Reviewed by Kirk Wellum
When I took my first church as a young pastor in my mid-twenties, I knew next to nothing about the matters that Brian Croft and Phil Newton discuss in their three books that make up the practical shepherding series. Although I had graduated from a Bible college, I had been in an academic stream that did not require me to study such practical areas as pastoral leadership, hospital visitation, and how to conduct a Christian funeral, and so when I assumed my pastoral responsibilities I was in for a surprise and had a very sharp learning curve. Had I known what Croft and Newton write about in this trilogy, I would have been much more prepared for the challenges of church life and ministry.
The particular set of circumstances surrounding my entry into pastoral ministry not only make me appreciate the importance of this series of books, but now I know from subsequent experience that the authors know of what they speak. Both Croft and Newton, and particularly Croft, who authors two of the books and co-authors the third, have learned how to care for people in times of need and how to prepare others to do the same thing. Ironically, this is the kind of learning that cannot be acquired by reading a book but must be learned on the job as one thinks through how the scriptures apply to real life situations. Though reading a book is never a substitute for getting out there and caring for others, it does help to collate the biblical data and to organize it in a way that facilitates the practitioner.
One thing that I particularly appreciated about all three books is that they are specific enough to give clear help and direction, and general enough so as to be useful in a wide range of denominational and cultural settings. This is not as easy as it sounds. Within the parameters established by the scriptures, interpreted in the light of the person and work of Jesus Christ, there is freedom to minister. For instance, the Bible does not spell out for us exactly how to prepare the next generation of leaders, or how to visit the sick, or how to conduct funerals, beyond giving us general instructions and principles that are capable of varied application depending on a variety of factors like culture, traditions, and personal preference. The authors understand this balance, and therefore, their exposition of the relevant biblical passages and their application of these passages to pastoral ministry will benefit many pastors and churches in different places, denominational settings, and times.
In Prepare Them To Shepherd, Brian Croft explores the very important matter of the call to the Christian ministry. In a day when too many run without being called, and others do not even stop and consider the call of God on their lives, this is essential reading for pastor, church leaders, and those contemplating church leadership. Croft rightly speaks about the internal call of God in the individual and shows how this is balanced with God’s external call that comes through the church. Pastoral ministry is not for everyone. Those who aspire to it desire a good thing, but their aspirations must be accompanied by the requisite gifts and graces specified in scripture. Churches have a vital role to play when it comes to identifying, commending, mentoring, and supporting those the Lord calls to serve as shepherds to his flock, and this book takes us back to the scriptures and grounds their responsibilities in the whole counsel of God.
In Visit The Sick, Croft focuses on an aspect of pastoral ministry that is often overlooked today. He reminds us that in the past visiting the sick was more of a priority because it provided an opportunity to come alongside people in need with the comfort of the gospel. He begins with a biblical theological survey of God’s care for the sick before discussing what exactly to do and talk about on such occasions. His chapters on wisdom and skill in caring for the sick are filled with simple and yet important instruction. The need to listen more than we talk and to resist the need to explain and resolve all of the theological difficulties that swirl around human frailty and vulnerability is eminently wise. And basic skills such as making eye contact, appropriate touch, being pleasant, perceptive, and my favorite, being aware of the condition of one’s breath, deserve to be read and pondered by all physicians of the soul. Croft also has a very helpful chapter on encouraging the church as a whole to care for others who are sick, and he concludes with four practical appendices that round out this small but valuable gem.
In Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals, Brian Croft teams up with Phil Newton to write about ministry to people who have lost a loved one and about how to conduct funeral services that are consistent with the truth of the gospel. Both of these elements are important. Pastoral care goes beyond just conducting a funeral service, and yet, funeral services are important because they give people an opportunity to grieve, to remember the life and contributions of the deceased, and to reflect on eternal matters that are often passed over too superficially in our day and culture. Their treatment of this subject is careful, sensitive, and God-honoring. They recognize the complexities that church leaders must grapple with when they are called to minister to individuals, families, and whole communities who have lost someone who was highly esteemed, or sometimes, reviled and hated. They tackle the questions that may arise when children die, or death comes as the result of an accident or disease. They discuss what to do in the event of a suicide, or the deceased is a stranger to the minister conducting the funeral. There are practical suggestions about eulogies, the length of funeral sermons, music, and what to do at the grave site, and pastoral care afterwards, that make the book a must read for anyone who is called to minister in this way. In a day when gospel truth is often jettisoned when it is needed most, Croft and Newton help the Christian minister faithfully serve Christ and the people committed to his care.
Together this series of books need to be read and studied by pastors, church elders, seminary professors and students, and by the Christian community as a whole. There is something here for everyone who is concerned about the entailments of the gospel and its application to shepherding the people of God, visiting the sick, and conducting funerals. Hopefully the modest size of all three volumes will encourage many readers who will be delighted to discover that though small, these books are mighty!
Kirk M. Wellum is Principal of Toronto Baptist Seminary and book review editor for Pastoral Theology here at Books At a Glance.
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Practical Shepherding Series