Keeping Watch
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Keeping Watch

Selected Scriptures  (ID: 3084)

What is the goal of pastoral ministry? In the face of so many temptations to stray from the instruction given to church leaders in the New Testament, Alistair Begg reminds pastors of their role as stewards of God’s people. As pastors seek to feed God’s flock and fulfill their ministry of pastoral care, they should encourage, exhort, admonish, and counsel out of love both in public proclamation and individual care.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 7

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23008

The Basics of Pastoral Ministry, Volume 2

Character Matters Selected Scriptures Series ID: 28402

Basics 2015

Trusting the Word of God to Do the Work of God Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23515

Sermon Transcript: Print

Father, in the stillness of this lovely morning hour, we bow before you. You are God, and there is no other.[1] Our times are in your hands.[2] When we think of everything that has had to happen in the universe to assemble us in this way this morning, we are overawed by your grace. We would never even know each other or know of each other’s existence were it not for your grace to us in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Great Shepherd of the sheep. And we, entrusted, many of us, with the responsibilities of leadership in the church and of being undershepherds of the people of God, feel very much that burden. And so we pray that as we spend these moments together now, that you will help us to think these things out and to affirm again our commitment to care for those who are in our flocks. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Well, the notion behind this breakout session is simply that I thought it would be helpful for me to give my attention to something that I’m constantly concerned about, not because we are disinterested in it but because we always can do better than we do in relationship to the care of the souls of men and women. And the notion behind it, of course, and the phraseology, is that thought in Hebrews of obeying your leaders “so that their work will be a joy” and “not a burden,” because “that would be of no advantage to you.” “They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.”[3] And along with that, what Peter says in 1 Peter 5 concerning the nature of being the shepherds of the sheep.[4] Those are the things that lie behind this.

Now, in the time we had yesterday downstairs, it was so hot that a number of people were deeply asleep within a short period of time. I was actually one of them. And so, I didn’t think that we did much of a job of it, and I resolved—I’m not gonna try and speak very quickly, but I’m trying to go through this material as fast as I can so that we can have an opportunity with a roving mic to hear from one another. That’s the value, I think, of the breakout session, rather than just another ongoing monologue.

So, I want to be as basic as I possibly can be and as straightforward as I can. And now, since I am just known for quoting from the Confession of Faith and Subordinate Standards of the Free Church of Scotland, let me begin right there:

It is the duty of the minister not only to teach the people committed to his charge in public, but privately; and particularly to admonish, exhort, reprove, and comfort them, upon all seasonable occasions, so far as his time, strength, and personal safety will permit.[5]

It’s very interesting. So, “I’m not gonna go and talk to her. She may kill me. So we’ll take her off the visitation list,” or whatever it might be. I don’t have the time this morning to deal with the instructions that are given for the care of the sick, but I tell you, when I read it, I realized that most of my hospital visits have been almost profitless in comparison to the established standard for dealing with the souls of people. And I can perhaps say more about that later.

The Goals of Pastoral Care

Anyway… Fundamental to the watching over the souls of people is the fact that we who pastor and teach have those who are entrusted to us. They are not ours, but they belong to the Lord Jesus. All right? They do not belong to us. And as we seek to minister to them, we do so in the awareness that they do not exist for our benefit or for our livelihood but that we exist for their benefit and for their spiritual good—that we are their servants, and we can say to our congregation, “I will always be prepared to be your servant, but you must know that you will never be my master.” And there’s a subtle distinction there, and it’s very, very important.

Our goal in pastoral care is to take the things of God and to bring them to bear upon people in such a way that they are advancing in their own faith. Our goal is not to be well respected. Our goal is not to build an ever-growing congregation. Our goal is not to draw people around us in a way that attaches them to us rather than attaches them to Jesus. Those are all goals of ownership. But the goals that are given to us in the New Testament are goals of stewardship. And our directive in relationship to this, as in every area of pastoral ministry, needs to come from the Bible itself and not from business practice, or even from contemporary notions of team building and so on. Not that we can’t learn from those things, but they are never our authority.

Underpinning, then, all that we do as we seek to care for them are obvious factors that are declared for us in the New Testament. I address them without further expansion.

First of all, it is clear that we are charged with the responsibility to feed the flock. To feed the flock. So that the shepherd is to lead the sheep into green pastures. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to routinely ask, not only of our public proclamation but of our individual pastoral care, “Am I providing good pasture for God’s flock and will my visit with them today—will my casual encounter with them today over coffee—nourish their souls? Will my care of them cause them to feed upon Christ?” For I must feed the flock.

Our goal in pastoral care is the unreserved obedience to Christ of every believer, starting with ourselves.

