Review of Nine Marks of a Health Church by Mark Dever

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Nine Marks of a Healthy Church focuses on Expositional Preaching, Biblical Theology, The Gospel, A Biblical Understanding of Conversion, A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism, A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership, Biblical Church Discipline, A Concern for Discipleship and Growth, and Biblical Church Leadership as signs of a thriving church according to pastor Mark Dever from his Washington DC church.  Dever posits the local church as a part of the global Church, meeting a deep need he experiences evidenced in our current culture:

There’s a restlessness about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and, if the truth were known, a dissatisfaction with ourselves that is as widespread as it is deep-seated. We are not content, so we rearrange the furniture, paint the hallway, or buy new clothes. If things then get worse, we wonder about changing where we live. We ask for flexible hours at our job, or even change jobs. Sometimes we might even long to change our spouse. Today even those more traditionally fixed boundaries of sexuality and of life itself are transgressed in a vain attempt to find satisfaction. And yet, as work conditions and jobs, marriages and families, and even gender and death become subject to our own choices, we seem to find ourselves defeated, trapped, and hopeless.

Dever sets out his metrics of healthy churches by naming elements integral to the Christian faith which should be present in a Christian church such as Expositional Preaching, Biblical Theology, and the Gospel.  Dever exhorts pastors to teach from Scripture rather than seeking Scripture that affirms the message they want to preach.  He posits that Scripture should serve a the authority in the church both in the life of believers and the pastor.  Dever further explains that such a high value is integral to individual and organizational growth in the church: “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.” (43)  In the same vein, he challenges pastors that the church can only growth in their Biblical knowledge and faith as the pastor has grown.  Dever highlights valuing Scripture to the degree that the pastor holds an accurate and impactful theology.  He explains that a pastor’s theology will shape the way he fulfills his role: “We would shepherd differently. We will understand nothing about the Bible if we do not understand the God whom it is about.” (80)  Extending beyond our theology, Dever explains the role of the Gospel in the Christian Church.  He emphasizes the importance of our role saying,

The signs Christ gave of his gospel are not passive things like watching the stream flow or the wheat grow, but he told his followers to get into the water in baptism, and to eat the bread and drink the wine at the Lord’s Supper. He called us to live new lives, bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3), and acknowledge Jesus before men (Matt. 10: 32).

Dever’s Nine Marks of  a Healthy Church includes many key strengths in its discourse.  First of all, Dever exudes a clear love for building up the body of Christ.  He hones in on Biblical calling and precise examples for the exaltation of the local church, leading to the growth of the global Church.  Dever does not simply describe the modern state of the Church in its challenges and shortcomings, though he proves a pulse on the current cultural climate.  Rather, he calls the Church to a higher standard and to a return to its proper roots both on an individual and systemic level.  He calls members of the church to greater levels of engagement saying,

You must realize that part of your obligation and privilege as a member of the church is to get to know other believers and to make yourself known to them. Study God’s Word together. Learn to think as a church about God’s Word. You should be growing in grace yourself, and in the knowledge of God’s Word, in the knowledge of your own heart and of the hearts of your brothers and sisters, and in awareness of the opportunities God.

Dever’s love for the church is not just theoretical or theological, yet based on his experience as he offers insights from his extensive tenure in pastoral ministry.

            Another key strength of Dever’s dissertation on healthy churches is a correct valuing of growth.  Many churches seek to evaluate their growth or health quantitatively and can focus greatly on numbers, forgetting they are interacting with and setting goals regarding people, not just statistics.  Dever maintains a healthy perspective regarding such tensions, especially in regards to evangelism.  He challenges churches to be sure they do not take up so much of their members’ time that they lack the time to cultivate friendships with those outside the Church.  He nudges churches to focus on truly worshipful and honoring evangelism:

Is there really a problem with having a wrong motivation for evangelism? I actually think so. There can be such a thing as a selfish motive for evangelism. Perhaps some churches have no concern for the salvation of the people around them but have a great concern that they not have to close their doors.

Finally, a key strength of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church is its Biblical yet countercultural perspective of church discipline.  Dever not only insightfully explains its Biblical value, but prescribes a means of preventing such measures’ necessary role through proper onboarding to the commitment of membership to the church.  Furthermore, Dever offers a commentary of history in the American church that led to the decline of such church discipline and urges churches to reinstate its function, upholding its immense value in the life of the church organizationally and the principles it instills individually.

            While Nine Marks of  a Healthy Church is a greatly positioned discourse, this text does of course come with its faults.  The author at times uses some cliché phrasing to express his points.  He breaks the third wall of commentary and discourse to reach directly to the individual, but with such a staunch transition in voice that detracts from the text’s valuable insights in such a moment when he posits, “What if the Lord Himself phoned you?”  Furthermore, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church lacks a clear direction on its audience.  In its early sections it includes many exhortations to pastors and leaders, yet various other sections seem to relate more directly to individual members of the church.  Such members may become educated on church health, but are not then provided with practical resources and next steps to help their church move toward health.  Healthy individuals make up a healthy organization, but Dever is unclear which he is focusing on in such a text, causing a lack of direction action in response to its discourse and challenge.  Finally, Dever provides somewhat limited insight into a culture of religious pluralism and Postmodernism.  Such a weakness may be due to the work’s dated publication, or a focus on Biblical exposition, rather than social commentary.