We first measure the health of our physical bodies by how we feel. Do we have pain anywhere? Are we able to breathe and think properly? Are we nauseated or have other symptoms of disease or functional failure?
But how do we measure the health of a church? A denomination? A “feel good” church may not be a healthy church. Just as Michael Horton explains in his new book Christless Christianity (Baker, 2008), a church that feels good may have left Jesus and His gospel of eternal salvation in the parking lot. A church marquee in our city shouts, “COME ENJOY THE EXCITEMENT!” We wonder, “Is the excitement centered in Christ, or in some modern ‘10 Steps to Personal Happiness’ technique?”
Mark Dever’s book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Crossway, 2004), provides one helpful grid through which we may measure church health. In the first article in this series of four, we examined Dever’s nine “marks.” In this second article, we’ll take a look at Dever’s first three marks: expositional preaching, biblical theology, and biblical understanding of the good news. To help us examine our denomination in these terms, we asked several PCA pastors from around the country to comment on their practices and their church’s general health as it relates to Dever’s marks. Are we preaching Christ and Him crucified? Are we preaching and teaching the Jesus of the Bible? And are our congregants gaining a biblical understanding of the gospel—the good news of what Jesus has accomplished for us?
How Do We Preach?
Expositional preaching is, in Dever’s words, that “which expounds what Scripture says in a particular passage, carefully explaining its meaning and applying it to the congregation. It is a commitment to hearing God’s Word and to recovering the centrality of it in our worship.” We asked the pastors about their preaching and how clearly they explained and applied the Bible. Specifically, we asked how much they spoke of God and His attributes, how often they recited scriptural texts, how often they preached Christ in their sermons, and did they sense the presence of God in the sermons they preached or heard.
John Musgrave (Clayton Community Church; Clayton, N.C.) wrote of the importance of Christ being at the center of all preaching. “I believe Christ is speaking through the preached Word and is present by His Spirit ministering to (convicting, comforting, etc.) His people through the preaching.” Doug Perkins (Heritage Presbyterian Church; New Castle, Del.) agreed. “In every sermon I like to herald God and His attributes with a three-dimensional filter: His character, His plan, and His process—His ways of His means of grace.” Perkins added that he contrasts these characteristics of God with our sinful nature and therefore our predicament, “climaxing with Christ our Redeemer and His atoning victory.”
When asked whether he preached Christ in every sermon, Chris Hutchinson (Grace Covenant Church; Blacksburg, Va.) said, “I’m afraid I don’t know anything else to preach.” He added, “Two attributes which are prominent in all my sermons, without my mentioning them explicitly, are God’s sovereignty and His mercy towards sinners.” A PCA pastor in Tennessee who preferred anonymity said, “The people I serve are not college educated or theologically ‘savvy.’ J.C. Ryle’s Simplicity in Preaching is what I aim at.” He went on to say, “I want people’s thoughts to be filled with God (through the text and the work of the Holy Spirit) as I preach.” All of the contributors for this article reflected this common goal, “to preach Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). As Scott Hill (Smyrna Presbyterian Church; Smyrna, S.C.) said, “Yes, I preach Christ in every sermon. Not every sermon is evangelistic, but Christ is brought out in every sermon.”
We couldn’t realistically expect flawless preaching. Michael Horton, when interviewed about his book Christless Christianity for an upcoming byFaith article, commented, “I’ve been in PCA churches and United Reformed Churches [Horton’s denomination] and others within our NAPARC circle where I have heard Christless Christianity. … I’m not saying that I’d expect that every week, but I have heard sermons that have clearly had Christ in the text, or at least by implication pointed forward to Christ, yet treated the text in a moralistic-therapeutic way.”
All the pastors sensed the presence of God as they preached, but varied as to how much Scripture they used in each sermon. For instance, John Musgrave said he referred to Scripture texts between 15 and 40 times in a sermon. Doug Perkins cross references many Scripture passages in his preparation, but the final message “reflects primarily the main passage from which I’m preaching … not all the related passages.” Chris Hutchinson uses between two and 20 different texts. He says, “I enter the pulpit trembling each week, aware that unless the Holy Spirit blesses the sermon, all is in vain. And yet I come believing that God is at work.”
What We Preach
Biblical theology is the “sound doctrine” that Paul charged Titus to teach in Titus 2:1. “Our concern,” Dever says, “should not be only with how we are taught, but with what we are taught. Biblical theology is a commitment to know the God of the Bible as He has revealed Himself in Scripture.” We asked our pastors if their congregations were called to a public confession of faith on a regular basis. If so, we asked what historic confessions were used. We also asked what percentage of their congregations were estimated to have a Reformed view of Scripture. Our answers to that last query were generally in the 60 to 70 percent range. The pastor in Tennessee noted that his congregation’s understanding of the Reformed faith would be low. Then he added, “Thankfully, our church draws the kind of people who have a higher practical view of Scripture; they read and grapple with the text,” as opposed to relying solely on the preached Word.