Secondly, I must proclaim the whole counsel of God. That was Paul when he left the Ephesian elders: “I have not hesitated to declare to you the whole counsel of God.”[6] And sometimes that’s easier to do in public than it is to do in private. When the person comes to you and says, “Well, I noticed when you preached from John 6, it sounded very, very much like God in his sovereignty completely overrules any notion of human responsibility,” or whatever it might be. And we’re tempted to say, “Well, why don’t you go get yourself another cup of coffee while I slip out before you come back? Because I don’t want to have to deal with that.” But if we’re gonna teach the whole counsel of God, we have to acknowledge the challenge of it. I mention it there. William Burns on one occasion says, “How hard it is to unite in just proportions the humbling doctrine of man’s inability to come to Christ without regeneration, and the free [offer of the gospel] which is the moral means employed by God in conversion!”[7] And it is. And often in our pastoral care, we will be helping people to wrestle with those kinds of things—the whole counsel of God. So that we’re not hobbyhorse preachers, or we’re not one-legged preachers; we’re not so dominating on one side that we don’t deal with the other.

Campbell Morgan in one of his books has a humorous anecdote where he talks about a Baptist preacher who just was fixated on believer’s baptism. He got there on every available opportunity. And he gave out his text from Genesis 3:9: “And God said, ‘Adam, where art thou?’” And he said, “My first point will be a consideration of where Adam was. Secondly, how was he to be rescued from where he was. And finally, a few thoughts about believer’s baptism.” And some of us are very good at that.

We feed the flock, present the whole counsel of God. Thirdly, present everyone mature and perfect in the Lord Jesus Christ—Colossians 1:28 and 29. Our goal in pastoral care is the unreserved obedience to Christ of every believer, starting with ourselves. So our goal is that Christ may be formed in them—which, if you think about it, changes every potentially casual conversation to an opportunity for great progress. And we’re to present everyone: men, women, boys, girls, young, old, the likable, and the unlikable, so that in some measure, one day we will be able to say as we are in the presence of Jesus, “Can I introduce you to X? Can I present him to you? I had the privilege, in some measure at least, in my pastoral care of seeing him become mature in Christ Jesus.”

Fourthly, we are responsible also to prepare God’s people for works of service: letting our congregations know that everyone has a part to play—not simply declaring the necessity of that but also making sure that we create the opportunity for that. There were some questions about that in the afternoon yesterday. There may be again. What it means is that as pastors and as church leaders, we need to be prepared to be reviewing consistently areas of ministry in our church life and asking the question, “Is God giving gifts to individual members of our congregation that we need to recognize and encourage and implement?” So that we may have the opportunity to actually put feet to the things we say when we preach through 1 Corinthians or when we deal with Ephesians 4, and everyone sits out there and says, “Okay, well, I get the point, but what do you want me to do? And what is the opportunity? Where is it?” Well, it is often in our pastoral care that we’ll be able to close that gap.

Fifthly, that we are also responsible to equip God’s people to be fishers of men and women, so that we are nurturing them in such a way that they in turn recognize the privilege that is theirs. And one of the ways in which, of course, that happens is in our public ministry. You will seldom have an evangelizing congregation if you don’t have an evangelizing pastor. If the gospel is not uppermost in the teaching of the Bible, if people don’t realize that the Bible is a book that could be summarized under one phrase out of Jonah, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!”[8]—if they don’t get that as a recurring theme from our proclamation, it is unlikely that they will take it to their friends and loved ones. So that not only do we say to them, “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields,”[9] but also, we’re creating opportunities for them to be there.

So, all of that to say that pastoral care, it seems to me from the New Testament, has the objective of fulfilling all of these goals. Now, that takes it beyond the notion of “Well, pastoral care is about how you can get your congregation to like you, so that you make yourself very available to them, or how many visits you’re able to make in the course of a week.” Those are not the questions. The real question is whether we’re going to be effective in the objectives that are given to us in the New Testament. And preaching and pastoral care are like wings on a plane.

Now, I just pause and say parenthetically that when I left Scotland to come to this fair land, I was in a church that would be not dissimilar to quite a few who are here. I was there on my own. It was quite fascinating when you think back on it. I did not have a telephone. My deacons thought that if I had a telephone, I would become more uppity than I actually am. And so they gave me a pay phone in the hall, so if I wanted to make a telephone call, I went out in the hallway and put in 10p coins. If anybody wanted to call me, that rang out in the hallway, and I would run around and try and get to the phone before all the beeps went off. Anyway, they made me feel very much at home.

But I had the opportunity of virtually knowing everyone in the congregation. I think I knew everyone in the congregation. I’m sure I did, actually. And I would be able to shake hands with a vast majority of them as they left every Sunday morning, and often on Sunday nights. Some went out through the side doors. There were two side doors. The people that went out through there were either dealing with their children or trying to avoid me. And sometimes I was glad that they were. But nevertheless, I had a flavor for what was going on. I did all of the hospital visitation. I did all of the meetings with people. There was no other option at all. And it never occurred to me that this was a bad deal. It never occurred to me that this was something that ought not to be done.

My circumstances today are very different. But the responsibilities of pastoral care remain. And one of the great frustrations that I find—and some of you who are in circumstances similar to this will find the same thing: that you know that you cannot actually be that and do that for all of these people. And somewhere inside of you, you know that that has to take place. Hence the privilege and responsibility of building teams. And we can say more about that in a moment as well.

