Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Gleason Family Christmas Letter—2006

It was a busy year!
It hardly seems possible that it’s time to write another Christmas letter, but the calendar tells me that it is. 2006 was an exciting and fulfilling year in a number of respects for us as a family as well as for Grace Presbyterian Church in Yorba Linda, California. I’ll start with the family and work to the congregation.

Emma Gleason
2006 marked the birth of our eleventh grandchild: Emma Gleason. She is the fifth daughter and seventh child of our second son, Geoff (sometimes known as Shep or Chef. It seems that few can pronounce his name—but I’m getting better at it!) and his wife, Lisa. Sally and I have not yet seen Emma, but are eagerly looking forward to a visit to Canada—where all our grandchildren live—as soon as it thaws out up there.

Life in the Tundra: The Family in the Cold North
Since I’m on the subject of children and grandchildren, let me tell you a little bit about what’s going on with our married children, both of whom live in the frozen north. Ron and Jenn are doing very well as are their children, Laura (or Lorah—it’s pronounced like Geoff), Avery, Cailen, and Cole. Laura and Avery are thinking about going to college, but they keep spending all the money they’ve saved on clothes and shoes, so they’re hoping to start college somewhere around 2050. Sally and I are praying that they’ll both attend Providence Christian College out here in SoCal so that we can see them and spoil them. Cailen is, like her sisters, growing into a beautiful young godly woman. We tend to think of her as the quiet one in the family, but I’m not sure we’re right. She’s looking to take Michael Flatley’s place in Riverdance. Cole isn’t playing hockey this year for the first time in a long while. He turned fourteen this year. His voice is “weird” from time to time and he’s coming to the stage where he no longer believes that girls have cooties. Ron and Jenn just returned from a cruise on the Caribbean. They left the children at home but I called a few times and the house received no severe damage. Cole and Cailen burned down the family aquarium and apart from some sleep deprivation the children did fine. Oh, yes: they did manage to clean up a day before dad and mom got back. Ron and Jenn home school the kids. They are both strong Christian models and leaders for their children. Ron manages a large farm north of Toronto and is doing very well.
Geoff and Lisa are also quite busy. They have to care for and feed Rachel, Laken, Naya, Sawyer, Noel, Marin, and Emma. Geoff and Lisa home school as well. Geoff did a recent remodel on their kitchen—installing such fine touches as electricity and running water. Remember: life in an igloo isn’t always easy. In addition to his job, he has his own graphics company, and he’s planning to attend Reformed Theological Seminary in a couple of years. In the meantime, he’s taking courses from RTS—Virtual and enjoying them. He recently was the recipient of around 1,500 hundred theological books. An acquaintance of mine bequeathed them to him. Now he just has to read them—but we all know that seminary students rarely read anything except the assigned texts. They just put them on their bookshelves to impress others! Lisa, of course, is quite busy as well, but manages to teach piano and is a garage sale aficionado. I once made the mistake of standing between her and an item that she considered a “good buy.” I still have a slight limp. Rachel is a teenager and she and Cailen are planning a visit out to SoCal to see us. The sooner the better! Sally and I cannot understand why the parents are so hesitant to let us take care of them for a while. Laura and Avery came out for a visit and they’re okay—sort of. For the life of me I still can’t understand what’s wrong with ice cream for breakfast. Some parents are just too strict. Rachel reads Latin, Greek, Dutch, Swahili, and does Tibetan throat chanting. Her academics are on par with a post-graduate student and I’ve heard that she’s going to be the next ambassador to Switzerland. Laken is the “jock” of the family—she must have gotten it from me because her father has no coordination at all—and loves the trampoline. I asked her recently, “Are you enjoying school this year?” She answered, “Not really.” I pressed on: “What are your favorite subjects?” Answer: “Lunch and recess.” She definitely has my genes. Naya is our “little Sally” with her red hair. She generally bosses every around and rearranges the layout of all the Playmobile toys. Naya has a great future as an air traffic controller. Sawyer and Noel share a room, which is a recipe for disaster. As the nursery supervisors used to say to Sally and me when Ron and Geoff were younger, “They’re all boy, aren’t they?” It didn’t take a rocket scientist to translate that! But they are good boys—is that an oxymoron?—and a lot of fun. Sawyer has a flair for the dramatic and Noel knows where to find the brownies after everyone else in the house is asleep. We haven’t seen Marin since her baptism, but we understand that she’s a sweetheart and has dad wrapped around her finger. Shep sent some pictures of Emma—once. We’re taking up a collection at Grace to buy him a new digital camera so that he can send the grandparents some more pictures!
