Teaching Church Practice (II)
I trust that you had a very blessed Thanksgiving Day celebration in and with your families. Sally, my bride of almost forty years, and I spent a week in Palm Springs prior to Thanksgiving. The week away gave her the opportunity to rest up from her trip to Atlanta and me a chance to rest up from being Mr. Mom for eight days! Anyway, we’re rested, sufficiently filled with tryptophan, and ready to resume our writing of these columns again.
Shamelessly, I’ll put in two plugs for myself. First, we have a new web master for my www.rongleason.org web site which has been malfünkten (that’s not really a German word. I just made it up.) for far too long. Anyway, my second son, Geoff, is now doing my web site. I prayed about that for a long time but, in the final analysis, Sally and I thought it would give him something productive to do with his time while he’s serving his sentence. He told me he likes it a lot better than making license plates (that’s a joke).
Second, I have a book review of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics as well as a first installment of a short biography of his life up at www.reformation21.org. You might want to check those out. Now let’s move on to the matter at hand.
Preaching and Pastoral Care
We were talking last time about the Reformers’ and Richard Baxter’s emphasis on preaching and pastoral care—both of which have suffered from lack of proper use. The Reformers placed a healthy emphasis both on preaching and pastoral care as did Baxter. Our tendency in the modern Church, however, is to do something more “cutting edge” than actually preaching biblical sermons and visiting the “chronics” and the “acutes.” It’s difficult, if not next to impossible, to build your empire if you have to spend your time actually visiting the members of your congregation. We can also spend a lot of time either “networking,” which can carry the connotation of “generally dorking around and wasting time while pretending to be busy” or “counseling,” which does have a legitimate place in the pastoral ministry.
Here’s the way John Leith states it his book that we’ve been examining: “Counseling and therapy are crucially important, but they cannot be exercised in the church at the expense of pastoral care of the kind that Richard Baxter wrote, namely, visiting people and knowing them by name.” I’m going to let Leith’s comment about therapy pass completely off the radar and focus on his emphasis on Baxter’s requirements for visiting the people pastors are supposed to be shepherding and actually knowing them by name. This is neither difficult nor rocket science but if will take some tweaking of our expectations both as pastors as well as the proverbial man or woman in the pew.
I was talking to a man recently who was trying to get his son-in-law to go back to church. He finally succeeded, but his son-in-law insisted (read: dictated) that he would not attend any church with less than 1,000 members. One can only wonder where you can find that in the Bible, but that’s for another time. The upshot of this situation is that the man left a very good, solid, and biblical congregation for one where the music is “good.” Helpful. Very helpful.
Do we realize that once we begin—either consciously or unconsciously—to make demands on the size of the congregation that we are placing ourselves in an unnecessary stricture? I’m not arguing against large congregations, per se. I know a number of larger congregations that are very well cared for pastorally and where Christian community is both emphasized and thrives. Out here in Southern California, you can always find a mega-church if you look around. Leith reminds us, however, that in his variation on being Presbo about 65% of the congregations have less than 200 members. I imagine that other denominations have similar statistics.
On the other hand, in general size is not all that important as far as congregations are concerned with the proviso that they can be too small or they can be too large. I know of a situation where one couple was convinced that they could not find a decent church in their area—and it point of fact a number of “decent” churches existed in their area. They were looking for perfection—so the husband preached to the wife every Sunday morning in their living room. This went on for a couple of years until she left for the Baptist church down the road—just kidding. Clearly, this is on the small side.
So what is the proper size? I can’t give you chapter and verse, but Baxter makes what I consider to be a very valid point in his book The Reformed Pastor. He writes, “If the pastoral office consists in overseeing all the flock, then surely the number of souls under the care of each pastor must not be greater than he is able to take such heed to as is here required.” Of course, in many modern churches today, little or no thought is given to overseeing the flock. There is substantially more concern about the size of the flock.
