How to Deepen the Spiritual Life of A Congregation

6197577060_b11c9d1ddc_mAt 26 years of age, Richard Baxter was pastor of a church in Kidderminster, England. It was the 17th century. Upon arrival he found himself in a community of well-to-do, respectable townsmen where the church was not well attended and worship services lacked spiritual warmth.

In response to this state of affairs, he wrote: “The way to save this church and the community is to establish religion in the homes of the people and to build the family altar.” Accordingly he spent three years visiting the people in their homes with the determination to establish a family altar in every home in the community.

Family altar is the simple practice of gathering the members of the family together at a set time each day to read the Bible and pray together. Baxter believed this would be the primary way to renew the spiritual life of the congregation.

Family altar is a historic practice for families deeply committed to the worship of the living God. Three centuries after Baxter, I recall, as a young lad in Saskatchewan, experiencing the energy and worth of family altar. My Mother carried the burden faithfully for this exercise. Family altar was held at the close of the evening meal for one older sister, a younger sister and me. Occasionally our father sat in.

We formed our chairs to face each other in an open part of the kitchen. Mother took down her well used Bible and usually read a whole chapter. Then we sang a portion of a hymn. Mother knew about a half dozen “favorite” hymns by heart so we cycled those six again and again. After the hymn, we knelt at our chairs and Mother prayed. At the close of her earnest prayer we recited the Lord’s Prayer together.

As we children developed proficiency in reading we began to take turns at reading a paragraph or so and offering our own prayers. Sometimes what was read in the Scriptures prompted childhood questions about God or about such basic moral issues as telling the truth or getting along with playmates. Occasionally, if things had gone poorly in family relationships they were corrected. In a nutshell this daily exercise helped to develop a God-consciousness which attends us for life.

Family altar has much more competition today than in my childhood. For us there was no television, iPads, smart phones, or electronic games to commandeer our time and isolate us from one another. Today the very pace of modern life might require a simplified version for family altar, but need not choke the exercise out of existence, and will always require parental diligence.

Like Mother, we see its value and my wife and I continue the practice. At 90 years of age, we sit down in our family room after breakfast each morning and read the Bible, one chapter a day. We discuss what we’ve read and then take time for prayers. As a wholesome breakfast nourishes our mortal bodies family altar gives deep sustenance to the spiritual dimension of life.

God says to us, ”Draw near to me and I will draw near to you” and human wisdom tells us “where there’s a will there’s a way.” For newcomers to the practice, to get family altar started a parent or parents may need to gather the family together and seek agreement that at a certain time each day family life would be enriched by giving a few minutes to this spiritual exercise.

If there are young children and the NIV is the family’s favorite translation it should be used. If not, the New Living Translation is a good useable version, both reliable and readable. For small children the Picture Bible is recommended as a good choice. Whatever version is chosen it is good to make the Bible itself the text for family devotions. It’s the book we hope our children will live with for a lifetime.

Were Richard Baxter’s efforts successful? History reports that his project was so successful that in every home of his congregation there was a family altar, church attendance increased to fill the sanctuary, and public worship went from bland to spiritually warm and deeply nurturing.

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Photo credit: Skara kommun (via flickr.com)

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One thought on “How to Deepen the Spiritual Life of A Congregation

  1. Richard Baxter is well known to me as a famous local, historical figure ,deeply involved in the many great events of the 17th century.I have always had great sympathy for him as a good learned man,modest and moderate in turbulent and divided times.Yet he was very unfairly treated , even persecuted at times.

    In this week’s blog I am very pleased to learn much about him I never knew.I was aware of his many books,well over a hundred , including his great multi – volume Christian Directory of 1673.

    However, I have never read any of them,though I have read in outline some of his theological ideas.This week’s blog has inspired me to make a start on reading some Richard Baxter,perhaps starting with ‘The Reformed Pastor’, which I notice is widely available.

