Of the nine marks of a healthy church that Pastor Dever identifies in his book What Is a Healthy Church?, three are what he calls essential, in that without these three things a church rapidly declines in health and is likely to die, even if its doors technically remain open. These are things which a true church cannot live without, because to lose them or distort them is to lose the essence of what it means to be a church. These essential marks of a healthy church are: expositional preaching, Biblical theology, and a Biblical understanding of the good news. If your church or a church you are considering doesn’t display these marks, then you should find another church that does exemplify these essential features.
Expositional Preaching – One element that ought to be at the top of the list for every Christian when searching for a church home is whether the word of God is carefully and consistently preached. This is what we mean when we talk about expositional preaching. It’s not a certain style of preaching, nor is it when a preacher reads a passage of Scripture and then talks about a topic that is related to that verse. Expositional preaching is when the word of God is exposed for the congregation, when the preacher explains what a passage means and how it applies to us today. It requires that we preach the word of God in context, verse-by-verse, chapter-by-chapter, book-by-book, studying and explaining those parts that are easy to understand and those that are more difficult. There are no shortcuts when it comes to this kind of preaching.
Once I had a man ask me how I decide what to preach each week, and he was shocked when I told him that I simply preach the next portion of the book that I am studying. He thought that I would lock myself in my closet and pray and wait for God to tell me what to preach, but this kind of approach gives the preacher too much authority over what he will say. When a man practices expositional preaching, he submits to the authority of God’s word rather than using the Bible to preach what his heart desires. That is not to say that it is wrong for a pastor to preach topical or biographical sermons from time to time, but it is the congregation’s responsibility to ensure that their preachers are submitted to the authority of the word of God.
Biblical Theology – The second essential mark of a healthy church is that it is committed to preaching and teaching that is soundly biblical. Where expositional preaching dealt with how we decide what to teach, Biblical theology deals with what we teach. If a verse or passage of Scripture is interpreted without taking all of God’s word into account, then we may easily end up with a very wrong and very dangerous theology. And so Pastor Dever explains that “Biblically sound theology, then, is theology that is faithful to the teaching of the entire Bible. It reliably and accurately interprets the parts in terms of the whole.” This means that we must follow a consistent method of interpretation, taking into account the identity and historical setting of the author and the originally intended audience. When we fail to do this, we may claim promises that we never meant for us or misrepresent certain aspects of the nature of God and of our faith. To have a truly Biblical theology, we must not shy away from questions that are difficult or even controversial, but we must be willing to affirm all that the Bible says about a given topic without trying to go beyond what God has revealed. Again, it is the church’s responsibility to hold their pastors accountable for sound doctrine.
Understanding the good news – What exactly is a healthy church? Simply put, it is “a church in which every member, young and old, mature and immature, unites around the wonderful good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.” In fact, I would go even further than Pastor Dever and say that this is a mark of a true church, and that without a basic understanding of the gospel you cannot have a church at all, because only those people who have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ are actually a part of the church. If a church is to be healthy, indeed, if it is even going to be a church in the New Testament sense, then it must understand and preach the truth about mankind’s greatest need.
I love how Dever summarizes it when he says, “Fundamentally, we don’t need just joy or peace or purpose. We need God, himself. Since we are condemned sinners, then, we need his forgiveness above all else. We need spiritual life.” If this is not proclaimed, then we are asking for men and women to profess to be Christians without being reconciled to God. At some point, when this happens, the church ceases to be a church at all, but becomes a social club where men and women gather to improve themselves or to meet the felt needs of those around them. On the other hand, when we preach the good news that although every man among us is sinfully fallen and an enemy of God, Jesus Christ has come down from heaven to live as the God-man, to die as our sin-bearing substitute and rise again as Lord, and that we may receive forgiveness and life by turning from sin and believing this good news, the church fills with true believers who trust Christ for themselves and gladly share the good news with others. This is a mark of a healthy church.