Reviewed by Doug Smith
This book is new, but it's not really new. What Is a Healthy Church? first appeared in public as a series of articles in a church newsletter. It then became a booklet ("9 Marks of a Healthy Church" – free .pdf), and later a full-size book ( Nine Marks of a Healthy Church). Now it is a small book. And it seems to get better each time. So, what is a healthy church?
Mark Dever is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C., and founder of 9Marks Ministries. His prescription for a healthy church is provided here in a very useful format. The book is divided into three sections: 1) What Is a Healthy Church?; 2) Essential Marks of a Healthy Church; and 3) Important Marks of a Healthy Church. In part 1, he explains how Christians are to relate to a church and how the church's purpose is to display the glory of God. Parts 2 and 3 give the nine marks, with the first three considered essential (expositional preaching, biblical theology, and a biblical understanding of the good news) and the last six designated as important (a biblical understanding of conversion, evangelism, and church membership; biblical church discipline, discipleship and growth, and church leadership). One should probably not be a part of a church that is defective in the essential marks, whereas more patience, love, and instruction may be what are needed to develop the other six marks.
The book challenges us to think seriously about the church, and not consider it an "option" for Christians, but part of who we are. It reminds us that the diet of a healthy church is faithful expositional preaching, where God's Word is exposed constantly, so that hearers are not limited by a proclamation of what the preacher already knows. Biblical theology helps us in knowing the full counsel of God and not avoiding controversial yet important teachings such as election, man's depravity, and the nature of the atonement. The Gospel message is clear, as is the nature of true conversion and faithful evangelism, which proclaims the good news and calls for repentance and faith in the Savior. Church membership is a serious matter, as it entails commitment and responsibility on the part of members and an affirmation of their salvation by the church to which they belong. Church discipline is important to protect the purity of the church and its testimony. While discipline "is fraught with problems of wisdom and pastoral application," that is no excuse for its neglect, as the message sent by a lack of discipline is that the unrepentant church member is okay, when, in reality, the church should not be able to honestly affirm their salvation. Discipleship and growth lead to increasing self-denial and personal holiness in believers. Church leadership should be modeled after the plurality of elders seen in the New Testament, while the final authority lies in the congregation. Church leaders are to be mature men who have the ability to teach God's Word.
Dever gives caveats to church members and pastors encouraged by this material: don't try to see change happen too fast; pray, wait, set a good example, and love the people of your church. Extras include tips for those thinking of leaving a church, how to find a good church, and what a typical church covenant of a healthy church could look like.
What Is a Healthy Church? is an easy, fast read that challenges much modern thinking about the church (even among conservative Christians). It is simple, helpfully provocative, and to the point. Church members as well as pastors and seminarians would profit from this resource, which has fertile soil for further reflection. Whether you have Dever's materials already or have never read him, this little book is well worth picking up (only $5 from 9Marks). It is recast in such a way that I find it helpful to have along with the more detailed Nine Marks of a Healthy Church book.
While substantive, the book is an introduction to these ideas, and not a handbook for fleshing them out in great detail (Paul Alexander and Dever wrote The Deliberate Church for that purpose). By no means a full ecclesiology, this book deals briefly with matters such as baptism and the Lord's Supper as they relate to the nine marks set forth. It is written with the understanding that a healthy church will celebrate the ordinances, and live out other normal practices of the church, such as praying together.
The book reminds us of the importance of the church as God's vehicle for displaying His glory to the nations. His Word is central from creation to consummation, and ought to be preached faithfully, not neglecting any part of the Bible. Therefore, preachers ought to, in some way, preach systematically and regularly through the Bible. It is a necessity for a healthy church.
It is important for the health of the church to understand what a true Christian is. Therefore, we should not idolize numbers. Regularly having attendance far below a church's membership should be a scandal and shame to us. We should not simply see the praying of a prayer as the evidence of "successful evangelism." Rather, we should proclaim the Gospel and its demands clearly and pray that the lost will come to Christ in faith and follow Him. We certainly need to be obedient in evangelism, but we also need to trust God for the results as we share the good news as He has revealed it in His Word. We should make the true nature and value of membership known, both in taking in new members and disciplining those who refuse to repent of known sin. We ought not to give testimony, even implicit affirmation, that people are Christians when their lives loudly and consistently proclaim otherwise.
The view of biblical eldership set forth in the book may be hard to swallow for some. But Dever makes a convincing case by the usage of the word in the Scriptures. He also shares personal benefits he has derived from being one of a group of elders. A plurality of qualified, godly leaders would do much toward improving and maintaining a healthy church, particularly in circles where churches often center around a strong personality. It can be a protection for the preaching pastor as well as for his people. Dever writes of biblical eldership, "If implemented in our churches, it could help pastors immensely by removing weight from their shoulders and even removing their own petty tyrannies from their churches."
This book presents old truths in a fresh way. These are foundations that are easily assumed or neglected. What Is a Healthy Church? confronts us lovingly and clearly with the meat and potatoes of what it takes to begin displaying God's glory to the world as His church.
For more on discipline and church government, see Polity, edited by Mark Dever, and available as a free download here.
Here is another review (Trevin Wax).