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Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever
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Nine Marks of a Healthy Church

by Mark Dever

Other authors: Mark E. Dever (Foreword)

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Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. I had read portions of this book years ago and cite it frequently but recently decided to study the whole thing again. In any organization you have to define the standard-- what is healthy? What structures, policies, procedures, and best practices need to be actively in place in order for this organization to be sustainable?

Mark Dever admits that this is just one book in a long line of similar books, and even provides a bibliography of dozens of recently-published books; he provides his own grain of salt, in other words. There is nothing new under the sun, and nothing written today that wasn't written about 100 years ago. Dever also gives the caveat that this book is not a comprehensive list, but only the major points. Yet, this has now turned into a ministry by which you can find churches in the U.S. that aspire to the Nine Marks.


Weaknesses of the book:
Dever's audience is primarily Southern Baptists, so the book is both a call for SBC churches to find better moorings but also as a way for us to judge churches as "health" or "unhealthy," on a scale from zero to nine.

He is also taking clear aim at megachurches where elders are unable to have personal contact with all the "members," membership roles are not clearly dileneated, and the preaching is not expositional. The book he cites most frequently in Nine Marks is Os Guiness' Dining With the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity.


The book is very America-centric. I can think of congregations overseas that would think Dever's criticisms are off-base or say "Really, Americans have built their churches this way? Why?"

His examination of church history deals exclusively with SBC in 1800s, Puritans in the 1600s. His sermon illustrations are almost always from colonial New England.

The book also ignores what we know about church polity in the first centuries of the church. Much has been written about elders and discipline in that first era after the Apostles that is valuable to today's church. Harkening only back to the Puritans is problematic for many reasons.



While I agree with all of Dever's points, I find his method of delivery to be a minus. The book is written as a compilation of sermons. Now, I listen to Dever preach regularly and I'm also reading his book compilation of Old Testament overview sermons. But he has a folksy way of delivering his sermon (probably what he grew up on in Kentucky, as it sounds very similar to my ear) that could be made much more succinct for a book.

That said, the book lays out some very good guidelines and a way to judge a church (on a scale from 0 to 9) on how "healthy" it is. If a church doesn't meet the Nine Marks, I would ask it why it considers itself healthy. Now, the marks:

Mark One: Expositional Preaching
Expositional preaching, roughly defined, is working through entire passages of Scripture as opposed to picking a topic and then picking a few verses to support it. One can, however, teach a themed or topical message expositionally. The preacher does not have to use expositional preaching exclusively-- Dever has preached several topical sermons just this year-- but primarily.

"Expositional preaching is not simply producing a verbal commentary on some passage of Scripture. Rather, expositional preaching is that preaching which take for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture. That's it."


"Be very careful before you ever join a church that does not stress expositional preaching, or help to call a preacher who is not an expositional preacher, who is not committed to preaching all of God's Word, regardless of how uncomfortable parts of it may be."


I agree with the centrality of this point. A pastor friend recently commented that "the most important thing I can do as a pastor is teach the congregation to read the Bible (for themselves)." That's the heart of it, preaching should inspire us to dig deeper into God's Word and learn more about it.

I contrast that with a very well-known Baptist-rooted megachurch pastor who intentionally avoids quoting Scripture and makes it a point to never say "the Bible says..." It's not a pastor (or preaching elder)'s job to give his opinions or advice-- it's his job to "preach the Word."It's good advice, but his congregation is biblically illiterate.

I disagree with Dever on this point:
"Permit me to suggest the one-sidedness of preaching is not only excusable but actually important...God's Word comes as a monologue to us."

If that is true, then why did the Word of God (Jesus) repeatedly ask questions and engage in dialogue with his audience as he taught? One of the best (expositional) preachers I know uses a Socratic method to engage with his audience in a conversation. That style creates for a memorable sermon, and permit me to suggest that actually remembering what you heard in a sermon is important. Having the audience actively engaging their brain is something that rarely occurs in a preacher's monologue. I find preachers often dismiss proven pedagogy in order to maintain tradition-- even those with formal pedagogical training. Research shows time and again that the "sage on stage" method does not help facilitate classroom learning, and that methods like the "flipped classroom" work better at helping students retain the material and engage with it-- and requiring them to dig into the textbook material themselves (which is partly the goal of expositional preaching). Yet we Christians ignore that and put huge emphasis on a "sage on stage" monologue every Sunday morning. Would someone please reconcile this for me?