Janneke is twenty-nine now and remains our happy camper. (In fact, we still have three children living at home with us.) She works at a workplace for the mentally and physically challenged called Real Challenges. She loves her work and does an outstanding job, whatever she’s doing. Janneke is very upbeat about people, life, and being God’s child. I always get a chuckle when we have visitors at Grace—which is often—and she starts singing. Since she can’t read, she sings from memory. It is not uncommon that her singing is accompanied by a little hand clapping. The congregation loves to hear her sing and there are lots of smiles all around. Her Sunday School teacher is Dana Randall, one of our Elders. No, it’s a guy’s name too! Janneke is always quick to tell us what Mr. Randall taught her in Sunday School. She can also remember most of the sermon. We’re teaching her the catechism and she does very well at it. Janneke and our German Shepherd, Hosanna, have a wonderful relationship. She loves Hosie and Hosie loves her. Janneke’s social calendar is off the charts and she keeps us hopping. She also looks forward to her Saturday trips with dad to the local Barnes & Noble.
Nicky really loves her job working in the law office of Klein and Wilson in Newport Beach. She enjoys the atmosphere in the office along with her work colleagues. Right now she and Danielle Curtis are looking to move into an apartment together until Danielle’s wedding in June 2007. The two of them flew to Paris, France for Thanksgiving this year and had a blast! Nicky’s schedule is busy and she is a very talented Christian woman. I never cease to be surprised what a godly young woman she is. Her education at Covenant College equipped her with a solid Christian worldview and she knows how to put it into practice. Nicky remains our sole female teacher at Grace, teaching the Primary class. Her students love Miss Nicky and she does a great job with them. She is still looking for “Mr. Right.” Finding someone who is Presbyterian or Reformed in SoCal narrows the field down substantially—the same holds for finding Ms. Right out here for guys. But she is a principled woman and refuses to compromise. Nicky sang at the International Women’s Conference of the PCA held in Atlanta in 2006 and I believe her soprano voice was very much appreciated. She is still in the throes of trying to decide precisely how to use her soprano voice to the glory of our Lord. Her voice teacher from U.S.C. is on sabbatical this year, so occasionally Nicky trots up (read: drives) to LA.
Hans, the youngest, turned twenty-four this year. Yikes! A few days ago he received word that he had been accepted at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s next police academy. He has pursued his desire to be a law enforcement officer for a while and now he has his opportunity. I am certain that he would very much cherish your prayers as he attends this six month academy. He chose Orange County Sheriff’s because it is the toughest one. He will not necessarily end up with the Sheriff’s Department; they simply run the academy.
He also just received a letter from Laguna Beach PD inviting him to an interview before the police academy starts. He’s very excited, but I don’t think he’d look all that good in a pink uniform. Just kidding! Please pray that one of the police departments in our area would pick him up while he’s attending the academy. In preparation he spends time memorizing police codes, running, exercising, and doing kick-boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He practices all of his choke-out, tap-out moves, and arm bars on Sally.
Speaking of Sally, she is doing very well. Her free lance writing with Wycliffe Bible Translators has rolled back a little, which is a good thing, because she is busy writing a book on biblical relationships. Well, that’s not exactly what it’s about. We discussed it last evening and got into a huge fight. Then she informed me that the book deals with hostility and I’m the main character. If I’m not mistaken, it will be about how God heals our brokenness and broken relationships, even, or especially, with him.
She also serves on the national board of the Women in the Church in the PCA and gets to make trips back to Atlanta. In 2006 she led a seminar on what we can learn as Christians from our handicapped brothers and sisters. She maintains a living correspondence in America, Canada, and Europe/Asia. Since we moved out to Southern California in 1994, Sally has become very much acclimated to our new digs. Anytime the temperature plummets below 70◦ she pulls on her sweats and builds a fire in the fireplace. She now considers 65◦ the “freezing” mark. I know this because every time it drops that low she reminds me that it’s freezing outside.
