Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Nine Marks and Holiness

October 29, 2009

dever_9marks1I always like it when an author asks questions like: “For what purpose does your church exist? How do you know if it is fulfilling its purpose? How do you know that things are going well in your church?” (186)

In other words, What’s it all for?

I find myself drawn back to that question again and again. It’s like a North Star or the Big Dipper for me. I can make sense of what’s going on around me as long as I can relate it to that question. I can tell that Nine Marks was written largely in response to so many wrong answers to that question. Many books out there pre-suppose that bigger must be better (how could a church that’s growing by the thousands be bad, right?). Dever takes dead aim at that. Numbers, according to Dever, are not the best indicator of a church’s success or health.

Paul hoped the Corinthians would grow in their Christian faith (2 Cor. 10:15). The Ephesians he hoped, would ‘grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ’ (Eph. 4:15; cf. Col.1:10; 2 Thess. 1:3). It is tempting at times for pastors to reduce their churches to manageable statistics of attendance, baptisms, giving, and membership, where growth is tangible, recordable, demonstrable, and comparable. However, such statistics fall far short of the true growth that Paul describes in these verses, and that God desires. (215)

So what is a good indicator of this growth and maturity?  For Dever the answer is holiness (190).

What then is the evidence of true Christian growth?  According to [Jonathan] Edwards… the only certain observable sign of such growth is a life of increasing holiness, rooted in Christian self-denial. (215)

Do I agree with this?  It depends.  Only a fool would presume to disagree with a theological heavyweight like Jonathan Edwards.  And here I go…

I see a flaw in this conception.  It’s very Reformed and I recognize it clearly.  You naturally feel bad for disagreeing with it.  But I think the way we understand holiness is skewed.

Earlier in the book, Dever explains that we were created to bear God’s image and reflect his character.  “Our lives are the storefront display of God’s character in His world” (191).  Well put.  And I’m cool with the holiness target as long as it is defined in those terms.  What makes us “holy” (i.e. specially marked — different) is our tendency to love as He loves.  Since that’s the essence of his character, then our differentness is expressed fundamentally in that very thing.

I suspect that holiness means, for many people, that there’s a bunch of things we don’t do.  We don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t chew, don’t run around with folks who do.  We don’t listen to those kinds of music or watch these kinds of movies, etc.  It’s all about avoidance of dirt, keeping ourselves clean and undefiled by contact with the world.  But that sounds exactly like the kind of “perfection” that we people think up on our own.  It’s all about us.  Our goodness.  Our righteousness.  Our status.

Loving someone, on the other hand, gets you dirty sometimes.  It means going where they are, and in many cases doing what they do.  Like Jesus going to all their parties.  Was that being holy?  We know we’re supposed to say yes but come on!  Doesn’t that really mess up our categories just a bit?  I have often wondered, if the incarnation had happened first in my day, and if I were to run into him somewhere, would I have associated with him?  I wonder sometimes if I would have only been offended by him.

The ultimate mark of maturity in a church is that they love well.  They love one another and share that love with the world around them.  Will that make them a large church?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

I know what ingredients make a church large.   A dynamic speaker in the pulpit.  Gifted musicians.  Well-run programs (choir, children’s activities, support groups).  These things work.  But I don’t think they produce mature saints.  I don’t see them making what I’ve heard called “disciple-making disciples.”  For that to happen, I think smaller is actually better.  Even if we’re talking about a huge network of smaller groups.  Healthy churches in the future, I believe, will not meet in gargantuan buildings with thousands of people in attendance.  They will consist in hundreds of small groups meeting for encouragement, instruction, discipleship, worship, etc.

One can dream, right?


Nine Marks and Ownership of the Church

October 15, 2009

dever_9marksPermit me a couple more negative critiques of Nine Marks, after which I will go back to telling you where Dever and I agree.

Dever says:

“In a funny way, when we hear expositional preaching we become less dependent on the preacher.  We’re more concerned about the Word of God.  And so, if your pastor is away, if God calls him somewhere else or if he’s gone and someone else is in the pulpit, that’s okay.”(206)

I get what he is saying, and ideally we want this to be true.  Too many churches (including one I know very well) are built entirely around a single personality.  When that person leaves, the church as it used to be ceases to exist.  Ideally, as Dever would like it, the preaching of the Word, not the preacher himself, would be central to the life of the church.  Dever argues that expositional preaching will safeguard against the cult of personality.