Mark Two: Biblical Theology
Dever condenses all of biblical theology-- the basic arc of Scripture -- into one chapter, which is quite a feat. But the underlying point of the chapter is that God is sovereign and very active in human history and we should hear Him preached as such.


Mark Three: The Gospel
Harkening back to Marks One and Two, the church and its preaching should present an accurate picture of the sinful, helpless state of man in need of redemption. The cross of Christ should be prominent in its preaching.

Dever's critics might argue that Dever puts too much emphasis on the cross and not enough on the resurrection and the power of our risen Lord and His church which can now see things with "resurrection eyes." However, in Dever's sermons I find there is often talk of the power, joy, and hope of the resurrection.

My criticism of Dever's point here (from a Reformed standpoing) is that the Gospel I hear him preach and describe in this chapter is of the "two chapter" sort relating to personal salvation rather than a full "four chapter" Gospel. Other Reformed pastors such as Tim Keller equally emphasize the role of all creation-- including work-- in God's redemptive plan. (See this series by Hugh Whelchel for more on this topic). I suspect that this is in part because Dever's thinking is heavily influenced by Baptist thought of the 1800s that was being increasingly influenced by dispensationalist thought, but someone might correct me on this point.

Mark Four: A Biblical Understanding of Conversion
Dever hints towards the end of the book that he will not baptise children. He laments that there are too many people who show no fruit of Jesus' work in their lives-- such as not being active in a church-- who claim they are saved because they "know that they know" once upon a time they prayed a prayer to "receive Jesus" and "once saved, always saved" removes any worry about their souls.

Mark Five: A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism

"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...We need to see an end to worldly people having assurance that they're saved just because they once took a stand, shook a hand, or repeated a prayer. We need to see real revival not being lost amid our own manufactured and scheduled meetings that we euphemistically call 'revivals,' as if we could determine when the wind of God's Spirit would actually blow."



Evangelism should be out to preach a real Gospel to draw true converts-- disciples-- and not be a "how many prayed the prayer?" or baptism contest.

This chapter makes me wonder how many churches think they are doing well on the Nine Marks plumb line but are not to objective observers. I can think of a few flagship Southern Baptist churches that still use to long, manipulative invitations at the end of services and train members to do evangelism in a 5-step plan that presses for a "decision for Christ." The Kentucky Baptist Convention hands out awards and even a free vacation to the pastors with the most baptisms at its annual evangelism conference. That seems to fall short of a biblical understanding of evangelism, but many attendees claim to be Nine Marks aspirants and scarcely criticize the status quo.

Mark Six: A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership
Dever's audience in this chapter is "you." He makes the case for church membership and individual involvement more than anything. But there are some clear notes for Southern Baptist churches. If your church's membership roll has more people on it than actively attend or engage with your church, then you might not have a biblical understanding of church membership.

"Discipleship is both an individual project and a corporate activity as we follow Christ and help each other along the way."

Mark Seven: Biblical Church Discipline

Dever quotes heavily from Gregory Will's Democratic Religion which looks at Southern Baptist history in the 1800s. Interestingly, Southern Baptist churches were growing rapidly while also excommunicating something like 2% of their members annually. Dever uses Capitol Hill Baptist's history to illustrate the various reasons why members were investigated for possible expulsion.

Reasons for expulsion include non-attendance, non-tithing, and other forms of non-participation. What is not mentioned is that in the late 1800s you could also be excommunicated from your Southern Baptist church for arguing that slavery was evil, marrying someone of a different race, and various other things we would now find to be "in error." So, churches can be "healthy" in a Nine Marks sense but also be in error in the eyes of others. But Baptists distinctively have independence to come to their own conclusions about these issues.


Another weakness, however, is that Dever does not define what happens during excommunication. Is the ostracized allowed to attend services? What efforts are made to contact the ex-member and to evangelize? Some real-life examples from "healthy" churches would have been useful here.


Mark Eight: A Concern for Discipleship and Growth
Dever is primarily talking about spiritual growth. Believers corporately sharpening one another, correcting one another, loving one another, toward greater grace and less sin. This mark requires an understanding of the previous eight marks. Discipline, for example, aids spiritual growth by confronting the root of sin.

One strength of the book is Dever's commitment to meet with every member on a regular basis, along with elder elders. To ask key questions like "how have you progressed since our last meeting?" The larger your church is, the harder this obviously is for a senior pastor. Is it necessary for health, or can the congregation be divided up among the elders and deacons? I was reminded of a pastor I know who resigned from his large church in part because he did not like the fact that people were calling him "my pastor" when he scarcely knew them (he later started a house church).