Quite recently, Sally and approximately eleven other women from Grace completed an all-day Saturday gun safety course. The ladies went out shooting and loved it. One member even brought her target to church to show off and another has hers on the family fridge. She took down all of her children’s drawings to make room for her target. Just kidding. Her husband took down the kids’ finger painting and put up mom’s target. “See, kids, what might happen if you disobey mommy!” For a present, I got Sally a Smith & Wesson.357 magnum. She walks around the house mumbling, “Go ahead. Make my day,” in a whispering voice. Mom Yopp, Sally’s mom, is in a nursing home in Charlotte, NC and has Alzheimer’s. Whenever she can, Sally flies back to see her mom. Fortunately, two of Sally’s brothers live in Charlotte; another brother is in Macon, GA; and Sally’s sister, Amy, lives on Long Island, but makes frequent trips down as well.
The “Bride of my Youth” and I enjoy walking in the morning with Hosanna as well as our Friday date days at Huntington Beach. Sally continues to aid me in our pre-marital counseling classes at Grace and with all our young families, we stay busy! She is rapidly becoming a sought-after conference and retreat speaker and always receives very positive feedback about the material she presents. Next year the Beach Babe and I will be married forty years! Forty years? How is that possible? Anyway, we’re tentatively planning an excursion back to Charleston, SC, where “it” all began. We want to tour that beautiful old ante-bellum city, take in a concert or two, take the boat trip out to Ft. Sumter, tour the old city, and enjoy some of Charleston’s succulent seafood.
As for me, I’m chugging along. I’m preaching through the book of Romans for the first time in my life. I have preached from it before, but not through it. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life! It is a wonderful book and I am thankful that I providentially waited until I was sixty before I started preaching through it. I have pastoral experience that is invaluable to bring to bear on such a glorious book of Scripture. Our church theme in 2006 was “Equipping God’s Saints for Service” and for 2007 it will be, Lord willing, “Conformity to Christ’s Image.” In 2006 I undertook a project that I had been planning to do for quite a while: to write a biography of Herman Bavinck. I have begun in earnest and am probably enjoying myself too much. It’s my plan to dedicate this book to Dr. Roger Nicole, who was my mentor at Gordon-Conwell. While his Byington Teaching Fellow Dr. Nicole he introduced me to Bavinck and started me reading him in Dutch! With the encouragement of both Nicole and R.C. Sproul I ended up living in Holland for almost ten years and wrote my doctoral dissertation on Bavinck. It is only fitting that Dr. Nicole’s Presbyterian, non-egalitarian student should dedicate this work to him. I’m frantically looking for a publisher so I can get my royalties and purchase my Lear-Jet. It’s already on order, so someone had better step up to the plate—quickly!
I am also co-editing an upcoming work on postmodernism and post-evangelicalism with Dr. Gary Johnson from Phoenix. Gary is a Warfield scholar and I’m looking forward to perhaps doing more with him on Bavinck and Warfield. Dr. David Wells has consented to write the Introduction to the book that will include contributions from international scholars and pastors. If all goes well, Crossway will publish the book and it should appear sometime in mid-2007.
My Ethos articles continue to occupy me and require me to meet a weekly schedule to get them out on time. There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t have more enough material for discussion. Reality truly is stranger than fiction. In all my writing I keep coming back to a statement made by Sydney Alhstrom in his book A Religious History of the American People, when he said, “No factor in the ‘Revolution of 1607-1760’ was more significant to the ideals and thought of colonial Americans than the Reformed and Puritan character of their Protestantism; and no institution played a more prominent role in the molding of colonial culture than the church. Just as Protestant convictions were vitally related to the process of colonialization and a spur to economic growth, so the churches laid the foundations of the educational system, and stimulated most of the creative intellectual endeavors, by nurturing the authors of most of the books and the faculties of most of the schools. The churches offered the best opportunities for architectural expression and inspired the most creative productions in poetry, philosophy, music, and history. A more specific element in the religious background was Puritanism itself, which even under Queen Elizabeth began to be a powerful factor in the transformation of English society and government” (p. 347. Italics mine). It is high time that the Church began to exert some influence upon society rather than simply following society.
