Saturday, July 19, 2014

Richard Baxter: A Model for Pastoral Discipleship

When Richard Baxter arrived on the scene in the town of Kidderminster, England, in 1641, he found a congregation in spiritual and numerical decay, but he eventually turned the entire community into a vibrant spiritual force.

What was Baxter’s secret? His philosophy was three-fold: Preaching, prayer and discipleship. He was a long-winded preacher who preached with passion and conviction and who called people to follow God in holiness. He also understood the power of prayer, commenting once that preaching with passion is useless if the pastor “prayeth not earnestly for them [the congregation]” (The Reformed Pastor, p.123.).

Most students of church history understand this part of Baxter’s ministry, but few recognize his emphasis on discipleship. Baxter was convinced that the decline in the church was the result of poor leadership—men who lacked zeal for truly shepherding God’s people.

So, Baxter made it a point to shepherd/disciple the people under his care. He did this primarily by spending time each week in the homes of families under his care until he had visited with every family in a year. He did this every year with the purpose of making disciples.

Baxter was a pastor who loved his people and cared deeply about them to the point that he invested in their lives. He also understood the importance of faith-filled families. He worked tirelessly to promote healthy discipleship in the home, believing that faith begins in the home—specifically with the man of the house. Of the importance of discipleship in the home, Baxter said, “I beseech you, therefore, if you desire the reformation and welfare of your people, do all you can to promote family religion” (The Reformed Pastor, p.91).

By the end of his tenure in Kidderminster, almost the entire adult population of the town had believed in the saving work of Christ. Baxter is a prime example of a disciple who made disciples who in turn made disciples. That is the essence of discipleship.

If Baxter were to arrive on the scene of modern American evangelicalism, he would find that most of our churches are in a similar decline to what he encountered in Kidderminster. Our churches are in decline spiritually and numerically, and worse yet, children raised in the church are leaving the church in droves as they reach adulthood.

Like Baxter, I must conclude that one contributing factor is a lack of pastoral leadership in today’s churches. Somewhere along the way we have lost the art of servant-shepherding that focuses on discipleship. Rather, we invest much of our time attracting people to come to our churches to see our wonderful ministries and learn what it means to follow Christ in a weekly worship service.

There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, but we must ask ourselves some important diagnostic questions: Are we truly making disciples who in turn make disciples? As we focus on inviting people to come to us, have we forgotten the importance of going to them?

I believe that many pastors have forsaken their role as shepherd-leader and, as a result, we are missing opportunities to make vibrant disciples of Christ.

Many people in our churches hunger and thirst for a deeper, more meaningful walk with God. People want to know what it means to truly follow Christ. The truth is, no one can learn that in one hour at church every week, even if that hour is supplemented with one hour of small group time.

Someone needs to stand up and say “I know the way, follow me.”

Pastors need to reclaim the art of shepherding their people through discipleship. We need to be in their homes, or inviting them to our homes, for times of intentional discipleship. We must show people how to honor Christ at home, at work and with their children. We must empower the men in the church to shepherd their families. We must do whatever it takes to invest in the lives of those under our care.

When the Lord calls me to be his undershepherd, I will make relational discipleship a priority among my people. Who knows, maybe at the end of my tenure I too will see an entire community come to faith in Christ.

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep." John 21:17

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