But I say the preacher is still too central either way.  An expositional preacher still dominates the gathering of the saints way too much.  The whole worship service points to the moment when everyone else gets very quiet and very still in order to let the one guy do all the talking.  The very existence of the monologue teaches the rest of the Body of Christ to be passive.  It screams volumes about who really has the ability to “minister.”  I agree that it is a problem when a church becomes overly dependent upon one personality.  But the bigger, deeper, more universal problem is that churches in general depend too much upon the guy who fills the pulpit, regardless of his preaching style.

Topical preaching isn’t the problem.  The pulpit itself is the problem.

Well, that’s oversimplification, of course.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone getting up in front of a church to preach and teach.  I’d like to see more people do it.  That might help us see more of the Body as viable vehicles for God’s word.  Ultimately, furniture is not the problem–lopsided functioning in the Body of Christ is.

Elsewhere, Dever says this:

“Joining a church increases our sense of ownership of the work of the church, of its community, of its budget, of its goals.  We move from being pampered consumers to becoming joyous proprietors.”(157)

Again, I’m feelin’ ya, Dever.  Isn’t that what all church leaders want?  Don’t we all want to see the average church member catch a sense of ownership of the mission and purpose of the church?  But how can I feel like a proprietor when I have no say in what is taught, what is sung, or how the church goes about its work?  If I am not on staff, I am out of the loop.  Merely becoming a member changes very little.  If I really want to make a difference, I have to become a pastor myself.

murrowI wrote an article several years ago entitled “Why Men Don’t Go to Church.”  It must have struck a chord with a number of people because it still gets quoted on people’s blogs from time to time, and it even helped one author think through his material for a book he later wrote using almost the same title.  In my article, I argued this same point–that the only way to make much of a difference in the direction of a church is to crossover and become one of the clergy.  As long as that’s the way it is, I’m afraid the consumer mentality will be very difficult for most church members to avoid.


One more thing I gotta take issue with:  Dever’s take on different leadership models was three-quarters right, in my opinion.  But the first of the four leadership styles he proposes is called “the boss,” and he considers it a legitimate mode of leadership in the church.  I do not.  Dever gives good scriptural support for the other three:  the example setter, the support giver, and the servant leader.  His top-down “boss” model just doesn’t mesh well with the other three or with the New Testament.  The scant scriptural references he gives to illustrate it (238) just don’t say what he seems to think they say.

To me, this “commanding” mode of leadership flies in the face of Dever’s earlier chapter on authority in the church, which I liked very much.  In that earlier chapter, he cites Matthew 18:15-17 to illustrate that, in the church, the ultimate court of appeal is the church itself–not a specially-marked individual or group of leaders.  He also recognizes that when Paul sought to correct the saints in Corinth, “he instructs the whole church–not just the leaders–to take action” (223).  Likewise, when the Galatians heard that they were supposed to get circumcised in order to be good Christians, he made his appeal to the whole church, not to a dominating group.  “They had an inescapable duty to judge even those who claimed to be apostles” (224).  Where’s “the boss” in those scenarios?  It’s not there.

Top-down is simply not the style of leadership envisioned by Jesus or the New Testament writers.  Bottom-up is more like it.  Or even the “alongside” kind, as Dever characterizes two of his four styles.  But top-down won’t do.  Maybe things in the world work that way.  But not in the church.

It will not be so among you,” Jesus told us (Mk. 10:43).   How quickly we forget.

Nine Marks and the Centrality of the Preacher

October 12, 2009

dever_9marksLet me begin my most critical post about Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by affirming something I really like about this book.  Dever places the speaking of God at the fountainhead of the life of the church.  I completely agree with him there.  Several pages in his first chapter sound just like a section in my book about the centrality of the Word of God in the life of the church.  He argues that God’s people have always been constituted as a people by the speaking of God (44).  He points out how often “the word of the Lord came” to Israel–3,000 times (45)!  He illustrates from Ezekiel how God gives life to dead things by simply speaking to them (46).  He goes on to teach that “His Word not only gives us life; it also gives us direction as it keeps molding and shaping us in the image of the God who is speaking to us” (51).  Absolutely right!  Couldn’t agree more.