Pastoral care, of course, is needed by everyone, including ourselves. We need pastoral care. We need people who, in the leadership, have the courage, the compassion, the willingness to look us in the eyes and tell us what should be done or what shouldn’t be done. And I’m fortunate in that regard, and I’m thankful in the regard.

Practicalities of Pastoral Care

In terms of some basic principles of practicalities, let me just make a few.

Number one, by and large, men should deal with men and women should deal with women. Failure to apply that principle has led to shipwreck many, many times. Just in the last couple of days, I had occasion to call a friend from whom I haven’t heard in quite a long time. He lives far away from here. And he’s sort of fallen off the map. I hadn’t been alert to it, but when I called him, I discovered that he had fallen off more than the map. And with sadness we spoke just in the afternoon yesterday. And I said to him, “Tell me what happened to you. Now, I don’t want the details, but tell me what you didn’t do in relationship to the opposite sex so that I can pay attention to that.”

And of course, the story was familiar. “I allowed myself,” he said, “incrementally to become emotionally attached to the person who is my assistant.” And incidentally, if I remember correctly, having preached in the church, it was a bad choice of assistant on his part. I don’t want to say any more about that, except that you gotta choose the people with whom you’re spending time. And you don’t wanna ride your carriage right up to the edge of the cliff. You get the point, right? And so, he said that’s what he did. And then, eventually, the flood banks broke, and he violated every code of biblical ethics and of his marriage and every other thing. Simply because—and I said to him, “What was it that you didn’t do?” He said, “I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t ask for help. I was frightened that if I told my colleagues, they would demean me.” And I said, “Yeah, but you were also kind of interested in pursuing that, weren’t you?” And he said, “Well, yeah, I was.”

It’s like one of my colleagues, came up this morning with his breakfast. He had a gigantic, big, cheesy-looking, big, honking, huge… What do you call those things he had? A Danish! A big Danish. And then he put a few grapes beside it. Well, I guarantee you those three grapes will not keep you from that Danish. That’s why place of meeting is important, personnel is important, proximity to people is important, and so on. We didn’t need to beat it to death. All of us get it. It’s a question not only of understanding it; it’s of taking ourselves in check. So, men should deal with men, women with women.

Secondly, it’s important that we take time and we make effort to actually know people. And this, of course, condemns me even as I say it. But it is true.

Thirdly, it is imperative that we pray for people as intelligently as we can. Prayer is actually one of the most effective means of pastoral care. We can pray for our church family, even when they do not want us to pray with them. Even when they don’t want us to pray with them, for whatever reason. We can always talk to God about men, even when we can’t talk to men about God. We can always do that.

It’s very, very important, too, that we let our people know that we actually are interested in them—if you like, that we love them. And we have to aim at loving our congregation with the same love. Again, that’s jolly difficult, isn’t it?

Somewhere in my notes, I have the record of a conversation between a Mr. Caird and Charles Warr, who for a time was the minister at St Giles in Edinburgh years and years ago. And apparently, Charles Warr had taken upon himself to exercise a sort of hortatory, reproving form of care for his flock. And a Mr. Caird came to him and said, “I know we’re not everything we ought to be,” referring to the congregation, “and no doubt we need a lot of scolding. But we’d all be a great deal better than we are if only you would try sometimes, instead of lecturing us, to show us that you love us.” It’s like Spurgeon, isn’t it? You know, that more flies are caught by a jar of honey than a bottle of vinegar.[10] And Warr records in his journals, “These words were a turning point in my ministry.”[11]

Now, when we think in terms of this kind of love for our congregation, we need to realize that the love is to be a fatherly kind of love, as John the apostle speaks about in 1 John 2. We love as a father loves his children, caring for them. And the practical evidence of that love will be seen in the generosity of our time.

Key Words in the Exercise of Pastoral Care

Now, let me just conclude with four key words, in terms of the exercise of pastoral care. That we are to tend our flocks the way a shepherd tends a flock—that’s the picture of Jesus in Isaiah 40 that we had last evening, and very helpfully so.[12] And we need insight, we need wisdom, and our daily study of the Bible provides us with material for our pastoral care. Don’t you notice how often it is that something that you’ve read in the morning in your Bible becomes just the very word that was necessary for a person that you hadn’t actually planned to meet or an individual who had asked to see you and you had no idea what they were on about? And it was just in your routine, dutiful reading of the Bible that you had an opportunity to speak to them. Because ultimately, we are doctors of souls. We’re doctors of souls. And therefore, a good doctor has to be good at diagnosis. Therefore, we need the help of the Scriptures, the guidance of the Spirit. We can’t be just trotting out the same answer to everyone, because everyone’s condition, apart from the sinfulness of the human heart, is not the same.

