Review of ‘Deliberate Church’ (Mark Dever)

If one’s philosophy is ministry is like a building, then you might consider Mark Dever’s previous work The Church to be the foundation and The Deliberate Church to be the framing, drywall and plaster, with even some tips on painting and decor. Poor illustrations aside, this book is by far the most practical that I have read in the 9Marks series on healthy churches. And if there was any one 9Marks book to give to a pastor, it would be this one.

What makes this book so eminently helpful is that it acts as a sort of bridge—from theology to practice. It is similar to Tim Keller’s ‘theological vision’. If I’m a pastor looking to reform my church, I have a litany of practical guides to choose from. But usually they are divorced from biblically robust theology. And if I am interested in staying true to the Bible, I may find myself caught up in doctrines, principles, and footnotes, but woefully short of a guide on how to implement these truths. Enter The Deliberate Church.

The central thesis could be stated thus: the aim of the church is to clearly communicate God’s living and written Word (the gospel), which also regulates how we should organize and build his church. Immediately, I’m encouraged to think not just of the gospel as our message, but our mode and medium. It is like leaven that affects the entire church’s life. Put another way, Dever and co-writer Paul Alexander are essentially trying to unleash the Word/gospel into all areas of the church life. This is also helpful for my soul because the gospel should therefore not simply inform my religious devotions and theological claims, but every aspect of my life!

This seemingly obvious truth—that the Word must be central and sufficient— seems to have been lost on twenty-first century American evangelicalism, and I think Dever and Alexander do a great job of showing why pastors must seek to always clarify and preserve the gospel. And this applies to more than just the sermon. This is because consumer-driven growth models, business-like elder meetings, programs instead of discipleship, etc. actually serve to obscure the gospel! The power lies in them, not the gospel (Romans 1:16). The philosophy of ministry of Dever and Alexander might be described as, “Get out of the way!”. Applications abound but one that is diagnostic for my own soul is that I should be seeking to decrease, not increase (John 3:30). As a church leader, my job is never to make much of myself or my own abilities. It is to make much of Christ! This is such a good reminder. Therefore if the church is to hold up this message of Christ, how do they do so?

In the ‘Sunday School’ adult education hour, the saints are equipped to better understand the Word and live in light of the gospel. Aimed at edifying the saints, the Sunday morning service is the feeding time for the sheep. And they are fed by the Word (Matthew 4:4)—evident in the reading, praying, singing, seeing, and evangelistic exposition of the Word. The Sunday evening service is the family time of the church. You might describe this as “the Word of Christ dwelling in [them] richly” (Col 3:16). Wednesday evenings are dedicated to studying the Word of God in community. Members meetings administrate the life of the church—strategizing to advance the gospel, admitting/releasing gospel-believing members, disciplining gospel-denying members, etc. And Thursday evening elders meetings read and pray the written Word, before seeking to shepherd the whole congregation to better conformity to the Living Word. As I reflect on this list, I’m encouraged to think of how DRBC faithfully keeps the Word central. Though one question I had is if we, as a church, have such diversity in our public gatherings? That is, it seems apparent that Dever promotes the plurality of assemblies because there are a plurality of reasons for assembling. I wonder if we could improve how each gathering would service a more particular (though not entirely independent) goal?
Dever and Alexander write on page 26 that the church is the only institution entrusted with the gospel—the message of repentance of sins and faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins. So everything must be oriented to getting this message out. And I think this is important because it not only shapes the public gatherings of the church, but the very structure and organization of the church. That was perhaps the biggest thing that I took away from this book. That the gospel informs not only what is taught with words (in public gatherings) but everything that church does (including what is modeled during the rest of the week).

One of the most helpful lines in the book is on page 44 when they right, “What you win them with is what you win them to”. That is brilliant! So why should I not give away a free car at an evangelistic Friday service? It would certainly attract a large crowd, and I would get to share the gospel with many. Well unfortunately, it is likely that they will only come back if I give away an ATV next week. Or a boat the week after that. But what about Sunday morning gatherings? Are they likely to come and hear God’s word preached then? No. Because I have won them to free stuff, not God’s grace. Or should we hold a Sunday morning service that plays the latest secular music?  No, for I have won them to entertainment, not God’s mercy in Christ.

Furthermore, it should be noted that only in America’s materialistic and entertainment-obsessed culture are these questions even considered. Perhaps we have bought more into worldly philosophies than we would like to admit (Col 2:8). Instead of appealing to man’s carnal desires (‘more stuff for me, more entertainment catered to my wishes’), the gospel confronts sinful longings. Therefore, because the gospel shapes our message and our medium, it would be unwise (and possibly sinful?) to hold such events. John Piper talks about having a ‘nose’ that knows when things are off—even when you don’t know why things are wrong—and I’m helped by this book to know why such strategies should not be pursued!

A prime example of how the gospel shapes a church’s structure is when Dever and Alexander critique the ‘specialized’ ministry departments of many churches. For they unnecessarily divide the church.  Or in music, churches should seek to cultivate congregational singing (Ephesians 5:19) and theologically deep lyrics that “let the word of Christ dwell richly” (Colossians 3:16). Pastors should serve more like shepherds and less like CEOs. Members should be admitted on gospel-profession and gospel-fruit, not emotional or financial responses.

This is exceptionally helpful for my own thinking. For, everyone knows that the Word should shape the sermon! But shouldn’t the Word also shape a church’s structure? In my estimation, modern evangelicalism (and my own thinking) has thought Scripture to be sufficient for preaching. But thats about it. I’m helped to see that God’s revelation is not just to inform one hour a week on Sunday mornings—but every hour of every day of the week!

Dever and Alexander essentially take up Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 1-2 and 2 Corinthians 4, 12 that God uses weak vessels to display his own power (through the gospel). For when we use worldly wisdom to promote heavenly realities, we end up boasting in our methods instead of our God. We have the gospel treasure in jars of shiny metal, as it were, and boasting becomes of the method/jar instead of the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46). Does the church need to purposely cripple itself then? No. But in areas that the Bible speaks, Christians should listen. Indeed, I am encouraged to shape more of the church’s life by the gospel. Pragmatic choices are not always bad (which copier should we buy?), but sometimes they are (which music should we use?). These decisions are not always easy, but through prayerful attention to God’s word, I’m helped to see that Scripture is sufficient!

The Church taught that the gospel is the purpose and plan for God’s glory, as seen in the Church. The Deliberate Church helpfully teaches how a local body of believers can order their own assembly by the gospel to better reflect God’s character and his gospel. This is huge! I’m grateful for this book and the truths in it. May all our churches, in all our functions and structures and philosophies, rightly proclaim this gospel.

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