I first heard Mark Dever for a week at an InterVarsity Summer Leadership Training. I remembered learning the most from his sermons, so when I heard about Nine Marks of a Healthy Church I was excited to read his views. Dever describes nine characteristics of churches that have grown rare: expositional preaching, Biblical theology, the Gospel, discipling, concern for growth, church leadership, and Biblical understandings of conversion, evangelism, membership. Each chapter describes one of these characteristics in detail.

The first characteristic, and in Dever’s opinion, the most important, is expositional preaching. This is in contrast to preaching where the pastor uses the sermon to establish the topic and then talks about the topic. In expositional preaching the topic comes from the passage(s) under discussion and the points are raised and argued by the passage itself. There are several reasons why this is the central characteristic. First, the preacher will have his mind shaped by the scripture, including topics he had not originally spent time on, rather than just the preacher’s favorite topics. Second, God has chosen to speak primarily through His Word; if we are hearing the preacher’s ideas rather than God’s Word explained, we will not be changed through the Word. In fact, since we cannot know God directly because of sin, He will not be known unless He speaks to us. It is essential to our relationship with Him.

The second characteristic is a correct understanding of theology. It does the church no good to have people who are committed to the church, but don’t really believe what the Bible says about God. Specifically what the Bible says is that God is creating, holy, faithful, loving, and sovereign. He created the Earth and all that is in it, and has continually created His people. He is holy, having a character unlike ours, being perfect and without flaw. He is faithful to His promises and His character. In particular, He has promised to both punish wickedness (of which we have plenty) and spare us. His faithfulness in this area was revealed along with His love, when Jesus came and died for our sin, and God punished Himself. Finally, God is sovereign: He will accomplish His purposes and bring us to Himself at the end of time. Importantly, God will accomplish His purposes, not us.

The third characteristic is an understanding of the Gospel. It is not that we are essentially ok but need to realize our limitations or some such thinking. It is that we are not ok, that we desperately need God, but that He died for us and has great plans for us. It is not that God is love—real love will punish, after all. Nor is the Gospel a call to right living: it is a call for repentance of our sin, a call to believe that we are completely depraved as the Bible said and to trust in God for everything.

Mark four, a Biblical understanding of conversion, was fairly opaque to my understanding. It seemed to basically repeat much of characteristic three, namely that we are depraved and spiritually dead. We are corpses in need of a new life, which only God can bring. Conversions that do not result in changed lives are not true conversions. This conversion comes from hearing or reading the Word of God, believing, and repenting.

Mark five is the understanding of evangelism. All people are called to evangelize, not just professionals. We need to tell people to repent and believe (which will prove costly to us). We need tell people that they will be saved if they repent and believe, but that they need to decide now. We need to tell them that it is worth it. We need to use the Bible in telling them, and we need to pray.

Dever also describes several things that are not evangelism. Evangelism is not imposing your beliefs, it is merely telling people. “According to the Bible, evangelism is simply telling the Good News; it does not include making sure that the other person responds to it correctly.” Personal testimony is not evangelism. It might be part of it, but telling people what Jesus has done for you is different than asserting that we are sinful, that Christ died to pay for our sins, and calling people to repentance. Likewise social action or political involvement is not evangelism. Apologetics (answering people’s questions and objections) is not repentance, nor is the results of evangelism actually evangelism. It is not how many people have believed, but how often we have proclaimed sin and God’s grace through Christ that is important.

The sixth mark of a healthy church is a Biblical understanding of church membership. A church is not a building or an organization, but it is a collection of local believers who profess faith in Christ, by His power, for His glory. Thus, merely attending a church is not being part of the church. It is participating in this fellowship of believers and becoming a member of the church is important in this. If there is no way for the church to expel you, then you probably have not given yourself fully to the community. Dever offers a number of reasons we should become members, from being able to help each other grow in faith to partnering in ministry and evangelism. He also lists the requirements of membership at his church: attend regularly, be at Communion, attend the members’ meetings, pray regularly, and give regularly.

