Nine Ways I’ve Seen Mark Dever Disciple Men and Raise Up Leaders

When Mark Dever applied for the pastorate of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, one quality stood out among others in his references: he made disciples everywhere he went. “If I had to emphasize one gift above others,” D.A. Carson wrote to the church, “it is his continuing ability to challenge others, in the context of genuine friendship.”

What does Mark Dever do to disciple men and raise up pastors in the context of the local church? Here are nine points that Mark has publicly shared are his practices, with some of my own reflections as someone who has benefitted Mark’s discipling and observed its effects on others.

1. Discern Qualifications.
The job of the pastor, in part, is to discern in others the qualities that the Bible says should characterize leaders. In Exodus 18:21, Jethro tells Moses to look out for men who are not in it for themselves, which sounds remarkably similar to the qualifications Paul lays out in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9. These are not extraordinarily high standards; they’re a floor, not a ceiling for what pastors should look for in terms of character qualities. In discipling men Mark does value natural giftedness (the ability to influence others) but also seeks to discern godly character.

2. Look.
In order to discern qualifications, pastors need to look at who God is raising up around them. If elders are gifts of Christ to the church (Eph. 4:11) then our assumption should be that God is already at work. But this requires pastors to be present with their people, not just to preach and disappear. Instead, stick around. Give people the opportunity to talk with you. Create spaces where people can take initiative to spend time with you.

To do this, Mark makes it a habit of praying through a few pages of our church directory every morning, partly as his responsibility as a pastor, but also to notice people he may be overlooking. Furthermore, at any public service of the church (Sunday morning, evening, Wednesday night), Mark typically stands around by the door until most people have left, simply to make himself available to the church.

3. Trust.
Some pastors are unwilling to take risks on other people. They will not trust someone until they prove themselves. Mark takes a very different approach. He believes in advancing trust like credit: letting other people spend it and see how they do. In part, this means taking risks by giving others opportunities to teach and lead publicly who might not be super polished. It also means investing personal time in people that others may not think are worth spending time with, which leads into the next point…

4. Personal time.
There is no substitute for personal time. In Mark 3:13-14 Jesus called his disciples “so that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach.” This is how Jesus ministered and this is how pastors should minister: by being available to people.

For Mark this includes formal and informal time. More formal times would be pre-planned lunches throughout the week. Far more common, however, is spontaneous, informal time. Not everyone is an extrovert, and everyone needs a healthy dose of time alone. But the point isn’t the size of the ‘emotional wallet’ God has given you. The point is stewarding what he has given you.

5. Delegate.
As far as Senior Pastors go, Mark is extraordinarily willing to give young men leadership and teaching opportunities. This would include leading public services, leading in public prayer, teaching, and preaching. As I’ve heard Mark say, “Creating contexts for other people to teach God’s Word may be more important for strengthening your church and other congregations than your own Sunday morning sermons.” That means sharing the pulpit and delegating opportunities to others.

For Mark, delegating also means being willing to lose votes on the elder board. We don’t require unanimity in most elder votes at CHBC which fosters healthy disagreement. After all, a domineering pastor will never be a disciple-making pastor. That’s because if you feel threatened by other people’s strengths, you will drive away people with leadership abilities.

So delegate and don’t be afraid of disagreement.

6. Feedback.
Feedback goes hand in hand with delegating. When you give people the opportunity to lead, you also need to create spaces for giving encouragement and offering criticism. Mark creates a culture of encouragement and criticism by hosting a Sunday night service review meeting for the pastoral staff and those participating in the service to give and receive feedback. At that meeting, he models receiving encouragement and feedback by taking and accepting feedback on his own preaching, and he gives feedback to those testing out their gifts in the church. In offering feedback, Mark is critical, but he majors on encouragement. As he likes to say, “In an atmosphere of suspicion men shrivel up and die; in an atmosphere of love they grow up and flourish.”

7. Authority.
Another aspect of leadership that Mark commends is his example of godly use of authority. The passage Mark always points to is David’s last words in 2 Sam. 23:1-4 where David teaches that leadership is a good gift, blessing everyone under it. Of course, authority can be abused, but that’s where points 5 (delegate) and 6 (feedback) are critical. Being willing to delegate, lose votes, and creating spaces for critical feedback are all ways Mark tries to model a godly use of authority.

8. Clarity.
Pastors need to be clear in understanding and being able to teach doctrine. They should be the kind of person who can give an explanation when asked “why.” You have to be clear in teaching. “What are you saying?”

Since our culture is rife with anti-authority sentiments, an elder or pastor needs to be comfortable teaching with clarity and authority in matters of biblical conviction, whether that means teaching 1 Timothy 2:12 without feeling skittish about complementarianism or Romans 1 without being shy about what the Bible says about homosexuality.

9. Humility.
To humble is to be free from envy and fear of man. Pastors should rejoice in the leadership of others rather than feeling threatened by it. This goes hand in hand with trust and delegating, but I love watching how much Mark delights in sitting under the preaching of other men at CHBC who—in his words—preach better sermons than him. That kind of humility and joy in others’ success can take a lifetime to cultivate but is a crucial component in discipling others.

Not everyone is going to be a Mark Dever when it comes to discipling. That’s not the point. But all of us can follow Mark’s example of giving thought to the people God has providentially placed around us and do what we can to help them follow Jesus.

The feature image of this article was originally published on

How Small Groups Can Embrace Word and Prayer

When Jesus spoke, people listened. He didn’t come to put an end to the Old Testament law but instead to “fulfill” it—to bring it to completion and fullness by rooting God’s ways in the hearts of God’s people.

In our community groups, we can encourage one another in a number of spiritual rhythms—Bible study, confession, prayer, and so on. But how might our small groups actually learn together how to meditate on God’s Word?

The Rhythm of Scripture

Our community groups can go beyond increasing knowledge to actually cultivate and practice devotional Scripture reading together. Devotional Scripture reading, or biblical meditation, has often been described as a middle road between reading and prayer: Our minds are engaged in God’s Word, yet our words come directly from our heart and are expressed to our Father in prayer. This is a reading for the purpose of increased fellowship with God together.

