It’s not new. It’s not innovative. It’s not trendy. It doesn’t produce immediate results. But it is a key element to church planting and the long-term sustained growth of a church. It’s pastoral visitation.
As part of church planting efforts in the rural Thai community of Nong Doan, Pastor Jareun and I have been visiting Mr. Ting, teaching him chronological Bible lessons and addressing various issues that come up. Sometimes he gets it and sometimes he doesn’t.
“My sister is Catholic and worships Mother Mary. Is that the same as what we do?”
“I know Jesus rose from the dead, but we still go through many reincarnations, right?”
It takes a long time to help enquirers and new Christians to get their minds around what the Bible teaches about God and ourselves. Listening to solid preaching and attending church are important parts of the discipleship process, but regular home visits to go over the scriptures and discuss matters more personally are an invaluable aid in helping people move from a Thai Buddhist worldview to a Thai Christian worldview, anchored in the Bible.
To illustrate the power that pastoral visitation and the word of God can have on a community over the long haul, I can think of no better example than that of Kidderminster, England, under the ministry of Richard Baxter. Baxter was the vicar at Kidderminster from 1647-1661, and, alongside his usual preaching, he made regular visits with all the people in his parish the focal point of his pastoral work. He would send his assistant out to make appointments with families, and then would spend two whole days every week visiting and teaching people. He spoke candidly, diligently, and regularly with people about their souls. It was Baxter’s conviction that if any pastor had more people in his parish than he could visit at least once in a year, then he had made a mistake in accepting a call to that parish. And if a pastor found himself in that situation, then if necessary he should take part of his own salary to hire an assistant to make sure everyone was visited.
What kind of effect did his visits have upon the town of Kidderminster? In his introduction to The Reformed Pastor (Baxter’s most well known work), J.I. Packer writes,
His achievement at Kidderminster was amazing. England had not before seen a ministry like it. The town contained about 800 homes and 2000 people. They were ‘an ignorant, rude, and revelling people’ when Baxter arrived, but this changed dramatically. ‘When I first entered on my labours I took special notice of every one that was humbled, reformed, or converted; but when I had laboured long, it pleased God that the converts were so many, that I could not afford time for such particular observations … families and considerable numbers at once … came in and grew up I scarce knew how.’ ‘The congregation was usually full
[the church held up to 1000], so that we were fain to build five galleries …
On the Lord’s days … you might hear an hundred families singing psalms and repeating sermons as you passed through the streets … when I came thither first there was about one family in a street that worshipped God and called on his name, and when I came away there were some streets where there was not past one family in the side of a street that did not so; and that did not by professing serious godliness, give us hope of their sincerity.1
All growth comes from God, and no method guarantees that people will change or that the church will grow. However, there are some methods that not only have precedents in the Bible but also have, in many cases, shown lasting results when faithfully applied. Although not a silver bullet for reaching a community with the gospel, Baxter’s rigorous application of the apostolic precedent of public and private instruction in Scripture yielded much fruit in his ministry at Kidderminster.
Addressing the Ephesian elders, the Apostle Paul said, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). Basic methods such as preaching, and visiting people and taking them through God’s word, have been key elements everywhere that the church has grown in numbers and maturity.
The week-in, week-out visits that we are making to Mr. Ting’s home are not flashy or exciting. There is no guarantee that we’ll see the same results in Nong Doan that Baxter saw in Kidderminster. But by the grace of God, it is this kind of consistent pastoral visitation that often results in changed lives to the glory of God.
- Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1999, pp. 11-12. ↩