But I contend that God speaks through the whole church, not just through one man.  That perpetual “guy up front” concept may have been exactly right for the Old Covenant people of God, but he is up to something else now.  I wish everyone could see this.  God told us that when the fullness of time had come, he would pour out his Spirit on all his people, not just on a select few.  When he said, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28), he was using what in Hebrew poetry is called a merism (also defined here).  It means every one of God’s people will have his Spirit and every one of them will become his spokesmen.  And in case you missed it, Peter announced that Joel’s prophecy was fulfilled the day the church was born (Acts 2:14ff).  In the New Covenant community, everyone becomes a mouthpiece for God.

Reformed thinkers don’t see it that way, and neither does Dever.  Reformed theology tends to blend together the Old and New Covenants so that each one bleeds into the other, affecting what we see in each.  While Hebrews tells us clearly that we have NOT come to Mt. Sinai (Heb.12:18-24) but to something much better, several professors at the Reformed seminary I went to actually taught that Sinai is our best model for how worship should happen today.  For them, it is an extension of something called the “regulative principle of worship.”  God’s people gather to the feet of an elevated platform to hear him speak his demands and the people respond with “all this we will do.”  In this model, only one person is authorized to speak for God, and that’s the preacher.  That’s the model that Dever apparently adheres to, and it still makes my Baptist stomach turn.

Listen to Dever’s unqualified championing of this regulative principle in preaching:

“Permit me to suggest that the one-sidedness of preaching is not only excusable but is actually important.  If in our preaching we stand in the place of God…then surely it is appropriate that it be one-sided…the univocal character of God’s Word comes as a monologue to us” (33).

Did a Baptist really write that sentence?  I can hardly believe it!  Where does he find support for this in the New Testament?  Surely he is back at Sinai with our Reformed friends, but he assumes this model rather than demonstrating it.  Reading the following statement, I’m certain of it:

“…there is something appropriate about us all gathering together and listening to one who is standing in the place of God, giving His Word to us as we contribute nothing to it other than hearing and heeding it” (54, emphasis mine).

Standing in the place of God?  I heard an Orthodox priest tell me the same thing once.  That’s the Orthodox/Catholic view of the role of a priest.  It shouldn’t even fit within a “Reformed” ecclesiology, but somehow it has anyway.  I’ve never understood how.

Peter said we should all speak as those speaking the very words of God (1 Pet.4:11 ).  That’s why I can’t support this notion that one guy gets to be the lone mouthpiece of God when the church assembles.

I just don’t follow this reasoning:  First he argues that the New Testament teaches a plurality of elders.  At first it is assumed that elders are synonymous with pastors (aka shepherds).  But then some distinctive singular office called “the preacher” emerges and becomes synonymous with THE pastor (suddenly singular) with no warning or explanation.  Dever says: “My main role, and the main role of any pastor, is expositional preaching” (39).  Says who?  What verse did you get that out of?  More crucially, why do you insist that this function falls only to one person in a church?  Why aren’t at least the other elders “preachers” as well?  And what happened to the rest of the members of the Body of Christ to make them suddenly passive receptacles for such a uni-directional ministry?

This is the point where Dever and I part ways, and it’s a crucial point.  Dever himself argues that the preaching of this singular individual, since it is the only way for the church to hear from God, “is far and away the most important [mark] of them all…if you get this one right, all of the others should follow.  This is the crucial mark” (39).

Well, there you have it.  It all hangs on the preacher, and he’s all alone in his role.  All the hopes and dreams for life in the church rise and fall on the capabilities of one individual.  Forgive me, I simply cannot find the priesthood of all believers in that notion.  I certainly cannot find a living, functioning Body of Christ supplying its own needs through what every joint supplies (Eph 4:15-16).  We’ve got two very different models here for how a church functions, and I don’t see any way they can mesh.  If Dever’s model is your model for how God communicates with his people, then I don’t think we’re thinking about the same thing at all.

One man cannot feed God’s people week after week, year after year without them  becoming passive receptacles.  A room full of ears sitting underneath one giant mouth.  That’s just not the Body of Christ.

Last Sunday I went to church at a local Baptist church.  For the first hour, in Sunday School, I sat quietly, listening to a lesson on the second coming.  It was taught by an intelligent woman who did a good job teaching it.  There still were a number of points I would have disagreed with if it had been really appropriate to do so, but under the circumstances, that would have been just rude and annoying.  So I sat quietly and listened.  When that hour was done, I filed into the sanctuary for another hour to hear the choir sing and the preacher preach.  When that was done, my family and I went home and put on our comfortable clothes and ate lunch.

