Pastors in America are facing a cascade of pressures that are unique to this generation and time. They rise of postmodernism in America has moved the nation past a time when church attendance was fashionable and expected. False doctrine is promulgated through the medium of Christian television and through best-selling books. In the midst of this religious milieu, some churches have abandoned a confidence in the power of God’s word and turned to a model of ministry that is driven either by entertainment or therapy. The rapid social change and expectations of church members have left pastors looking for the next new model or fad to try to grow their churches and satisfy the people in the pews.
The editor and contributors to Reforming Pastoral Ministry: Challenges for Ministry in Postmodern Times want to call pastors away from this kind of schizophrenic approach to ministry and root them in a practice of ministry that finds its genesis in Bible. They argue that this is the type of approach to pastoral ministry that won the day during the time of the Reformation and that gives us a model for ministry that is successful in the eyes of God.
John Armstrong, who edited the volume, articulates his vision for this work in the introduction. He says that as he contemplated the various works that were being written for pastors in this era, he returned more and more to the work of Richard Baxter in The Reformed Pastor. (18) By reformed pastor, Baxter was not referring to a pastor who merely held to Reformed theology. He was talking about a man whose pastoral work was reforming the local church. This is the type of model that Armstrong and the contributors seek to advance in this book.
While there are fourteen different authors who appear to write on different subjects, several clear themes develop in the book. The opening chapter, written by the editor, sets forth the Reformation principle of Semper Reformanda and argues that the true church and true minister will always be reforming themselves according to the word of God. The next two chapters set forth how this principle applies to the pastor’s overall conception of the ministry. Chapters 4 through 6 focus on restoring Christ-centered biblical exposition to the heart of the church. The final eight chapters deal with various aspects of church life. In each of the articles, a clear commitment to not just the truthfulness of Scripture, but the authority of Scripture in the life and ministry of the pastor come through clearly. The contributors show how Scripture should be applied to forgotten areas of pastoral ministry as well as areas that pastors have surrendered to other “professionals.”
The model advocated in Reforming Pastoral Ministry could be considered a more historic approach to the ministry. In many ways, it reads like a book on pastoral ministry that would have been written during the ministry of the Puritans. The contributors’ overall approach to ministry is driven by a commitment to the authority of the word of God in the church. They seek to work out approaches to every aspect of pastoral ministry in light of the clear teaching of Scripture. As an example, Joseph Flatt works out a biblical approach to church discipline. He explains the reasons that biblical pastors should practice church discipline and gives the biblical guidelines for its practice. From his exposition of Scriptural passages dealing with church discipline, he then gives practical advise to pastors about how a commitment to church discipline should look in a church today.
The only improvement needed in Reforming Pastoral Ministry is a look at how this approach to pastoral ministry would look on a day to day basis. In light of the pressures that pastors face to do good things instead of the most important things, it would be helpful for the contributors to talk about the pastor’s schedule. While there is not a biblical discussion of the pastor’s schedule per se, it would be beneficial to hear from an experienced minister who has organized his life so that he could be effective at leading a reforming ministry.
Reforming Pastoral Ministry will make an impact on the heart of the pastor. Joel Beeke, in his chapter on “The Utter Necessity of a Godly Life,” argues that the pastor’s greatest business is to know God and live a life that reflects His character. The pastor cannot lead people to a place that he has not been himself. Therefore, he must labor to know God through daily reading and meditation on Scripture and through spending much time before God in prayer. Kent Hughes expands on this in his chapter when he says that ‘sermon preparation is twenty hours of prayer.” (88) Nothing the pastor can be divorced from living for the glory of God and knowing God personally.
Pastors will be also challenged by the emphasis in this work on a personal pastoral ministry. Jim Elliff points to the words of Richard Baxter, “You may study long, but preach to little purpose, unless you have a pastoral ministry.” This flies in the face of much work on the ministry in our day which speaks of the people in our churches as if they are distractions from what we have been called to do. Elliff’s chapter challenges pastors to know the people that they lead and to have personal, pastoral relationships with them. Related to this a trend that I have noticed in the last several years. Most of the books written on the ministry recently are written by men who pastor large churches. Pastors of small churches read these books and begin to pastor their smaller churches as if they are larger churches. This is neither right nor wise. Pastors of smaller churches have no excuse for not knowing and connecting with every person who is a member of the church they pastor. They can and should enlist their elders in this process, and create a scalable model as they grow to ensure that every person in the church has a connection to one of the pastoral leaders.
Reforming Pastoral Ministry is a welcome work in the current milieu of works on pastoral ministry. The contributors superbly marry biblical insight with practical wisdom. The result is a work that will be an encouragement, challenge, and help to any man in the pastoral ministry.
(You can see more book reviews and notes here.)