The nurturing Alhstrom describes means that the Church has a decided task in preparing Christians to enter into the various disciplines he mentions. It is not enough for someone who is a Christian to make a movie. I believe Thomas Manton captured this notion most aptly in his epistle to the reader of the Westminster Standards where he reminds us that the family is, as he calls it, “the seminary of Church and State.” What occurs and is taught in the family must find unity in the Church. So if the children are being taught Scripture and catechized in the homes, the Church should augment this teaching by its preparation of young men and women for both “Church and Commonwealth.” This is going to be a long road back. It isn’t impossible, but it will not be easy. I have no magic formulae other than we begin the process one family at a time, one congregation at a time, starting with us and our local congregation.
My mom continues to do quite well. She lived with us for five years, but is now living in a assisted living facility about five minutes from us. She has her own room and we get to see her frequently. Mom still misses the South. She turned eighty-two this year.

News from Grace Presbyterian Church
This coming year will mark my twelfth year at Grace. As sinners we still struggle with our own sins as well as the sins of others and the effect of sin upon the created order. Nevertheless, the Lord allows me to continue to minister fruitfully and joyfully in this congregation. I am constantly humbled when I realize that he allows me to be the pastor of such a fine, really unique congregation.
In January 2006 by God’s grace we launched our third church plant. Doug Abendroth, who had interned with us for approximately six months, left with around thirty-five to forty members and planted a PCA church in the Tustin/Irvine area. The Lord has added to their numbers, but most importantly, he has grown the congregation spiritually. The plant regularly has seventy or more in attendance and we are still able to keep in touch. For example, this Christmas Eve at our Lesson of Readings and Carols service Doug and some members of his congregation will join us at Grace for a combined worship and Doug will deliver the message.
We also support a church plant work in Temecula Valley where Eric Landry is the planter. Eric is also a gifted young man who is going through the throes of “birth” as far as church planting is concerned. At first, he simply struggled with a common SoCal problem: finding a place to meet. Once you find a place, it seems that Satan does everything he can to derail your efforts. Thankfully, they seem to have found an adequate place to meet—God’s provision—and are moving along.
Our third, and oldest, church plant is in Palm Desert where Clayton Willis is entering his fourth year. (Clayton is also in the process of changing his name to "Awillis" so he doesn't always have to be discussed last alphabetically.) The desert presents some unique challenges. First, it is filled with a large number of retirees who want to stay warm and golf. Staying warm in the summer is no problem when the temps can hit 120-degrees! Then Clayton has a reverse snowbird problem. When it gets that hot, about half of his congregation seeks out cooler environs. Second, there is a rather large homosexual population in that area, which also presents some unique challenges/opportunities. Clayton, too, has had his location problems. They are now meeting in their third different location, but it appears that this one is a good fit.
What warms my heart about all three of these plants is that the men who are the pastors are solidly and unashamedly PCA. When you look at them, each has its own distinct looks and characteristics, but in the final analysis they also look like the mother church—Grace—with a truly Presbyterian liturgy. We understand that Presbyterianism isn’t for everyone in SoCal, but we are also thankful that our Lord continues to send us those who want to be.
Grace also had the privilege of mentoring and then helping send a missionary couple, Karl and Sun Dahlfred, to the mission field in Thailand with Oversees Mission Fellowship. We have absolutely nothing against the PCA’s Mission to the World, but when Karl and Sun arrived they had already made their plans with OMF. Like our three church planters, Karl attended our Deacons and Sessions meetings, taught Sunday School, and preached for us. We also ordained him in a special service at Grace after he had successfully completed the ecclesiastical examinations in South Coast Presbytery. Karl and Sun are currently in language school in Singapore before they travel on to Thailand. Did I mention that I also got to baptize their son, Joshua?
We had three New Member classes at Grace this year. We only had one in each class but it sounds better if you say you had three. Seriously, the Lord has blessed us with a number of truly fine Christians. Even after Doug Abendroth’s church plant began we noticed that we were still having a “space” problem so we did a remodel of the sanctuary. We took out some walls and cut the “stage” back to “chancel” size (removed the drum sets and cages filled with white doves) I kept the plexi-glass that surrounded the drums. I always thought that it was for the acoustics, but I found out it’s also bulletproof so the Session keeps it around me when I preach. I tried to carry the dove cages out after one service and several of the women that had attended the gun safety class pulled revolvers and semi-automatics out of their purses, plus a couple of the older members ran to their trunks and took out shotguns. I finally had the Deacons carry the cages out. Most of them are out of the ICU now—the Deacons, not the doves.
