The Deliberate Church by Mark Dever & Paul Alexander (Book Review)

Whether you will benefit from Mark Dever and Paul Alexander’s new book, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel, will depend a lot on your expectations. This book presents nothing new, no quick fix, and nothing like a program. The Deliberate Church “is not something you can plug into your church and press PLAY” (20). What it does focus on is “the Word building the church” (20). Writing from their own leadership experience at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., the authors say, “we are trying to be careful about building our church according to the pattern that God has given us in Scripture” (21). Their goal is for the Gospel “to gain functional centrality,” because “when the Gospel enjoys functional centrality, the church gains traction in the culture, because the Gospel is the power of God for salvation” (22). The Deliberate Church is thus written within a Word-centered framework for understanding the relationship between the Gospel and methodology. Briefly stated: “(1) Theology drives method . . . (2) God’s methods determine ours . . . (3) The Gospel both enables and informs our participation in God’s purposes . . .[and] (4) Faithfulness to the Gospel must be our measure of success, not results.” (27-28). On the solid foundation of these theological-methodological convictions, the authors present guidelines and suggestions for ordering the life, worship, and ministry of the local church. Their guidelines are as practically useful as they are biblically faithful and develop in four sections: Gathering the Church, When the Church Gathers, Gathering Elders, and When the Elders Gather.

Section One – Gathering the Church

Chapter one begins by outlining “The Four P’s” which are basic to any ministry: preaching, prayer, personal discipling relationships, and patience. These are the primary ministry strategies to which the authors return over and over again throughout the book. Chapter two (“Beginning the Work”) lays the foundation for building a ministry on the Gospel. This involves “Clarifying the Gospel” (43-45); “Cultivating Trust” (45-47), through expositional preaching, developing personal relationships, and demonstrating humility; and then the difficult work of “Cleaning the Rolls” (47-48) and “Conducting Reverse Membership Interviews” (48-50). If the Gospel is to have functional centrality in the church, one of the implications is that churches must be sure that their members both understand and embrace the Gospel.

The third chapter focuses on “Doing Responsible Evangelism.” Crucial to responsible evangelism is a God-centered focus which includes the essentials of the Gospel when inviting sinners to repent and believe on Christ. Negatively, we should avoid things which distract or detract from the Gospel, including entertainment and manipulation. “We shouldn’t want our Gospel presentations or invitations to be finally molded by what we think will ‘close the deal,’” they write. “If they are, then they reveal that we think conversion is something we can orchestrate, which is the furthest thing from the truth. Instead of using all our powers to convict and change the sinner, while God stands back as a gentleman quietly waiting for the spiritual corpse, His declared spiritual enemy, to invite Him into his heart, let’s preach the Gospel like gentlemen, trying to persuade but knowing that we can’t convert. Then let’s stand back while God uses all of His powers to convict and convert and change the sinner. Then we’ll see clearly just who has the power to call the dead to life” (55-56).

Next the authors discuss “Taking in New Members.” A biblical defense for church membership is presented, followed by practical suggestions regarding membership classes, the use of a church covenant, and membership interviews. The complete text of the church covenant of Capitol Hill Baptist Church is included (63) and a copy of the “Church Membership Interview Form” is found in an appendix (203-204). “Doing Church Discipline” is discussed in chapter five with the needed reminder that church discipline is not only corrective, but also formative and thus preventative. If corrective discipline is like surgery, where disease is excised from the body, then formative discipline is a preventive measure like eating right and exercising. This is followed with helpful insight on how to cultivate a context of loving relationships within which church discipline can be carried out realistically and how instruction regarding how to actually carry out corrective discipline.

Section Two – When the Church Gathers

The sixth chapter (“Understanding the Regulative Principle”) lays the foundation for section two by defining and defending the Regulative Principle of worship. “The Regulative Principle states that everything we do in a corporate worship gathering must be clearly warranted by Scripture” (77). “Applying the Regulative Principle” is the focus of chapter seven (one of my favorite chapters in the book), where building the church on the Word is shown to boil down to five essential practices: Read the Word, Preach the Word, Pray the Word, Sing the Word, and See the Word (in the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Chapter eight then discusses the specific “Role of the Pastor” in building a church on the Gospel. Essentially, the pastor is a teacher. “Teaching is everything” (90) – even in the day-to-day administrating of the church. The role of the shepherd “can be summed up with three general obligations: graze, guide, and guard” (94) the sheep. Feeding, leading, and protecting the flock are the priorities of the pastor.

Chapter nine (“The Role of the Different Gatherings”) articulates how various gatherings in more traditionally-structured churches (Adult Education Hour, Sunday Morning and Evening Services, Wednesday Evening Services, and Members Meetings) can be utilized for the health of the congregation. It is a little disappointing that little discussion was given to other structures which are often used in lieu of the more traditional ones (e.g. small groups), but it is helpful to see how one church has utilized the traditional model. “The Role of the Ordinances” is discussed in chapter ten, which briefly describes both the theology and practical implementation of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Chapter eleven, “Loving Each Other,” is a brief foray into the nature of community life in the church which discusses five necessary aspects of local church life – it should be covenantal, careful, corporate, cross-cultural, and cross-generational. And chapter twelve takes on the divisive issue of music providing some guidelines for congregational singing and some suggestions for selecting music. While all will appreciate the concern for God-centeredness evident in this chapter, many people will not be persuaded by some of the arguments regarding forms and styles.

Section Three – Gathering Elders

Section three turns the corner from congregational concerns to leadership issues, articulating the biblical framework (chapters thirteen and fourteen) and practical guidance (chapters fifteen through eighteen) for gathering a plurality of pastorally-gifted elders. Especially helpful are the guidelines for assessing the character, ability, and “fit” of elders (chapter fifteen), the strong emphasis on “Why Character is Crucial” (chapter sixteen), and the outline of a seven-step process for leading a local church into biblical eldership (chapter seventeen). Those steps are: exposition (of Scripture), recognition (of men who already shepherd people the way elders should), nomination (by the pastor or other elders), election, installation and cooperation (these three summarizing the congregation’s role in choosing and affirming elders) and rotation (of lay-elders through term-limits). Some very wise suggestions regarding the hiring of staff and the relationships between staff, elders, and deacons are also provided in chapter eighteen.

Section Four – When the Elders Gather

Finally, section four discusses the practicalities of elders working together in leading the local church. “The Word and Prayer” (chapter nineteen) are central to their task and should be prioritized. But effectively overseeing the congregation also demands carefully planned meetings and wise decision making. These are discussed in chapters twenty and twenty-one, respectively, where everything from member care, administration, and annual budgets to making decisions about missions, how to conduct meetings and the role of the senior pastor within the eldership are considered.

The Christian book market is flooded with new and innovative books on the church. Many adjectives put various spins on what the church of the twenty-first century should be: connecting, purpose-driven, disciple-making, contagious, emerging, et cetera. It would not be surprising for pastors to feel jaded when hearing the title of this book: The Deliberate Church. Is it just one more in a long line of books describing what worked in one congregation, but is not likely to work in mine? The answer is no. Rather, this book is a refreshing call to return to the essentials of the Gospel and the clear teaching of Scripture in local church life.


Sled Dog said...

I recently read through the book and found it quite encouraging. And as you wrote, it's not because there is anything new, rather it's a call to invest in the hard, but profitable work of faithfully growing a church God's way. Dever's "9 Marks" along with Josh Harris' "Stop Dating the Church make a fine trilogy for young church leaders searching for solid ecclesiology.

Unknown said...

keep up the posts. it's great to see more pastors out reaching this side of the cyber-world!