A Year With ‘My Baxter’

It’s been two months since my family arrived in central New York to begin a new season of ministry in a new church, new town, new climate, new denomination…you get the idea.

I’ve enjoyed these first several weeks of ministry in an older established church. The exciting life of a church planter is something I sometimes miss, but there is unique beauty to the vintage image of slow living and slow ministry.

While perusing my library about a month ago my eyes became fixed on a volume I bought as a college student, had wanted to read for a long time, but never had the guts to crack open the cover.

baxter

As you can see on the cover, my Presbyterian hero Tim Keller loves this work from the seventeenth century. The Puritans were known for their expertise in soul care, and Richard Baxter in particular may have had the best work ethic in living out his calling as a Pastor.

Baxter’s A Christian Directory is a beast to say the least. 950 pages of small type in double columns is enough to intimidate even a nerdy Presbyterian like me. But, I am drawn to this work. It is Baxter’s summary of ethics, shepherding, and counseling. Some see it as an ancient encyclopedia on how to be a Pastor in a local church.

ibaxtei001p1

My goal is to read and blog through ‘My Baxter’ of the next year. It is a consolation to know that it is meaty and immediately applicable to my vocation as a minister of the gospel. I can easily ignore all the weirdness of Baxter’s views on justification and simply enjoy the goodness of his take on being a physician of the soul.

Enjoy this next year with me and check back every week to see some quotes from Baxter.

God, Gospel, and Kingdom

As the Lord leads our family into a possible new ministry and calling, I’ve been reading and rereading this section from Eugene Peterson and what the Pastor’s calling should be in a local church.

Lord, help me be this kind of Pastor.

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shop-keepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shop-keepers’ concerns — how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shop-keeping; religious shop-keeping, to be sure, but shop-keeping all the same… “A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,” says Martin Thornton, “but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre.”

The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.

We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don’t trust ourselves — our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to help us: be our pastor, a minister of word and sacrament, in the middle of this world’s life.

Minister with word and sacrament to us in all the different parts and strands of our lives — in our work and play, with our children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle. This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: word and sacrament. One more thing: we are going to ordain you to this ministry and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community.

We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours, and that your mind can play the same tricks on you as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you.

We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it.

There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise, right now, that you won’t give in to what we demand of you then. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices.

There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing — God, kingdom, gospel — we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives.

Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.” – Eugene Peterson

Benedict Option vs Presbyterian Option

I am a bit late adding my two cents to the debate surrounding the Benedict Option. While I have not read the book by Rod Dreher, I have kept up with the flurry of tweets, Facebook posts, and articles between Dreher and his detractors. Unfortunately, there has been some amateurish postures by Ph.Ds on both sides of this debate.

benedict

My vocation is that of a Presbyterian minister, so I have an obligation to form an opinion on the issue of how Christians should relate to the culture around them. One might say that my sermons should address that topic almost every week if I want to disciple my flock.

While there is much to be said on this issue, I want to dig into my tradition as a Presbyterian as it relates to Christian ethics. There are two scriptural imperatives which Presbyterians have historically held as binding upon Christians today: Sabbath-keeping and tithing.

I won’t rehearse the arguments from covenant theology and the perpetuity of the moral law, but follow this thought experiment with me: What if the majority of American Christians kept the Sabbath and tithed their income?

On Sabbath keeping, I wonder what would happen to the ‘consumerism’ that millennials often complain about (but don’t actually change their consumer habits). Many restaurants would change their business model and become more like Chick-Fil-A, thus benefiting non-Christian restaurant workers who are forced to work on Sunday. After all, the “Sunday lunch crowd” is populated by mostly church-goers.

In addition, sports leagues like the National Football League would need to come up with a different game plan (no pun intended). The NFL is populated with Christians, so the Sabbath-keeping of these Christians would force the NFL to perhaps play its games on Saturday and make Sunday their ‘day off’ instead of Monday.

This, in turn, would push college football games back to Friday, which would make college football a much less lucrative business. Might this solve some of the controversies and scandals which currently plague college athletics?

Given that consumerism is a blanket critique by young secular people today when it comes to American culture, the church recovering its Sabbath witness might be an attractive option to non-Christians who need a rhythm to balance their work-play-rest rhythm.

Tithing. The sad news about tithing today is that only 5% of Christians tithe their income. This means that less than 10% of Christians actually give 10%! In addition, Christians give less per capita than Christians gave during the Great Depression.

But let’s say the Spirit revived the American church and Christians began to tithe. World hunger, healthcare, foreign missions, church planting, revitalizing smaller churches, Christian schools, etc. would all be affected. Perhaps the reason the welfare state and entitlements has increased is because tithing has decreased.

It isn’t difficult to fathom how the obedient generosity of Christians could shape our contemporary culture. Imagine if this Sunday every Christian tithed their income, our culture (and the world) would be turned upside down.

The Sabbath and the tithe are just two of God’s commands to his people. Just two. Obedience to just these two commands would make the Benedict Option unnecessary. Even if you are in a theological tradition which teaches that these two commands are no longer required for Christians, it’s difficult to dismiss the fruit which would come from obeying these commands.

There are books and conference galore trying to aid the church in navigating our contemporary culture’s secular force. There are parachurch ministries trying to aid the church in jumping on this or that social justice bandwagon. There are ministries trying to help churches think about bi-vocational ministry for their Pastors.

None of these things would be necessary if the church simply obeyed these two commandments of observing the Sabbath and giving the tithe.

Perhaps the Christian faith isn’t complex but rather simple to live out. Perhaps ‘transforming the culture’ isn’t complex but rather simple and covenantal.