So here are the four key words. Number one, encouragement. Encouragement. It’s so obvious, isn’t it? But we all do need encouragement. We need encouragement to persevere. That’s the benefit of—if you ever exercise—of exercising with someone. You don’t want to exercise with someone who’s, like, a marathon runner, ’cause they’ll leave you behind, but someone who’s just a wee bit better than you. You don’t wanna hit tennis balls with somebody who played for, you know, the University of Virginia in string one, ’cause it won’t be any fun. But there’s somebody with whom we can hit that will just nudge us a little further along. And sometimes in our pastoral care, that’s all we’re really doing: we’re just nudging people further along, encouraging them to persevere—to persevere in godliness, to persevere in evangelism, to persevere in whatever it is. They come to us often disheartened, discouraged, maybe within their marriage, within their work, whatever it is, and we’re able to encourage them in that way. Encouragement.

We’re doctors of souls. A good doctor has to be good at diagnosis. Therefore, we need the help of the Scriptures and the guidance of the Spirit.

And secondly, exhortation. Exhortation needs to, I think, follow upon encouragement or be along with encouragement. Paul does it all the time: “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I will say, rejoice. Come on, now. Chin up.” And then he goes on to say, “Because the Lord is near.”[13] You see, he’s not just saying, “Come on, give yourself a shake.” He says, “Look, Jesus is near. Jesus is your present companion.” Now, it’s so easy for us to lose sight of that. We can lose sight of that in pastoral ministry. And someone comes and exhorts us, says, “Do not be weary in doing good, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.[14] Physical fitness has a certain value, but spiritual fitness is essential both for this life and for the life to come.[15] Make sure that you’re not operating on the wrong basis.”

Encouragement, exhortation. Thirdly, admonition, so that we are warning as well as encouraging. Again, Paul does this with great skill: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”[16] It’s not easy to admonish people. I don’t find it so. Even to receive it! But it’s important that when we have to do that, that we’re quick to give the counterbalancing praise as appropriate.

You know, I’m not good at that. My colleagues will tell you I’m not. I can admonish as good as the next guy, but the counterbalancing praise I have to work much harder at. It’s very true. Somebody brought something to me the other day, and I thought it was absolutely hopeless. And so, “Shall I say ‘absolutely hopeless,’ or shall I moderate in some way?” So, yeah, I did. I said, “This is pretty hopeless.” That, for me, was a great step along the encouragement trail. I’m not sure they picked up on that. I’m not sure they understood what it cost me to change my adjective.

Encouragement, exhortation, admonition, and counsel. Counsel. Formal counsel, casual counsel. We didn’t know anything about counseling in Scotland, I think, until Jay Adams wrote Competent to Counsel. If we did, nobody told me. But it, I mean, it goes back that way. I don’t know when Competent to Counsel came out—probably sometime in the early ’70s, I would think? Maybe even in the late ’60s? And a whole shift changed—you know, a whole new dimension came. And helpfully so.

But you know, isn’t it true that the Holy Spirit counsels most effectively by using his Word, and by using his Word faithfully taught? It’s a wonderful encouragement on multiple fronts when someone has asked to see you… Let’s say this is today. What is today? Tuesday. And someone says, “Well, could I see you?” and we say, “Well, it’d be better if we could wait until after the Lord’s Day, and maybe next Wednesday we could arrange to meet.” And so the person says yes, and we’re fine. At the evening service, as they greet us in leaving, they say, “Hey, by the way, don’t need to see you on Wednesday.” And you say, “Well, what happened?” Say, “Well, funnily enough, the Holy Spirit used the teaching of the Bible today to address the very issue that I was going to take an hour of your time to consult you on. And I have it absolutely clearly.” The Holy Spirit uses his Word in order to do that. And so, in the area of counsel, our ultimate confidence is in the Scriptures as we bring the Scriptures to bear upon people’s lives.

The gentleman that I was assistant to in Edinburgh all these years ago taught me very clearly that he was prepared to work with people so long as they were prepared to allow the Bible to adjudicate on what they were doing. As soon as they said, “No, I’m not going to pay any attention to the Bible,” he said, “Well, then there’s no point in us meeting anymore. Because the only way in which I can speak to you with any kind of help and authority is from the Scriptures, because the Holy Spirit brings the Scriptures to bear.” It’s not psychological theory, not business practices, not some kind of other extraneous genius, but the work of the Spirit of God to conform the people of God to the image of the Son of God through the Word of God. And whether that is in public proclamation or in private conversation, it remains the same.

And for those of us who are not particularly good at listening, then we need people around us who are good at listening, because people need to be listened to. And the passing off of people to folks who are helpful to them is something that we need to cultivate, not out of a sense of self-preservation but out of a sense of care for the souls of our people. People come to me and they say, “I have to see you.” And I say, “You probably don’t.” Or they say, “I want to see you.” And I say, “That’s ’cause you’ve never seen me.” And they think I’m just trying to keep them out the door. But no, if I know what the circumstances are, I say, “The person on my pastoral team that you need to talk about this is X. I’ll gladly talk with you. But if you’ll trust me on this, you’ll discover that if you talk to him or if you meet with her, you will realize that I would be the last person that would be of help to you.”

