Book Review: What Is a Healthy Church?

Healthy ChurchMark Dever opens What Is a Healthy Church? by pointing out that much of what we look for in a church is determined by our own particular culture: the type of music, pastor, preaching, etc., that we’re used to. He encourages readers to consider Biblical marks of a healthy church. Why does he address a book like this to Christians in general rather than church leaders? Because, he points out, most of the NT epistles, which contain much instruction about church as well as personal life, were written to congregations, not just pastors.

Then he explains briefly what a Christian is, what the church is and isn’t, what the church is for, and why Christians need a church. Ultimately the church “is called to display the character and glory of God to all the universe, testifying in word and action to his great wisdom and work of salvation” (p. 48).

The church finds its life as it listens to the Word of God. It finds its purpose as it lives out and displays the Word of God. The church’s job is to listen and then to echo…The primary challenge churches face today is not figuring out how to be “relevant” or “strategic” or “sensitive” or even “deliberate.” It’s figuring out how to be faithful–how to listen, to trust and obey (pp. 55-56).

He then discusses one by one what he considers nine marks of a healthy church, dividing them into three essential marks (expositional preaching, Biblical theology, Biblical understanding of the Good News) and six important ones (Biblical understanding of conversion, evangelism, membership, church discipline, discipleship and growth, and church leadership).

You and I cannot demonstrate love or joy or peace or patience or kindness sitting all by ourselves on an island. No, we demonstrate it when the people we have committed to loving give us good reasons not to love them, but we do anyway (p. 29).

If a healthy church is a congregation that increasingly displays the character of God as his character has been revealed in his Word, the most obvious place to begin building a healthy church is to call Christians to listen to God’s Word. God’s Word is the source of all life and health. It’s what feeds, develops, and preserves a church’s understanding of the gospel itself (p. 63).

Martin Luther found that carefully attending to God’s Word began a Reformation. We, too, must commit to seeing that our churches are always being reformed by the Word of God (p. 67).

Sometimes, it’s tempting to present some of the very real benefits of the gospel as the gospel itself. And these benefits tend to be things that non-Christians naturally want, like joy, peace, happiness, fulfillment, self-esteem, or love. Yet presenting them as the gospel is presenting a partial truth. And, as J. I. Packer says, “A half truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.”

Fundamentally, we don’t need just joy or peace or purpose. We need God, himself. Since we are condemned sinners, then, we need his forgiveness above all else. We need spiritual life. When we present the gospel less radically, we simply ask for false conversions and increasingly meaningless church membership lists, both of which make the evangelization of the world around us more difficult (p. 77).

My thoughts:

I don’t think I have ever read anything by Dever before and was only vaguely aware of his organization, 9Marks. This book seems to be a compact version of what he has written more extensively elsewhere. We received it in a gift bag from a church we visited. Generally I agree with what’s here with a couple of exceptions, one relatively minor.

1) In the chapter on preaching he makes the statement “Has not every step of growth in grace occurred when we heard from God in ways we hadn’t heard from him before?” (p. 66). For me, significant growth in grace has occurred sometimes from being reminded of something I already knew from God’s Word that I needed to return to or refocus on.

2) I think he’s too dismissive of differences in preference of music styles in churches. He seems to consider it almost a non-issue.

Remembering that the church is a people should help us recognize what’s important and what’s not important. I know I need the help. For example, I have a temptation to let something like the style of music dictate how I feel about a church. After all, the style of music a church uses is one of the first things we will notice about any church, and we tend to respond to music at a very emotional level. Music makes us feel a certain way. Yet what does it say about my love for Christ and for Christ’s people if I decide to leave a church because of the style of its music? Or if, when pastoring a church, I marginalize a majority of my congregation because I think the style of music needs to be updated? At the very least, we could say that I’ve forgotten that the church, fundamentally, is a people and not a place (p. 35).

If it were just a matter of preferences, that would be true. What I think he might not understand is that some people consider certain types of music not just not preferable, but wrong. We’ve heard teaching for years about what’s wrong with certain types of music. On the other hand, the Bible doesn’t say anything about particular music styles, and I think some of that specific teaching went far beyond what the Bible has to say about music. But I don’t think that means “anything goes.” So we’re trying to sort out what’s coming from conscience or conditioning, but I don’t think we can ignore conscience or conditioning, either. Music makes up a significant part of a church service, so, while it’s not “the” main issue, or even part of the “nine marks,” it is still an issue.

Aside from those, I thought this was a good overview of what a healthy church should be. I also appreciated his encouragement to both pastor and people to be patient if a church isn’t “there” yet and his reminder that growth takes time. Once when we were getting ready to move to another state, our dear pastor at the time advised us to look not just at where a church is, but where it’s heading, and I think that dovetails nicely with the instruction in this book. No church will be perfect, but we should look for one with a good foundation and growth in these ways.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

7 thoughts on “Book Review: What Is a Healthy Church?

  1. I agree with you on his being dismissive of worship style. I think you and I are from a background where this was an important issue, and yes, people often do choose a church often based on worship style. To this day I wouldn’t even bother visiting if I knew they had a drum set on stage or had a reputation for the Christian rock band. I know I can’t find “drum set” in my Bible, but I was taught not to use rock styles in worship, so I can’t simply ignore it. That doesn’t make me legalistic, but it does mean that my conscience, perhaps conditioned by my background, won’t allow it for me. It’s idol’s meat for me. I wouldn’t be able to sit through week after week of that. It’s pretty silly to treat worship music as a nonissue for everyone. The worship wars have been raging for decades. I have that book, and a former church went through it in small groups. It was okay but not as deep as I personally would have liked. Very little on biblical separation.

    • The meat offered to idols analogy is an apt one. I remember reading in Elisabeth Elliot’s writings that she struggled with what she had been taught about worldliness when she went to Ecuador, because almost none of what she had been taught applied to their culture. It’s more than music styles and dress standards, etc., but it certainly affects those things in our culture.

      And that’s a good point about separation. Though some take that too far as well, and separate themselves in a corner over preferences rather than Biblical issues, and are more known for what they’re against than what they’re for, separation from disobedience and doctrinal error is a big part of the epistles and can’t be ignored. Perhaps it was implied in his emphasis on reading, following, and obeying the Bible. I know he’s written a larger book on the nine marks he emphasizes, so perhaps he discusses it more there. But I think that has been generally de-empahisized in Evangelical culture over the years.

  2. Thanks for your good insights, Barbara. Too bad Mark is dismissive over something that has caused so much headache in the church. Have you seen the Gettys latest book on church music? It’s called Sing! and they deal with the issue so redemptively.

  3. Thank you for sharing your insights here about this book. He does seem to have some good points, but I also see wisdom in your thoughts about the book. I, too, have seen growth not necessarily from something new but from a reminder from God’s word.

    Blessings to you! I’m your neighbor at #LMMLinkup.

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