    The life of Richard Baxter,teacher ,poet and hymn writer ,evangelist,theologian and pastor,spanned the English Civil War,the interregnum and the Restoration .He lived to see the final decade of the seventeenth century.

    Fnding his Kidderminster congregation lukewarm ,he sought to inspire greater spiritual warmth in worship, which reminds me of another great English evangelist, to come in the next century – John Wesley

    Like Wesley ,Pastor Richard was ordained into the Anglican church but later banned from preaching in many Anglican churches.Like Wesley,Baxter came to the city I live,Coventry.
    Richard Baxter came to live here and was welcomed to preach.

    Sadly,a century later when John Wesley first came ,from July 21st to July 22nd 1779,he was not so welcomed to preach by the authorities.

    Wesley visited Coventry next on July 15th 1782 and again,for the last time , on July 11th 1786.

    When John Wesley first arrived in my city, on that summers day of 1779,there were Methodist societies in many parts of our nation,and aready a few Methodists in the Foleshill district of our city,Coventry.

    Wesley insisted all Methodist societies were connected to the local Anglican parish church ,especially to take Lord’s Supper. His mission was a great renewal of original primitive Christianity in the catholic spirit of free and joyful union with other Christians.

    In his journal,Wesley recordedfor for July 21st / 22nd, July 1779 –

    ”When I came to Coventry I found that notice had been given for my preaching to take place in the park,but heavy rain prevented this.I went to the Mayor,Edward Harper,desiring use of the Town Hall.He refused but later the same day he gave use of it to a Dancing Master.I then went to the Women’s Market. Many soon gathered together ,and listened with all seriousness.I went there again the next morning and again the next evening.Then I took coach for London” John Wesley’s Journal 1779

    My church is St Michael’s Coventry and next time Wesley came,on July 15,1782 , he preached at 9am in a large school room at the bottom of St Michael’s church yard.

    By his next visit, the Coventry people called Methodist had secured a small auction room in the Women’s Market ,for Wesley to preach.Still the Corporation refused Wesley,an ordained Anglican pastor , our medieval St Mary’s Hall to preach in ,preferring a Dancing Master again !

    Our city dates our Methodist heritage from July 21st 1779 and in 1979 we celebrated our bicentenary of Methodist Fellowship in Coventry.

    Returning to Pastor Richard Baxter,who had a similarly renewing effect on the Christian life of our city ,he taught and pastored throughout the same part of England I live,the West Midlands.He taught at Dudley Grammar School in the Black country,just north of Birmingham and was ordained into the Anglican church here ,leaning toward nonconformism.

    After the parliamentary reform of the clergy he was installed at St Mary and All Saints,
    Kidderminster, in 1641,where he published ‘The Reformed Pastor’.

    He seemed to favour neither side overly , in the Civil War. Kidderminster was Royalist and he was harassed by Cavaliers.He moved to my city,Coventry,a Parliamentary stronghold,where he preached.But he rejected Cromwell’s offer of the chaplaincy to Cromwell’s army, the Ironsides.

    A moderate ,he was not Republican, defending the monarchy from the pulpit.

    Furthermore,in 1660 he helped bring about the Restoration,welcoming King Charles 11 back to reign.

    Pastor Richard wanted to remain in the Anglican church where he would have been a great asset.He sought a comprehensive national church and he wrote a reformed liturgy, but it was rejected.

    In any case,the post Restoration 4th Act of Uniformity of 1562 and the 5th Act of Uniformity ( Explanation ) of 1663, narrowed the doctrines and worship styles of the Anglican church, to a narrow orthodoxy ,excluding all non conformity.

    We never got the comprehensive national church Richard Baxter proposed.

    Only now,with the ecumenical movement different churches and denominations are finally coming together, to worship together in Christian unity.

    In Coventry I was a member of C6,which we are trying to revive.C6 is a group of Christians attached to 6 different churches,meeting in each others houses and churches to worship together and study the Bible.