Since actions speak louder than words, it seems to me that this setup is teaching me that I am a spectator–a passive recipient of ministry–and not a minister myself.  You can say every member is a minister until you are blue in the face.  You can preach all you want about mobilizing the “people in the pew” for mission.   But this arrangement undermines that message in the most fundamental way.  I’m sticking by my original contention that this has to change before average believers will ever come to see themselves as active participants in the mission of God in the world.

Think about it.  Isn’t it obvious?

Nine Marks and Reformed Stepchildren

October 10, 2009

rip-van-winkleReturning to Baptist life after almost ten years away, I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle.  Apparently, while I was gone Southern Baptists found something new to fight about.  Back in the day, the fight was over biblical inerrancy.  Then it was over speaking in tongues.  Then they decided to crack down on women in ministry.  I don’t really know what else–I lost interest nearly 15 years ago.  In fact, I left the SBC fold entirely.  I did something that, to my mind, was the most historically Baptist thing I could do:  I forsook denominational life and went primitive, meeting in homes with other non-conformists like myself.  We devoted ourselves to a thoroughly consistent belief in the priesthood of believers.  We had a great run for a while, too.  But the time eventually came when my wife and I needed to move on to something else (still not sure what!).  But I’m going to miss them and I know I’ll always thank God for my time with them.

By the way, have you heard the one about the guy who tried to start a Non-conformists Club?  He couldn’t get anyone to join.

Well, back to Dever’s book.  It turns out that while I was away, Southern Baptists got bit by the Reformed bug.  Not all of them, mind you.  Many of them vehemently oppose this new development.  They see Calvinism as a mortal enemy of evangelism, which is the Baptist’s main focus.  But huge swaths of young Southern Baptists have begun reading Puritans for their devotions.  They’re downloading John Piper and C.J. Mahaney messages.  They’re reading R.C. Sproul.  The’re reading Jonathan Edwards for fun!  What happened?

Well, I know the story, some of it.  A Calvinist became president of Southern Baptist Seminary and he cleaned house.  I read that 96% of the faculty got replaced in just a few years.  Small wonder, then, that tulips are blooming now in Baptist pulpits all over the country.  I’m sure there’s more to it than that, of course.  Ultimately I suspect Reformed theology has gained ground lately because it has substance and depth to it.  It has intellectual bite.  In an age when people know less and less what they believe, this tradition gives people something solid to stand on.

Incidentally, I happen to agree with much of Reformed theology, and not just because I studied at Reformed Seminary.  For all the things I don’t like about most Calvinists (like intellectual arrogance and a strong clergy/laity distinction).  I still believe in a sovereign God.  I still believe he had to quicken my heart before it could even sense its own need for him.  I’m at least a four-point Calvinist myself.  That won’t satisfy hardcore Calvinists, of course (I’m convinced that, unlike the other four,  one of the five points doesn’t come from scripture at all–it is inferred from the other four).  But I’m not that befuddled by a grassroots return to what Reformed folks call the “doctrines of grace.”  To my mind, most of this stuff just comes from reading the New Testament.  The idea of election, for example, comes from Paul, not from some French guy in the 1500’s.

But in the Baptist world I grew up in, this kind of talk would have made me the butt of many jokes.  I didn’t know of any Calvinists in the large SBC church I grew up in, nor had I even heard of them anywhere else except in Presbyterian churches.  I remember how amazed I was when I first read through the New Testament and discovered verses like Acts 13:48:

“When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (emphasis mine).

I brought that verse to Sunday School one morning and everyone insisted I must have been reading from a bad translation.

dever_9marks1But now as my wife and I have started church hunting among Baptist churches, we’ve discovered that most of them around here are preaching Reformed theology from the pulpit!  It’s like Bizarro world for Baptists!  One of those pastors handed me Mark Dever’s Nine Marks book and said, “Here is basically what I believe.”  I open the book and read him affirming the following:  “The history recorded in the Bible shows us very plainly that God is a creating God and that He is an electing God” (62).  He does not see a contradiction between election and evangelism.  He rather asserts that “God used the doctrine of election as an encouragement to Paul in evangelism” (143), citing as his proof Acts 18:9-10, which says:

And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.‘”

Belief in election isn’t the only evidence of the Reformed influences on Dever’s thinking.  One of his main points is that churches should be receiving a steady diet of systematic theology (a clear mark of a Reformed influence) and that they should learn a biblical view of God.  He then summarizes this biblical view of God by including a long excerpt from the classic statement of Reformed theology, the Westminster Confession (see 84-85).  He closes his extensive quote by saying, “This is the God who reveals himself in the Bible” (85).  That’s some pretty hearty props for Reformed theology there!

