When Mark Dever was invited to pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) in Washington, D.C., in 1993, the Cambridge University professor considered himself more an academic than a minister. “I did well in my studies. … I was preparing to teach at a seminary for a long time. I hadn’t really thought seriously about pastoring.” 

Dever had planned to come to the U.S. to teach a class that summer, so he extended his stay to visit CHBC. While the invitation to pastor had come as a surprise to Dever, his visit confirmed this calling. “I preached for them and just felt led during my time there that this was what the Lord wanted me to do.” Looking back, he is able to see that discipleship and evangelism had long been a part of his life: “I was already doing ministry in the sense of teaching. I preached at my local church and would also speak on apologetics and evangelism.”

The Nature of Ministry in D.C.

Dever has been preaching at CHBC for more than 20 years. Although the church is one of the oldest on Capitol Hill, it reflects the young demographic of its city. “Sometimes this city feels like a college town; people settle here after college. But many are here for the short term. Young people—once they get married and start having kids—find that it’s just too expensive to live in the city. They tend to move out into the suburbs, to other parts of the country, or back near family.”  

So much turnover can be a challenge for creating continuity in ministry, but Dever also sees how the constant change can benefit a church. “There are hundreds of thousands of people who are from D.C. for generations, and they’re still here. They’re usually the people who’ve been in a church and stay there. So it’s not surprising that, when our church started to grow again numerically in the 1990s, it wasn’t because of the stable older population, but the young people who were just moving into the city and looking for a new church. Young people meld pretty well with those who have been here for a while. We understand that part of following Jesus is helping other people follow him. It’s been wonderful to see the Lord building community here through peer teaching.”

The church faces some challenges. “In this area, evangelicalism is not as common as it is in other parts of the country. Also, we are the largest, most conservative church on the Hill, and therefore we appear a little bit alien to some of the current residents. But we’ve been here since 1878, on the same corner. We’re the first church of any denomination in the northeast quarter of D.C.” 

Dever says that none of the challenges the church faced in ministry have to do with location. “They are the same challenges every true Christian church faces in sharing the gospel. Fundamentally, our ministry would be the same in Abu Dhabi or in Canada or in Alabama—we all face the same spiritual reality.”

A Testimony of Progression

Dever’s journey to faith was quite unusual: Raised in rural Kentucky by a nominally Christian family, he says that he grew up as “a self-conscious agnostic. I thought religion was socially and politically useful, but I didn’t believe any of it was true. I read through all kinds of materials, like the Socratic Dialogues of Plato and the Qu’ran, and tried to figure out the meaning of life. I finally got around to the Gospels, and I was struck by the Gospel of Mark and the early chapters of Acts that detail how Christianity got started. I understood Jesus the rabbi. I understood the early church. But getting from Jesus’ crucifixion to the development of the early church—it seemed utterly impossible apart from there being a God. So I decided that I believed in the resurrection of Jesus, and as a very young teenager, I became a Christian.”

Since then, Dever’s respect for Scripture has only deepened. “It’s extraordinary: the prophecies, the fulfillments, the foreshadowing, the way things fit together. This text could not possibly have been fabricated, and the closer you look at it, the more obvious that becomes. It is so worth your time. Just keep reading.”

Biblical Literacy

But Dever also has noticed declining familiarity with Scripture, especially while speaking at universities and conferences. “I was preaching at a Christian university some months ago. I asked 1,000 students if they were familiar with Ezekiel and his vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, and only 10 percent responded. This was at a Christian university. That’s indicative of the trend across our culture. Biblical literacy may be higher in some places, but here in the U.S. it’s certainly lower than it used to be, and it’s declining.”

For those who struggle to establish their own Bible-study routine, Dever urges perseverance. As a regular Bible reader for more than 30 years, Dever says that the more he studies, the more rewarding Scripture becomes: “It is so worth it—keep going. There is not another book like this; you couldn’t make this stuff up.”

9Marks Ministry

Dever also founded 9Marks Ministry with the mission to diagnose and help heal unhealthy churches. The name comes from a letter Dever wrote to a church he helped to start. “In that letter I listed out nine things that I consider to be marks of a healthy church: expositional preaching, biblical theology, promotion of Christian discipleship and growth, biblical church discipline, and then a biblical understanding of the gospel, conversion, evangelism, membership, and church leadership. I reused that list for a series in the newsletter when I first came to CHBC, published it as a little booklet, and then preached it as a sermon series. Eventually, a ministry grew out of that.”

Dever began to distribute his material online for free. “We were trying to get word out about these ideas—about what the Bible teaches regarding a healthy church. We wanted to reach pastors and seminarians. We’re not selling a new program. This is just a pastors’ cooperative to speak to other pastors and say, ‘Remember, these are the central things.’ ”

Although the 9marks.org website lists conferences and sells books written by the website’s contributors, the bulk of the content is free. “Every other month, we release a themed journal. We are aiming articles at pastors to try to help them think more biblically about the local church and think practically about ways that they can improve their ministry. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of resources on the website.”

There is no one-size-fits-all package for an unhealthy church’s self-evaluation process. And Dever warns that the process of healthy church growth takes years. “It’s not like a light switch that can just be turned on. The process is as varied as an individual beginning to work toward health. But, generically speaking, churches should begin to preach God’s Word expositionally, regularly, and faithfully from the pulpit. Begin to understand what a church is, what church membership is, and what it means to join a local church. Begin to encourage growth and discipleship. A healthy church should always be clear on what the Bible actually teaches, particularly about the gospel, conversion, and evangelism. See if you can create more biblical structures of leadership for people who are meeting biblical qualifications to be leaders. It’s all things that should’ve been put in place from the beginning, and over time they’ll result in greater health.” 

“These are not the kind of things you can usually judge with metrics. It’s a sense of how a church body is doing. I love when Paul and Barnabas, after the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, talk about going back to their first missionary journey. They check on the churches they visited before to see how they’re doing. That’s the kind of subjective phrase that’s used. It’s not, ‘Can you fill out a report? Rate yourself 1 to 10.’ They’re not measuring how many people attended or how much money they gave.”

Compelling Community

Dever’s most recent resource for 9Marks is the newly released book, Compelling Community. He considers it a sequel to one of his previous books. “The Deliberate Church (published in 2005) tries to explain some of the very practical things that we do as a local church. It sprang out of an experience with our ‘Weekenders’ conference.” Three times a year, from a Thursday night to a Monday morning, CHBC hosts about 50 pastors who immerse themselves in the life of CHBC. “My wife was observing one of our sessions and said, ‘Have you noticed how we always get the same questions? Why don’t you just write a book that answers these specific, practical questions?’ If 9Marks is a prescription for the churches that are currently ailing in American evangelicalism, Deliberate Church is an example of that prescription being taken by one congregation. I wanted it to capture an example of 9Marks’ principles in operation.”

Compelling Community looks back on the church’s experience—10 years later. “In this book, I’m asking, ‘What specific things seem to contribute to the health that we’ve enjoyed under the Lord’s kindness?’ It is a way to think about being a Christian, about membership, loving one another, and being committed to communities of people who are different from you.”

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at  JessiStrong.com.

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.

In summing up his new project, Dever points to 1 Corinthians 11:1—a passage that seems to encompass 9Marks’ ministry: “‘Follow me insofar as I follow Christ.’ I’ve got to tell you how I’m following Christ, but I don’t mean to imply that you should do everything I’m doing. If you see anything in this that’s useful, take it and run with it—as long as it imitates Christ.”