Learning to Meditate Together

For centuries biblical meditation has been practiced both individually and communally—and we can restore this practice in our small groups today. The church fathers spoke of “descending with the mind into the heart”—a helpful phrase describing biblical meditation. Meditation engages the mind by focusing it on God’s Word. In the midst of a thousand concerns and thoughts, it directs our minds to stillness on God’s Word in his presence. Like a centripetal force, meditating on Scripture slowly pulls us inward toward the center of communion with God.

The best place to begin Scripture meditation—whether individually or in a group—is with the Book of Psalms. We must remember the Psalms were written for congregational use; they were penned to be read aloud, sung aloud, and prayed aloud with others. As Eugene Peterson once noted, just as a farmer uses tools to cultivate the ground and produce crops, so we can use our prayers to stir up our hearts and become more like Christ. In other words, if our prayers are tools, the Psalms are our toolbox.1 God has given us 150 rich, impassioned songs and prayers for our devotional life. Unlike any other genre of the Scriptures, the psalms enable us to express ourselves, understand our own hearts, find perspective for our circumstances, give language to our emotions, and pray God’s Word back to him.

In our group prayer, we can pray the psalms to our Father in a powerful way—together, we can descend with our minds into our hearts.

Here are three recommendations for making the most of these prayers.

First Reading: Content and Meaning

Gather your group and introduce the topic of biblical meditation. Before beginning your reading and prayer time, ask the Lord to bless your time of reflection together.

In this first reading, read the psalm aloud. Since it was written to be read (or sung) aloud, there’s likely a natural rhythm and flow to it. The first time through, get a feel for the psalm’s content, and pause for a moment whenever you see the word Selah. After the first reading, take about five minutes to ask basic questions about the psalm’s content and meaning. What was the psalm’s original context? Was the psalmist primarily writing a private prayer or a congregational song? How would you put the message of the psalm into your own words?

Second Reading: Application and Meditation

Remind one another that the goal of devotional reading is increased fellowship with God, not merely understanding the psalm. With a basic understanding of the psalm’s content and meaning, now read the psalm aloud again, this time more slowly and with longer pauses. As one person reads the psalm, the rest of the group can follow along in their Bibles or simply close their eyes and listen. The goal is to personally absorb the psalmist’s prayer as much as possible. When you reach a Selah, pause for a few moments and reflect silently on the previous stanza.

After this second reading, take 20 to 30 minutes to discuss the psalm’s movements in a more personal way. How do you resonate with the psalmist’s cries for help? Where do you see yourself similarly in need of God? What aspects of your life are driving you to seek refuge in the Father?

The Rhythm of Prayer

Descending Into the Heart

After your discussion time, close with prayer together. A great exercise for our prayer lives is to learn to reword and then pray the psalm aloud. Take turns doing this, putting the most significant or applicable part of the psalm into your own words and praying it to our Father. Use the language of the psalm and add your own requests, praise, and prayer for others. (This exercise will be awkward the first time or two, but don’t get discouraged.)

In our groups, we have found new life in this historic pattern. Slow, meditative reading of Scripture, heart-level discussion and application, and deep personal prayer has drawn us closer to God and to one another. Groups can practice this kind of Bible-based prayer with visitors and non-Christians present, so long as it’s explained well. We’ve found that outsiders expect us to be doing spiritual things, and are refreshed by a group of people who long to be more deeply connected to God’s presence.2

Prayer Together

Of course, prayer in community group doesn’t always feel this majestic. In most community groups I’ve been a part of or led, prayer has become just a way of listing others’ needs out loud to God. We try hard to summarize Frank’s work situation, try not to be condescending as we pray for Jim and Amy’s struggling marriage, and make sure we “lift up” Sue’s second cousin’s knee soreness. My goodness, this doesn’t feel significant at all.

So, why is praying together important as a community group?

Think back to Jesus’s life and ministry again. In his famous teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:5-15, it’s important to note that the Lord’s Prayer seems to be instructing us in a prayer that we could offer together: “Our Father… Give us… Forgive us.. Lead us…” Prayer certainly can and should be practiced in private, but it’s instructive that the pattern our Lord gives us in his most famous prayer is a shared prayer.

In the same way, our heavenly Father wants us to come to him together with our needs and problems. Following the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer, we have the opportunity to pray for each other’s needs and so intercede on their behalf. As we pray for others in their presence, they feel God’s love and presence. Similarly, we can pray boldly together for God to advance his kingdom and then live that prayer by faith together.

Think about it: Where did you learn how to pray? Probably from watching another person praying for you or around you. I learned prayer from my father around the dinner table, from my earliest community group leader when we blessed dinner, from my wife when our sons have been sick, from my pastors when we have gathered to plead with God for renewal in our midst.

Praying together is an essential aspect of community life and, along with the other rhythms and practices, it enables a life of growth in Christ.

In the next article, we’ll look at the rhythms of fellowship (connecting with one another) and hospitality (connecting with outsiders).

1. See Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.
2. This section originally appeared as “Three Steps for Meditating on Scripture in Small Groups” at The Gospel Coalition.

*This article is Part 3 of an eight-part series on community groups and their importance that will run this summer. Read the full series here.


Editor’s Note: The Theology in the Everyday series seeks to introduce and explain theological concepts in 500 words or less, with a 200-word section helping explain the doctrine to kids. At For The Church, we believe that theology should not be designated to the academy alone but lived out by faith in everyday life. We hope this series will present theology in such a way as to make it enjoyable, connecting theological ideas to everyday experience and encouraging believers to study theology for the glory of God and the good of the Church. This week, angels.

Christianity is a supernatural religion. That may sound obvious, but Christians in the modern world often seem overly skeptical about things that defy material explanation—things like miracles, the soul, the afterlife, and the topic of this post: angelic beings. Our world has become (as many philosophers and theologians have noted) disenchanted, demystified, and despiritualized. But against this materialist mindset, biblical Christianity is irreducibly and unavoidably and gloriously supernatural.

