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We learn about it, talk about it, and think about it, but why are the vast majority of Christians today no longer taking an active role in sharing the gospel? By that, I mean verbally tell others about Jesus Christ and lead them into a relationship with the Lord and disciple them. Some churches are firing on all cylinders, ministering to one another, seeking the lost, and caring for the community’s needs. In contrast, other churches seem to be stagnant. They are neither serving the Lord nor being obedient to fulfill the calling to go and make disciples of all nations, of all people. How do we know if our church is spiritually healthy or gravely ill?
In his book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark E. Dever details the telltale signs of a healthy, vibrant church that anchors to God’s word and actively serves the Lord. He writes, “God has called us to live the Christian life together, as our mutual love and care reflect the love and care of God. Relationships imply commitment in the world: surly they imply no less in the church” (p.61). You can either say amen or ouch to that statement, and it is a resounding ouch for many churches! In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, many churches have turned inward and closed themselves off to the outside world at a time when the world needs to hear God’s message of hope.
The first of nine litmus tests that Dever gives to determine whether a church is healthy or not is “Expositional Preaching.” Expositional preaching is a verse-by-verse approach to preaching and teaching God’s word. It should not be confused with expository preaching, which seeks to convey the main point of a Scriptural passage. Dever wrote, “When we preach a passage of Scripture in context, expositionally–taking the point of the passage as the point of the message–we hear from God things we did not intend to hear when we began” (p. 12).
“Sound expositional preaching is often the fountainhead of growth in a church.”Mark E. Dever
There are other preaching styles, such as topical preaching that centers on a single subject and biographical preaching that focuses on a single character in the Bible. However, while those styles are suitable for infrequent use, expositional preaching explains the depth of God’s word and how to apply it to our daily lives, which helps to produce spiritual growth within the church. So the question we must ask ourselves is this: “When I go to church, do I hear from God, or do I only listen to an eloquent speech? Notice how I framed the question using the terms hear and listen, which there is a difference between the two. If you hear from God, you are internalizing His holy word in your heart. If you only listen to an eloquent speech, you often remember the speaker, but not the message.
The second litmus test pertains to “Biblical Theology.” Dever wrote, “Expository preaching is important for the health of a church. Yet every method, however good, is open to abuse, and therefore must be open to being tested” (p. 17). In that section, Dever draws upon the words of Apostle Paul, who, in his letter to Timothy, warned about a time when men will no longer desire sound doctrine but will gather for themselves teachers to tickle their ears, i.e., say what they want to hear. Paul is speaking about false teachers, those who claim to know God but are genuinely seeking self-gain at the expense of others.
“Too often today our culture encourages us to turn evangelism into advertising and explains the Spirit’s work in terms of marketing.”Mark E. Dever
A church body must remain vigilant to ensure the teachings within the church, even from the pulpit, are based on biblically sound doctrine. Otherwise, worldly teachings will infiltrate the church, cause division among the people, and take their focus off of God, which is Satan’s objective. For example, the fragmentation within the Methodist church over same-sex marriage where one side accepts it openly, the other side bans the idea because it is not congruent with sound biblical doctrine. Another example is the “prosperity” model, which promotes the teaching that God is most concerned about a person’s financial well-being. That, too, is not sound biblical teaching because Jesus encourages his followers to build for themselves treasures in heaven, and to the rich man, he said, “sell all that you have and follow me.”
These are two of the nine litmus tests Dever speaks to in his book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. They are the most important because if a church does not employ expositional preaching and teaching rooted in sound biblical doctrine, the remaining seven tests become irrelevant. Irrelevant because understanding the gospel, about conversion, evangelism, church membership, and so on, can easily become skewed messages of false doctrine because the church’s emphasis will be on the things of the world, not God.
A question to ponder: Where does my church stand in terms of expositional preaching that anchors to sound biblical doctrine? Do we need to get back to the basics of what it means to be the body of Christ?
Dever, M. E (2001). Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
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