Mark Nine: Biblical Church Leadership
This mark is probably the most famous as it has led to quite the reformation among Southern Baptist churches. Scripturally, congregations should be led by a plurality of elders and not a pastor buffeted by a deacon board.

Dever does a poor job giving the historicity of this outside of 1800s Southern Baptist life. (Southern Baptists appear to have dropped elder rule in the late 1800s, probably as a result of rapid expansion and seemingly inadequate time to wait for elders to emerge.)

Presbyterians have had this figured out for centuries, and the early church of the first few centuries teach us so much about the importance of elder-led congregations; this goes unmentioned in the book. Dever would also seem to want to put more power in the hands of a senior pastor, like himself, over the elder body.

Dever concludes the book with advice for pastors who are wanting to transition their church into an elder-led Nine Marks model.

"I had thought of writing a book for pastors called ‘How to Get Fired…And Fast!’ I could sum up the basic idea of this unwritten book in one sentence of Pauline proportions: A pastor could go into a church members’ meeting questioning the salvation of some of the members, refusing to baptize children, advocating a priority of congregational singing over performed music, asking to remove the Christian and national flags and to stop any kind of altar calls, replace committees with elders, ignore the secular rotation of Mother's Day, Father's Day...the Fourth of July, begin practicing church discipline, remove women from elder-like positions in the church, and state that he had theological opposition to multiple services on Sunday morning…Such a pastor might not get much farther than his next members’ meeting."

