A Report on the Weekender at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.
In my first installment about the Weekender at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC), sponsored by 9Marks Ministries, I reported on the views and practices of leadership, membership, discipline, and items of interest to fundamentalists at CHBC. In this final installment, I will consider what we were taught about preaching and implementing change.
According to Mark Dever, the first mark of a healthy church, from which the rest of the church’s health flows, is expositional preaching. Before being asked to change, people need to see the basis for change in the Word. Dever, senior pastor of CHBC, spoke about sermon preparation and service planning. His desire is that church members be more familiar with Bible books than popular Christian books. For example, should they read a book on How I Can Be Sure I’m a Christian … or 1 John? Dever is a strong advocate of preaching expositional sermons, which he defines as sermons in which “the point of the passage is the point of the message.”
Dever said, “I think you can preach any size of text in any length of time.” One can take a variety of views of the Bible, zooming in and out and looking at different levels. Dever believes beginning pastors should do the hard but rewarding work of preaching many overview sermons, taking larger sections of text—particularly whole books (and even whole testaments!). This fills the mouth with Scripture and enables one to present the message of the book, the purpose for which it was written. Helpful tools for this task include William Dumbrell’s The Faith of Israel, one-volume Bible commentaries, and commentators such as John Calvin, John Gill (often underrated but an expert expositor, exegete, and master of biblical languages), and Matthew Henry.
After preaching overview sermons, Dever recommends preaching through books, outlining the whole book in advance (much of the work for this will be done if an overview sermon on the book has already been preached). His goal is to preach through the Bible—not over his whole lifetime but in a shorter time period—to benefit his congregation and to give them an understanding of the whole of Scripture.
For preparation, one should read the text again and again and again; meditate; and pray throughout the process. The text must be exegeted, and an exegetical outline should be produced. Dever emphasized that one does not need to know the original languages to do faithful exegesis; a good translation of the Bible will suffice. He said that many guys who don’t know the languages are unnecessarily insecure. He reminded us of preachers who were not masters of Hebrew and Greek, such as Whitefield, Bunyan, and Mahaney. Dever said that some guys who know the language falsely assume that the more language they know, the better their preaching will be—but this is not necessarily so. After the exegetical outline, the application grid can be filled in (all of these grids will not always be used in the sermon, but it is a helpful exercise). Then a homiletical outline can be crafted, in which one should try to let the text speak. At this point, the sermon may be written out in its entirety. Mark preaches from a full manuscript to be more direct, more clear, and less repetitious; but he says that each preacher must know himself in this matter.
As for the elements of the sermon, introductions should start with what interests hearers. The sermon should begin with a demonstration of relevance, urgency, and importance, starting with the listener. The preacher must assume deep disinterest on the part of people sitting there and seek to gain their attention. The introduction must also engage the non-Christian and the Christian.
The body of a sermon should make a few points and make them well. Application must be included. (Dever stated that much evangelical preaching is actually weak in this area.) Mark front-loads his introductions with application, applies throughout (putting application with each point), and applies to a variety of people (using application grid—available online at www.9marks.org, under expositional preaching; the exact link (PDF) is here).
Mark spends about 24 to 30 hours on each sermon and preaches between 45 and 65 minutes. He consults others in his preparation to be sure he is communicating clearly.
Dever plans extensively, printing a sermon card announcing texts and titles months in advance. This step helps the preacher avoid “Saturday night fever” (the weekly anxiety experienced by many preachers who prepare their sermon the night before) and enables the congregation to prepare by reading the upcoming Scripture text in their daily quiet times. It also has evangelistic use, helping the congregation to invite others. Mark rotates through the various genres of Scripture, so in a few months’ time, one will have been exposed to all the literary genres in Scripture (OT: Law, Prophecy, History, Wisdom; NT: Gospel, Pauline Epistle, General Epistle). He has another preacher speak in the evening on the same theme but from a passage in the opposite testament (a 15-minute sermon he compared to an after-dinner mint). Mark anticipated the question some might raise: “Where is there room for the Holy Spirit’s leading in this type of planning?” He proceeded to distribute a past sermon card that included the September 11 time period (it can be viewed or downloaded (PDF) here.). The messages were planned well in advance but were remarkably appropriate for the unpredictable terrorist attacks, covering passages that dealt with security, justice, mercy, questions for God (series on Habakkuk titled “When Bad Things Happen”), and our need to trust in Him. It does appear that God can use advance planning!
