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Have you ever stopped and wondered, “Am I in a good church?” Not “good” in the sense of how it interests or pleases you, but “good” in that it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing (according to the Bible). There is an abundance of churches and denominations today, but what makes a church “good”? We chat this week with Jonathan Leeman, the editorial director of the parachurch ministry called 9Marks. He helps guide us through what we should be looking for in a church, spending some time on the issue of “church discipline” as well. I think we can only benefit from listening to this conversation.
Who’s Our Guest?
Jonathan Leeman edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary, a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales, and has worked as an interim pastor. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland.
Jonathan’s latest book (published this year) is called Word Centered Church.
Also, the ministry Jonathan serves on is called 9Marks. You should definitely check out their site. They have tons of free resources to build up the church.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is author and editor Jonathan Leeman. Jonathan is the editorial director for 9Marks. It’s a ministry for the church, really. We’ll get into more about what 9Marks is in just a moment. First of all, thanks for being here today, Jonathan.
Thank you, Isaac.
Do you mind first sharing about how you became a Christian?
Yeah, sure. I grew up in a Christian home with faithful Christian parents who brought me to church and taught me the gospel. I would say, though, it was in my early 20s where I repented and believed. It was actually as a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC in the late ’90s. I had joined the church because I understood the gospel, but it was as a member here that I think I truly began to understand repentance and faith in a way that the Spirit applied to my life, and to my heart, and to my understanding.
My life before that point had been characterized by living for the world in pursuit of pleasure. It was in those years, probably my early to mid-20s, working as a magazine editor here in town that my life changed and changed dramatically in the way that we think of as typifying conversion.
What does your kind of average day look like right now, because you’re this editorial director for this ministry, so what do you do?
Yeah. 9Marks exists to equip church leaders with a biblical vision and practical resources for building healthy churches. That means our primary audience is church leaders and pastors. We also, though, have a lot of resources for just regular church members as well, so they’re not completely outside of our purview, but primarily, we’re trying to reach church leaders.
My typical day is going to be spent either writing or editing. Occasionally, it’s traveling around and speaking, not too much though, that last bit, on different matters related to church life. Lately, I’ve been doing a monthly column in the Tabletalk Magazine and writing articles for that, or writing articles for a blog, occasionally writing articles for TGC. ‘
Most recently, I’ve been writing a couple of books that pertain to the stuff we talk about, so most of what I do is in front of a computer screen. That’s my typical day.
Nice. That’s good. Same here, so there you go. Now, just for the sake of getting to know you a little bit more, what is something … maybe a hobby or something that you can just give us a little bit more about who you are.
Well, I hate the hobby questions because I’m completely, completely uninteresting. My friend Bobby does all the same stuff I do, but he also plays jazz saxophone and surfs big-wave surfing. That’s interesting.
I am not interesting. I am a dad. I have four daughters. They’re wonderful and precious. We have a good time. I enjoy riding bikes with them and rolling around on the floor and wrestling with them.
Hey, that’s good. That’s awesome.
I have a great, great wife. I’m an elder in our congregation here at Capitol Hill. That’s my life.
No big-wave surfing or jazz saxophone playing.
You know what? Maybe those are something that you can take up in the future. You can talk to Bobby and do that.
Well, maybe. Maybe.
You’ve already kind of mentioned 9Marks a bit, but do you mind just letting us know where that name actually came from for people that are unfamiliar with it?
Yeah, sure. It originates from the title of a book that Mark Dever wrote called Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. It’s not the nine marks. In other words, there’s other marks that would be good to talk about. We just happen to talk about these nine marks. His book was called Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.
Basically, what that book produced was a lot of pastors saying, “Hey, I need help on this.” Then, suddenly, the church staff here found themselves acting like a information help line for various pastors. The ministry grew out of that in response to all the questions pastors started to raise, because what 9Marks does and what it’s unique at is pointing back to the Bible. I know that sounds really obvious and cliché, but in fact, a lot of stuff written for pastors doesn’t point them to the Bible. It points them to best business practices and the latest trends and statistics on this or that.
Along comes this book and along comes this ministry which says, “Hey, what does the Bible say? Let’s check it out?” Suddenly, pastors are like, “Hey, yeah. That’s a great idea.” The ministry, back in the late ’90s, early 2000s, grew out of that.
Okay. What’s an example of one of the marks, because I’m assuming it wouldn’t be something like “Here’s a principle on how to bring more people into your church some practical way” or something?
Instead of giving you an example of one, I’ll give you an example of nine. How about that?
That sounds great.
Number one, expositional preaching. Number two, biblical theology. So not are you just preaching the Bible, you’re preaching the Bible that is in accord with the whole Bible, right?
