The Need for a Catechising Ministry
In the recovery of biblical exposition that has marked the church in our own time, it has not always been recognized that in addition to such exposition the Reformers and Puritans placed great stress on catechizing. We tend to think of this as children learning catechetical questions and answers by rote. But what the Puritans had in view was in many ways a more profound exercise. They saw the need to build into the thinking of all their people frameworks of reference, grids that would help them receive, understand, digest, and apply the biblical teaching given from the pulpit.
This is an essential ingredient in the recovery of biblical Christianity. Neither the Reformers nor the Puritans envisaged their task of the public exposition of Scripture without finding ways of anchoring what was heard in the minds and memories of their hearers. Without the framework of doctrine provided in some such pedagogical tool as a catechism a person might find it extremely difficult to assimilate all they were being taught. And without the personal probing of catechetical questions they might never work the public exposition through into practical understanding and application.
The Baxter plan
Richard Baxter had two catechists in Kidderminster to share in what was in part a sophisticated, well-grounded kind of seventeenth-century Evangelism Explosion. But it was more. It was also a Pastoral Explosion with a fully-orbed Pauline goal: to present every man mature before God.
It was in large measure due to his vision for this work that Baxter wrote his justly famous work The Reformed Pastor. His concern was to share with his ministerial brethren the necessity of pastoral visitation and personal instruction and evangelism.
The experiences which brought him to this conviction are telling. ‘It hath oft grieved my heart’, wrote Baxter, ‘to observe some eminent able preachers, how little they do for the saving of souls, save only in the pulpit; and to how little purpose much of their labour is, by this neglect.’ In fact Baxter had come to the sobering personal discovery that many of his hearers were taking in far less of what he said than he imagined. He realized that he needed to speak with them one by one to help them understand the message of the gospel and to help them work out its significance for their lives. In a moment of tremendous candour, he writes:
For my part, I study to speak as plainly and movingly as I can … and yet I frequently meet with those that have been my hearers eight or ten years, who know not whether Christ be God or man, and wonder when I tell them the history of his birth and life and death, as if they had never heard it before. And of those who know the history of the gospel, how few are there who know the nature of that faith, repentance, and holiness which it requireth, or, at least, who know their own hearts? … I have found by experience, that some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour’s close discourse, than they did from ten years’ public preaching.
It was this discovery that led Baxter to arrange for every family in his parish area to have a catechism. Then, together with his two assistants, he spent two days of each week, from morning until evening, moving from house to house in his parish, teaching, gently quizzing, and with great sensitivity leading people to Christ and to the Scriptures.
The effect on the town during Baxter’s fifteen-year ministry was revolutionary. He states that when he was installed as rector at Kidderminster perhaps one family in each street was devoted to the Lord and honoured him in family worship; when he left there were streets where only one family did not do so.
Doubtless Baxter’s gifts were unusual and perhaps the blessing of God was exceptional; but it is evident that he and others felt that the instrument of catechizing was utterly essential to the work of the pastoral ministry.
Baxter knew that there would be objections to such activity. Perhaps we might be inclined to say that in Baxter’s day, ‘He had all the time in the world.’ But not so. He tells us that when he began this work he was already fully employed (think of his well over one hundred published works, of the great folio volumes of his writings, of his magnificent The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, whose massive length might seem to require experience of its title to complete a reading!). No, Baxter saw catechizing as a work of necessity, not as an additional luxury. Furthermore he recognized that beginning such an activity would cause all kinds of disturbance, but argued that anything new has that effect. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
With Baxter, the Puritans in general realized that we cannot build for eternity with wood, hay and stubble; we must build with precious stones that will last. That may be by the use of a catechism or by some similar means. By whatever means, access must be gained to the minds, hearts and homes of the people by those who are the pastors of the flock.
The above is excerpted from Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister is Called to Be (824 pages, £18.00), pages 189–192.
Richard Baxter on Motives for Catechising our People
Richard Baxter on Directions for Catechising our People
Featured painting: A Pastoral Visit, Richard Norris Brooke (1881), National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund).
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