Church health about distinctness from — not relevance to — the world, Dever says at SBTS

Communications Staff — November 8, 2007

The health of local churches depends not on being relevant to the world and viewing success in terms of numbers, but on reflecting the character of God and upholding His Word, Mark Dever said in a presentation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Oct. 9.

Instead of spending great amounts of time and ministry on relating to the culture, Dever said church leaders should channel their energy toward maintaining purity in the church. Dever serves as pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and is a member of the board of trustees for Southern Seminary. He is also the founder of 9Marks Ministries.

“The main problem in our churches today is that the church is reflecting far more of the world’s characteristics than they are of God’s character,” he said.

“I would like to suggest that the most fundamental problem in the church is not that we are not relevant enough in relation to the world, but that the church is not distinct enough from the world. Our churches must reflect the character of God.”

Dever said the idea that the Gospel must be made relevant is a liberal assumption, which — if taken to its end — can result in the theological liberalism of Friedreich Schleiermacher, the father of Protestant liberalism. Dever said numerous church models seek to be relevant and do not reach the unorthodox conclusions of liberalism, but remain unhealthy because they are based on an unbiblical definition of success.

“The problem with the seeker-sensitive model, emerging church model and even the traditional model that says, ‘get as many people into a room as possible and share the Gospel with them’ is that they view success in light of visible fruit,” he said. “All three of these approaches say, ‘change your techniques and let’s get some numbers.’

“Instead of being directed by [visible] success, we should be directed by faithfulness. We should say ‘if the Lord doesn’t like our product we will change the product.’ We shouldn’t take the idea that if we don’t have X-number of conversions in our church, then we must be doing something wrong. I am glad Jeremiah didn’t think that. And I am glad that Jesus Christ didn’t think that. Let us remember that we are following the One who was crucified as a revolutionary.”

Dever offered nine elements that should characterize a healthy church, derived from his book “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church,” at the event, which was sponsored by the Korean Student Fellowship.

Expositional preaching must first characterize a church that will be able to withstand the pressures of an increasingly secular culture, Dever said.

“You must have preaching that makes the point of the text the point of the message and where the Gospel is always present,” he said. “In the Bible, the people never create God’s Word. Instead, God’s Word always creates the people. That is how God has always worked. And that is how we should preach. That is how people are saved, and how people are sanctified. God’s Spirit works with His Word.”

Second, sound theology will go hand-in-hand with expositional preaching, further helping people view the world through God’s eyes, Dever said. Biblical understandings of the Gospel, conversion and evangelism will also promote church health, he said.

Church membership and church discipline each must be expounded and practiced by church leaders to maintain purity within local churches, Dever argued. Church membership and discipline fulfill Jesus’ command to love one another, Dever said, and church leaders will give an account for the people they allow to be into their congregation.

“The basic idea of practicing a self-conscious allegiance to a certain group of people and to a certain group of elders is taught in the Bible,” he said. “Our church membership should capture what it means to be a Christian through people’s actions. Jesus said that they would know that you are Christians by your love, not for the people in the community, but for each other. Somehow what happens in the community of a congregation is more powerful even than your individual honesty and kindness to others. I think we (church leaders) will give an account to God for the membership of the church in which we pastor.”

Finally, Dever said a concern for discipleship and Christian growth, and a biblical church leadership structure will promote healthy churches.

Patience and courage are needed to correct a situation where the number of church members greatly exceeds those who faithfully attend and participate in the life of the church, Dever said.

“You must very clearly preach the Gospel, Sunday after Sunday, making it very clear what a Christian is [in such a situation],” he said. “Second, you must be very patient. It took me two years to finish dealing with that issue, in a very stable, Bible-believing congregation. Get counsel from older men who agree with you theologically.

“And when the time comes, what is typically lacking in pastors in many cases is courage. You do have to have courage to look at a man twice your age and tell him that he has been doing things wrong all his life. You must keep making it very clear what a Christian is.”

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