Then there is the notion of elders.  In the Baptist world of my growing up days, nobody had elders.  They had pastors, ministers of this and that, and then there were deacons.  But deacons just do grunt work for the church–taking care of practical needs and such.  Most of the time they don’t have any real authority in the church, like elders would.  Dever, however,  cites “a growing trend to go back to this biblical office”.  He contends that “the Bible clearly models a plurality of elders in each local church” (229).  My own reading of the New Testament reinforces this for me.  I’ve like the idea of a plurality of elders (grown locally) for a while now.  I just can’t believe the idea is gaining popularity among modern Baptists!

Dever points out that Baptist churches used to have elders, back in their earliest days.  He even says the first president of the SBC wrote a book advocating a plurality of elders in church life (229).  The idea just never got universal acceptance and it eventually fell by the wayside.  Now here we have a stirring of writers and influential preachers calling for a return to ways of thinking and governing which will strike many people as thoroughly un-Baptist.

For example, Monday night a local pastor paid me and my family a visit.  We have been visiting his church and he maintains the unheard-of habit of personally visiting every prospective member in his or her home at some point.  We chatted, discussed common acquaintances, talked theology a bit, then he prayed with us and for us.  I was impressed with the pastoral faithfulness that showed.  It went a long way toward making me like him.  So it didn’t bother me that much when I figured out that his views about the second coming are very different from mine and that he has no warm feelings for Reformed theology.

Sometimes I think those folks should just go ahead and become Presbyterians,” he said finally.

But wait a second.  I know just enough history to be dangerous, and I know that many, if not most, of the earliest Baptists were thoroughly Calvinistic in almost every way.  They just disagreed with the notion of an unregenerate church membership.  They believed in a believer’s church, where only professing believers get baptized (e.g. not infants) and where the State doesn’t own the church, or vice versa.  This put the earliest Baptists (and their ideological grandparents, the Anabaptists) at odds with the established churches of the Colonial (or Reformation) Era.  It got them exiled, arrested, or killed, depending on which country they inhabited.

Baptists have been called the “Stepchildren of the Reformation.”  That’s because Baptists really were like an offshoot of the Reformation–Calvinistic in theology but Anabaptist in church practice.  They saw churches as self-governed and composed of only regenerate believers, so they weren’t really Presbyterian to begin with.  And that’s not what people like Dever are after, either.  They belong to a committed minority of people who read the Scriptures for themselves and find there a set of teachings which do not fit perfectly with either the Established Churches of the Reformation or with the revivalistic churches that sprung up later in the U.S.  I don’t think they’re so crazy because “I is one myself.”

So there.  I admit it.  I’m a Reformed Baptist in my theology.  But I’m also organic/house/simple church in my ecclesiology, which means that I chafe when Dever goes on to claim that “In the New Testament, we find hints of the main preacher being distinct from the rest of the elders” (230).  I’m gonna need more than hints to buy that idea.  His only noteworthy evidence for this is Paul, who was a preacher but not a pastor by any means.  So he doesn’t really count.

Dever does what many pastors and theologians do:  He confuses the function of an itinerant apostle/church planter with that of a local pastor.  I know he does this because he did it earlier with Timothy and Titus.  He calls Timothy the pastor of Ephesus and assumes Titus must have been a pastor of  a church somewhere as well (177).  But the letters he cites make it clear that these guys were supervising large clusters of churches, and it fell to them to appoint pastors in each city where they planted a church.  Does that sound like the function of a local pastor to you?  That just doesn’t make sense to me.  All I can figure is that it has always been customary to call these letters “pastoral epistles.”  But that’s misleading.  And it seems to have misled Dever as well.

Here we find ourselves bumping up against the most sacred cow of evangelical church practice:  the single pastor tradition (by that, I don’t mean unmarried ones…I mean singling out one leader over all the others).  Even in a book that advocates a plurality of elders, we seem unable to conceive of a church without a main guy up front, doing all the teaching and preaching for the church.  It simply baffles me.

But I’ll take a shot at that in the next post:  Nine Marks and the Centrality of the Preacher.

Nine Marks and Real Conversion

October 9, 2009

dever_9marksHere’s another place where my concerns and Mark Dever’s concerns are similar:  Neither one of us likes the “once saved always saved” doctrine.

