As I noted here, one of my summer reading books was Mark Dever and Paul Alexander's book, The Deliberate Church. While some of my Ref21 colleagues get their reading done on long airplane trips, I finished this book sitting around the hotel at the Association of Theological Schools meeting in Atlanta over the weekend. What I discovered was a thoughtful and thought-provoking manual on pastoral theology, similar in nature and topic (though briefer and more focused) as Jay Adams' Shepherding God's Flock.
Dever and Alexander focus the deliberateness (or, as we Presbyterians might say, orderliness) of their approach on a consistent application of the Word of God to gathering the church and elders and organizing the work of the church and elders; as they put it, "The deliberate church is careful to trust the Word of God, wielded by Jesus Christ, to do the work of building the local church" (p. 21). Though Baptists, there was a great deal in the book which was readily transferable to Presbyterian contexts (the notable exception being chapter 10 on the role of the ordinances). If I were ever to return to congregationally-based pastoral ministry, here are three of my take-aways:
1) I very much appreciated the first chapter (the four Ps). There, Dever noted that when he interviewed at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, he didn't talk about a program that would revitalize the church; instead, he said that he would preach, pray, practice discipleship, and be patient. I don't know if you could have a better definition of pastoral ministry than that; but what was even better was the consistent confidence that if pastors focused on what God called them to do in dependence upon God's Spirit, God would honor his Word and gain glory for himself by granting health to congregations.
2) The centrality of God's Word in worship was a wonderful reminder (preaching, praying, singing, and seeing the Word). But so was the need to weave God's Word through all our relationships--discipleship relationship; elders (or what we would call "session") meetings; staff meetings. Over and again, we are servants of God's Word who come to know Jesus through the Spirit using Holy Scripture to transform hearts and lives. Our only hope of godly community and healthy churches will not come from programs, but from a thorough-going commitment to God's Word.
3) The stress upon church health as true "success" was also an important reminder. Dever and Alexander noted that "it's tempting to think that we should just pray that God would make our churches bigger. But what we're really after is health, not just size. Churches can be incredibly unhealthy even when they're big. A small, healthy church is better than a big, unhealthy church. That's right. A bigger church isn't always a better church. It may make us look better as leaders, but size doesn't always indicated health" (p. 176). Wise pastors know that sometimes ministries can experience addition through subtraction; genuine health can often be the result of divine pruning and human departures. At the end of the day, what we want and what God wants are healthy churches.
I found this a very helpful book, one that would be useful for ministers and elders as well as for future ministers and elders. It should find a place in many of our elder training venues as well as session reading.