Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Book Review - The Deliberate Church by Mark Dever and Paul Alexander

The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry On the Gospel
By Mark Dever and Paul Alexander
Crossway Books, 2005
Category: Church Helps
ISBN: 1581347383
202 pages
Indexes: General Subject and Scripture
$14.99 MSRP

Let me begin by stating what many may wait to share until the end: I loved this book. I have read and reviewed Simple Church by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, which is interestingly, the most visited page on my blog. Church leaders from all over the world have Google’d its title and landed on my page, however, I seem to be one of the few in the blogosphere that did not like the book. I presume folks have merely moved on until they found a more satisfactory review to suit them. I am curious if this review will spark as much interest. I suspect not for a few reasons: first, The Deliberate Church is over two years old (published in 2005) which signifies - by church-growth model standards - it is beginning to get info in the mail from AARP. Second, The Deliberate Church is not one of those books that will easily satisfy those who are looking for a church-growth model. Seemingly contradictory, let the author’s explain:

”We have called this book The Deliberate Church because we wanted a title that might serve to throw us into the fray of the church methodology debates. American evangelicalism is now dripping with the various kinds of churches: The Emerging Church, The Purpose Driven Church, The Connecting Church, The Disciple-Making Church, a critical assessment called The Market Driven Church, and almost any other kind of church you could possible want. We thought keeping the format of “The _______ Church” for a title might get our foot in the door of the debate. “Deliberate is the best word we could find to succinctly describe what we’re talking about (22-23).
And the title to this two hundred page work will not disappoint you because the subtitle really defines its intention “Building Your Ministry on the Word.” For Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, this is precisely what they have done.

Contrary to Simple Church, The Deliberate Church is heavy laden with Scripture which a quick glance at the Scripture index will prove. However, these Scriptures are not merely pulled from thin air in order to accomplish the author’s purpose, but rather, the author’s derive there purpose from Scripture. A competent and faithful expositor of God’s word, Mark Dever founded IX Marks Ministries with the hopes of helping other church leaders develop their ministry based upon what the biblical calling for ministry is – not what the next great statistician has to say about trends and growth models. Therefore, The Deliberate Church is not only heavy laden with Scripture, it is heavy laden with GOSPEL – the good news that the God of this universe Who is there has revealed Himself faithfully throughout the course of history, ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ, and is continuing to summon men to Himself as He seeks worshipers who will worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). From the introduction:
This Gospel, then, is that God is our holy Creator and righteous Judge. He created us to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever, but we have all sinned, both in Adam as our representative head, and in our own individual actions (Rom 5:12; 3:23). We therefore deserve death – spiritual separation from God in Hell (Rom 6:23; Eph 2:3) – and are in fact already spiritually stillborn, helpless in our sins (Ps 51:5; Rom 5:6-8); Eph 2:1) and in need of God to impart spiritual life to us (Ezek. 37:1-14; John 3:3). But God sent His Son Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man (Phil. 2:5-11), to die the death that we deserved, and He raised Him up for our justification, proving that He was God’s Son (Rom. 5:1; 1:4). If we would have Christ’s perfect righteousness credited to us, and the penalty for our sins accounted to Him, we must repent of our sins and belie in Jesus Christ for salvation (2 Cor. 5:21; Mark 1:14-15)

This Gospel alone (Gal 1:6-9) is the one we are commanded to preach (2 Tim. 4:2). This Gospel alone contains the theology that must drive our ministry methods. This Gospel alone is the one God uses to create a people for Himself. This Gospel alone both enables and informs our participation in God’s redemptive purposes. Consequently, this Gospel alone deserves to shape and evaluate both our methods and our ministries (28-29)”
A lengthy quote, yes, but an important one, for this theme repeats itself over Andover again throughout the book. The Gospel is what transforms enemies of God into worshipers. The Gospel is what transforms cultures enraged against the Truth to individuals who seek to love God and love neighbor. Without the Gospel, the true Gospel – the BIBLICAL GOSPEL – you do not have a church. You may have a quaint gathering of morally upstanding members of society, but you do not have a church. You may have a country club, a rotary club, lion’s club, or even the Red Cross, but without the Gospel you do not have a church. And without the Gospel, the church loses her purpose.