We had an excellent marriage retreat in April where Sally and I spoke. We’re still trying to figure this marriage thing out (which one are we becoming?) but many were kind and acted as if we actually helped them. I had just arrived back in Orange County the day before from an excellent Twin Lakes Fellowship Conference sponsored by Twin Lakes Fellowship in Jackson, MS. A number of my Elders went along with me and we were blessed spiritually.
We currently have three women’s Bible studies going at Grace and I just finished a six-week Wednesday night Men’s Bible Study on male spiritual leadership that was well received. Lord willing, we will start up again in January 2007.
Our small groups continue to do well and grow. An Elder facilitates each group and typically the discussion is based on questions I put in the Worship Folder about the sermon. My own group, which is facilitated by an Elder, has been studying the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
Speaking of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, I started a class for young people over twelve and all of a sudden it has become the Adult Sunday School class! It’s been fun. Another Elder teaches the Westminster Shorter Catechism to those under twelve. As I have written a number of articles recently based on John Leith’s very provocative book, Crisis in the Church, one of his laments as a PCUSA pastor and professor was that theological students were appearing on the doorsteps of various seminaries without any preparation in terms of a thorough grasp of English Bible and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I took that to heart and so we are now making a concerted effort to remedy that situation out here in SoCal.
We were able to hold our very first Vacation Bible School in 2006 since Grace has been in existence. Will “The Thrill” Jones found his niche and hit the ground running. He had a large number of very able assistants and VBS was a huge success. In keeping with our church policy, we used the material from Great Commission Publications and loved it. We’re excited about next year already!
Finally, we had two different sessions of our Son-Flowers and Youth Wrestling programs this year. Son-Flowers was under the able guidance of Danielle Curtis, Nicky Gleason, and Angela Nowlin. The young women learned crafts, cooking, and Bible lessons. We had a huge turnout for Youth Wrestling and all of the wrestlers did well. As the coach, I was pleasantly surprised at the progress the young men made. I’m looking forward to both programs again next year.
2006 was an exciting and fulfilling year at Grace. The Lord continues to add to the numbers and I am amazed at the type/quality of person he keeps sending our way. Grace is truly a very unique congregation in a number of ways. Right now we have a large number of young families, young children, and ethnic diversity. We have never set out to “target” a particular group or age spread. We have preached, striven truly to be Presbyterian, and have left the rest up to God.
I know I speak on behalf of my family and Grace Presbyterian Church when I wish you all a very blessed Christmas and New Year. May the blessings of our Lord be yours in abundance.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Visiting the Congregation in Their Homes

A Much Neglected Spiritual Exercise
I received a number of responses from the electronic Ethos last week about how some pastors wish that young seminarians would think more seriously about working in a small congregation, learn to know the people personally and intimately, and visit them in their home. When the apostle Paul was bidding farewell to the Ephesians Elders he reminded them that he did not shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God to them (Acts 20:27). Before he told them that, however, he pointed out that there was something else from which he did not shrink: “…I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house…” (20:20).
Teaching the faith is not an either/or proposition but rather a both/and one. One of the major problems that faces the modern Church today is that it has been fed a steady diet of public entertainment at the expense of the true preaching of the Word and a blatant neglect of visiting the “lambs” in their homes; from house to house. In terms of the latest and greatest CEO-like strategy, home visitation is rather low on the totem pole, or to change the analogy, not even on the radar. Home visitations seem so…well, unglamorous; uncool, unless of course you’re going to talk to someone who might be able to help your church financially. But as we shall see, home visits are not for the purpose of sucking up to someone that you believe might write a big check.
The Jewish talk radio host, Dennis Prager, once said, “One thing I noticed about Evangelicals is that they do not read. They do not read the Bible, they do not read the great Christian thinkers…. When I walk into an Evangelical Christian’s home and see a total of 30 books, most of them best-sellers, I do not understand. I have bookcases of Christian books, and I am a Jew. Why do I have more Christian books than 98 percent of the Christians in America?”[1] Apart from the fact that merely having the Christian books has not caused Prager to convert to the Christian faith from Judaism, he does make a valid point.