You got biblical theology. Third, a biblical understanding of the Gospel. Fourth, a biblical understanding of conversion, repentance and faith both, right? Not just believe or “once saved, always saved,” but repent and believe. Number five, a biblical understanding of evangelism. Number six, a biblical understanding of church membership and, seven, church discipline. Eight, a biblical understanding of discipling and growth. Number nine, a biblical understanding of church leadership. Those are the nine marks.
Not the nine marks.
Yeah, right. Right.
But nine marks.
Let’s jump in here. Jonathan, would you agree with this point that because of the incredible … maybe this is a simple statement that is obviously true, but maybe not. I don’t know. Because of the incredible advancement in technology and transportation in the past couple centuries, a Christian’s church-going habits look a lot different today than they did, let’s say, in the 19th century or something like that.
First of all, would you agree with that? Secondly, what would those differences look like?
Yeah, sure. The most immediate thing that comes to mind is the fact that church members, Christians, now live sort of spread out over a larger geographic region, right?
It’s not unusual for people to drive 20, even 30 minutes to get to church. It’s not unusual for them to find themselves in a neighbourhood where no other members of their church live.What that does is that dramatically impacts the ability of a congregation, a family, a body, a flock to live together throughout the week.
It’s that much easier for church to become a Sunday-only sort of attendance activity. I show up for my 60, 90, 120 minutes, however long the service is, and that’s church. Right? Whereas in previous times when people lived closer together, it was easier to integrate the rest of the body into my Christian discipleship. Right?
One of the things that we do in our own congregation, and we often tell churches to do, is to just begin, little by little, as a matter of Christian freedom, not as a matter of sin and righteousness, but as a matter of wisdom, to
encourage Christians to look for housing that’s close either to where the congregation meets or to other members of the church.
Quick illustration, when my wife and I moved back to DC 11 years ago, we had a choice between a house that was 30 minutes away and a house that was 15 minutes away but surrounded by other church members. The house that was 30 minutes away was newer, nicer, less expensive, surrounded by stores and restaurants. The house that was 15 minutes away was older, more expensive, flooding basement, rotting front porch, and no retail nearby. But again, there was like 50 other church members right around us blocks away.
I asked a couple of elders, I said, “Hey, listen. Which house should I prioritize, the newer, nicer, less expensive one,” kind of nodding my head, “or the older, more expensive?” They said,
“Jonathan, prioritize relationships.”
I kind of walked away slightly sad in my heart, but cognizant of their wisdom.
That was 11 years ago, and not a day has gone by in which we’ve regretted that decision. Our life, my wife’s life, our children’s lives, are rich with church relationships, and they aren’t just Sunday. They’re all week.
Hospitality is easier. Caring for one another is easier. Meeting to pray is easier. Evangelizing our neighbours together is easier.
All of this because we’re literally walkable from one another. We’re in Washington, DC. We’re a big urban area. Nonetheless, we have found a way to live close to one another.
That’s just one illustration, hopefully pretty concrete, of how, yeah, modern times make both church and Christian discipleship, in some ways, harder. There’s other ways we could say it makes it easier. If you’re a missionary, goodness gracious, it’s easier to stay in touch with people around the world in your family. There’s advantages. I’m just giving you a concrete one I want people to be aware of.
Well, that’s good. This isn’t to boost your ego at all, but it’s just … even looking around at, let’s say, people buying houses right now. I don’t think that’s on the forefront of a lot of Christians’ minds, the idea of, “I need to choose a place that’s going to be in a Christian community, whether it’s by congregants of the same congregation or near the church.” I think that’s just powerful. We need to see that more and encourage that.
I would say to any person listening to this, I would say, hey, look, ask the same questions non-Christians are asking when buying a house or renting an apartment. Those are good questions. How much does it cost? Are there good schools nearby? What’s the retail like? Those are good questions, wise questions. But in addition to that, a Christian should also ask, “Will this allow me to do hospitality? Will this allow me to spend my week with other Christians? Will the cost of this back me up against the wall so much financially that I can’t be generous with others?”
A Christian asks the same questions and non-Christians, but additional questions as well in where we live.
I want to help all of us, especially listeners, answer the question, “How do I know I’m in a good church?” That’s the question I want to kind of uncover with you in our remaining time here. I think a good question to start with, and I think some of what you talked about about 9Marks already kind of fits into this, but what constitutes a good church? What necessities should we look for in experience in a local church?
Yeah. The church is created by the Word. That is what creates the universal church, is the Word of the truth.
If the gospel is pronounced, that’s what creates a local church.
Far and away, the most important thing in any church you ever attend in any place on the planet in any season of life is, do they preach the Bible and the gospel faithfully? Do they make that the centre of their life together? When I want to say preach, I don’t just mean the Sunday morning pulpit. I mean the singing. Is it Word-centred? The praying, is it Word-infused? The relationships, do people talk about this, does it characterize their conversation? Is there a discipling ministry that spreads the work of the Word in the church?
