On December 4th, 1655 a group of Church of England pastors gathered in Worcester after becoming convicted that they had neglected their duty to teach the faith. They invited local pastor Richard Baxter – who had spearheaded this revival – to address them, but fortunately he was to ill to attend. I say “fortunately” because he wrote a treatise that he sent in his place, which he later published as The Reformed Pastor (note:  he uses “reformed” in the sense of “revived”, not “Calvinist”), which became a classic book on pastoral care.

Baxter’s thesis is that it is the primary duty of all pastors to teach their flock personally. By this he means that people must be taught the principles of religion and matters essential to salvation. They must be taught these principles in the most edifying and beneficial way possible, such as through personal tutorials, examinations and instruction (what he calls catechizing). This work should include everyone in the congregation and it should take up a considerable portion of the pastor’s time.

Baxter describes several benefits of this sort of personal ministry:

  • It facilitates conversion since we have the best opportunity to imprint the truth upon the hearts of men when we can speak to each one’s personal needs.
  • It will also build up those being established in the faith. It makes our preaching better understood and regarded.
  • Personal knowledge of each other will overcome distance, ignorance of each other, and other sources of prejudice and misunderstandings. Moreover, such familiarity will tend to encourage them to open their ears to further teaching. It also helps the pastor know better how to watch over them, preach to them, pray for them, and help them guard against their particular temptations and avoid specific errors.
  • It helps the people see pastors not simply necessary in emergency situations, but rather to see themselves as lifelong disciples being taught by their pastors.
  • There are also many personal benefits to the ministers themselves, including the spiritual growth of graces, peace of conscience, and personal satisfaction. It will engender heavenly-mindedness. This constant occupation with God, with Christ, and with holiness, will do much to help us overcome the flesh and its inclinations.
  • Personal ministry is the primary work of Church renewal. It must be the major factor in making effective all our prayers, promises, desires, and endeavors for revival.

Given the anti-Roman spirit of his age, it is remarkable that Baxter observed that:

In the Protestant reaction to the auricular confession to the priest within the Roman Catholic tradition, we have commonly reacted by neglecting all personal instruction. Yet I believe our neglect of personal instruction is much more a curse than confession to the priest may ever have been.

Just as radically, he insists that without such personal pastoral ministry, preaching does little good:

I know that public preaching of the Gospel is the most excellent means of ministry because we speak to so many at once. Other than that single advantage, it is usually far more effective to preach the Bible’s message privately to a particular sinner. In public we may not use the more homely expressions, and our speeches are so long that we overrun our hearers’ understanding and memory. Thus they are not able to follow us. But in private we can take them at their own pace of understanding and keep their attention by argument, answers, and objections as they raise them. I conclude, therefore, that public preaching is not enough. You may study long, but preach to little purpose, unless you also have a pastoral ministry.

How to do it

Having convinced his readers of the necessity of this ministry, Baxter then goes on to give them advice on how to go about doing it. Here’s how he did it:

I do not presume to prescribe rules or forms for you, or to encourage the use of the same catechism or exhortations we use. But let me tell you what I do in my parish. We spend Mondays and Tuesdays from morning to about nightfall, taking some fifteen or sixteen families each week in this work of catechism. With two assistants, we make our way through all of the congregation— about eight hundred families— and teach each family during the year. I have not been refused by a single family when I have asked them to come visit me. And I find more outward signs of success with those who come than in all my, public preaching.
I am forced by the numbers to take a whole family at once, for an hour each. The clerk of the church goes ahead a week beforehand to arrange the schedules of the timetable. I also keep notes of what each family member has learned so I can continue to systematically teach him or her.

The math is: 7.5 families a day x 2 days a week x 52 weeks a year = 780 families a year. Remember that under the system of his day,  that was every single family who lived within the geographical bounds of his parish.

To get started, Baxter first recommends getting the congregation on board:

What are the most effectual means to convince them of the benefit and necessity of your personal and pastoral teaching to their souls? The way to convince anyone of what you are offering is surely to show that it is good and necessary for the individual. This requires  plain and challenging sermons. Show the benefit and necessity of divine truth and of the basic principles they should grasp.

