How can we determine if a church is healthy? What are the indicators we should look for? Some might say that numbers are the determining factor but surely there healthy churches that are small. Others might judge a church as healthy by the number of programs it offers, how entertaining the services are, or by the amount of weekly giving. While these factors seem to receive most of the attention today, none of them are emphasized in Scripture.
In his popular work 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever, a Baptist pastor in Washington D.C., lists nine marks that identify a healthy church. While no church can be perfect, it’s certainly true that some churches are more healthy than others. He states:
We need churches in which the key indicator of success is not evident results but persevering biblical faithfulness. We need churches that help us recover those aspects of Christianity that are distinct from the world, and that unite us (28).
He is careful to argue that these are not the only marks, nor are they necessarily the most important. He doesn’t discuss prayer, communion, baptism, missions, etc. However, he addresses certain marks of a healthy church that are rarely emphasized today. The nine marks he lists are: 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.
We’ll discuss each of these nine in upcoming posts, but today we’ll begin with the first, and most important, mark of a healthy church.
Expositional preaching is “preaching which takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture” (40). The preacher simply takes the passage and brings out the meaning of the passage to the congregation. Perhaps you’ve heard sermons where a preacher reads a passage of Scripture, then continues the rest of the sermon without ever going back to the passage…that is not expositional. An expositional sermon will have the same main point(s) as the text, not just ideas that are an invention of the preacher. Also, expositional preachers often go verse by verse through a book of the Bible.
Why would someone commit themselves to expository preaching? Wouldn’t be better to continually come up with topics that are of interest to people and preach on those? While that might sound more appealing to some, it puts a lot of weight on the pastor and the people to know what they actually need to hear. What we want to hear and what we need to hear are often very different things. Those who hold to expository preaching hold to the belief that the Scriptures are the Word of God and therefore authoritative in the Christian life. There may be passages/topics/doctrines that I don’t want to preach on, and the congregation may not want to hear about, but if they are in the word they need to be preached. Preaching through books of the Bible ensures that the whole counsel of God is being proclaimed and not just pet doctrines or favorite topics.
God uses his Word to bring life (Gen. 1:1; Ezekiel 37). Romans 10:17 teaches, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” It’s strange to think that faith comes through hearing, doesn’t it? Hearing what? The word of Christ! It is by the week by week preaching of the word of God that will bring life to a congregation (42-50).
God also uses his word to sanctify his people. Jesus prays in John 17:17, “Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth.” We are taught in Ephesians 5 that Christ loves his church and is “cleansing her by the washing with water through the word” (Eph. 5:25-26). How does Christ cleanse and sanctify his church? Through the word of God. A church that isn’t gathering weekly under the preaching of expositional sermons will have a stunted spiritual growth (50-52).
This kind of life-giving spiritual growth won’t come through the preacher’s personal opinions, his ability to entertain a crowd, or his political commentary. Instead, he has the responsibility to stand before God’s people and explain and make clear what God has said in his word. Life and growth will come when a congregation hears the whole counsel of God instead of having their itching ears satisfied (2 Tim. 4:3). Paul doesn’t command Timothy to simply preach what he wants. Instead, he’s commanded to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). As Dever states:
God’s Word is the word we need to hear today. We live in a strange day when even Christians who claims to be born again and churches that claim to be evangelical ignore God’s Word (54).
May it not be so. Find a church where you can sit each week under the exposition of God’s word that your spiritual walk may have life and growth.