I want to take this a step further and add that not only the run of the mill, garden variety Christians don’t read great Christian thinkers much anymore but I would also add that a number of seminary students don’t either. For example, I simply cannot fathom how a seminary student can complete a seminary curriculum without Greek, Hebrew, Systematic Theology, Church History, Ethics, and a rock solid Preaching classes. (I could add Practical Theology to that, but I’m still trying to discern who it is that teaches Impractical Theology.) In truth, seminaries should add a course called “Poimenics” which derives from the Greek word for “to shepherd” or “to pastor.”
As often as not, however, a number of seminaries and seminarians are not studying the classics. Adjunct professors of the variety of Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Bobby “God-Loves-You-and-so-do-I” Schuler, and Brian McLaren are brought in to instruct the students in how to be cutting edge and how to build a mega-church. One can only wonder—but not for long—if any of the above-mentioned “Christian celebrities” have read many—if any—of the Christian classics, but we do know that they certainly have gathered quite a few Christian groupies around them.
Let me refresh our memories about the importance of home visits given to us in what is surely a Christian classic: Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor. Two things are noteworthy: First, Baxter says, “When we are commanded to take heed to all the flock, it is plainly implied, that flocks must ordinarily be no greater than we are capable of overseeing, or ‘taking heed to.’ God will not lay upon us natural impossibilities: he will not bind men to leap up to the moon, to touch the stars, or to number the sands of the sea.”[2] Poor Rick Warren and Joel Osteen; they must be famished from visiting all the folks that show up on Sunday! But what about the pastor who has a smaller congregation and does not visit his flock regularly? Baxter’s words should be indicting if we are not visiting all those in our congregations.
Second, Baxter continues, “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.”[3] Look, we all understand that where there is more than one pastor and with a working Eldership a great deal of what Baxter is talking about can be done even within a larger congregation. It simply takes some organization and practically dividing the congregation into “shepherding groups” under the oversight of an Elder. But the point is this: once that is done, the flock needs to be visited and there are times when the “lamb” needs a spiritual visit from his or her pastor in addition to the visit from him shepherding Elder.
A couple of times in the above quotations we’ve observed Baxter using the word “all” in connection with the flock. That was intentional on his part. He writes, “It is, you see, all the flock, or every individual member of our charge. To this end it is necessary, that we should know every person that belongs to our charge; for how can we take heed to them, if we do not know them?”[4] To parody R.C. Sproul, “Now that’s a good question.” In actuality, this is just common sense, isn’t it? When I was a tank commander, I knew every man in my platoon by name. I knew where he was from; I knew his family background; I knew when his birthday was; and if he were married I knew when his anniversary was. I did all of this as a non-Christian. How much more should we as pastors/Elders know those that God has entrusted into your care?

So What Should a Home Visit Look Like?
Let’s take the rest of the time allowed in this issue and ask about the nuts and bolts issue of a home visit. What are some of the essential steps that should be taken in such a visit?
First, the visit should be prepared for by prayer. It’s one thing to rush into the visit in order to get it done, over, and checked off of our “to do” list; it’s quite another thing to prepare for this spiritual exercise by exercising ourselves spiritually.
Second, the visit should be done in pairs. Sometimes there are surprises that occur during visits and corroboration might be needed. I rarely visit members alone; especially pastors/Elders should not visit married or single women alone. This is a recipe for problems.
Third, there should be a theme and/or a specific Bible text for each visit. At Grace, we work with yearly themes. For 2006 it was “Equipping the Saints for Ministry and Service.” For 2007 it will be “Conformed to the Image of Christ.” Select appropriate texts that deal with the theme and incorporate them in the home visit.
Fourth, open the home visitation meeting with prayer and Scripture reading. This sets the tone for what will be discussed the remainder of the time. Be cordial, relaxed, and natural during the visit. It should not be contrived. You are there as an office bearer in a true congregation of Jesus Christ who has been tasked with the spiritual oversight of this family coming to talk about faith.
Fifth, if there are small(er) children in the family make certain that they are included in the first part of the visit. Talk to them and ask them questions. This is a good time to inquire about their catechism instruction at home. If they are not being catechized, have some copies of an age-appropriate catechism with you and give it to the children. After a while, they should be allowed to be dismissed.