CHBC staff meets weekly to review the sermon, encouraging and critiquing the preacher and giving suggestions. It was a wonderful experience to hear Mark’s excellent and profitable sermon on Ruth 4. Then we witnessed the sermon review a few hours later. The sermon review was a great display of giving and receiving godly criticism, traits CHBC desires to be central to their ministry. Mark Dever sat and listened as 20-something interns (as well as other staff) evaluated his sermon. It was a great example of humility and of a willingness to be taught by others.
Dever recommends the following books on preaching: John R. W. Stott’s Between Two Worlds (best single book) and D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones’s Preaching and Preachers (his favorite book on preaching). He highly recommends two workshops/conferences devoted specifically to preaching: the Simeon Trust Conference (Kent Hughes and others; ww1.simeontrust.org) in America and the Proclamation Trust (Dick Lucas) in England.
Other helpful resources are Dever’s books: overview sermons in Promises Made: the Message of the Old Testament and Promises Kept: the Message of the New Testament; Nine Marks of a Healthy Church; and The Deliberate Church. There is much helpful audio available online for free, including sermons, lectures, and interviews at www.capitolhillbaptist.org and www.9marks.org.
CHBC began because of a woman’s burden for a prayer meeting on Capitol Hill. The church had a good history and remained committed to the Scriptures over the years. When Dever was contacted to consider the pastorate, the church had been through the trauma of a necessary departure of its previous pastor. The church had far more names on the membership rolls than in attendance (a sad but common situation in many American churches) and was in need of reform. Among the changes needed were a plurality of elders, a more meaningful understanding of membership, and the practice of biblical church discipline. God brought wonderful changes, but He did not do so overnight. Some changes took years, work, and the unpleasant task of facing opposition to occur; and CHBC warned us that one could not expect to take the instruction received at the Weekender and immediately expect all the same results in another local church. Each church is different and has its own culture, background, and circumstances.
At the Weekender, we were instructed about the need for care and patience in making changes in a church. Appreciating and learning the history of a local church is a helpful factor for the pastor hoping to move the church in a healthy direction. Dever did not try to do anything without “teaching on it and teaching on it and teaching on it” first (such as going to a plurality of elders and relegating deacons to a servant role instead of having them oversee matters). He said, “Matt [Schmucker, director of 9Marks Ministries, who has also served as an elder at CHBC] and I have never criticized a pastor for moving too slowly.” Dever admits that he had optimal conditions for change, implying that one cannot expect a direct correlation in another local church; for others, change may happen on a much different timetable. He strongly urged pastors to consider their conditions before trying to implement changes. He also told us that healthy churches and long pastorates tend to go together.
The Weekender at CHBC is highly recommended. Scholarships are available for those who are concerned about cost. The Weekender is usually offered three times per year. Sign up for the Weekender at www.9marks.org or through www.capitolhillbaptist.org. There is often a waiting list, so sign up early. Also, visit the CHBC and 9Marks websites for plenty of free materials, including recordings of sermons, outlines and notes from Sunday school classes (CORE seminars), downloadable books, and leadership interviews. Another helpful resource is Jason Janz’s interview with Mark Dever at SharperIron (available in audio and print formats).
Doug Smith is a member of Cornerstone Chapel Reformed Baptist Church in Bristol, Tennessee, and a student and preacher with the Cumberland Area Pulpit Supply, an extension of Bancroft Gospel Ministries in Kingsport, Tennessee. You may contact him at email@example.com. His blog is located at http://glorygazer.blogspot.com.