So just what are angels? Angels are immaterial beings created by God to worship him, to communicate his word, to protect his people, and to otherwise serve his purposes in the world. God, who is immaterial by nature, made some things unlike him (material creatures like birds, planets, and amoebae), some things both unlike him and like him (human beings, composed of body and soul), and some things that are more purely like him (immaterial angels). Angels can appear in physical form but are by nature immaterial and incorporeal (that is, they don’t have bodies). They are invisible creatures with power beyond our imagination. So, from one perspective, angels represent the highest order of creatures that God has made; they round out, so to speak, the manifold wisdom of God.

The Greek work for angel (angelos) simply means “messenger” and may mark out one particular type of spiritual being. But the English word “angel” also serves as a general description for all such beings. Other words used in the Bible for celestial beings include cherubim (e.g., Gen. 3:14; Ex. 25:18), seraphim (Isa. 6:2, 6), spirits (Heb. 1:7), archangels (1 Thess. 4:16; Jude 9), and (perhaps) Paul’s listing of thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities (Col. 1:16).

The Bible doesn’t give a detailed account of the angels’ creation. Presumably they were made at some point before the creation of the earth in Genesis 1 (see Job 38:7). In any event, we know that they were in fact created by God (see Col. 1:16); they are not eternal beings. The fall of a certain number of the angels is also not explicitly recorded in Scripture but rather assumed (Gen. 3:1; 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6; Isa. 14 and Ezek. 28 may also have the fall of Satan in the background as an analogy for downfall of certain human kings). Fallen angels are referred to as demons or evil spirits. The powerful and personal being called Satan or Beelzebul serves as their prince (Matt. 9:34; Eph. 2:2). They are permitted a certain degree of power to tempt humanity, but they operate under the ultimate authority of God (Job 1) and their doom is certain (Matt. 25:41). The “elect” angels (1 Tim. 5:21) who did not rebel were confirmed in their original righteousness and always live to do God’s will. The risen Lord Jesus Christ serves as the supreme head over all angelic powers (Col. 2:10; cf. Col. 1:16; Eph. 1:21-22; 1 Cor. 15:24).

Angels and demons appear in every phase of the biblical story. In the Old Testament, angelic beings appear to the Patriarchs, to Moses, to the judges and kings, and to the prophets. In the New Testament, angelic (and demonic) activity is especially clustered around the incarnation and ministry of Jesus Christ: at the annunciation, the nativity, the temptations, the miracles, the passion, and the resurrection. In Acts and the Epistles, we read of angels supporting the church and demons waging war against it. In Revelation, we read of the ultimate end of both angels and demons, in everlasting glory or everlasting destruction, respectively.

So, why should Christians be concerned about the angels? What use is the doctrine of angels and demons? There are many, but I list three: our prayers, our worship, and our wonder. First, we are instructed in the Lord’s Prayer to ask, “Deliver us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13). The Greek word here, ponēros, is masculine, indicating a personal agent. Thus, Jesus teaches us to pray against the schemes of the devil. Further, knowing that the elect angels guard and protect God’s people, it is also fitting to pray to God for their aid and comfort. Christians are engaged in a spiritual battle, and prayer is one of our key defenses (Eph. 6:18). One historic nighttime prayer expresses well this use of the doctrine of angels:

Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Second, our worship of the one true God is informed by an awareness of these spiritual beings. Indeed, the celestial realms join in worship. According to the writer of Hebrews, New Covenant life and worship bring us to the “heavenly Jerusalem,” where we take our place alongside the glorified saints in heaven and “innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Heb. 12:22-23). The city of God, as Saint Augustine would remind us, is not two cities—one angelic and one human—but one united kingdom under the headship of Christ.

Finally, the study of angels leads us to wonder. Philosopher Peter Kreeft suggests that the first reason we should study the angels is because it’s fun! Maybe “fun” isn’t the best word, but an awareness of the angelic realm can elicit in us a sense of wonder and intrigue at the power, wisdom, and goodness of God in making such magnificent creatures. So, in the end, studying this aspect of God’s creation is not just a means to some other end. In one sense, it is an end in itself: wonder at the glory of God, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

For the Kids:

 As we learn in the very first verse of the Bible, God made everything (Gen. 1:1). He made some things that you can see, like your fingers and toes and the tree in your yard and your pet cat. But he also made some things that you cannot see, like the soul inside you, the part of you that can never die. Another thing that God made that you cannot see is a wondrous kind of creature called an angel. These invisible and powerful beings exist to worship God and to do his will in the world. They appear quite often throughout the story of the Bible and especially around the time of Jesus’ coming into the world. Sadly, some of these beings rebelled against God and try to lead us away from him. But in the end, they cannot defeat God’s power through his Son, Jesus Christ! The holy angels guard and protect God’s people. Jesus even says that “little ones” like you have angels in the presence of the Father who protect you even though you can’t see them (Matt. 18:10). What a wonderful thought!

Interpretations of the Reformation

Editor’s Note: Taken from The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church by Matthew Barrett. Copyright 2023 by Zondervan Academic. Used by permission of Zondervan. The book is now available for purchase anywhere books are sold.

Over the last century, the Reformation’s self-confessed identity (catholicity) has not always been appreciated or understood with accuracy. Consider several reasons why.

Lamenting the Reformation as Schism and the Seed of Secularism: The Secularization Narrative

Interpreted as a deviation from the church catholic and its view of God and the world, the Reformation has been labeled the birth mother of all that is schismatic and sectarian on one hand and all that is modern and secular on the other hand. Such an approach takes on many different shades.

First, some historians focus mostly on schism and blame the intrinsic divisiveness of the Reformation on various factors. For example, the Reformers taught the priesthood of believers, a doctrine that decreased the gap between clergy and laity. When coupled with the belief in sola scriptura, each Christian became his own arbitrator, deciding for himself what the Bible really said. This is Protestantism’s dangerous idea, and it was not only revolutionary but also inspired revolution itself. Its effects were ravaging: ecclesiastical and political authorities were questioned, which at times led to rebellion and revolution.20

For others, the Reformation’s schismatic nature stemmed from a posture of criticism that precluded catholicity from the start. Even the label Protestantism reveals a fixation with protest that is destructive for Christianity, past, present, and future. The Reformation, therefore, was tragic because it did not unite but divided Christendom.21 Depending on how sympathetic this interpretation is toward Protestantism, it may even label the Reformers as schismatics.