This book is divided into four major sections (following two forewords, two prefaces, and an introduction. With an intro like this – it better be good! And it is!) They are as follows:
1. Gathering the Church
2. When the Church Gathers
3. Gathering Elders
4. When the Elders Gather
Given that the final two sections of the book deal with the election and function of elders, I presume many will not give this book a second look (at least those coming from a Baptist background). However, I believe that Dever presents a balanced view of the elder polity. I will be the first to say that I am not fully equipped to formulate judgments as to which form of church government is the most biblical , but be sure that Dever’s thrust is not to accept elder polity, but rather promoting church unity.

Having said this, let me point to a few highlights from each section. Let me remind you: if you are in any position of church leadership – this book will be of benefit to you.

Dever says that there are four primary responsibilities of any pastor: Preach the Word, Pray for Your Flock, Develop Personal Discipling Relationships, and Be Patient. With these four in mind, a minister is set to begin to build his ministry on the Word. Preaching the Word may be a given, but not unless it is understood in Dever’s context. To “Preach the Word” means to preach the WHOLE Word. To preach expositionally, not topically, through the Scriptures is to let the point of the text be the point of the sermon, not to seek Scriptures to fit with the point you are intending to get across. Dever asserts (and is also a reoccurring theme throughout the book):
”What you win them with is likely what you’ll win them to. If you win them with the Gospel, you’ll win them to the Gospel. If you win them with technique, programs, entertainment, and personal charisma, you might end up winning them to yourself and your methods (and you might not!), but it is likely that they won’t be won to the Gospel first and foremost (44).”
The danger and pitfall of any ministry organization, but specifically a local church, is to fall into the snare that program’s are what win people. Sure, it is great to offer free pizza on Friday nights in an effort to provide a safe haven for the high school students to hang out, and it is good to provide “Mother’s Day Out” programs so that moms can have a safe place to leave their children while they run some errands. It is also good to offer workout facilities, Book Stores, and divorce care support groups. These are all “good” things that benefit the society as a whole. However, if there is no gospel, then they are not truly good things. If there is no gospel there is no life change. If there is no life change, there is no true Christian. If there are no Christians, there is no church. See the progression? Without the gospel, the church ceases to be the church and is no different than the aforementioned Lions and Rotary clubs. Thus, programs do not truly effect life change. The only thing that effects true life change is God’s word accurately preached under the Holy Spirit’s initiative. Therefore, programs may be used as an inroad to preach the gospel, but it can not serve as a substitute for it.

Dever then discusses his policies for taking in new members and doing what he calls “responsible evangelism.” What does he mean by this?
”The way we do evangelism will inform the way our hearers understand the Gospel. The way our hearers understand the Gospel will inform the way they live the Gospel. The way our hearers live the Gospel will have a direct bearing on the corporate witness of our churches in our communities. The corporate witness of our churches will in turn make our evangelism either easier or harder, depending on whether that witness is a help or a hindrance (51).
In other words, if we are to be “responsible” in our evangelistic efforts we are not allowing ourselves to rise to the level of the individual who is “responsible” for another’s salvation – only the Holy Spirit is capable of causing regeneration in the life of another. But, where we are “responsible” is in the way that we accurately present the Gospel. Do we clearly present that all creation is created by God and subject to His rule? If we truly are a random process of time plus chance, then where is accountability to anything? If we are indeed created, which we are because Scripture affirms such, then there needs to be a concept and understanding of sin or rebellion or estrangement from God. Then, and ONLY then – never before, do we offer the solution. Premature decisions are simply premature. Therefore, we should never feel the pressure to “close the deal” and attempt to bring an individual to a decision point at any given moment. We must be sure that the individual is responding to the Holy Spirit and the authority of God’s word – not our own personality or persuasiveness.

Section 2 deals primarily with the “how” and “why” the church gathers together. The church may gather at times for regular corporate worship, Bible study, budget meetings, discipline issues, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, etc. Dever then examines what he believes to be the specific role of the pastor in each of these gatherings. Before this, however, he does offer a brief synopsis of worship styles comparing the Regulative Principle to the Normative Principle. Simply, the Regulative says we will only worship in such a way which is commended to us in Scripture. The Normative says that we will not worship in such a way that is prohibited by Scripture. Thus, the Normative is much less stringent than the Regulative. Dever prefers the Regulative. In turn, he says that we must read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible, and the see the Bible. He uses the “see the Bible” as a way that we partake in the Lord’s Supper.
“[Everything] that happens up front in a corporate worship gathering is part of the teaching ministry of the church. Everything teaches, whether you intend it to or not. The songs teach people doctrine and the proper affections for God. Your prayers (or lack of them) teach people how to pray themselves. The kinds of prayer you pray (or don’t pray) teach people about the important differences between prayer of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. The way you administer the ordinances teaches people about their meaning, and even the very meaning of the Gospel. Your preaching teaches people how to study and use the Bible appropriately. Everything from the call to worship to the benediction counts as teaching. Teaching is everything (90).”
This concept caused me to think about our worship services specifically and I began to see how true this really is. When we pray, how we pray, why we pray began to show up quickly. What we sing, how we sing, and when we (congregationally or led by a choir or soloist) began to teach me immensely how our church and its leadership viewed them (or at least seemingly). I say seemingly because the message that was conveyed may not be the message that was intended to be conveyed. But, much like every other conversation the intended message is often lost in the reception of the hearer. This caused me to think greatly but will have to wait for ruminations of another time.