All right. So the main task is to help those under our care, to understand their own condition, God’s purposes in it, and then what their behavior should be. And as we do so, we recognize our own limitations and we confirm the fact that our great confidence is in the Scriptures themselves. I have more here in my notes, but I think I’ll just stop at this point and be true to what I said earlier. All right?

Questions and Answers on Pastoral Care

So, it’s 9:29. We will stop at 9:55, so that gives us a solid thirty-five minutes to get to some of those grapes and prepare for the 10:30 talk. There are microphones somewhere. There’s one here, one here. If somebody would like to make a comment, an observation, ask a question, then that will be fine. If there are no questions or comments, then, of course, we will have a solid hour to eat those grapes. All right?

The first question’s always the hardest, and somebody, a compassionate soul, usually asks it—even if he doesn’t have a question—in order to get things started. So… There he is! Right there. There in the middle. Thank you, brother.

Q: I guess my question would be pastoring and caring for those in a functionally illiterate society, using the Word of God among them in a way that is effective. And then, second question would be… How to do the first one. And the second would be…

Alistair: Let’s just take the first one. We’ll just take the first one. That’s a hard one!

Q: That’s the hard one?

Alistair: Yeah.

Q: Well, no, the second one’s even better.

Alistair: Oh, it’s… Okay!

Q: The first one’s the warm-up.

Alistair: That’s funny.

Q: Yeah. You’re welcome. You can use it. I picked it up elsewhere. The second one has to do with when Paul writes that “you are my letter”[17] and the distinction between the Scriptures as the launching pad into the incarnate Savior, as opposed to… Oftentimes, I think that in my own teaching in the past, the Scriptures have become the Savior rather than the means to the Savior. And it is those among—those that I’ve discipled, that they have become the letter, and in fact, it was not so much the Scriptures, especially because of how functionally illiterate many of them have been. I didn’t realize that when I was teaching them and discipling them. But it was the Holy Spirit in me and through me. So, the struggle for me is here: in the written Word of God versus the incarnate Word of God, almost reincarnate in the believer. So help me understand discipleship in pastoral care from the perspective of who the Holy Spirit is in me and in them and through them in the world, without the written functionality of it all.

Have fun. Enjoy. It’s just to get the ball rolling. I don’t expect an answer.

Alistair: Yeah. Well, let’s go to the third question.

Well, my grandchildren at the moment are functionally illiterate. They cannot read. But they do understand when I sit with them and get down to their level on the floor. And in actual fact, they are capable of a far greater grasp of things than we give them credit for. And when we think in terms of the distilling of spiritual truth, we realize that, again, it’s not like trying to convey a mathematical formula or a series of irregular French verbs, but that we are actually conveying truth that is backed home by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. All right?

And the ministry of the Holy Spirit is, as we know, always to point to Christ. How we know who Jesus is and what Jesus has done is always through the Scriptures. The exemplification of the transforming power of Jesus in the Thessalonian church, who had become a sounding board to the world, was simply that the truths that they had learned concerning God, they were now working out in their lives. So that the Scriptures gave the foundation to what their lives became by the Holy Spirit, and their lives constantly were pointing back to Christ. And as people said, “Well, then, who is Christ?” they said, “Well, you have to read the Bible, because he is revealed to us in Scripture.”

So, if you like, I would think of it almost in terms of a continuum—that we’re constantly being brought back to Christ. And it just comes to mind as I think about it: you know the story of the rich man and Lazarus and the dialogue that ensues there. And he said, “No, but if somebody could go to him, then he would believe.” You know, “Then he would believe.” And the reply comes, “Well, no. He has Moses and the Prophets. Let him listen to them.” And he said, “No, no, no, no. That’s not gonna work.” And he says, “Well, listen. If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not listen even if someone rises from the dead.”[18]

And so, the confidence of heaven is in the Scriptures. Because the Scriptures are inerrant. The Scriptures are sufficient. The Scriptures never fail. My testimony ebbs and flows. The only incarnation that is worth really considering is the incarnation in Christ. Because he reveals everything to us, and all truth is in him.

The ministry of the Holy Spirit is always to point to Christ.

That is not to stand back from the point that you’re making, which is well made. You know,

You’re writing a gospel,
A chapter each day,
By the deeds that you do
And the words that you say.
And men read what you write,
Distorted or true;
So what is the gospel
According to you?[19]

And I think, brother, that’s maybe what we’re wrestling with. That’s the best I can do for now, but thanks for starting us off. Thank you.

Yeah. Microphone men, you just have to be alert, watching. Yup. I’m not suggesting that you’re not, but it’s hard for you to see.

Wasn’t that terrible that he said that thing about Botox last night? I told my wife… The thought process was, “I hope he hasn’t been drinking out of this bottle.” You know. Anyway…

Q: Alistair, on your point…

Alistair: Just ’cause… Yeah. Sorry.

Q: On your point of men only dealing with men and women with women, if there are women in the church who specifically want pastoral counseling, in a church your size, you may have staff and well-trained women to do that. How about a pastor in a smaller church? What is a practical way to deal with that issue?