My issue with this is not that we are not saved by grace.  I’m a firm believer in that.  I don’t believe you earn your way into God’s good graces by self effort or keeping the Law.  But being saved through faith alone doesn’t mean your faith should be alone.  Real faith produces real change in the heart of the believer.

I don’t think we make this clear enough when we stress that you just pray this certain prayer and now you’re in.  In fact, I think the whole invitational setup is flawed, because it reinforces this notion that you enter the kingdom of heaven by making a once-for-all crisis decision during a semi-pressured moment in a worship service.  In many cases, this is a highly choreographed moment, perhaps accompanied by soft music, punctuated by impassioned pleas from the preacher to get up out of your seat and “come forward to make a decision.”  I know the historical roots of this practice well, and it carries no magical aura for me at this point.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I know a great many lifetimes of following Jesus began at moments just like this.  But it’s still just the beginning.  That’s what we don’t stress enough.  We’re beginning a lifetime of following Jesus, honoring his name and knowing him in an ongoing relationship.  That just doesn’t always get communicated, so all the emphasis seems to be on making this one move at a particular point in time.  That’s just too shallow an understanding of what it means to “get saved.”

I’ve often said it before:  I don’t like saying that I “got saved” when I was 16.  I’m still getting saved even as I type this post.  You better believe I still need it.  Does that mean something shifted and now I’m earning it, even though it originally was by grace?  Absolutely not!  It’s still by grace, every day.  His grace didn’t check out after I made a crisis decision as a hormonal teenager.  His grace is what keeps me believing even now.  Were he to remove it, you would see just how unChristian I really am deep down.  It’s like my old friend Joe Shelton used to sing, “I need a Savior/All the time!”

Dever says, “We need to see an end to a wrong, shallow view of evangelism as simply getting people to say yes to  a question, or to make a one-time decision” (143).  Real evangelism, he asserts, includes a call to real conversion.  “Scripture presents us as needing to have our hearts replaced, our minds transformed, our spirits given life” (143).  But as he goes on to say, “evangelical churches are full of people who have made sincere commitments at some point in their lives but who have not experienced the radical change that the Bible calls conversion” (113).  He argues that this lies at the root of the immaturity of evangelical churches.  An abbreviated gospel produces shallow churches, with immature members.

I want to write some more about maturity, maybe comparing his definition with my own.  But for now, I’ll have to agree with Dever, who, even though he didn’t explicitly say so in this book, apparently holds to the more typically Reformed doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints”.  That’s a little different from “once saved always saved” because the implication is that a person who has genuine  faith and repentance will continue to have such as long as he or she lives.  “Once saved always saved” implies that as long as you did this one thing at some point, you’re done.  You’ve got your ticket.  You’re in.  But what does the rest of life look like from that point on?  Real conversion changes a person.  And it keeps on changing them.

Things that are truly alive, grow.  That’s just the way it is” (216).

I agree.

I desperately  need the Lord to provide that growth now just as much as I needed it almost 20 years ago.   You do, too…

Nine Marks and Church Growth

October 5, 2009

dever_9marksBefore I launch into my most fundamental problem with Dever’s book (the preacher as THE mouthpiece of God in the Church), I’d like to highlight a few places where I track really well with what he’s saying.  Ultimately, I believe this book is a call for a higher standard of maturity among church members.  That’s a topic that lately has become a concern of my own, so I can identify with it.  I’ll write some about that in the next post.

Dever calls for a rediscovery of “the corporate nature of following Christ” (30).  That’s why he is addressing the health of the church as a whole, not merely of individuals within the church.  That resonates with me quite well.  Whenever someone wants the “elevator speech” about the main point of my book, I generally say something about “the corporate nature of following Christ.”  It’s about the gospel leading naturally to community.  And it’s about not living the Christian life alone.  Dever seems to agree.

Dever also expresses a clear disdain for what Os Guinness calls “the exaltation of numbers and of technique” (quoted  on p.24).  He argues that many churches we regard as successful share the assumption that certain measurable things (numbers fed, saved, or joining the church) are the best indicators of church health.  They all seem to argue that “the fruit of a successful church is readily apparent” (27).  This misconception produces churches (and leadership styles) which are “pragmatic, results-oriented endeavors” with leaders who learn to specialize in subtle manipulation and sales techniques, always looking to “close a deal” evangelistically speaking.  “We misunderstand evangelism so badly we think we can tell from the immediate results whether we are evangelizing properly” (136).