Blaming the Reformation for schism may be an ongoing, contemporary maneuver, but it is also as old as the Reformation itself. In the sixteenth century, Rome blamed the Reformers for schism in the church, and once the Council of Trent concluded, this accusation became formal, setting the trajectory for the centuries ahead. This interpretation—the Reformation as a schismatic sect—has been recapitulated by Roman Catholics since.22

Second, if some interpreters blame schism on the Reformation, others hold the Reformers accountable for an unwitting secularism.23 The two interpretations are not unrelated. To hold the Reformers responsible for secularism, one must first decide that the Reformers were in some sense revolutionaries—religious revolutionaries but perhaps even political revolutionaries. The method of interpretation is not all that different either: the Reformers created this revolution by heralding the primacy of Scripture, which then gave every individual and every society the right to decide for themselves what they believed. The Reformers could not agree with each other, and the history of Protestantism since has followed suit with one denominational split after another. Hermeneutical plural- ism has resulted in religious pluralism, as everyone claims to possess the only true interpretation of the text, and anyone can claim an exclusive legitimate application of Scripture to church and society. Sola scriptura is dangerous because it rebels against the authority of the church for the sake of the individual’s rights. That, in turn, is a recipe for secularism, in which everyone becomes his own authority. Granted, the Reformers did not intend to create a secularist revolution. Yet as soon as they turned to the individual’s interpretation of the Bible, they elevated a subjectivism that could only lead to modernity and the triumph of the self over received ecclesiastical beliefs.

Such an interpretation depends on a reading of the late medieval era as well. On one hand, this interpretation observes a true shift that started with Duns Scotus in the thirteenth century but culminated with the via moderna (mod- ern way), as represented by William of Ockham in the fourteenth century and Gabriel Biel in the fifteenth century. The via moderna was a reaction against the via antiqua (old way), especially as it was embodied in Thomas Aquinas. As chapter 4 will explore, Thomas believed that the Creator and the creature can be properly related to one another by an analogy of being.24 The incomprehensible God is infinite and eternal, while the creature is finite and temporal. He is pure actuality itself, while the creature is defined by a passive potency—God is being, but the creature is becoming. Therefore, predication must occur within the parameters of likeness.25 For instance, the creature may possess love in his heart, but however pure that love may be, it only images the love of God. For unlike the creature’s love, God’s love is an infinite love, an eternal love, an immutable love, and a most holy love. Analogical predication assumes a Creator-creature paradigm of participation. Since God is simple (without parts), all that is in God is God. As Thomas said, “There is nothing in God that is not the divine being itself, which is not the case with other things.”26 God does not depend on another being for his being, but he is life in and of himself (aseity). Therefore, this self-sufficient God is the source of the creature’s being and happiness. In him the creature lives and moves and has his being, as Paul told the Athenians, quoting their own Greek poets in Acts 17:28.27 Participation, in other words, depends on the analogy of being.

  1. Whether or not they are lamenting the Reformation as schism, some frame the Reformation as schism, or a break to start a new church: e.g., Ryrie, Protestants; McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea; and McGrath, Historical Theology, 125.
  2. Leithart, The End of Protestantism. Vanhoozer responds to Leithart’s interpretation of the Reformation with the following correction: “However, contra Leithart, the fundamental gesture of Protestantism is not negative but The Reformers did not view themselves as schismatics, nor were they. To protest is to testify for something, namely, the integrity of the gospel, and, as we will see, this includes the church’s cath- olicity. It also includes prophetic protest (the negative gesture) whenever and wherever the truth of the gospel is at risk. Unity alone (sola unitats) is not enough unless the unity in question is a unitas of veritas (truth).” Vanhoozer then offers his own interpretation, one far more in line with this book: “the only true Protestant—a biblical, Christ-centered Protestant, whose conscience is indeed captive to the gospel—is a catholic Protestant.” Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel, 15.
  3. E.g., Denifle, Luther et le Luthéranisme, ch. 4.
  4. Gregory, Unintended Reformation. For a more recent example of a scholar who sees himself carrying the baton of the Bred Gregory narrative, see Saak, Luther and the Reformation of the Later Middle Ages.
  5. “The forms of the things God has made do not measure up to a specific likeness of the divine power; for the things that God has made receive in a divided and particular way that which in Him is found in a simple and universal way.” Aquinas, SCG 32.2.
  6. Predication is the “act of affirming something of a subject” or “assigning something to a class” or “naming something as possessing some act or perfection or as belonging to some other act or perfection,” may be univocal, equivocal, or analogical. Analogical predication is “attributing a perfection to an object in a sense partially the same and partially different from the attribute of the same when applied to some other objections.” For both definitions, see Wuellner, Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy, s.v. “predication.”


Rhythms of Healthy Small Groups

In this short article series, I hope to help cultivate—or, perhaps, restore—your hope for biblical community and your heart for local church small groups ministry. (In these articles, I’m using the phrases “small groups” and “community groups” interchangeably.)

I want to do this by helping you answer two questions for your context:

  • (1) How will our small groups cultivate mature disciples of Jesus?
  • (2) How will our small groups grow and multiply to sustain a healthy church?

Both questions will mean moving past small group as mere fellowship and Bible study. They must become the primary place of discipleship. But what do I mean by discipleship?

Discipleship is the life-giving process of being with Christ and becoming like him together by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Discipleship to Jesus involves these multiple elements:

  • Process: It is not an immediate or overnight transformation; it’s a long, slow process of growth
  • Being with Christ: The goal of discipleship is nearness to Jesus
  • Becoming like Him: The process of discipleship involves increasing conformity to him
  • Together: We don’t conform to the image of Christ alone; as relational beings, we grow best in community
  • By the Holy Spirit: Discipleship is a Spirit-initiated and Spirit-led process; when we welcome the Spirit’s presence and role in our lives, our process of growth is quickened and multiplied

If all this is true, then one immediate implication is that our small group rhythms matter greatly for our personal and community formation. How so?