The seventh mark relates to church membership as well: church discipline. Church discipline is clearly commanded in Scripture, yet few churches today practice it. Before the Civil War, the Southern Baptists excommunicated two percent of their members each year and grew at twice the population growth. Church discipline is essential because the Church is called to be different; if a member of the church is not living like a Christian should, for the sake of that person and for God’s glory (because people are watching the church to see what God is like) they need to be disciplined. Dever’s church has practiced church discipline for offenses such as violations of the moral law, disreputable conduct, habitual absence from worship, sowing discord, and not helping with church finances. Discipline is done for the good of the person disciplined, to show the danger of sin to other Christians, for church health, as a public witness, and to reflect the holiness of God. Discipline should be done with humility and love, not out of revenge or meanness. It should not be done as a judgment based on knowing they are not a Christian (since we don’t know that), but to express  concern that they are not pleasing God in the way that they are living.

Mark eight is a concern for discipleship and growth. Growth is not optional; everywhere in the Bible God commands His people to grow. Some of this is simply numerical growth, but in the New Testament it is primarily spiritual growth—growing in faith and maturity. Ultimately this growth is done by God, but we have a responsibility to work at it ourselves. A church can cultivate growth by the other eight marks. For instance, expositional preaching will train members to be fed from the Bible, rather than by the preacher. Growth is essential, since things are not growing are dying: “it is only the things that are alive that swim upstream; the dead things all float along with the current.” (p. 201)  However, we cannot easily measure growth. “The only certain observable sign of [true Christian] growth is a life of increasing holiness, rooted in Christian self-denial.” (p. 201)  Dever gives several questions (quoted in the notes below) that can help discern this.

The last mark is biblical leadership. The Biblical churches were congregational, rather than hierarchical. Paul writes to the whole congregation in many of his letters, not just the leaders. When Paul wrote Galatians in response to a false gospel, he wrote to the congregation, not the bishop, seminary, pastor or elders. However God gives some people the gift of leadership to build up the body. Qualifications for leadership are spiritual (others-centered, irreproachable conduct, respected) rather than the more MBA sort of qualities (good manager, delegates effectively, manages conflict, has vision). Dever strongly recommends having elders assist the pastor (who functions as a sort of elder) since they have helped him tremendously. Finally, there are four aspects of leadership (BOSS): being the boss, being out in front, supplying others, and serving.

Dever does an excellent job of describing the Biblical views of these nine marks. I suspect that if you already happen to have the Biblical view of a particular mark that the chapter will be fairly uninformative, as that was the effect that the chapters on evangelism, conversion, and the gospel had on me. However, I found he had interesting support for exegetical preaching (which I have always preferred, but never had an argument for), and the marks of church membership and discipleship raised ideas that I had not considered but definitely seem to be Scriptural. I was also disappointed that the marks are simply marks that have grown rare; he does not offer any defense as to why these are healthy marks. This was particularly disappointing since he dismisses many other books on the topic as being unhelpful. However, this book is definitely worth reading, particularly for young leaders in the church.
Review: 8.5
Solid Biblical explanation of these principles. Content is probably 9.5, but the writing drags the rating down. It is somewhat dull (although not painfully so), and I would really like some defense as to why these are marks of a healthy church. Not that I disagree with him, but he offers no arguments in favor of his basic thesis.

[Update July 2015]
Having come around to a more Charismatic way of looking at things, I no longer agree that these are the nine marks of a healthy church. Good marks, yes, but not sufficient for health. Dever writes from a very evangelical view, and these are classic marks of what evangelicals consider a good church—a healthy community which is holding firm to the truth. My experience is that emphasis on right doctrine and right thinking results in a church that is living but does not feel alive. It sees a little transformation in its members and community around it, but frankly, feels like it is loosing the war with the larger culture.

My Charismatic experience suggests that he is missing three very important marks: the Holy Spirit and the Presence of God, loving worship, and love for people. After all, the point of being a Christian is loving God, and if He does not show up somehow, that is a disappointing love-relationship... If we really have the Almighty God, the guy who created this entire universe, living is us, but people show up at our church and cannot sense that somehow these people are different, that somehow God is here in some mysterious but tangible way, something might be wrong. And if we really love God, there ought to be some sort of expression of that in worship (which is not necessarily the same thing as singing songs about God). Finally, “if we have not love, we are a clanging cymbal.” If people do not sense God’s love when they interact with a church, something is definitely wrong. Right doctrine without love does not transform the world the way Jesus modeled.