The ministry of the Word starts in the pulpit or it starts in the evangelist’s mouth, but it reverberates out.
It echoes around in the rest of the life of the church. When you walk into a church for the first time, first I’d pay attention to the sermons. How much time and attention do they give to exegeting the text? How much time do they give to making the gospel clear, or are they just taking the gospel for granted, “We’re all Christians here. Yeah, yeah, we understand Jesus died and rose again for the remission of sins”? Or are they really clear on that every week? Do they point how every text of Scripture points in some way or another to the gospel?
The first thing I want you to do is pay attention to the teaching ministry of the church and, related to that, the discipling ministry of the church, related to that, also the evangelistic ministry of the church. Is this a place you’d want to bring non-Christians?
If you brought your non-Christian neighbours and colleagues and friends to church, would they hear the gospel?
Would they see and experience sensitivity to the fact that there are non-Christians there, or is this just sort of an insiders’ club? So is it an evangelistic church? So Word-centred, gospel-centred, evangelistic.
Then the next thing I would say is do they practice meaningful church membership and discipline? Now, that might take different forms. I’m not talking about membership packets, membership classes. I’m not talking about the forms, the packaging. Instead, I’m talking about the biblical essence, which is a self-conscious commitment to commit to one another in the gospel,
“Hey, I’m going to take ownership of you. You’re going to take ownership of me in our professions of faith, our discipleship in Christ, so that we can spur one another onto love and good deeds and faithfulness in the gospel.”
Does the church commit to one another in that way? Do they have self-conscious membership, whatever packaging or forms that might happen to take? Yeah, you want to make sure they’re doing that as well.
Right. Okay, I know you said whatever package that takes, but could … for someone, let’s say a new Christian, or someone that’s not really … in their church, the idea of membership or committing to that kind of stirring one another up, if that’s not really prominent, what … Can you give us an example of what that could look like?
What I was getting at there, Isaac, is I’m just sensitive to the fact that a lot of evangelicals, a lot of Christians these days, are a bit skeptical of the whole idea of church membership, “Membership? That’s not in the Bible. Where’s it tell me to sign something?” I guess Canadians don’t have that particular accent. I just gave you a Southern American accent, kind of what that sounds like.
Yeah. Thank you for that. That’s good. It’s was good. It was good.
Hey, no, look.
Membership packets, membership interviews, those things are not in the Bible. Let’s just agree on that. What is in the Bible, Matthew 18, is if a brother sins against you, go and show him his fault. If he doesn’t listen to you, take two or three others. If he doesn’t listen to them, talk to the church. Then if he doesn’t listen to the church, treat him as you would a Pagan or a tax collector.
In other words, there’s an inside and there’s an outside. There’s a putting a person out of the church, that the whole New Testament just understands, and so just trying to be sensitive to any possible skeptics out there about the idea of church membership, trying to say, “Hey, look. What’s the biblical essence? The essence is we’re committing to each other in some way.”
Now, ordinarily, in the West, I would commend certain prudential practices like a membership class in which we explain, “Hey, look. This is what joining our church looks like. This is what it means here. This is what you can expect of us. This is what we expect of you,” followed by a membership interview in which you sit down with one of the pastors or elders and you explain the gospel to them so that they can understand that, yeah, this person is a Christian. They understand. Give them your testimony. That’s what we do.
Then, finally, in our context, it would result … or according to our convictions, I should say, as congregationalists, the whole church is going to affirm a person’s profession of faith. We introduce the person to the church, and the church votes as sort of the last step of committing to one another. Those are the mechanisms we would go through.
But look, this isn’t just a sign-the-bottom-line sort of thing. We’re constantly encouraging and promoting members of the church to commit to one another, get to know each other, to have conversations, meaningful conversations, not just about football or baseball, but also about the … have those conversations, great, but in addition, have conversations about what God is teaching you, confessing sin to one another, and so forth. That’s just a regular part of that discipling culture’s go to be a crucial element of your membership.
Right. That’s good. Now, I’m throwing out to you, Jonathan, a little bit. Say there’s a new Christian, a young adult, new Christian, and they see these two churches in their city. One has thousands of people, and it is the most seemingly alive church, I mean they’re all over social media and stuff. And there’s a small little church with significantly less amount people. How would you encourage them if this big, massive church probably wouldn’t have … I’m saying this hypothetically … let’s say the same kind of membership kind of commitment, whereas this little church would.
What would you encourage to that person who’s looking at these two different churches?
Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to prejudice anybody towards a big church or a small church, or let’s put it the other way, I don’t want to prejudice them in terms of their social media presence.
I mean, you can have really healthy, awesome, big churches and really unhealthy small churches and vice versa.
That’s right. That’s completely right.