Second, let them know the plan and give them time to prepare for your visit with some introductory reading:

It has been the whole vision of this book, and behind that the program of our own parish, to teach the catechism— or basic tenets of the faith— to every family within the parish. Let them know that you will visit each of their homes with these instructions in mind, and provide them with the necessary books that will help them. We have already taken up an offering that will defray the cost of the circulation of these works. Give them, then, a month or six weeks so that they have time to read the books on basic Christianity which you have distributed.  Be sure that you are gentle with them. Give them encouragement as much as you can. Tell them that if they would leam the basics of the Christian faith from any other book, then you will also accept that.

Then it’s time to actual start visiting families. Here’s how Baxter describes his process.

  1. Set them at ease and show them how much you really care for them. Show them by your own example that you have not spared any trouble; you have made this a high priority to be with them for the purpose of catechism. Take your desire to be a spiritual director seriously.
  2. Take the persons one by one and deal with them as far as you can in private, out of the hearing of the rest. For some of them cannot speak freely before others. Some of them cannot endure questioning before others, because they think that being embarrassed about others hearing their answers is shameful. Others again are self-conscious and will do better if they are able to discuss matters privately. You must therefore be very prudent to prevent all these embarrassments. But the main reason for one by one teaching (as I find by experience) is that people will take better to plain, intimate discussions about their sins, unhappiness, and sense of consciousness in this fashion: when you talk with them privately. Be careful, however, not to create unnecessary scandal by speaking to women on their own when it would be wiser to speak in the presence of others.
  3. Begin your work by taking into account what they have already learned of the catechism; receive their answers to each question. If they are able to recite little or nothing of it, try to see whether they can familiarize themselves with the Apostle’s Creed or with the Ten Commandments.
  4. Then choose some of the more important doctrinal questions. Ask them what they think becomes of man after death. Or what do they believe about sin? Or what is the judgment that sin deserves? Or what remedy has God provided for the saving of sinful, miserable souls? Discuss with them how they are saved by the blood of Christ.  In every case, so word your questions that they may see clearly what you mean, and so that they see the answers that you expect from them. Be gentle with them, if you see there is one that does not know how to answer, take the burden from him by answering the question yourself. Do this thoroughly and plainly and make as full an explanation of the matter as you are able to.
  5. When you have given them a broad survey of the fundamentals of the faith, proceed then to instruct them according to their own specific needs and character.  As each one differs in ability, so speak to their specific needs.
  6. It is now time to make a discerning inquiry into their own personal life. In the best and least offensive way possible, convince them of their own personal need. Remember, it is the Holy Spirit Himself that enlightens men’s minds, and softens their hearts, and turns them from the power of Satan to God by faith in Christ, making them a sanctified, peculiar people to God. Discern and try to see if they are truly converted. See that they have a sense of assurance and of the forgiveness of sin. Ask them if they have a real sense of the enjoyment of God in their lives.
  7. Conclude with a practical exhortation. It consists of two parts. The first: Know that the duty of the heart is to be opened to Christ and to be contained by Christ. The second: Show externally by the avoidance of former sins and the change of life that there has been true repentance. Encourage them to change their companionship to forsake the old habits that they all once had.
  8. Before you dismiss them, show that you are concemed that you have not offended them by your conversation. Tell them you feel as awkward in challenging them as they may feel.  Be earnest – let them see that you really mean business and nothing is more serious than their own eternal destiny and future well-being. Since you will not be able to see them often, make sure that the heads of the families do take into account their responsibilities for the spiritual nurture of their own household.
  9. Note down in a book all you have visited in this manner. Make notes about each one: their personal responses, their own private spiritual condition, and their needs.
  10. If you are limited with time, take several together. This is much better than to be hasty with individuals and superficial in your contacts with them. Be sure those you bring together are common friends so that they will hold each other’s confidences while you talk with them.

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