Alistair: That’s a good question, because what I said begs that question, and I’m glad you asked it. Well, if I go back to where I was, back in Scotland, where, you know, I had my telephone in the hall and nothing very much, often people would have to come to my house to see me. And so, in that context—so, a lady who was coming about something—I would always make sure that it was Susan that welcomed her, that opened the door, that offered her a cup of tea, that showed her into my study, that made it pretty clear that I was behind my desk and she was in the seat and that the door was open and that there was accessibility and so on. In the same way, routinely, if that happens here, I always have my assistant, Kay, be the one that goes out into the vestibule to welcome the person, to bring them in.

The cautionary note, though, is twofold. One, in the protection of ourselves. Because you never know when you’re gonna get some really crazy person, male or female. And so, you know, we have to be increasingly cautious about that. And also, then, that we have to be cognizant of our own propensities to evil, and the fact that, you know, sin is crouching at the door; it desires to have you.[20] So I would say to the fellows in my pastoral team, “If you have arranged for a girl to come and see you who’s not your sister, your daughter, or your mother, and you’re looking forward to it, then cancel the appointment. Why are you looking forward to it?” You know, “Well, I’m deeply concerned for her welfare.” Yeah.

It’s the best I can do on that. Sorry.

Hands are going up like a Billy Graham crusade here. It’s fantastic.

Q: When you spoke about sometimes leaving a hospital visit and feeling it wasn’t very fruitful, that resonates with me, ’cause I sometimes wonder if there’s more I could have done. So you insinuated that the Free Church book you were reading from there had some very practical suggestions, and I wondered if you might share what some of those are.

Alistair: All right. Well, thank you. It’s better to make frequent short visits than to make an embarrassingly long visit, especially when the person is seriously and gravely ill. I watch as some ministers, they seem to be very compassionate but completely clueless, and they stay in way beyond the level of usefulness. The family doesn’t know how to get rid of them, the nurses are confused about why they’re still sitting there, they’re not actually doing anything, and so, it’d be time for them, you know, to go.

And if we’re going to be there, then, as you say, we have a privilege and an opportunity to do, in that circumstance, things that might not happen otherwise.

Let me just give you a flavor of this. Because the Directory says,

Times of sickness and affliction are special opportunities put into [the] hand [of the minister] by God to minister a word in season to weary souls: because then the consciences of men are or should be more awakened to bethink themselves of their spiritual estate for eternity; and Satan also takes advantage then to load them more with sore and heavy temptations: therefore the minister, being sent for, and repairing to the sick, is to apply himself, with all tenderness and love, to administer some spiritual good to his soul, [and] to this effect.

It goes on to say that the minister should make sure that he’s cognizant of where the person is, that he’s not blustering or heavy-handed. But it says,

If it appear[s] that [the person who’s sick] hath not a due sense of his sins, endeavours ought to be used to convince him of his sins, of the guilt and desert of them; of the filth and pollution which the soul contracts by them; and of the curse of the law, and [the] wrath of God, due to them; that he may be truly affected with and humbled for them: and withal make known the danger of deferring repentance, and of neglecting salvation at any time offered; to awaken his conscience, and rouse him up out of a stupid and secure condition, to apprehend the justice and wrath of God, before whom none can stand, but he that, lost in himself, layeth hold upon Christ by faith.[21]

Now, that’s a tremendous amount of thing. And it goes on later on to say, “But having said all that, make sure that you don’t thread the needle of the law up through their main artery without pouring in the balm of the wonder of the love for them in the Lord Jesus Christ.”[22]

But what they’re saying is, instead of just feeling like, “You know, I’ve done my duty, because, you know, Mrs. Jenkins—who is a friend of this person, ’cause they work in the school—who’s a member of the church, asked me to go. I went—which was pretty good, ’cause I get a coffee at Starbucks in any case. And, you know, I did a verse, and I’m out.” Well, okay, so, yeah, what? Anybody could pretty well do that. But in terms of…

You know, I’ll give you an illustration. It’s an old, old hymn. I haven’t heard it sung in at least forty-seven years. “Burdens Are Lifted at Calvary.” This comes back to the original question, incidentally, as well. “Burdens Are Lifted at Calvary”:

Days are filled with sorrow and care,
Hearts are lonely and drear;
Burdens are lifted at Calvary,
Jesus is very near.[23]

That’s the lyric. Okay? Written by a fellow who’s now in Canada, a Baptist by the name of John Moore, who was my pastor when I was a wee boy.

