“There’s really only time for two things in ministry. Lead a fine worship. Visit the people. The program, leave to volunteers and gung-ho seminarians.”
Several years ago, I came upon that provocative advice from a man named Sam Stanley. It has constantly challenged me regarding the duty of the pastor.
Then a couple years ago I discovered Richard Baxter’s brilliant book, The Reformed Pastor. George Hunter calls it “the most influential book that most pastors today have never read.” That book probably influenced Sam Stanley considerably, whether or not he ever heard of it.
I wish the modern pastor could look much more like Baxter’s Reformed Pastor.*
The Reformed Pastor doesn’t have time for running a big enterprise. Only two things: worship and visit.
The Reformed Pastor can’t be consumed with climbing the career ladder or making more money. If they were unable to visit all of their people, Baxter told pastors they better cut their salaries and hire enough assistants to do the job. Here’s one of his not-too-subtle challenges for anyone whose congregation is too large to visit them all:
If you have but a hundred pounds a year, it is your duty to live upon part of it, and allow the rest to a competent assistant, rather than that the flock which you are over should be neglected. If you say, that is a hard measure, and that your wife and children cannot so live, I answer, Do not many families in your parish live on less? Have not many able ministers in the prelates’ days been glad of less, with liberty to preach the gospel?
Tell us what you really think, Mr. Baxter. The work is so good that I’m fighting to control myself from copying pages’ worth of direct quotation.
The value of visiting from house to house seems utterly lost. I heard almost nothing of it in seminary. I haven’t seen “model pastors” celebrated for it. I’ve practiced it far too little myself.
Before people are ordained in the United Methodist Church, they are asked, “Will you visit from house to house?” They affirm that they will. My friend Aaron calls it the biggest lie told at Annual Conference each year.
Why forsake more study, more sermon prep, more e-mails or strategic planning meetings, more church administration so that we can visit more?
A few reasons to focus on visitation, taken rather directly from Baxter:
- Evangelism — We have the best opportunity to convince people of the truth when we speak to each one’s particular questions and situation. We need to be able to say to the sinner, “You are the man!” and plainly mention his particular case. Too direct? Perhaps more later on our terrible inability to identify sin with clarity and care.
- Education - Visiting from house to house comes from Paul’s example in Acts 20. He says he taught in public and from house to house. Our people need personal instruction in the faith, not just public preaching. By the way, Baxter used a catechism for this.
- Preaching - Our preaching is much better when we know the people hearing it. This is the Word of God for the people of God. We preach best when we know both. I fear that more sermons now originate in the boardroom (the strategic direction speech) than a living room. I even worry that too many sermons originate only in a pastor’s study (the academic treatise or the personal reflection that misidentifies where others are).
A personal example: In a pastoral visit I made a while back, I ended up being able to confront someone very directly, yet lovingly, about some sin in his life. I also learned that he doesn’t read Scripture because he doesn’t feel like he knows how to, and I was able to give some instruction. I ended up standing in his doorway answering his questions about what sanctification is and how we receive it.
Yes, I believe visiting from house to house is one of the most important things for me to do as a pastor. I also know I do it far too little. My challenge is to find a way to give it the pride of place it deserves on my agenda. How about you?
So much more to say about The Reformed Pastor, visiting the people, Church discipline, etc. But I’d also like to get to some other topics. How interesting is this to you? Stay here or move on?
* George Hunter argues that Baxter was “a major source of error” and that John Wesley properly damned his work with faint praise and mainly ignored it. I get what Hunter is saying — that it shouldn’t just be the ordained acting as pastors — but I disagree with him on the value of Baxter’s work and how Wesley handled it. I think John Meunier gets it right on this.