Pastors need a robust and secure theological foundation. But they also need the skill to best to teach those truths to the people of God in a Christian discipleship context. In the first post in this series, we considered how significant the Westminster Standards are in helping pastors carry out Christian discipleship. In this second post we will consider some practical approaches to carrying out confessional discipleship and offer some recommended resources that will help pastors along the way.
A Long-Term Approach
As I noted in the previous post, I had the privilege of leading a men’s discipleship group for six or seven years while laboring as a PCA church planter. Without desiring to draw attention to the length of time we met for any self-aggrandizing purpose, I merely wish to encourage pastors to think about playing the long game. As the well-known and oft-repeated maxim goes, “People tend to overestimate what can be done in one year, and underestimate what can be done in five or ten years.” We live in a culture of “bigger, faster, stronger.” On the contrary, much of what has a lasting impact is that which took the longest to accomplish. I have a mentor who often reminds me, “It’s hard to derail a slowly moving train.” Those ministers who move patiently and intentionally often have the greatest lasting influence. We should enter in on the work of Chrstian discipleship with a view to laying a solid foundation for a building that will last.
If we adopt the long–term approach to discipleship, we will be less compelled to rush through the content of what we are teaching. At the outset of a discipleship group, a pastor may simply take the first section of the opening chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, or he may work through the first three or four questions of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I discovered that when I was teaching through the Westminster Confession or Catechisms at a slow pace, the men in the group raised many thoughtful questions. Over a period of about a year, this pattern developed week by week. A slow approach allows a pastor to answer questions regarding personal devotions, family dynamics, parenting, apologetics, evangelism, worship, and much more. The men in the group will begin to see that the truths of God’s Word have a bearing on every aspect of their lives. A slow and steady approach to discipleship gives a pastor more time to bring biblical and theological truth to bear on the everyday aspects of lives of those in the group. A rushed approach will demand a more surface application.
At the end of each meeting, the men in the group spent time in prayer together. These were special times of opening our hearts to one another. We learned to bear one another’s burdens, we knew better how to pray according to the truths we had just considered, and we were encouraged to pray for one another throughout the week. If the end of Christian discipleship is knowing God and serving one another, then spending time praying with and for one another is a vital yet practical act toward that end.
The Service Effect
Christian service will also flow out of Christian discipleship. If we merely program service in the local church, we will end up creating a church full of Martha’s (Luke 10:38–42)—men and women who are torn in every direction and overwhelmed by the desire to serve others. As Burk Parsons has helpfully explained, “Many churches have programmed the life out of people that they barely have time left for their own families, let alone widows and orphans.” One of the practical benefits of a confessional discipleship group is that the pastor can encourage service among the members of the group at the right time and in the right way. In almost every meeting we had, the needs of the church plant arose. One or more of the men in the group would either volunteer to serve in a needed capacity or would offer suggestions about who might be a good fit for meeting a particular service need in the church. The biblical and confessional truths we considered in our meetings helped us identify and prioritize actual needs and areas of service in the church. This, in turn, will provide a platform for pastors to encourage service—in a non-programmatic or guilt-driven way—in the local church.
A pastor may find himself overwhelmed when thinking about starting a confessional discipleship group for a number of reasons. First, the Westminster Standards cover massive amounts of theological ground. Then there is the issue of language. Some of the language in the Standards (particularly in the Larger Catechism) is archaic. Finally, there is the challenge of the historical context. The historical context of the debates around particular doctrinal formulations taught in the Standards is not always evident. These three things pose a challenge for any pastor. I recently had a fellow PCA pastor reach out and ask if I could recommend a book on the historical background of the Standards because he was discouraged over how many young men were coming into his Presbytery who showed little-to-no knowledge about the basic historical background of the Assembly. While many books cover the historical background and exposition of the Westminster Standards, the following are some of the helpful works available:
- Thomas Vincent, An Explanation of the Assemblies Shorter Catechism
- Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Confession of Faith
- G.I. Williamson, Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes
- Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith
- Emily Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith Study Guide
- R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Systematic Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith
- J.G. Vos, Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary
- John Bower, The Larger Catechism: A Critical Text and Introduction
- Joseph Pipa, The Westminster Confession of Faith Study Book
A pastor doesn’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time preparing to lead a group through the Westminster Standards. Choosing one or two of the resources above should suffice in being prepared to lead a discussion on a small section or a few catechism questions.
As we plan for confessional discipleship in the life of the local church, may the Lord grant us wisdom and grace to do so patiently, prayerfully, and purposefully for the long-term and lasting fruitfulness of all those involved.