Anyway… That thing came out of a hospital visit. He was in Glasgow, and he got word that a Russian sailor had taken ill and had been removed to one of the city-center hospitals. And somebody in the hospital, realizing the gravity of the individual’s condition, asked John Moore if he would go and visit him. When he got there, he was illiterate. He wasn’t; he could speak Russian. But he couldn’t speak English. He had a modicum of it. And so John Moore took and drew, and drew a cross, and drew essentially Pilgrim’s Progress, and tried as best as he could to say to this man, “In Jesus, all of your burdens are removed, if you will trust in him.” And he felt that there was some indication in the response of the man that even though he couldn’t grasp the totality of it, that he got something of it—enough to encourage him. He prayed with the man, and he left him. The man subsequently died. On the tram going back to the center of Glasgow, he thought about that, and he took out a sheet of paper, and he wrote,

Days are filled with sorrow and care,
And hearts are lonely and drear;
And burdens are lifted at Calvary,
And Jesus is very near.

In other words, he used it not as an opportunity just to say, “Yeah, I did what you asked me to do,” but to present to the man, who has a soul that will never die, the claims of Jesus and the promise of salvation.

That’s ultimately what we’re on about. I mean, that’s the whole shooting match of what we’re on about. And in our counseling in marriages, we’re trying to bring people to the place where they realize that their forgiving heart should be emblematic of the forgiveness that is theirs in the Lord Jesus Christ and so on. But it’s always the gospel all the time.

Maybe two more?

Q: Up here! Up here!

Alistair: Oh, sorry. Whoa. Okay. Just shout, brother. There’s no microphone up there, is there?

Q: Maybe there are some pastors here who are church planters and/or bivocational and literally don’t have a church office. And maybe there’s a decreased propensity by people to have you in their home. Maybe that’s my fault, or maybe that’s theirs. But what do you do when you have some of those limitations? You still gotta meet with people. Does Starbucks become your office? Or when there’s sensitive issues to discuss, you know, what are some of your suggestions?

Alistair: Well, you’re raising a question that I haven’t had to face. So, just off the top of my head, yes. I mean, let’s be pretty obvious about it: Jesus didn’t have an office either. Paul was a bivocational pastor. He seemed to do a pretty good job of it. And he seized the opportunity, and I guess he seized the place. The Starbucks or the coffee shop is an option, provided we do have a measure of privacy. I don’t find that an easy place anymore to have any kind of substantive conversation because the proximity of people around us. And I wouldn’t expect people to open up and share their hearts when they’re afraid that somebody that they don’t want to know what’s going on is beside them. But yeah, I think, brother, you can probably help me with that by answering it and then coming and telling me, so the next time someone asks me that question… If we had time, I could ask one of my colleagues here to answer that question. Yeah, we just have to be imaginative and creative in finding a place.

Yep? Yep?

Q: Alistair, what are some general characteristics that you see in people, whether it be in pastoral care or personal discipleship, when you decide that it’s time to move on, or it’s time to let them go, or let them over to God—or over to Satan, as Paul says?[24]

Alistair: Yeah.

Q: And maybe even some practical examples in your own ministry?

Alistair: Well, we wanna make a distinction between—I would want to make a distinction; I’m sure you would too—between when we talk about letting them go, we’re talking about saying, “You know, I’m not sure that it’s going to be profitable to us to continue to meet in this way.”

Let’s take, for example… I remember, way back, again, in Edinburgh, a hairdresser who was a young man, along with his wife, who were coming to the church, and he’d gone off on one of these QE2 cruises or something as a traveling hairdresser and had got involved with somebody in a way that had just made a dreadful impact on his marriage. And they came to meet with us. I remember that Derek Prime read from James chapter [4]: “What causes fighting and quarrels among you? Is it not from the desires that are within you?”[25] and so on. And we met, and the first time was fairly good, and the second time, it wasn’t so good, and the third time, it was clear that they weren’t gonna pay one bit of attention to what the Bible had to say. So in the sense of no longer meeting with them, we let them go. But they never slipped from our prayers. They never slipped from our care. They weren’t removed from our church. We were still teaching the Bible to them, and we were seeking to bring other people around them for that. But I would say that it would be—in terms of the curtailing of things—it would probably be that.

The other thing that we might add to that is, we have to prioritize the people that we’re going to meet with. And the trouble is that the squeaky wheels get most of the oil, don’t they? And this is a hard thing to deal with. The people that we really ought to be spending the time with are the new believers, helping them to understand the gospel and to grow in grace and so on—not to the detriment of those who have particular needs. But I think that’s again where we need the wisdom and the insight of the Spirit of God himself.

And also, let’s not miss the fact that the care of the souls of people in the New Testament is a “one another” care as well. All that we’ve been saying this morning is in relationship to the responsibilities that fall to us. But we recognize that the effective care of God’s people happens not only through the Word preached, not only through our ministrations to them, but also in the way in which they are caring for one another, exhorting one another, encouraging one another, and so on, as we said earlier.

I think that when we begin to see people just distancing themselves emotionally and then physically, our concern meter should rise, and probably we should put more effort into it. But when they’re just disregarding of what we have to offer in the Scriptures, then, you know, we’re not going to call down fire from heaven, you know, like the disciples thought would be a good idea. Yeah. “Things have not gone well here, Jesus. Do you want us to call down fire to consume them?”[26] I’m glad we have that apostolic precedent. It makes me feel better about some of my reactions. Yeah.