Baxter lays a serious charge at the feet of Teaching and Ruling Elders who refuse or are unwilling to visit the members with whom they’ve been entrusted. In modern English Baxter excoriates those people with these words: “How dare you undertake that which you know yourself unable to perform, when you were not forced to it?” Let’s pause here for a moment. All of us who are involved in pastoral ministry are painfully aware of our many shortcomings. In this sense we always were and always will remain “unable” to perform what God has called us to do. That does not imply, however, that we should not give it a 100% effort. There is a huge task for seminaries to equip pastors for pastoral care as well are for Sessions/Consistories to do the same thing. No one has forced us into pastoral ministry. That being the case, we are to undertake our respective callings in a biblical fashion and not according to Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, or Brian McLaren.
Conversely, congregations that are mega-; industrial strength sizes also pose unique problems vis-à-vis pastoral care and preaching. In the case of the latter, preaching tends to get watered down in such settings. For example, have you heard a really solid biblical sermon from Joel Osteen lately? The other problem has to do with pastoral care. There is truly a lost art of pastoral visitation. And when I talk about pastoral visitation, I’m not talking about going to visit the “influential” or those with “deep pockets.”
I’m referring to the spiritual exercise of taking the time to visit each member of your congregation and speak to them about spiritual matters. You’re not there to impress them with your knowledge of Kierkegaard, Derrida, Feuerbach, or Nietzsche but rather to speak to them plainly about scriptural matters. There’s an interesting story about the great Abraham Kuyper when he was a pastor in the Dutch village of Beesd. Being a recent graduate of the prestigious Leiden University, Kuyper took the call to this small village and was the intellectual giant among the farmers in this rural area. His sermons were crammed with the latest philosophy and cutting edge cultural analysis. After one such sermon a simple woman from the congregation named Pietje Baltus commented to Kuyper on her way out of the church building that he was not really preaching the gospel. Kuyper was taken aback at this effrontery, but nevertheless took her words to heart. He began visiting the members of the congregation and her in particular. She instructed him in the true gospel and Kuyper was a changed man.
I cannot even begin to relate what wonderful blessings I have received from visiting God’s people in their homes. You get to see them in their familiar surroundings and to talk to them about God! It is equally difficult to relate how much spiritual benefit I have received when I went to visit a member in the hospital or a “terminal” patient at home. More times than not, I’ve left thinking to myself, They ministered to me more than I ministered to them. Of course, I truly pray that they derived something spiritual from me as well, but this “mutuality” is not to be taken lightly in the pastoral ministry.
It never ceased to amaze me how much assurance so many had when suffering from a disease that would be God’s “exit strategy” for them to enter into glory. It is truly heartening to listen to a man or woman in the congregation speak so eloquently about trusting the Lord and knowing the place to which they were going. In such cases, pastors and Elders must not leave without reading a comforting portion of Scripture and praying with the person. If I were in a hospital room and another patient was present I always ask if I can pray for them as well. Remember: people tend to get very religious in the face of death!
On your visits you want to inquire whether their Bible reading has been steady, regular. How is their prayer life? If they are married, are they reading and praying together? Is there a consistent family worship led by the father? Are there any particular areas of their life that need prayer, support, and encouragement? Baxter offers the following suggests for those who is at a loss as how to implement what Baxter is talking about when he discusses pastoral care. Here are some suggestions:
First, “Get information how each family is ordered, that you may know how to proceed in your endeavors for their further good.”
Next, “Go occasionally among them, when they are likely to be most at leisure (read: sitting around in their leather thong drinking scotch), and ask the master of the family whether he prays with them, and reads the Scripture, or what he does?”
Finally, “See that in every family there are some useful…books, beside the Bible.” In other words, recommend some solid (not the modern evangelical fluffy spiritual junk food) Christian classics and get them accustomed to reading again rather than watching Desperate Housewives, American Idol, TBN, or the latest Survivor series.In our next issue, which will be the final installment on Leith’s recommendations, we’ll listen to what he says about choosing seminary professors and the pastor’s call. I’ll add my thoughts on counseling as a pastor.
 John Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 67.
 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), p. 88.
 Ibid., 91.
 See H. Algra, Het Wonder van de Negentiende Eeuw, Van Vrije Kerken en Kleine Luyden, (Franeker: T. Wever, 1966), pp. 304-314. If you can’t read Dutch, go network or sit in your hot tub in your thong and drink a scotch. Take my word for it, this really happened to Kuyper.
 Leith, CC, 100.
 Ibid., 101.