The Apostles’ Creed and the Heidelberg Confession were the most used confessions of faith in worship services, with the Westminster Confession and the Canons of Dordt trailing. Periodic use in worship ranged from weekly to monthly. John Musgrave adds that while Clayton doesn’t use the historic confessions on a regular basis in worship (other than singing the Apostles’ Creed occasionally), the church’s “singing, responsive readings, and prayers [are] scripturally and doctrinally full.” He adds that they’ve just finished going through the Canons of Dordt in Sunday school, and that “every few years [we’ve] gone through the Westminster Confession of Faith in its entirety.” The pastor in Tennessee said, “We are just not a catechism culture. The ordinary American believer is just not interested in the old instructions in the faith … . I read them and make use of them when I can, but I do not push them.”
Knowing and Sharing the Gospel
Again, Dever: “The good news is not that God meets people’s felt needs and helps them develop a healthier self-image.” The good news is that while we are by nature enemies of God who have sinfully rebelled against our righteous Creator and Judge and deserving of everlasting punishment, God in His mercy and grace sent His only begotten Son to live the life we should have lived and die the death we should have died. Jesus rose again to justify sinners who come to Him in childlike faith, repenting of their sins, bringing peace with God, and an eternity of joyous freedom and life that is truly life. That is the good news—the gospel of Jesus Christ. But how many of our congregants could explain the good news to someone in need of it? Moreover, what difference should the gospel make in our everyday lives? On a practical basis, we asked our pastors if there was an explanation of the good news at some point in their worship service. And, since the Lord’s Supper is a physical portrayal of the body and blood of Jesus, how often they celebrated it. Here’s what we found.
According to the pastors we talked to, about half their congregants could explain the gospel. Estimates for each congregation ranged from “a very low percentage” to 98 percent. Chris Hutchinson explained the high number he estimated: “It is … a requirement for communicant members to be able to understand and articulate the gospel. That is what the membership vows in our Book of Church Order are meant to safeguard.”
Frequency of the Lord’s Supper in our reviewed churches ranged from twice per month to once per month—and for a few churches the answer was only once per quarter. Correlating the frequency of the Lord’s Supper and the ability of the congregants to explain the good news (and this is, remember, an informal survey) we found that, generally speaking, the greater the frequency the greater the ability.
Are pastors explaining the good news from the pulpit? Doug Perkins writes, “We use some form of the two-sided good news coin: We are much worse sinners than we thought, and God’s grace (displayed at the cross) is much deeper than we ever dared to dream.” Scott Hill would agree. He says, “I try to challenge the congregation weekly to consider their standing with Christ and mention repentance and faith, but I go into more detail some weeks than others.” All of those interviewed agreed that the gospel needs to be strongly presented each week during the worship service, and more than once. Chris Hutchinson sees the gospel being presented “most explicitly in the Lord’s Supper, which we believe to be the biblical ‘altar call.’ However, we do not guide folks through some artificial ‘sinners prayer,’ or tell folks to meet us up front. We trust God to draw people in His way and time.”
Some unbelievers have characterized the good news of salvation in Christ’s finished work as “pie in the sky bye-and-bye.” They ask, “What can it do for me today?” Is the gospel only about life after death? Or does it have meaning for life in the here and now? John Musgrave said, “The gospel helps to solve relational problems (marriage, work, parent-child, every social contact); it helps solve psychological and emotional problems (knowing one is loved and justified by God solves a ton [of personal issues]; it helps … keep us from ethical wrongdoing, which is usually motivated by self concern.” Scott Hill echoed John’s remarks: “Having the promise of eternal life and knowing that God will bring to completion that good work which He has begun in me gives me a sense of peace, hope, and purpose in life. I know that no matter what the devil or the world may throw at me, I am secure in Christ.”
Our pastor in Tennessee adds, “The gospel is freedom from sin and condemnation And praise God that is so! … It brings substantial healing to the one who believes. There is definitely a present aspect to the good news.”
Chris Hutchinson, however, adds a caveat: “If we confuse the gospel by adding other elements to it, such as our own fruit, or cultural transformation, then it is no longer good news, for it is no longer perfect and certain. Such preaching can only lead to a spiritually lethal moralism, and that in short order.”
In the next article in this series, we’ll seek to deal with three more of Dever’s “nine marks.” We’ll look at our understanding of conversion and the question of “Which proceeds from the other, regeneration or faith?” Also, we’ll ask about our understanding of evangelism. Do we represent the gospel as just an add-on to life that might elicit false conversions? Or does the gospel aim to deal with the whole person, and fill our deepest needs? Finally, what is the PCA’s understanding of church membership? Is it a necessary component of the Christian life, or just a manifestation of legalism? We hope you’ll join us next time as we seek to listen to the heartbeat of the Presbyterian Church in America.
(To read the first article in this series please click: Dever’s Nine Marks and the PCA: How Healthy Are Our Churches?
Beasley and Belz are ruling elders at Trinity PCA in Asheville, NC. Beasley is a 1997 graduate of Westminster Seminary in California, a state in which he lived for over 40 years before moving with his wife Amy to North Carolina. He is the author of five Christian books,including the recent “101 Portraits of Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures.” Belz, Associate Editor of byFaith, is the editor of three books and the former publisher of Explore! magazine for children.