Why Our Rhythms Matter

Let’s acknowledge with a depressing reality: While the message of Jesus is clear, life changing, and wholly rooted in everyday life, it has largely become disconnected from American church experience. Why?

Of course, disobedience and rebellion have deep roots in our hearts. But could we also be missing the immense power and practicality of Christ for our moment-by-moment lives? I believe our vision of the new life with God is lacking, and as a tragic result we Christians and churches are largely powerless.

What we need is two-fold: We need a fresh vision of Christ and our life in him (discipleship), and we need the practical habits to develop new behaviors and rhythms of life in the church to make discipleship stick.

To quote Dallas Willard in Renovation of the Heart, “The really good news for humanity is that Jesus is now taking students in the master class of life.” We can do this!

In order to grow in our conformity to Christ, we need to embrace new rhythms of life. We need new habits.

As many researchers have shown, we can only develop new behaviors through the repetition of practices reinforcing those behaviors. To be a great musician, time must be spent studying sheet music and practicing chords. Often, a mentor is needed to make the most of practice—and a supportive community to provide encouragement and accountability.

We all have some vision of a better life, and our habits reveal exactly where our desire lies. If we want to become like Christ, we have to set our eyes on him, create rhythms of life that reinforce that desire, and remove any old ways of life that work against our new vision.

So what rhythms will best cultivate discipleship in Jesus? What habits can our community group embrace to spur one another toward conformity to Christ?

The three discipleship rhythms are: Word and Prayer, Fellowship, and Hospitality. To put it another way, to grow in Christ, we embrace the habits of:

  • (1) Word and prayer—Connecting with God
  • (2) Fellowship—Connecting with one another
  • (3) Hospitality—Connecting with outsiders

I deeply believe that following Jesus’s patterns will transform the way we do small groups and ensure that our discipleship is effective. These four rhythms—also discovered in the life and ministry of Jesus—give us the necessary habits to make disciples in our community groups. Like Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, think of these are your “Three Habits of Highly Effective Community Groups.”

Please hear this: The point is not whether you meet weekly or bi-weekly, whether you meet in a home or a coffee shop, if you discuss the sermon weekly or monthly. But whatever form it takes, we encourage you to do life together, apply the Scriptures, meet with God in prayer, and create space for outsiders.

How you contextualize these three practices is up to you. But in my experience, a community group that neglects one of these four rhythms will struggle to be and remain healthy and life-giving.

I hope you find this series to be life-giving in your noble effort to lead others into maturity in Christ through community groups.

May God bless your sacrificial service more than you could ever ask or imagine!

*This article is Part 2 of an eight-part series on community groups and their importance that will run this summer. Read the full series here.

On Conversion as Our Aim

The grand object of the Christian ministry is the glory of God. Whether souls are converted or not, if Jesus Christ be faithfully preached, the minister has not labored in vain, for he is a sweet savor unto God as well in them that perish as in them that are saved. Yet, as a rule, God has sent us to preach in order that through the gospel of Jesus Christ the sons of men may be reconciled to him. Here and there a preacher of righteousness, like Noah, may labor on and bring none beyond his own family circle into the ark of salvation and another, like Jeremiah, may weep in vain over an impenitent nation; but, for the most part, the work of preaching is intended to save the hearers. It is ours to sow even in stony places, where no fruit rewards our toil; but still we are bound to look for a harvest and mourn if it does not appear in due time.

The glory of God being our chief object, we aim at it by seeking the edification of saints and the salvation of sinners. It is a noble work to instruct the people of God and to build them up in their most holy faith: we may by no means neglect this duty. To this end we must give clear statements of gospel doctrine, of vital experience, and of Christian duty, and never shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God. In too many cases sublime truths are held in abeyance under the pretense that they are not practical, whereas the very fact that they are revealed proves that the Lord thinks them to be of value, and woe unto us if we pretend to be wiser than he. We may say of any and every doctrine of Scripture: “To give it then a tongue is wise in man.”

If any one note is dropped from the divine harmony of truth, the music may be sadly marred. Your people may fall into grave spiritual diseases through the lack of a certain form of spiritual nutriment that can only be supplied by the doctrines you withhold. In the food that we eat there are ingredients that do not at first appear to be necessary to life, but experience shows that they are requisite to health and strength. Phosphorus will not make flesh, but it is wanted for bone; many earths and salts come under the same description—they are necessary in due proportion to the human economy. Even thus certain truths that appear to be little adapted for spiritual nutriment are, nevertheless, very beneficial in furnishing believers with backbone and muscle and in repairing the varied organs of Christian manhood. We must preach “the whole truth,” that the man of God may be thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

Our great object of glorifying God is, however, to be mainly achieved by the winning of souls. We must see souls born unto God. If we do not, our cry should be that of Rachel “Give me children, or I die.” If we do not win souls, we should mourn as the husbandman who sees no harvest, as the fisherman who returns to his cottage with an empty net, or as the huntsman who has in vain roamed over hill and dale. Ours should be Isaiah’s language uttered with many a sigh and groan “Who has believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” The ambassadors of peace should not cease to weep bitterly until sinners weep for their sins.


Excerpted with permission from Lectures to My Students, Deluxe Edition by Charles H. Spurgeon, introduction and edited by Jason K. Allen. Copyright 2023, B&H Publishing.

The Ordinary Means of Grace

Editor’s Note: The Theology in the Everyday series seeks to introduce and explain theological concepts in 500 words or less, with a 200-word section helping explain the doctrine to kids. At For The Church, we believe that theology should not be designated to the academy alone but lived out by faith in everyday life. We hope this series will present theology in such a way as to make it enjoyable, connecting theological ideas to everyday experience and encouraging believers to study theology for the glory of God and the good of the Church. This week, the ordinary means of grace.

