As I mentioned in a prior post, a small group of men are considering starting a "church" in this area (I will use church in the way it is normally defined as a local assembly of believers). I also mentioned that I am looking at several criteria people or ministries have posted that deal with which qualities reflect a healthy church or more importantly a Biblical church. I think one can have a growing, outwardly "healthy" church that is un-Biblical and there are plenty of examples that bear that out. Our standard for the local gathering must be the Scriptures before we even think about what tradition says or what the world says. One place we are going to look at and maybe base our prayer and discussions around are the 9 Marks of a healthy church, posted by Mark Dever's ministry 9 Marks Ministry. That is kind of a no-brainer, the 9 Marks model is widely respected especially among the Reformed and many conservative Christians. I find the 9 Marks to be an excellent guide and the material put out by the ministry to be solid and Biblical, a great defender of Reformed doctrines and Baptist practice. But...
In my review of the 9 Marks, something kind of jumped out at me. There was a mark for church discipline, there was a mark for membership but not a mark for prayer or fellowship. How can we evaluate a "healthy church" much less a "Biblical church" without looking at the fellowship or prayer life of that church? The earliest days of the church were marked by devotion to four things: fellowship, the breaking of bread, the Apostles' teaching and prayer (Acts 2:42). Three of the four things that the church devoted herself to are not on the 9 Marks list.
Then I found it, at the bottom in an addendum:
In identifying and promoting these nine marks, we are not intending to lay down an exhaustive or authoritative list. There are other significant marks of healthy churches, like prayer and fellowship. We want to pursue those ourselves as well, and we want you to pursue them with us. But these nine are the ones we think are most neglected in most local churches today, with the most damaging ramifications. Join us in cultivating churches that reflect the character of God.
I am pretty concerned that fellowship and prayer are relegated to footnotes. I am quite certain that Mark Dever and company have a high view of prayer and of fellowship. Why then are they merely mentioned in passing at the bottom of the list? I am far more concerned about fellowship than I am about membership. We see fellowship all throughout the New Testament, but we never see membership as we understand it today.
I fear that the reason fellowship and prayer get short shrift in the 9 Marks is that the assumption is that almost every church already HAS fellowship and prayer in the form of a church gathering in a sanctuary and corporate prayer led by the pastor. We have imprinted our traditions on these words and given them meaning that are unwarranted from the text. Fellowship means a couple of minutes of shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries. Prayer means listening to someone else who is paid to preach and pray on your behalf. Corporately praying and gathering for teaching is important but it cannot replace Biblical fellowship and intimate times of prayer.
Can we assume that church gatherings have fellowship and prayer? Does meeting in the same room and listening to someone else pray on your behalf count as Biblical fellowship and prayer? A once a month sparsely attended potluck dinner is a poor substitute to devoting ourselves to fellowship and the breaking of bread. More to the point, can we have a "healthy" church where fellowship and prayer is given only passing thought? My point is not a criticism of 9 Marks but just to point out how easy it is to make assumptions that are unwarranted by reality and focus on areas that are at best peripheral issues and at worst are merely human traditions.
We have got to get this right in the church. All the Reformation in the world will not change the church if we fail to get past the traditions and labels we have erected. May I suggest we focus on fixing the fundamentals before we start tinkering with traditions?