Preaching & Pastoring: A Crucial Distinction

As a Pastor I was convicted by these wise words from the eighteenth century American Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller.

Dr. Samuel MillerMiller writes in his well-known Thoughts on Public Prayer, 

“How can a pastor preach intelligently and appropriately to his people, without knowing their state? And how is he to know their real state but by more or less intercourse with them in private…Every time that the pastor goes forth from his study to visit the families of his flock, it ought to be performed for the double purpose of conferring spiritual benefit on them, and receiving a benefit himself. If, for the attainment of the former purpose, he carry the gospel with affection and tenderness on his lips wherever he goes, his own knowledge of the real condition and wants of his people will be greatly enlarged, and his heart warmed with increasing love to the Saviour, and love and zeal for the salvation of souls, and the enlargement of that kingdom which is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.

O, that ministers could be persuaded to realize that the best part of their preparation for the pulpit, that which is best adapted to impart the richest instructiveness, and the most touching unction to all its teachings, is, not to seclude themselves perpetually their studies – not to be for ever trimming the midnight lamp; but to go forth and put themselves often in contact with the cavils and the objections of the enemies of the gospel, as well as with the anxieties, the conflicts, the consolations, the joys, and the triumphs of Christian believers.”


Confessions of a Covetous Critic

The last few years in the American evangelical landscape has been fraught with controversy and heavy critique. Well-known ministries and Pastors, even going back a few decades, are now no longer doing ministry. The one thing in common is that these were large ministries and celebrity Pastors.

In all this we’ve seen the rise of the ‘above-the-fray’ critics. Pastors and educated laypeople tweet and post, “See, megachurches are bad news. Pastors with celebrity fame isn’t what God intended. We know better. Why can’t the broader evangelical church know better?”

I’ve been this critic. I’ve got my biblical, ecclesiological, and practical arguments down pat. I tell people, “Just wait until (fill in the blank) has a moral failure and steps down from the ministry.” Of course, I add the caveat, “I hope the Lord restores him and makes his church flourish and be faithful.” I mean, I don’t want to come across like a total jerk.

I now pause my mouth when it comes to the critiquing of megachurches, large parachurch ministries, and celebrity Pastors. Why? Because I have slowed down my heart and realized what is lurking beneath my criticism.

Deep down, I want what these celebrity Pastors have.

I am not saying everyone in ministry who engages in this critique has the same problem I have (though I suspect it is widespread). I am just speaking about me.

When I slow down to look at my heart, I see anger. I see envy and covetousness. I see my failure to obey the ninth commandment as outlined in the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Q. 147. What are the duties required in the tenth commandment?
A. The duties required in the tenth commandment are, such a full contentment with our own condition, and such a charitable frame of the whole soul toward our neighbor, as that all our inward motions and affections touching him, tend unto, and further all that good which is his.

Q. 148. What are the sins forbidden in the tenth commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the tenth commandment are, discontentment with our own estate; envying and grieving at the good of our neighbor, together with all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his.

Whenever I quip, “I never want to be a megachurch Pastor. I never want my church to become a megachurch,” I think I mean it. But, I do want my church to have less problems, run more smoothly, and grow. I want an increase in my salary. Maybe my church isn’t 2000 people, but 300 would be nice so that we can plant another church and have a network of church plants in my city that I (so awesomely) pioneered.

And while I don’t want to be on the stage for TGC, T4G, or some other huge conference which only invites celebrity Pastors to speak, I would like to speak at my denomination’s conferences or preach at our General Synod. That’d be cool.

I want a D.Min so that I can be invited to teach 2-3 classes a year on things like church planting, gospel neighboring, counseling, etc. I teach Rhetoric at a classical Christian high school, and one reason I do so is that at least one time a week a group of people listen to me and actually seem to respect me and do what I tell them to do. (As compared, to say, preaching.)

No, I don’t want to produce endless amounts of books with Crossway, Zondervan, or IVP. But a cool Wipf and Stock or Brazos published book or two would be nice. I’d get interviewed on a few podcasts…and maybe I get a part-time gig with Relevant Magazine.

On the local level, I don’t want to gloat and self-promote our church doing pool baptisms (who knows how many of those folks have been baptized before or are mere plants in the crowd), but I want a steady stream of adult converts that I get to baptize. You know, 4-5 a month. You see, we have a tithing problem and I need to give potential donors a reason to write us a check.

I don’t want to have a megachurch or be a celebrity Pastor. I want to be one of those more regional gurus that young Pastors respect so that I have to say no to the abundance of e-mails and phone calls of those who want my advice. My time is precious in this possible world I’ve constructed.

And of course I don’t want to be making six figures and have a handful of other Pastors know what I secretly make. But I want to have a comfortable life. My family deserves a nice vacation or two every year. Maybe $65,000-80,000 a year is good.

With these dreams come anger, resentment…covetousness. I break God’s law and violate God’s holy character the 99% of the time I criticize a celebrity Pastor or megachurch.

Whenever I say, “I’m so glad we aren’t a big church, and I’m glad I am an ordinary, insignificant Pastor,” I am actually coveting a particular size and ethos for my church. I am desiring a certain level of fame and income for myself.

The gospel I need to preach to myself is that God is being good to me in not giving me these things. God is even being good in showing me my pharisaical self-righteous heart in critiquing other Pastors and their ministries (Phil 1:15-18).

I don’t plan to radically change my philosophy of ministry. That isn’t the problem. If the greatest need for my flock is my personal holiness, then I need to put to death this sin that is covetousness crawling around in me and to put on Jesus’ contentment.

I’m bad at this. Please pray that, by the Spirit, I get better at lowering my expectations and have a life worth imitating to my church and neighborhood.