The Christian life is supernatural, but it is not always sensational. God’s work is amazing, but it is not always immediate. In fact, God often chooses “what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27) and provides the “treasure” of the Gospel “in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 1:7). That is why many Christians throughout the ages and around the world have cherished what are called the ‘ordinary means of grace.’

What are the ordinary means of grace? They are the outward practices God has prescribed by which He promises His nourishing presence to His people when they participate by faith. Put more simply, the ordinary means of grace are God’s prescribed proclamations of the Gospel, and they include Word (preaching, teaching, and evangelism), water (baptism), and table (the Lord’s Supper).[1]

These are means of grace, which comes from God alone and must be received by faith (Eph 2:8–9). So, we should not think of Word, water, or table as magical practices that work in us automatically or work equally to all every time.[2] There are many who hear the Gospel preached but do not believe (2 Cor 3:3). There are some who undergo ‘baptism’ without having been truly transformed (and thus do not receive any spiritually benefit from their ‘baptism’; 1 John 2:19; cf. 1 Pet 3:21), and there are some who are never baptized and yet are redeemed (Lk 23:42–43). There are certainly times God’s people partake of the Lord’s Supper and yet do not benefit from it spiritually because of a lack of faith or faithful living (1 Cor 11:29).

However, these are nevertheless God’s means of grace, and He has ordained that we use these ordinary (outward, tangible, and often very simple) elements: words, water, bread, and cup (Rom 10:13–15; Matt 28:19; Luke 22:19–20). So, we should not brush aside these practices, expecting that God will only work in us mystically and immediately (without mediation). We need God’s natural creation (including our brothers and sisters in Christ) to partake of His supernatural grace; that’s how He designed it and us (cf. 1 Tim 4:4–5).

How do these ordinary means of grace actually benefit us when we participate in them by faith? In them, by the proclamation of the Gospel and the power of the Spirit, we confess our weakness and cultivate our confidence. We confess our weakness: we all speak with a stammer, we all drowned in the waters, and we are all beggars at God’s table. Yet God saves through imperfect messengers, raises us to new life in Christ, and feasts with us. So we cultivate our confidence in God through His ordinary means—not skill, spectacle, fad, or funds—to nourish us and our churches. Having begun by the Spirit, we are being perfected by the Spirit (Gal 3:3) as we proclaim the Gospel of God’s Son through His ordained means.

For the Kids:

When you or your parents go to a church service, there will be some unusual events! They may look ordinary, but they may sound a little strange. You will see someone preach, which is a little like a school lesson. But you will hear him talk as if Jesus told him what to tell you! You may see people baptized, which is where they get dunked in water and brought back up again. But you may hear someone say they died with Jesus and are walking with Him now! You may see people take the Lord’s Supper, which is when they eat a piece of bread and drink from a cup together. But you will hear them talk about Jesus’s body and blood and the day He comes again! When you see a package wrapped up that says “to: you” and “from: dad,” you know it is a gift. All of these church practices look ordinary, but God says they are His special gift. So, when you see Christians preach, baptize, or take the Lord’s Supper, and you hear them talking about Jesus in it, God is calling you to trust Jesus for forgiveness and new life—His special gift.

[1] 2 Tim 2:15–17; Col 2:11–14; Matt 26:26–29. Though Roman Catholics traditionally list seven ‘sacraments’ and many more ‘holy’ objects (‘sacramentalia’), Protestants have generally viewed these three as God’s ordinary means of grace. Though some have listed prayer alongside these three, it is better to think of prayer as the natural response of the Christian to God’s means of grace, overflowing from faith. Of course, there are many other vital elements of Christian obedience that flow from our faith, like fellowship, generosity, service, confession, etc. Though there are other important aspects of these three practices to consider (like the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper or the proper mode of baptism, for example), when we talk about them as ‘ordinary means of grace,’ we are talking about their priority for a life and ministry that is confident in Christ.

[2] For a longer discussion of the errors of either a ‘magical’ or a ‘mystical’ view of the ordinary means of grace, see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, edited by John Bolt, translated by John Vried (Baker, 2008), 441–5.

What Should Churches Do for the Fourth of July?

What should churches do on the Sunday of the Fourth of July? The Fourth of July can be one of the most perplexing dates of the year for many pastors. Unlike Easter and Christmas, the Fourth is neither a universal, nor a specifically Christian occasion. It’s only celebrated by Americans, and non-Christians can enjoy the day as readily as Christians can. Nevertheless, there’s a long tradition of observing American independence in church. Pastors often have members who expect them to recognize America’s birthday. Doing so is part of what scholars call “American civil religion.”

I’ve attended enough churches in my life to have seen a wide variety of Fourth of July celebrations. At one church in Texas, a Fourth of July service featured patriotic songs extolling America, the pastor wearing his old military uniform, and an honor guard carrying flags and guns down the center aisle. (I don’t think the guns were loaded!) At the other extreme, a church service we visited in Michigan said literally nothing about the Fourth of July, except at the last second. When dismissing the congregation, the worship leader bid us farewell by saying “happy holiday!” But the holiday in question was never named.

Some critics would suggest that the blending of American patriotism with Christian worship is a distraction at best, and a distortion of the gospel at worst. Although it’s not just an American phenomenon, Americans do seem to have created an unusually religious version of their patriotism. Maybe this religious patriotism is a product of Christianity’s success in America. By the time of the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s, an unusually high percentage of Americans were affiliated with churches, and that high level of adherence persisted at least until the 1960s. The Cold War of the mid- to late twentieth century also taught many Americans to think in terms of a Christian America fighting against the officially atheistic power of the Soviet bloc. By the 1960s, Americans had become used to viewing themselves as a Christian nation. Why not celebrate the nation’s birthday in church?

Baptists have always been a little wary about blending Christianity with the state, however. Our Baptist forefathers warned us about the danger of corrupting the church by entangling it with government. But in the twentieth and the twenty-first century, many Southern Baptists became among the most zealous celebrants of “God and country” days on the Fourth of July. This zeal has endured even though signs everywhere suggest that America is becoming a post-Christian nation.

