps never in history has the church tried so hard to be relevant to a culture and become less relevant in doing so! While many modern church gurus encourage us to be ‘in the world,’ Mark reminds us that our calling is to do so without being ‘of the world.’ This volume is consumed with church ‘being’ rather than church ‘doing.’ After all, being comes before doing, for what we ultimately ‘do’ is always determined by who we ‘are.’ Let the church be the church! Read it and reap!”
O. S. Hawkins, President and Chief Executive Officer, GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention
“Books that affirm the priority of the church are rare. Books that define the practice of the local church from the pages of Scripture rather than from cultural trends are even more rare. Mark Dever has given us just such a book. Written by a pastor and theologian who has built a strong local church in Washington, DC, this is the best book I have read on this topic of critical importance.”
C. J. Mahaney, Senior Pastor, Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville