THE BIBLICAL APPROACH TO CHURCH HEALTH
The advocates of the biblical approach to church health primarily look at what the Bible says about the church—what the church is to be and to do. One of the most significant contributions to church health literature in this vein is Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.1 He disagrees with the focus on pragmatism and numerical church growth of popular models of church.2 He also disagrees that appearances of relevance and outward responses are key indicators of being a successful church.3 Instead he opines, “We need churches in which the key indicator of success is not evident results but by persevering biblical faithfulness.”4
The first five of Dever’s nine marks of a healthy church concern the right preaching of the Word of God: (1) expositional preaching, (2) biblical theology, (3) the gospel, (4) biblical understanding of conversion, and (5) biblical understanding of evangelism. The last four marks concern discipleship: (6) biblical understanding of church membership, (7) biblical understanding of church discipline, (8) Christian discipleship and growth, and (9) biblical understanding of church leadership.5 Dever admits that these are not the only marks of a healthy church and may not even be the most important.6 What’s critically important is that the teaching on these aspects of church health are derived from Scripture itself, hence the qualifying word “biblical” accompanying most of the marks.
Dever states that the first mark, expositional preaching is the most important, which in his mind is the only form of biblical preaching.7 By expositional preaching he means preaching a message from a passage of Scripture in its context.8 In other words, the text determines the point rather than the text being used to support a pre-conceived point. A healthy church is one whose beliefs and practices are derived from the Bible, such as Dever’s nine marks themselves.
Most of Dever’s nine marks of a healthy church fall under the category of spiritual health. They are also described primarily from a spiritual angle. While the church is a spiritual entity, a comprehensive understanding and evaluation of the health of a church must, nonetheless, include its organisational health. The latter comprise the structures, systems and processes by which a church uses to develop the marks of a healthy church. A biblical-only approach to the study of church health does not appear to address the church’s organisational health.
John Stott’s The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor9 would fall into the category of a biblical approach to church health. The purpose of Stott’s book is to set out the biblical and essential marks that characterise an authentic and living church.10 It is obvious that Stott does not mean to stipulate an exhaustive list of such characteristics. From Acts 2:42-47 he determines that there are four essentials in the kind of church that God envisions: (1) a learning church, (2) a caring church, (3) a worshipping church, and (4) an evangelising church.11 In the remaining chapters of the book he discusses different aspects of church life. Some are directly related to the four essentials mentioned above, others do not have any connection to the four essentials; such as ministry, giving and impacting our world for social change.
His concluding chapter on “Looking for Timothys” is not really a conclusion. It could even be seen as another mark of a healthy church—the need to look out and raise up Timothys. As with Nine Marks, The Living Church is necessary and helpful in the study of healthy churches because it presents the biblical teaching on what Stott deems to be the marks of a healthy church. His gleanings from Scripture regarding these marks are insightful.
In a slight departure from an otherwise biblical-only approach to church health, Stott encourages surveys to be done of the community and the church to determine if a church has organised itself relevantly to the community, or is there a disconnect between them?12 Surveys or studies such as these are critical since the level of effective community outreach is an important component to determine the overall health of a church.
by Lim Soon Hock, Empowering Churches