What, then, should pastors do this Fourth of July? Much of this dilemma is a matter of conscience and of cultural context. What makes sense to do in suburban Dallas probably won’t work in downtown Seattle. Pastors will also tend to find that older people in a congregation – the children of the Cold War – will be more comfortable with civil religion than younger attendees are.

Acknowledging the Fourth of July does not require devoting the whole service to it. Pastors might consider setting aside a special time of prayer for the nation and its leaders, in accordance with I Timothy 2:1-2. Pastors can thank God for the indisputably good aspects of the American tradition, such as our nation’s heritage of religious liberty, and the principle that “all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” as the Declaration of Independence put it.

One of the most useful exercises when thinking about the Fourth of July at church is imagining that you have Christians in attendance from a foreign country. Of course, many pastors will not have to imagine this at all. Many churches in urban settings, or in college or border towns, undoubtedly will have people in attendance who are foreign-born and are perhaps non-citizens. Americans, like citizens of all nations, have a natural fondness for the land of their birth. But Christians know that our ultimate citizenship is in heaven. In that sense, American believers have more eternally in common with a brother or sister from Nigeria, China, or Brazil than we do with our unregenerate neighbor next door.

Therefore, churches should do nothing that would give our global brothers or sisters reason to feel like they don’t belong in our Fourth of July service. Such things could include the indiscriminate blending of worship songs with patriotic anthems, making it unclear whether we’re supposed to praise God or the American nation. Another would be to suggest that America is a nation uniquely favored by God, as if it is the latter-day biblical Israel.

By all means, let’s thank God for the good things he’s given us in American history. Foremost among those things is the freedom to practice our faith in accord with biblical truth. Let’s pray for our leaders to possess and employ godly wisdom, so that the people of God may be allowed to live a “quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.” (I Timothy 2:2) But even on the Fourth of July, let’s remember that America is not a believer’s eternal home.

The Whole Gospel of Mark in a Single Verse

Editor’s Note: This post is excerpted from A Ransom for Many by John J.R. Lee and Daniel Brueske (Lexham Press, 2023). This book is now available for purchase.

On the evening of Thursday, February 28, 1889, Charles Haddon Spurgeon ascended the steps of the Metropolitan Tabernacle pulpit in London, England, to preach a sermon that would come to be titled, “The Whole Gospel in a Single Verse.” Spurgeon’s text was 1 Timothy 1:15. In this verse, Spurgeon sees “the great truths of the gospel … pressed together by a hydraulic ram,” and he goes so far as to claim, “[T]his text contains the gospel in brief, and yet I may say that it contains the gospel in full.”1 We believe something similar could be said about the place of Mark 10:45 within the narrative of the Second Gospel. Mark 10:45 is not just one verse among many; it is a key verse for understanding Mark. It summarizes Mark’s thematic emphases in brief, and yet we may say that it contains the core of Mark’s message in full. As a result, Mark 10:45 carries implications for how we read and interpret Mark’s Gospel as a whole.

But there is a problem. Even though many scholars recognize the importance of Mark 10:45, not much discussion exists as to why or in what sense this verse is so crucial. There are brief remarks here and there, but most offer no more than a few lines, mentioning the matter almost in passing and then quickly moving on to other issues. The significance of Mark 10:45 is, thus, usually assumed rather than explained. In this study, we aim to move from simply presuming and asserting the significance of Mark 10:45 to demonstrating it and, ultimately, to considering how proper attention to this verse should guide our reading and interpretation of the rest of Mark’s narrative. Such a task must include a careful examination of the verse and its context. Moreover, a careful reading of Mark 10:45, integrated as it is within the Second Gospel, requires some understanding of the setting and intention behind the book’s composition. No writing exists in a vacuum, and Mark’s Gospel is no exception.

Therefore, in what follows, we will explore both the occasion (chapter 2) and the purpose (chapter 3) that gave rise to the Second Gospel. There is little consensus regarding the specific occasion for Mark’s Gospel, but we believe some details about the audience are more plausible than others. Given the uncertainty of Mark’s occasion, our argument for his purpose will be built primarily on the narrative itself. Nevertheless, reading Mark’s Gospel with some regard for its historical setting helps us imagine how Mark’s message would likely have been received by his earliest audience. We will argue that a composition in the middle to late 60s CE, though not certain, is more plausible than alternative suggestions. We will also contend that Mark’s earliest audience was likely facing either the prospect or the reality of suffering for their faith in Jesus of Nazareth.

In exploring the author’s purpose for writing (chapter 3), we will survey the entire narrative of the Second Gospel for indications of the author’s concerns and goals. Unlike Luke (1:4) and John (20:30–31), Mark contains no explicit statement regarding his compositional intention. Therefore, careful consideration of the total narrative is prudent, especially given the strategic placement of Mark 10:45 within the structure of Mark’s Gospel (a point we will advance in chapter 5). We will give particular attention to the Evangelist’s competence as an author, which is implied by various details found throughout the narrative at both the macro and micro levels. If Mark were rather careless in his composition, then determining his purpose would be a presumptuous goal. However, Mark’s thoughtful and deliberate handling of his material justifies our pursuit of his purpose and, ultimately, the pursuit of our target verse’s meaning and significance based upon both its content and its location within the narrative. Readers will not be surprised to find that Mark’s narrative focuses on the person and work of Jesus from its opening to its close. Who Jesus is (his identity) and what he has done (his mission) comprise the content of this gospel. However, Mark’s narration of this Jesus story is not meant simply to offer historical data or theological beliefs about Jesus. Mark is persuading his audience to remain faithful to Jesus even in the face of suffering and trials.

Following the discussion of Mark’s purpose, we will proceed to the interpretation of Mark 10:45 itself (chapter 4). We will offer observations about the narrative context of Mark 10:45 and then move on to a phrase-by-phrase analysis of the verse. Through our investigation, we will note that Jesus directs the attention of his disciples toward the supreme model of honor and splendor, that of the “one like a son of man” from Daniel 7:13–14. And we will see that even this glorious Son of Man is not too exalted to serve others and to suffer shame and abuse in order to “give his life as a ransom for many.”