Sixth, ask probing questions. Inquire about the person’s or couple’s Bible reading and prayer life. Don’t let them get away by saying something like, “It should be better.” Ask questions that will allow them and yourself to come to a realistic understanding of what their spiritual condition is. If they tell you that they read Scripture regularly ask them what verse or verses has spoken to them in a particular manner lately. Ask the couple if they read together; pray together; and catechize the children together.
Seventh, ask how you can pray for them—specifically. Let them know that they are important to you and you want to be in prayer for them because you care for them.
Eighth, don’t overstay the visit. Once you have come to a point to close the visit do so. It would be appropriate to ask your fellow-Elder to close the time in prayer.In our next installment, we’ll take a look at visits in hospitals and nursing homes. Both of these are a little unique and require some extra preparation. Some pastors neglect both of these types of visits, but they are essential parts of the pastoral ministry. Quite often—except for the birth of a child—one of your “lambs” is in the hospital for a serious reason and they very much need a visit by you and/or a fellow-Elder. Nursing homes present some unique opportunities in that so many of the people there never receive a visit from anyone. More on this next time, Lord willing.

[1] Dennis Prager, “A Civilization That Believes in Nothing,” The Door, November/December 1990, p. 15.
[2] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), p. 88.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 90. Emphasis his.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Teaching Church Practice (III)

The picture at the left was taken at Hickham Field on Ford Island. This is the tower that was standing when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. I took this last year when Sally and I had the distinct honor and privilege of ministering to our military personnel on Oahu.
Preparation for the Pastoral Ministry
We are on the cusp of bidding farewell to John Leith and his provocative assessment of seminary professors, pastors, seminary students, and the man and woman in the pew. Leith was a man who had a great deal of experience both as a seminary professor as well as a pastor and we would do well to listen to what he has to teach us. In a number of ways he swims against the proverbial tide and conventional wisdom; he cuts against the grain of our modern praxis. He has provided us with valuable insights of how seminaries have derailed in the past and, simultaneously, has pointed us to measures he believed would rectify those problems.
For the longest time, we in the modern Church have been inundated with Barna-esque stats and methodologies, so much so that I fear we have lost our pastoral compass; and when I say “we” I mean all the various groups to which Leith has been referring. Unless we are constantly and consciously measuring our progress and weighing our choices the scenario ends up looking something like this: The seminary professors do their thing and seminary students adore them. Pastors take calls to congregations only to regurgitate what they learned from the professors and then pass all of this along to the members of their congregations—if they even bother to have membership. If the professors have not adequately emphasized the importance of solid exegesis, the study of theology, a strong concentration upon preaching, teaching, evangelism, and administration, the results are calculable.
Students leave seminary with visions of grandeur dancing about in their heads only to get mugged by the reality that they will not earn a six-figure salary right out of seminary and that they are “stuck” in a small congregation rather than a “flagship” church. In short, far too many seminarians want to be the Admiral before they have been an Ensign. In fact, quite a number of the seminary professors—not all, so relax!—have not been effective Ensigns first either. This leads to a very unhealthy church practice. But rather than listening to me on this point, I want us to listen to what Leith has to say. After that, if time and space permit, I want to spend just a little time outlining what I believe constitutes an effective home visit by the Pastor/Elder. This is a much neglected aspect of the pastoral ministry and an area that needs our undivided attention. Some of you responded to me last week about this so I’d like to give a thumbnail sketch of what a home/hospital/nursing home visit might look like. Each of these areas has its own peculiarities that I hope to touch on. But for the present, let’s begin by listening to Leith.
A Novel Idea
In this section I want to concentrate on two quotations from Leith that set the table for what needs desperately to be explained.
The first quote reads as follows: “The preparation for ministry in small congregations is in part theological and pastoral, an understanding of the meaning of a call and a willingness to accept a call that requires sacrifice.”[1] This is a pithy, succinct statement that cries out for further elaboration, especially in our modern church milieu. Leith begins by suggesting that a small congregation serves a very important function and that preparation for ministry in such a congregation includes both theological training as well as the pastoral side of things. This strongly suggests that pastors should be competent theologians and that theologians should be effective pastors. The two are not mutually exclusive and I would think that being good at the one would better qualify you for the other.
