I spoke to Mark Dever just about a year ago and asked him if there were any new books in his future. At that time he mentioned that he'd soon have a book out dealing with personal evangelism but that he had nothing planned after that. It seems that his plans changed! The book on evangelism is due for release in just a few days (September 11). It has been preceded by What is a Healthy Church and will be followed by The Church and Her Challenges. What is a Healthy Church? is a shortened, introductory version of Dever's previous book 9 Marks of a Healthy Church written primarily for people in the pews rather than the men in the pulpits. After all, church health is not the sole responsibility of a local church's leadership. "If you call yourself a Christian but you think a book about healthy churches is a book for church leaders or maybe for those `theological types,' while you would rather read books about the church life, it may be time to stop and consider again exactly what the Bible says a Christian is." Said even more forcefully, "you and all the members of your church, Christian, are finally responsible before God for what your church becomes, not your pastors and other leaders--you." Despite this, we might rightly ask, How many Christians have ever read a book about church health?
If you are familiar with Mark Dever's ministry you know that he can be provocative, though always in a sanctified way. This book is no exception. Consider this, a portion of a short anecdote he shares: "If you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, I worry that you might be going to hell." Why would Dever extend such a warning and do so at the beginning of the book? "I want [the reader] to see something of the urgency of the need for a healthy local church in the Christian's life and to begin sharing the passion for the church that characterizes both Christ and his followers." Church health and church membership really are that important.
The book falls into three parts. In the first, Dever answers the question of "What is a healthy church," ultimately defining it as "a congregation that increasingly reflects God's character as his character has been revealed in his Word." In the second part he looks at the first few of the nine marks of a healthy church, defining three of them as essential: expositional preaching, biblical theology, and a biblical understanding of the Good News. In the final part he looks at the remaining six "important" marks, which are: a biblical understanding of conversion, a biblical understanding of evangelism, a biblical understanding of membership, biblical church discipline, biblical discipleship and growth, and biblical church leadership. Those who have read 9 Marks of a Healthy Church will recognize parts two and three as a summary of nine chapters of that earlier book.
My wife and I have been members of an unhealthy church in the past (though, thankfully, we are now privileged to be members of a distinctly healthy church) and I suppose the one thing I would wonder about a book like this is how likely it is to make its way into churches that may need it most! After all, pastors of unhealthy churches will certainly not be likely to commend it to the members. In a few locations, and most notably at the end, Dever urges caution to those who are members of unhealthy churches, urging them to proceed carefully and biblically in trying to bring about change. "Pray, serve, encourage, set a good example in your own life, and be patient. A healthy church is less about a place that looks a certain way, and more about a people who love in the right way." This is a valuable charge and one that clearly proceeds from a pastor's heart.
What is a Healthy Church? is a valuable little book and one I hope is widely distributed and widely read. Churches that truly seek to be healthy should be glad to distribute this among its members and to discuss it. I think it could make a valuable title for study. Those who truly desire church health have nothing to fear from it, and certainly a lot to gain.