Chapter 5 will then highlight this verse’s critical function within Mark’s narrative and its contribution to our interpretation and appreciation of the Second Gospel. We will explore the strategic placement of Mark 10:45 at the conclusion of the carefully crafted threefold cycle of passion and resurrection predictions (8:27–10:45). This arrangement situates our verse at the climax within the Journey section (8:22–10:52) and also enables it to set the tone for the subsequent Jerusalem section (Mark 11:1–16:8), especially the narration of the Messiah’s passion (Mark 14–15). In addition to the strategic location of 10:45 within Mark’s narrative sequence, we will also discuss the value of this verse as it relates to the purpose of Jesus’s mission and the meaning of his death. We will then consider several implications of this verse’s crucial role within Mark’s narrative, giving particular attention to the prominence of Jesus’s atoning death and the inseparable link between his passion and the necessity of servanthood among those who follow him. We will also consider other ramifications, such as the significance of Mark’s literary characteristics for its proper interpretation. Finally, we will close with a reflection on how today’s readers can and should apply the message of Mark 10:45 here and now.

1 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Vol. 39 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1893), 134.

Small Groups Are Hard—and So Worth It

I’ve been on a long journey with community groups and have arrived at a strong conviction:

Community groups are the best place for us—as relational beings—to become mature disciples of Christ.

I have spent fifteen years leading and hosting community groups, including seven years of serving as a community pastor at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky and now five-plus years as the lead pastor of Trinity Community Church in Columbia, Missouri. I’ve been to numerous small group conferences, listened to podcasts and interviews, and at one point, gathered a few interns to read and summarize every single book on small groups ever written. (Don’t be impressed: It’s only about 40 books.) After all this, I am more convinced than ever of this truth:

There is simply no substitute for people to grow in Christ-likeness together than the trenches of a local church’s small groups.

But consider your own experience: Perhaps my statement rings a bit hollow for you. How many community groups have you been a part of that were truly life-giving? How many times have you left thinking, “I am so blessed to have these people in my life”? Many of us have been in different forms of small groups and Bible studies throughout life, and if we’re honest, we have walked away more acquainted with their challenges than their life-changing power.

Why are Community Groups So Hard?

Community groups are hard. Let me count the ways:

1. COMPLEXITY: People are complex, of course, so it’s not surprising that organizing and leading a small group of people could pose some difficulty.

2. PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS: Most believers have participated in some type of small group—whether in the church, at school, or in the marketplace—and bring some preconceived notions of how the group should operate.

3. HIGH STAKES: The stakes are even higher for new church plants. If groups are going well, the church is almost sure to succeed; if your groups are struggling, then the church will likely fail to thrive.

4. CATCH-ALL MENTALITY: In most young churches, community groups expand to become a “catch all” for everything the church wants to do—discipleship, leader development, counseling, theological growth, and local mission. Doing just one is hard enough! Doing them all is a prescription for overwhelmed leaders.

5. BURN-OUT: When leaders are also hosting the group in their homes, the commitment also includes hospitality and possibly meal preparation. Thus, the burnout rate of leaders is understandably higher than other volunteer ministries.

6. MULTIPLICATION: Even when a group is successful and grows to the capacity of the host home, a new challenge emerges: How do we multiply this group without damaging the types of relationships we’ve spent months encouraging, stewarding, and loving?

7. NEW RESPONSIBILITIES: Similarly, when a church grows to about five to eight community groups, the lead pastor can no longer adequately provide oversight of each group, so another layer of leadership must be introduced, typically pulling some of the best group leaders out of their role into a new responsibility—leading leaders.

8. LACK OF TRAINING: Pastors are typically ill-equipped in small group ministry. Despite the high prevalence of groups across American churches, pastors can spend years in seminary and not hear a single lecture—let alone a whole course—on small groups.

Finally, with the blessings of growth come a new set of questions:

  • Should we pay for childcare so parents can attend?
  • Should we do sermon discussion or develop content?
  • How do we integrate mercy and local mission into our groups?
  • How much should groups provide for benevolence needs in their midst?
  • How do we respond to chronically absent members?
  • When do we hire “a groups guy”?
  • What do we do with teenagers?

This list isn’t exhaustive, but we have enough complications to make the point: Community is messy.

Are Community Groups Worth It?

The challenges raise a logical question: Are community groups still worth it today? Discouragement around community groups is common.

Although I can’t authenticate the original use, Tim Keller has reportedly said: “Small groups don’t work at all, and we’re totally committed to them!”

That’s exactly how I feel. Despite the challenges, I believe, now more than ever, that the thesis that I wrote several years ago in Life-Giving Groups: How to Grow Healthy, Multiplying Community Groups.

Community groups are the best place for us—as relational beings—to become mature disciples of Christ.

Over a series of articles, I want to call you to a biblical view of community and to refresh your vision for discipleship in groups. I want to plead with pastors, leaders, and ordinary believers: Pour your hearts and souls into your community groups.

If you are a pastor: You will not regret a minute spent in prayer, reflection, or planning for your groups. If you can cultivate healthy, multiplying groups in your congregation, you will reap decades of spiritual transformation and church health.

If you are a small group leader: You’re doing hard but incredible work! Continue to prayerfully, intentionally shepherd your group toward maturity in Christ. I hope these articles are encouraging and helpful.

If you are an ordinary church member and group participant: I want to compel you to see your group as an essential (not optional add-on) part of your life, calling, and spiritual growth. No, being part of a group isn’t easy. But with the right perspective and a whole lot of stick-to-it-iveness, it can be a conduit of God’s amazing grace in your life—not to mention the source of lifelong friendships and community.

Let me say it again: Your investment in community groups will pay off exponentially in the souls of your people and the culture of your church. Community groups cannot be an afterthought.

Over these articles, I want to help cultivate (or, perhaps, restore) your hope for biblical community and your heart for local church small groups ministry.

Dear friends, community groups are hard. But they are also so, so worth it!

*This article is Part 1 of an eight-part series on community groups and their importance that will run this summer.