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Dever cautions about ‘relevant’ mindset

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The health of local churches doesn’t depend on relevance to the world and success in numbers, but on reflecting the character of God and upholding His Word, Mark Dever said at a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary forum.

“I would like to suggest that the most fundamental problem in the church is not that we are not relevant enough in relation to the world, but that the church is not distinct enough from the world. Our churches must reflect the character of God,” said Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, D.C, and a trustee at the Louisville, Ky., seminary.

Church leaders should channel their energy toward maintaining purity in the church instead of spending great amounts of time and ministry on relating to the culture, Dever said at a forum sponsored by the seminary’s Korean Student Fellowship Oct. 9.

The idea that the Gospel must be made relevant is a liberal assumption which, if taken to its end, can result in the theological liberalism of Friedreich Schleiermacher, the father of Protestant liberalism, Dever said, adding that numerous church models seek to be relevant and do not reach the unorthodox conclusions of liberalism but remain unhealthy because they are based on an unbiblical definition of success.

“The problem with the seeker-sensitive model, emerging church model and even the traditional model that say, ‘Get as many people into a room as possible and share the Gospel with them,’ is that they view success in light of visible fruit,” he said. “All three of these approaches say, ‘Change your techniques and let’s get some numbers.’

“Instead of being directed by [visible] success, we should be directed by faithfulness. We should say, ‘If the Lord doesn’t like our product, we will change the product.’ We shouldn’t take the idea that if we don’t have X number of conversions in our church, then we must be doing something wrong. I am glad Jeremiah didn’t think that. And I am glad that Jesus Christ didn’t think that. Let us remember that we are following the One who was crucified as a revolutionary.”

Dever also is the founder of 9Marks Ministries and author of “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.” 9Marks Ministries attempts to help local church leadership re-establish biblical bearings and rethink ministry methods, and to help them discover and apply the biblical priorities that cultivate health and holiness in the local church.

“You must have preaching that makes the point of the text the point of the message and where the Gospel is always present,” Dever said, noting the first of the nine marks of a healthy church is expositional preaching.

“In the Bible, the people never create God’s Word. Instead, God’s Word always creates the people. That is how God has always worked. And that is how we should preach. That is how people are saved and how people are sanctified. God’s Spirit works with His Word.

“Expositional preaching must first characterize a church that will be able to withstand the pressures of an increasingly secular culture,” Dever added.

Second, sound theology will go hand-in-hand with expositional preaching, further helping people view the world through God’s eyes. Biblical understandings of the Gospel, conversion and evangelism also will promote church health, he said.

Church membership and church discipline each must be preached and practiced by church leaders to maintain purity within local churches, Dever said. Church membership and discipline fulfill Jesus’ command to love one another, and church leaders will give an account for the people they allow into their congregation, he said.

“The basic idea of practicing a self-conscious allegiance to a certain group of people and to a certain group of elders is taught in the Bible,” he said. “Our church membership should capture what it means to be a Christian through people’s actions.

“Jesus said that they would know that you are Christians by your love, not for the people in the community, but for each other. Somehow what happens in the community of a congregation is more powerful even than your individual honesty and kindness to others. I think we will give an account to God for the membership of the church in which we pastor,” Dever said.

Finally, Dever said a concern for discipleship and Christian growth and a biblical church leadership structure will promote healthy churches.

Patience and courage are needed to correct a situation where the number of church members greatly exceeds those who faithfully attend and participate in the life of the church, he said.

“You must very clearly preach the Gospel, Sunday after Sunday, making it very clear what a Christian is [in such a situation],” he said.

“Second, you must be very patient. It took me two years to finish dealing with that issue, in a very stable, Bible-believing congregation. Get counsel from older men who agree with you theologically.

“And when the time comes, what is typically lacking in pastors in many cases is courage,” Dever said, adding that it takes “courage to look at a man twice your age and tell him that he has been doing things wrong all his life. You must keep making it very clear what a Christian is.”
Garrett E. Wishall is a writer at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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  • Garrett E. Wishall