He advocates a lot of prayer, patience, and good communication with everyone in the church.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. It has obviously held up over time, but it could be better. In fairness, the 3rd edition as well as various articles and blog posts written by Dever over the years may have ( )
  justindtapp | Jun 3, 2015 |
The author presents a persuasive argument as to why each of these marks is so important, and how they lead to one another. The first mark, expositional preaching, is central to the right functioning of any church. From this springs a biblical theology. And from this we get a biblical understanding of the gospel, conversion, evangelism, church discipline, discipleship, and church leadership. An excellent book for explaining why we do church the way we do, and challenging even the healthiest of churches to be more bible centred. ( )
  eclecticdodo | Feb 29, 2012 |
This is a necessary book for anyone in or wanting to enter the pastoral ministry. Our churches today are desperately in need of the lessons contained in this short book. May God bless the efforts and labors of Mark Dever and Nine Marks Ministries. ( )
  cmsheffield | Nov 15, 2009 |
The beauty of Mark Dever’s book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, is its complete lack of practicality. There is no advise on the church’s music style, its programs to reach visitors, parking issues, or the latest trends, programs and fads. But this is not to say that the wise pastor would be unable to find application within the pages of Dever’s work. The author’s concern is not in the numerical growth of the attendance role, rather his focus is on the health of the church body. The pastor who has just finished The Purpose Driven Church will find a radically different paradigm here. Instead of basing the work on his church’s massive numbers, a la Warren, he follows nine biblical characteristics of ecclesiology. With topics such as Biblical Theology, Church Discipline and Membership he rehashes issues that most modern church goers would see as antiquated and irrelevant, Dever argues persuasively and biblically for their restoration into the church’s life. A consideration and evaluation of the nine marks in summary fashion will show that Dever’s book is a clarion call to a different style of church growth than is perpetuated by the church growth experts of today.
Mark One: Expositional Preaching
Dever’s first mark is his foundation for the rest of his argument. A church that does not have preaching that explains the message of the text is not a healthy body. Dever says that the first mark of expositional preaching “is far and away the most important of them all.” The author explains that only in expository preaching is the centrality of the word of God the driving force of the church. The pastor’s agenda becomes secondary to the message of the scriptures. Dever further argues for the role of the Bible in saving the lost, sanctifying the saved and driving the role of the pastor.
Mark Two: Biblical Theology
Mark one focused on the means of the pastor’s teaching the church. The second mark examines the content of the message. Dever desires his readers to understand the “metanarrative” of the Bible and to evaluate the biblical message in light of the character of God. Dever then explains five attributes of God that he believes, “summarize the main story line of the Bible.” The attributes he lists are: Creating, faithful, loving, holy and sovereign. This section may be Dever’s weakest. Not enough attention is paid to the relationship of expositional preaching shaping our biblical theology. His emphasis is correct though as he shows that the healthy church is one that has an accurate picture of the God of the Scriptures.
Mark Three, Four and Five: The Gospel, Conversion and Evangelism.
Dever’s next three diagnosis for a healthy church are really three different sides of one issue. That is, that the gospel must be preached in and by a healthy church. His chapter on the gospel clearly articulates the essential message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. The next chapter describes conversion in terms of Lordship salvation. The necessity of changed lives is Dever’s emphasis. Chapter five explains the corporate and individuals obligation to fulfill the great commission. Dever’s emphasis in these three chapters articulates that the church’s commitment to the gospel must never be secondary. Evangelistic preaching, an emphasis on salvation and a church body involved in propagating the gospel are imperative for a healthy church.
Mark Six and Seven: Biblical Understanding of Church Membership and Church Discipline
Chapters Six and Seven are closely related. Dever’s argument for church membership flows both logically and seamlessly into his discussion of church discipline. Dever’s consideration of these two oft neglected matters in the modern church is very persuasive. Very little is written from a Biblical Perspective on church membership. The modern American church seems to have abandoned the argument from scripture and preferred the more practical explanation for the presence or absence of church membership. He argues from the nature of the church itself and then explains five biblical benefits of formal church membership: To assure ourselves, to evangelize the world, to expose false gospels, to edify the church and to glorify God. Dever concludes the chapter on membership by providing a sample of his church’s membership covenant as an example of the requirements a church places on her members. Chapter seven’s treatment of church discipline is sobering. He compassionately explains the Bible’s teaching on restoring a sinning brother. Dever differentiates between discipline being characterized as unloving and the obligation that the church has to its own purity.
Mark Eight: A Concern for Discipleship and Growth
Dever’s book handles church growth in the same way that the Bible does, according to the model of discipleship. Dever understands that Christ is the one who adds to his church and the means by which this happens is the propagation of the gospel and the nurturing of those who respond. This chapter not only serves as a synopsis of the books major points but it also relays how each of the “marks” contributes to the growth and discipleship of the church body. This rehashing of the previous chapters is helpful and relevant in his explanation of Christian growth.
Mark Nine: Biblical Church Leadership
Dever’s final mark is that of Biblical church leadership. In a concise twenty-page treatise he presents the Biblical case for an elder led church. This is quite stunning when one examines Mr. Dever’s credentials. He is the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church, a denomination known for Deacon governance rather than Elder. Dever’s understanding of church governance is not without its Baptistic flavor as he explains the role of congregationalism in church governance. He is careful in his explanation of proper ecclesiology, assigning to the congregation the role of, “final court of arbitration” in matters of leadership selection and church discipline. He combines this with Godly, male, qualified eldership to make an excellent double-threat to any parish.
True, Dever’s book lacks the mega appeal that piques pastoral interest today but the issues that he discusses could revolutionize a church that seeks to reorient itself according to the plan of God. Dever’s book began as a series of sermons, developed into a booklet, progressed into a full book and now is available in a revised and expanded second edition. His argumentation is full and thorough with scriptural evidence offered on ever page. His book lacks the glamorous credentials of a mega-church pastor, but contains the timeless wisdom of Scripture. The Nine Marks of a Healthy Church is not man’s opinions about a social club, it is God’s design for His church, the church that Jesus promised the gates of Hell would not prevail against. ( )
  atduncan | Dec 5, 2007 |
This is a phenomenal book that will serve as the cure for "church growth" books. building the church is about being faithful, even when this may not be pragmatic. ( )
  theologicaldan | Jan 12, 2007 |
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Table of Contents:

Mark 1 : expositional preaching -- Mark 2 : biblical theology -- Mark 3 : the Gospel -- Mark 4 : a biblical understanding of conversion -- Mark 5 : a biblical understanding of evangelism -- Mark 6 : biblical understanding of church membership -- Mark 7 : biblical church discipline -- Mark 8 : a concern for discipleship and growth -- Mark 9 : biblical church leadership -- Tips for leading the church in a healthy direction -- The numerical nineties -- Medicines from the cabinet.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 158134631X, Paperback)

What makes for a healthy church? A large congregation? Plentiful parking? Vibrant music?

You may have read books on this topic before-but not like this one. This new expanded edition of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church is not an instruction manual for church growth. It is a pastor's recommendation of how to assess the health of your church using nine crucial qualities that are neglected by many of today's churches.

Whether you're a church leader or an involved member of your congregation, you can help cultivate these elements in your church, bringing it new life and health for God's glory.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:07 -0400)

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