Sections 3 (Gathering Elders) and 4 (When Elders Gather) were less intriguing to me, probably most due to the fact that I am not a church elder, nor am I in a position of governance in our church. Thus, it was good for informational purposes; however, I did not find much direct application. But, for the elder or pastor, this section will provoke great thought and possible change in structure if read thoroughly. Dever discusses the purpose and importance of a plurality of elders that leads a church. Being that his church, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, is a Baptist church, this is not a popular concept among many, but I believe one that needs to at least be considered. Dever makes his case for a plurality of elders from the familiar Biblical texts Acts 6:1-4; 20:17-38; and 1 Timothy 3:1-3. Dever says that the plurality of elders accomplishes six major goals:
1. It balances pastoral weakness
2. It diffuses congregational criticism
3. It adds pastoral wisdom
4. It indigenizes leadership
5. It enables corrective discipline
6. It diffuses “us vs. him” (133-135)
I have never bee actively involved in a local fellowship that practices the plurality of elders so I can not attest the practical validity or not. However, I do follow Dever’s argument for such an instance. Be clear, Dever does not say that this is the ONLY way to govern a church, but one he believes to be the most faithful to the Biblical model. Some who advocate for the single elder system state that it is not so much that the single pastor desires to have ultimate control, but that ultimately someone has to be the one to take final responsibility for the matters of the church. Someone has to be the Truman of the bunch to let the “buck stop here.” I can sympathize with both sides of the argument. Either way, the emphasis needs to be placed upon faithful shepherding of the local body – whatever form that takes. Elder boards and deacon boards have a tendency to be power hungry and attempt to throw their weight around on every issue of the church from the color of the carpet to how much should be spent funding oversees missions. This, I believe, is completely contrary to Scripture. Scripture is clear that deacons are not to run the church, they are to serve her. Thus, unity of the body is what should be strived for, not that which suits a few individuals. In some congregations this will mean plurality of elders, in some it will mean single elder.

Were I to return this book and reread it, which I am sure will happen at some juncture in my tenure, I believe I will read the conclusion first. Here, Dever and Alexander tie together several threads that seem to have been sown throughout the beginning of the book. Here is the main thrust of the book:
”The biblical hallmarks of church health – holiness, faith, love, sound doctrine – are cultivated in us as we are captivated, by Him.

What this means is that we want to build our churches in a way that makes this corporate captivation with Christ a normal part of our lives together…If people are transformed ever more perfectly into the image of Christ by gazing at Him, then the job of the pastor and evangelist is not to come up with more innovative or clever methods. It is rather to present people with the clearest picture possible of biblical truth. The more clearly we present Christ’s person and work to our local churches, the more clearly we will come to reflect His glory together as if in a mirror.

This is why it’s so important to begin (and continue!) a work by expositional preaching that clarifies the Gospel and makes much of God. This is why we want to present God and Christ clearly and frequently in evangelism. This is why we want to keep all our methods as plain as possible – so that we don’t obscure our message with our method…Nothing else has transforming power for the church but the Word of God plainly set forth in preaching and in living…What is needed most today is a commitment to being deliberate about setting forth the truth plainly, because the truth as we gaze on it is what transforms us, what builds us up and sets us free (John 17:17; Acts 20:32; John 8:36).” (195, 196, 197)
This is really what the Gospel ministry is all about: the Gospel. Nothing else transforms. The Deliberate Church will be a valuable edition for any church leader, pastor, elder, and even church member who desires to know how to help establish his ministry in the word. May we all be deliberate in our worship and seek to bring others to worship around the throne as well.

Lord, cause us to be the true “church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim 3:15).


Anonymous said...

Just found your blog and am blown away by it. Loved your insight in this book review- thanks for your honesty!

KC Armstrong said...

Thank you for your encouragement, anon. You were up late tonight, eh?