On the contrary, Dever contends that “successful ministry [is] not necessarily immediately fruitful but [is] demonstrably faithful to God’s Word” (28).  He goes on to remind us that “God’s Word is replete with images of delayed blessing” (27).  Absolutely.  I happen to be clinging quite closely to that truth at the moment.  It’s becoming one of my closest friends.

Dever also seems to have a healthy appreciation for the value of loss and failure in the life of God’s servants.  On p. 73 he says:  “Disappointments have their purpose.  The ruins of our own cherished plans are often the steps to finding the true God and the good that He has for us.  The Bible is full of stories like this.”  Indeed it is.  And it’s refreshing to see this held in tension with all the other hopeful bits of advice and admonition that come with a book like this.

growthNine Marks is a book about church growth, but not the kind that most mean when they use that phrase.  Dever says we’re to be about “not simply growing numbers but growing members” (214).  This seems to be the central idea of the book.  He goes on to admit, “of all the ‘nine marks’ covered in this book, this is the one I first became concerned about” (216).

He and I may disagree on how to get from point A to point B in this matter.  But I still track with so much of what he says, I figure that’s a good place to start.

“Forget what the experts say” (p.54)

Right on, brother.

Nine Marks and the Definition of a Church

October 2, 2009

dever_9marksSo I’m making my way through Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, which a new friend gave me to read. It’s a popular book among pastors, and I never turn away a free book 🙂 I’ll take a few posts to interact with the book, giving my reactions as I go along.

Dever summons a consensus from several (Reformed) sources and concludes that three things must be present in order to proclaim a gathering of people a legitimate church: the preaching of the Word of God, observance of the sacraments, and exercise of church discipline.

Of course, there’s lots of room for interpretation there. How many sacraments do you count? And what if you don’t actually call them or label them as “sacraments” in the old Catholic sense of the term? At what point does really bad preaching disqualify a church from being taken seriously?

This is all beside the point that I want to make in response. What I really want to do in response to this is answer a question a brother asked me in Dayton, Ohio, a couple of months ago. His question was this:

What’s the difference between a house church and a cell group/small group?

This comes up as traditional churches debate how to integrate smaller community groups into their church structure. Someone on staff becomes convinced that “small groups are where it’s at” for whatever reason (better accountability, more authentic community, more effective missions, etc). Then they get busy figuring out how to make it happen. Do they phase out Sunday School or do both at the same time? And what will be the purposes and goals of these groups?

And what do you call them?

Life groups? Cell groups? Home groups? House churches?

Most of the time, I don’t get too hung up on what you name things. For example, I’d rather see good eldership and oversight exercised among a group of people than hear the “right” biblical term used for each function. Same goes for any other kind of spiritual gifting. It’s more important to have a gift functioning than it is to know the right thing to call it. I think some people are way too obsessed with terminology some times.

HOWEVER, I think it would help to call these small groups house churches and them treat them as such. If you work in a traditional church setup and you want to integrate the house church model into what your church does, don’t treat them like they’re anything less than bonafide house churches in and of themselves.

Teach them to provide their own ministry. Teach them to celebrate communion and baptisms together, in their groups. Teach them to recognize leaders among them and guide them through the process of learning to exercise their own church discipline.

In other words, treat them like real churches. Think of them and speak of them in that way. Don’t tie long strings to each group and micro-manage them like marionettes under your control. That’s the difference between a cell group and a house church in my opinion. House churches carry out all the functions of a church: teaching, prayer, fellowship, evangelism, discipline, marrying, burying, baptizing, communion, etc. They do it all.

Maybe they still gather together with the rest of the larger church on a regular basis. Maybe once a month, maybe twice, or maybe once every week. Whatever. The staff still trains, supports, and troubleshoots the microchurches that result from the larger church’s ministry. But everything they do serves to EQUIP those groups to find the guidance of the Spirit for themselves.

Is anyone doing such a thing?

Sure. I visited at least four churches like that this past summer. They ranged in membership from 80 people to about 4000. And I heard of several more. Such things do exist.

Not in my part of town, mind you. But some day.

For today’s post, I’ll let Dever’s definition of a church inform the formation of house churches, too.

There are at least a dozen other comments I’d like to make in response to Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. I’ll get to them soon enough…

New Endorsement for Christ In Y’all

May 11, 2009

Hey, if the Jedi Master himself liked it, shouldn’t you pick up your copy today?

