As the plane bumped onto the ground, I realized I’d just seen something that would change my life forever. I’d flown in the reverse direction four days prior and spent those days cruising through the Weekender Conference at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, in Washington DC, struggling to stay up to their speed along with 150 other struggling pastors from around the globe, but now, as the airplane’s brakes force me forward into my seatbelt, I feel the full weight of that stopping pressure.
A Brief History of CHBC and 9Marks
Capitol Hill Baptist Church has made quite a name for itself. In the beginning its name was a byword in the community—they were that church with an immoral preacher, a dying and hypocritical congregation—a real nuisance. One story Matt Schmucker told us is the pits. Is that, the church owned a lot of property on Capitol Hill and they chose to knock down a historic Victorian house to put a parking lot there, despite the picketers and pleas of the community. They won no friends there. One day as he was walking home, he heard some from the community refer to CHBC as the bane of the community, and he stopped in his tracks as he realized his church had become a byword.
But the church took a dramatic turn when in 1993 Carl F. H. Henry, renowned scholar and member of the congregation, called Mark Dever to be the pastor. Mark gave up a career in the Academy and moved from Cambridge, England, where he did his PhD work, resolved to, at the very least, pastor those cranky sheep to the grave (his words) and move on if God didn’t move. Since he began ministry in 1994, God has moved, and CHBC has developed a very different name, a name that’s transcended the hill and spread across our entire Evangelical subculture. They are known as the church that’s all about *the Church*—church polity, church government, doctrine of the church, church membership, church discipline, the works.
In 2003, the church expanded its horizons by forming a non-profit ministry called 9Marks, which specializes in teaching and providing material and support for church leaders, which makes sense because the tagline of the ministry is “Building Healthy Churches”. 9Marks gets its name from a letter Mark Dever sent—in 1991, while working on his PhD—to the elder board of a church he’d previously pastored. They wrote him, asking how to choose a new pastor, and he replied with this really long letter, unfolding 9 essential qualities of a church and a church leader. Later, in 2001, Crossway published those 9 qualities in the full book form that we have today, under the title of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. You should buy the book, or watch the videos for a quick summary.
The Weekender Conference
What makes this “Weekender Conference” unique is its integration with the local church itself. It’s a 9Marks event with lots of theological lectures, but it’s also an opportunity to sit in on the actual life of CHBC: an elders meeting, members meeting, service review, and Sunday School and worship services. So while 9Marks gives you the ideals, CHBC gives you the realism. And it’s a heavy one-two punch. It’s thrilling.
Any church leader can attend that conference, but I attended as part of my application for their pastoral internship program. I originally applied for last fall but have pushed it back twice now because my health hasn’t cooperated. But now it is (cooperating), somewhat, and I think I can do it. The fact that I could handle the busy Weekender is proof enough of that.
Their internship program is at the heart of their mission to train up future pastors. You get five months living on capitol hill, right next to the church, spending all your time reading and writing and learning from some really great churchmen. They invest in you and all you have to do is be a sponge. For me, it’s the perfect opportunity to learn how to do church at one of the most analytical, high-performance churches in the nation (if I can describe it that way).
Coming to a Stop and Reflecting
But as the days have ticked by, and the memory of DC has begun to fade, it’s like I’m still coming to a stop.
It’s like I’ve seen a ghost. I’ve always known the ghost was there—ever since college I’ve been building this ghostly ideal church in my mind, a fictitious version of the best attributes of all churches I’d seen—but I never expected it to materialize. And while CHBC is not a perfect church (I saw that), it’s definitely a model church. After a full day of sessions, when I laid my exhausted body down to sleep, what ran through my mind wasn’t memories of the talks or scenes or the conversations from the day—it was shock.
Because no one ever actually sees ghosts, for one thing, but what’s more, no one ever expects them to look so, well, human. Sure, in the capitol city of our great nation there is a model Evangelical church. Not surprising. But it’s deeply human—that’s what’s shocking. It isn’t built on whiz-bang or gee-whiz anything: it’s the result of the regular, old, Orthodox means of growth Christians have been relying on for millennia. There’s no big programs and manipulating marketing strategies and committees and media; instead, what’s there is the same stuff that’s always been there.
What makes CHBC so shocking? They stand behind the historic Baptist principles that made our denomination so strong. Some of those principles are: a strong view of membership which leads to a dedication to church discipline. Both of which come together to create a discipling community that extends from pulpit-to-pew in expositional preaching, which is tailored to teach not only the Gospel but also a fully-orbed Biblical Theology, and from person-to-person in intentional, covenant relationships. All supported and led by strong elder leadership that delegates tasks efficiently while still fulfilling their covenant obligation to the body by spending time to stay in touch with every member. All of these things are very ordinary, but all together, when done properly, they are shocking. In a word, what’s shocking isn’t the idealism of the church, it’s its realism.
But the more I hang out to dry, the more I wonder Is that something I can do? Can God use me to lead a church like that and is that His will for my life? More than ever I’m praying God gives me the health and the opportunity to do that—starting with this internship, so that I can learn from them and go out and spread their commitment to the Gospel and a high view of the church into places that need it the most.
I’ll hear back from them within a couple weeks as to whether or not they want me this fall. They turn people down all the time who are overqualified and under-qualified, so there’s really no way to earn it or to know my chances. God’s will be done!
For those of you wondering, no it wasn’t easy on me at all. It fatigued me, but it wasn’t something I couldn’t overcome. That’s a great sign. So while I still had to push through deep mud to stay up, I did, and I made it. And that’s new. ↩