We got five minutes left.

Q: You mention that we should be equipping people for works of service, and I was wondering how you guys went about implementing that? Like, to what level? When can someone help stack chairs? When can they teach Sunday School? When can they go on a missions trip and start discipling people?

Alistair: Yeah. I think the only real distinction that we make is in a teaching role within the church—that we would want people to have come through our membership process and into membership before we set them apart to any kind of teaching responsibility. We may be a little loose on that when it comes to children’s ministry; I can’t say with confidence. But certainly our desire framework would be that we’re not putting people in positions of responsibility to give instruction who are not in concurrence with the framework of our understanding of Scripture and everything else. I think that’s pretty obvious.

But at the earliest levels, we would want to encourage people to avail themself of any opportunity. And your question is well asked, because if you say, “How are you doing?” I would say, “Well, quite good, but not as good as we want to do, and not as good as we could do.” I think always that will be true in a church. And I think it’s true here, and maybe true generally, that for people to really get involved in opportunities, there needs to be a measure of initiative on their part. I mean, we can only do so much in saying, “There are opportunities here and there.”

And I think, too, the best engagement into ministry is a result of, again, the “one another” factor. Not so much of the pastors coming, saying, “We need three of these and five of these,” and everything else, but somebody, let’s say, who’s involved in parking the cars who says to his friend, you know, who’s newly come around, “You know, you could help with this, and it would mean a lot.” Or someone who has benefited from children’s ministry in the past saying, “I think I would like to serve in this capacity.”

Part of the challenge—and I thought about it as I was speaking yesterday, and again when I went to bed last night—was, you know, we make quite a process of bringing people into membership. Not as much as some, but certainly enough for people to notice. And so, we try in meeting with them to deduce where they are, what they believe their gifts are, and so on. And they actually write some of those things down. I don’t think that we do the job that we need to do in following through on the things that they identify. And in fact, I put it in my mind to say in our next elders’ meeting that I wonder if there isn’t some mechanism that we can actually put in place that has the follow-up aspect to it, to make sure that we are not just simply adding people to the numbers and adding them to the seats, but adding them to places of usefulness.

I mean, it happens all the time now, doesn’t it? I mean, I just had my car serviced, and this morning I had an email from them saying, “Did we do a good job servicing your car?” And yet we bring people into membership, and we say it’s the most momentous thing, and probably they never hear from us again. And we told them how important it was to seize the opportunities and get involved. And legitimately, they might say, “Well, I know I’m supposed to take the initiative, but it wouldn’t have cost too much for somebody to actually phone up and ask how it was going.” Because they might have gone somewhere and found that they got the pushback from people who didn’t want them, or whatever it might be.

Well, thanks, fellows. It’s 9:54. I’d like to stop one minute early.

Just a brief prayer:

Father, thank you that you are the one who has compassion and care. You are the fount of all wisdom. The Lord Jesus Christ is the shepherd of the sheep. And we acknowledge humbly and freely before you that we are desperately in need of your strengthening and encouragement in this regard. We think about the fact that one day we will give an answer, one day we’ll give an account, for the souls under our care. O Lord, help us in this regard to see each individual as Christ would see them and to care for them as Christ would have us.

We thank you now for this time that we have in the intervening thirty-five minutes. We pray that you’d bless it to us, and we pray for Tim as he arrives, that you will bring him to us in strength and in the power of the Holy Spirit, and grant grace as we anticipate the balance of the day. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.

[1] See Isaiah 45:5.

[2] See Psalm 31:15.

[3] Hebrews 13:17 (NIV 1984).

[4] See 1 Peter 5:1–4.

[5] “Concerning Visitation of the Sick,” Directory for the Public Worship of God.

[6] Acts 20:27 (paraphrased).

[7] Quoted in Islay Burns, Memoir of the Rev. William C. Burns, M.A. (New York, 1870), 71.

[8] Jonah 2:9 (ESV).

[9] John 4:35 (KJV).

[10] C. H. Spurgeon, “The Minister’s Ordinary Conversation,” in Lectures to My Students (1875–94; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 198.

[11] Charles Warr, The Glimmering Landscape (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1960), 117. Paraphrased.

[12] See Isaiah 40:11.

[13] Philippians 4:4–5 (paraphrased).

[14] See Galatians 6:9; Romans 12:11.

[15] See 1 Timothy 4:8.

[16] 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13 (ESV).

[17] 2 Corinthians 3:2 (paraphrased).

[18] See Luke 16:19–31.

[19] Commonly attributed to Paul Gilbert. Paraphrased.

[20] See Genesis 4:7.

[21] “Concerning Visitation of the Sick,” Directly for the Public Worship of God.

[22] “Concerning Visitation of the Sick.” Paraphrased.

[23] John M. Moore, “Burdens Are Lifted at Calvary” (1952).

[24] See 1 Corinthians 5:4–5; 1 Timothy 1:20.

[25] James 4:1 (paraphrased).

[26] See Luke 9:51–56.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.