And it is precisely within the context of the smaller congregation that preparation for ministry causes both Pastors and their fellow-Elders to get to know the members and the members’ real spiritual needs. Of course this takes time, effort, and a real, genuine love for God’s people. Pastors know how easy it is to get to know like-minded people, people who share their “vision”—aren’t we done using this word yet?—, and people with “deep pockets” who can fund our pet “visions.” The point here is that the Pastor/Theologian and those who work with him—I assuming that every Pastor and church planter agrees wholeheartedly with the need to have Elders in place before you begin your work. Yeah, right!—need to become acquainted with and show hospitality to all the members of the congregation or Shepherding Group. At our church, the congregation is divided among the Elders and each one is responsible for a number of families or individuals called a “Shepherding Group.” You can call it what you want—the a-rose-by-any-other-name syndrome—but the important thing is that each member receives a home visit yearly.
If the first part of Leith’s statement took us by surprise the second part falls like a lightning bolt in the playground of the modern Church. It’s a tough sell for a young church planter to talk about sacrifice as he walks across the marble floors of his home as he heads for the hot tub. In the past, we called this unwillingness to sacrifice a “generation gap” and I fear that the chasm between “then” and “now” is only widening and I have to wonder to myself to what degree seminary professors are spending time talking to their students about “sacrifice” within the context of a call to the pastoral ministry. Sacrifice? I fear that the modern generation is so far removed from the meaning of that word, especially as it applies to the pastoral ministry, that it is a foreign concept to them. Sacrifice in modern parlance tends to mean “not getting to shop at Nordstrom’s this week,” not having a gourmet meal, or not getting to purchase our next “toy.” Seminarians, pastors, and church planters need to understand that less emphasis is needed on being “cutting edge” and more emphasis is needed on being willing to sacrifice for the sake of the practical experience that must attend being a Pastor and for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Look, I’m not advocating eating MREs and getting your clothes at the Salvation Army, the nearby Army/Navy store, or a thrift shop. I suppose a good exercise for young(ish) pastors would be to ask themselves what would have to happen to them in terms of sacrifices that would cause them to leave the pastoral ministry. I’m convinced that this is a spiritually healthy exercise and should be contemplated prior to entering the ministry of the Word. If we could not have the salary we expect, the house that we desire, the location that pleases us the most, the director of music that we demand, or anything else along these lines, would we still do it, love it, and thank God for it?
Leith’s second comment reads like this: “Seminary graduates will be ineffective pastors until they have learned ‘how to do’ the work of evangelism, administration, education from the teaching of a professor who has actually done it effectively.”[2] Again, just for the sake of making certain that we’re all on the same page, let’s break this down into its most salient parts.
First, Leith warns seminary graduates that they will be ineffective unless certain criteria have been met during their seminary education. He designates three key areas: evangelism, administration, and education. I would most definitely have used a different order beginning with education. To my mind, the pastoral education of the flock encompasses preaching, teaching, and visitation. By the way, modern pastors should expect to do all three on the same day if called to do so. Administration is not everyone’s forte, but it is a necessary, indispensable aspect of church life and pastoral duties. Putting off administration or being sloppy in it or at it will only have detrimental results in the congregation. Evangelism is a key task for the pastor for then he, in turn, can train the members of his congregation to go out and know how to evangelize their relatives, friends, neighbors, and work colleagues. The Pastor be adept at evangelization but should also train his congregation to be able to give a cogent, coherent, and easily followed presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Second, Leith presents us with the caveat that seminary professors themselves should have been effective in the above-mentioned areas if they expect to teach seminarians how to do it. This is a place where practical experience comes in pretty handy, especially when you’re teaching others how to educate, administrate, and evangelize. Granted, not every seminary professor needs to know how to perform every aspect and facet of the pastoral ministry equally effectively, but they certainly should have rather extensive pastoral experience that they can pass on to their respective students. This really isn’t asking too much and it provides an effective remedy to having an educated but inexperienced seminary professor teaching a student how to do what he himself has never done or never done effectively.
Most certainly, there must be a place in our seminaries for solid scholarship. The “core” courses of biblical languages, Church History, Systematic Theology, Ethics, and Preaching must be taught well. There must be time for the professors to research their respective disciplines, but this must also be with a view to aiding the seminarians better to serve Christ’s Church.Since I ran longer than I expected, I’ll describe the concept of visits as part of the pastoral ministry, Lord willing, in our next issue.

[1] John Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 70.
[2] Ibid. Italics his.