    The 6 churches comprised an Anglican church,a very high Anglican Anglo – Catholic church,St John’s which has a Confession box & avoids female clergy,a Roman Catholic church,a Baptist church,a Methodist church and a primitive Methodist church.We learned much from each other.

    I’m not sure,but I don’t think Richard Baxter,s projected national church ,in the climate of the seventeenth century,would have been as comprehensive as to include Roman Catholics, but I’m sure it would have embraced nearly all Protestant non conformists.

    Pastor Richard was was a powerful preacher and a well principled man who would have brought England greater Christian unity.

    For his moderation and help bringing the Restoration, he was offered the post of Bishop of Hereford,but refused ,wanting church reform.
    After this he was banned from preaching in the diocese.

    Despite his moderation and his help in bringing about the Restoration of the monarchy, Pastor Baxter was continually persecuted and even imprisoned.His books and goods were seized and he was made to pay surety for good behaviour, for no reason.

    The notorious ‘hanging judge’, Judge Jeffreys sentenced him to a huge fine & imprisonment for his paraphrase on the New Testament.Jeffreys even wanted the elderly evangelical pastor scourged behind a cart.Thankfully, the government remitted the fine and released him.

    Richard Baxter was loved and admired by Anglican churchmen and nonconformists alike.His theology of universal atonement and universal redemption, counter to Calvinist theologies of predestination were very influential.He championed the gospel message that atonement is available to all, not just to a select few,but to all who believe in Christ.

    Anglicans celebrate his feast day on 14 June ,though I believe his feast is celebrated some time in December, in America.

    In the Anglican Common Worship and Book of Common Prayer Lectionary,his day is marked Richard Baxter,Puritan Divine,1691.The pastor presiding at Lord’s Supper on that date,normally gives an address on Richard Baxter’s life and mission at some point during communion.

    This weeks blog has enthused me to learn more of Pastor Baxter’s inspiring ideas of home and family worship.A family altar or prayer space in every home is a wonderful idea.I believe it was taken up by many English families and I have heard the idea spread to New England.

    It’s good to hear that from there ,it must have spread north to devout families in the prairies of Saskatchewan.

    It’s a joy to hear the arrangements for the Bastian family altar, held after the evening meal,in the Prairies.With Bible reading,hymn, then prayer , culminating in the Lord’s prayer.

    This account of a Saskatchewan family altar is valuable social history,showing how a Christian family steadily dew their children into daily Christian life ,in the early to mid twentieth century.

    Perhaps nowadays,with the distractions of television ,recorded music and computer games,where families often spend their leisure, not together,but in separate rooms, isolated and alienated, the family altar is more important than ever.

    With family meal times,family altar could be a precious time families come together daily.

    ” For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:20 NIV.

    What a good idea , at family altar, to use the Bible best understood and enjoyed by the youngest family member,a childrens picture Bible if the youngest is very young.Such children will feel more secure than ever in the safe haven of their family.

    As a child, I always felt most comfortable and secure at Sunday School.To have the Sunday school feeling in one’s own family home must have been very special.

    I feel sure from my interest in social history, that Pastor Richard’s ideas of a home congregation altar were well taken up by families down to Victorian and Edwardian times. Of course, in the century after Pastor Baxter, came John Wesley and the great Christian Revival in England and Wales ,adding to Richard Baxters good influence.

    What happened sometime after the First World War in England,the slow decline in Christian observance and church attendance ,is another story.Perhaps it’s time for another Revival.

    After this blog, I must read Richard Baxter to learn more about his ideas.I know him as a famous person in our history , a West midlands notary. I know him from his uplifting hymn ‘Ye Holy Angels Bright’,beginning –

    ”Ye holy angels bright,
    who wait at God’s right hand,
    or through the realms of light
    fly at your Lord’s command,
    assist our song,
    for else the theme
    too high doth seem
    for mortal tongue.”

    Now Im keen to explore his ideas through his writings,starting with ‘The Reformed Pastor.’

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