Two Trees

March 26, 2007

Here’s my C.S. Lewis quote for the day:

Human beings are not [separate]. They look separate because you see them walking about separately. But then, we are so made that we can see only the present moment. If we could see the past, then of course it would look different….

If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, it would not look like a lot of separate things dotted about. It would look like one single growing thing–rather like a very complicated tree…

Once again, I thought this occurred to me on my own. Then I went and picked up my copy of Mere Christianity and realized that Lewis wrote about it long before I ever thought of it. Come to think of it, I’m sure read it there first, then thought that it was my idea. Nothing new under the sun.

It’s true, though. There are in fact two trees growing around us today. One of them is rotting. The other has healing in its leaves.

Two humanities growing side by side, even intertwining, like two vines growing together. At times they seem like the same tree. But they are very different from one another. One produces death and one produces life. Sounds like a story we learned once, doesn’t it?

If we could interview the leaves of these trees and ask them, “How do you make your fruit?” They would reply that they don’t know. They don’t have a method. There are no classes that teach them how to be what they are. All they do is just remain in the vine. Just being a part of their respective trees makes them do what they do.

Remain in me, and you will bear much fruit.

I don’t know for sure what it looks like to remain in Him. But in practical terms, I’ve got a notion that it has to do with being in the Church. I don’t mean that just being there finishes the job. There’s more to it. There’s a conscious practice of attending to His presence in our lives. But even that works better when surrounded by others of the same stock. Remaining in Him must have something to do with making the Church your home. It is Him.

I need the Church.

The Imitation of Christ…(not)

February 6, 2007

Since I am not greatly bothered by movies that are “dark,” I happen to like a movie called The Game, starring Michael Douglas. In this movie, a mysterious business establishment provides their clients with carefully-staged situations that push them to their personal limits. It’s called “The Game,” and it freaks Douglas out. It’s like they know everything he is going to do before he does it. Before the game begins, they study their clients so thoroughly that they can predict with astounding accuracy what they will do under any imaginable circumstance. In a sense, they can control every detail of his or her life for a time, but without ever actually tampering with their ability to choose what they will.

Phillip Yancey once said that a master chess player can determine the outcome of a match by knowing his opponent so well that he can anticipate his next move. Yancey suggests that this may help explain how a God who is technically “supposed to” avoid tampering with our free wills could make all things work according to His will anyway. He’s smart enough to know exactly what we would do in any situation, and therefore can lead us where He will without actually “making” us do anything.

Of course, the whole “foreknowledge” thing is just a human idea anyway, since time means little to a God who is both Alpha and Omega. He could just as well be working backwards from the end. All of our causal relationships (that’s causal, not casual) presuppose time. This thing happens first, so then this thing happens next. But what if you lived life backwards, like Merlin on The Sword in the Stone? You’d get mixed up about what “causes” what after all.

But I suppose, to some degree, God’s timelessness helps us understand how He can do what he does. If you’ve ever seen Groundhog Day, you may remember the scene where Phil can tell Rita everything about everyone in Punxsutawney.

Rita: Is this some kind of trick?

Phil: Maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe He’s not omnipotent. He’s just been around so long, He knows everything.

I love it. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. And it’s not dark. Phil uses his knowledge of people to accomplish just about everything he can imagine. That’s a powerful position to be in.

But we’ve got more than a God who can just predict our every move. We have a God who comes to indwell us. Like my wife who has a little someone indwelling her right now 🙂 (Carter #4) Over time it gets difficult to say what’s happening because she wants it and what’s happening because the baby wants it. The two are mixed together for a time so that whatever happens to one happens to the other. She’s not just being “indwelt;” their lives are joined together. It’s really a beautiful thing.

Now for my C.S. Lewis quote of the day:

You see, we are now trying to understand, and to separate into water-tight compartments, what exactly God does and what man does when God and man are working together…. But this way of thinking breaks down. God is not like that. He is inside you as well as outside: even if we could understand who did what, I do not think human language could properly express it.

It won’t stop us from trying to explain it though. As Norman Grubb used to say, we’ve got God within and without. That pretty much puts Him on the throne.

And it should caution us against trying too hard to figure out whether our actions are our own or God’s. In the end, they both look the same. They even feel the same most of the time. About the only difference is that Life results from His activity in and through us. If Life comes out of what we did, you can bet He was hiding in there somewhere.

With all due respect to Thomas a Kempis, never mind the imitation of Christ. This is better than that… It’s Christ’s imitation of you.