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Jeffrey T. Riddle

Richard Baxter and the Multi-Site Movement

By Jeffrey T. Riddle


What hath Richard Baxter to do with the multi-site church movement? 

Upon re-reading Baxter's The Reformed Pastor, a classic work on pastoral ministry, I discovered that many of Baxter's insights into pastoral leadership serve as a relevant caution to the multi-site movement. Ours is not the first generation of elders and pastors to face the pastoral challenges the movement raises.

Baxter helps us to stop and consider how a pastor can oversee souls with integrity and excellence. He helps us think about how a pastor can both help his people grow deeper and the church's reach grow wider.

The Multi-Site Movement makes its own assumptions about such matters.[1] It suggests that one congregation can meet in many places, and that one body of leaders (or even just one preaching pastor) can govern and care for many flocks.[2] Can it?


Richard Baxter was a Puritan pastor and prodigious author who lived from 1615 to 1691. J. I. Packer describes Baxter as “the most outstanding pastor, evangelist and writer on practical and devotional themes that Puritanism produced.”[3] Baxter served as pastor of the congregation at Kidderminster from 1647-61.

Concerning his time in Kidderminster, Baxter would write that “there was about one family in a street that worshipped God and called on his name” upon his arrival; whereas “when I came away there was not past one family in the side of a street that did not do so.”[4] Baxter promoted a vigorous and personal pastoral ministry among his flock. He regularly visited them in their homes and personally catechized whole households until he was ejected from the Church of England in 1662 because of the Act of Uniformity. Though he would continue his preaching ministry, he would never again have pastoral charge over a congregation.

Baxter's most important literary legacy is The Reformed Pastor.[5] The word “reformed” here doesn't mean Calvinistic, but “renewed in practice,” as J. I. Packer points out. Baxter believed that “all churches either rise or fall as the ministry doth rise or fall.”[6]  To help keep the ministry from falling, the Reformed Pastor presents an extended exposition of Acts 20:28: “Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”


Baxter's Reformed Pastor becomes quickly relevant for evaluating the multi-site movement when we consider “what is it to take heed to all the flock”[7]. He begins with two straightforward assertions.

Every Flock with a Pastor, and Pastor for Every Flock

First, “every flock should have its own pastor, and every pastor his own flock.”[8]

Just as a regiment of soldiers ought to know its captain and officers, so every church should know its leaders. Baxter boldly argues that “it is the will of God, that every church should have its own pastor, and that all Christ's disciples ‘should know their teachers that are over them in the Lord.'”[9]

Though a pastor has a universal charge to do ministry, he also must have a special obligation to a particular congregation. Thus, Baxter tells pastors, “we have restrained the exercise of our gifts so specially to that congregation, that we must allow others no more than it can spare of our time and help, except where the public good requireth it.”[10]

We Must Be Able to Give Heed to All the Flock

Second, “flocks must ordinarily be no greater than we are capable of overseeing, or ‘taking heed to.'”[11] 

This assertion has surely been forsaken in the contemporary mega-church model. Baxter explains:

If the pastoral office consists in overseeing all the flock, then surely the number of souls under the care of each pastor must not be greater than he is able to take such heed to as is here required. Will God require one bishop to take charge of a whole country, or of so many parishes or thousands of souls, as he is not able to know or to oversee?[12]

One can hear now those in large and multi-campus churches protesting that, although their mega-church has only one charismatic senior pastor who preaches and casts the church's vision, there are also multiple staff members and elders under him who oversee the pastoral needs of the flock. Baxter anticipated this objection:  “But it may be said, there are others to teach, though only one may have the rule.”[13] His answer:

But is not government of great concernment to the good of souls, as well as preaching? If it be not, then what use is there for church governors? If it be, then they that nullify it by undertaking impossibilities, do go about to ruin the churches and themselves. If only preaching be necessary, let us have none but mere preachers:  what needs there then such stir about government? But if discipline, in its place, be necessary too, what is it but enmity to men's salvation to exclude it? And it is unavoidably excluded, when it is made to be his work that is naturally incapable of performing it.[14]

Baxter's point is that we cannot separate the ministry of preaching from the ministry of personal oversight. It is not enough to preach to the people. The pastor must also know the people so that he can govern them and exercise formative discipline in their lives. He cannot preach to a room full of strangers! A pastor cannot take conscientious charge over the spiritual care of a large congregation in which he does not intimately know his people any more than a physician can take care of all the sick people “in a whole nation, or country, when he is not able to visit the hundredth man of them.”[15]

Is this viewpoint impractical for a growing and vibrant church? Baxter admits that only “in case of necessity, where there are not more to be had, one man may undertake the charge of more souls than he is able to oversee particularly. But then he must undertake only to do what he can for them, and not to do all that a pastor ordinarily ought to do.”[16] He even acknowledges this to be his own situation in Kidderminster. He confides that the only thing that satisfied his conscience was knowing, “I must rather do what I can, than leave all undone because I cannot do all.”[17]

Indeed, there are some pastors in this situation. Their churches are the only biblically faithful congregations serving a large population area. Such pastors must allow more people into their churches than they can personally oversee until others churches led by qualified pastors are planted or arise. This, however, is an exception and not a rule. Baxter exults: “O happy Church of Christ, were the labourers but able and faithful, and proportioned to the number of souls; so that the pastors were so many, or the particular churches so small, that we might be able to ‘take heed to all the flock.'”[18]


Having asserted these two principles, Baxter turns to emphasizing the importance of knowing the flock. Baxter charges, “To this end it is necessary, that we should know every person that belongeth to our charge; for how can we take heed to them, if we do not know them?”[19]

By “knowing them,” Baxter does not have in mind just knowing names and profession. The pastor must know peoples' spiritual state, what they talk about, what spiritual duties they are most likely to neglect, and what temptations are most likely to snare them.

Good Comparisons, Bad Comparisons

To make this point, he again employs the comparison between a pastor and medical doctor: “for if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians.”[20] Who among us, when concerned about his health, would prefer visiting a doctor who spoke to him on a screen rather than see a practitioner who could examine him personally?

Baxter also compares the minister of the gospel to a shepherd, a school teacher, and a military commander:

Doth not a careful shepherd look after every individual sheep? And a good school master over every individual scholar? And a good physician after every particular patient? And a good commander after every individual soldier? Why then should not the shepherds, the teachers, the physicians, the guides of the church of Christ, take heed to every individual member of their charge?[21]

Notice that with all these comparisons, Baxter does not compare the pastor to a businessman or a corporate executive seeking to franchise a product or even a distant “rancher.”  No, the pastor must be a shepherd, one who tends each lamb individually.

Baxter also draws on biblical examples to prove his point that a pastor must know his flock. Christ is the Good Shepherd that “doth yet take care of every individual.” The prophets “were often sent to single men” as “Ezekiel was made a watchman over individuals.” And Paul taught “from house to house.”[22] Furthermore, he argues that in the primitive church “it was then considered a duty to look after every member of the flock by name, not excepting the meanest servant or maid.”[23]

What If the Congregation Is Too Large?

But what if someone says, “The congregation that I am set over is so great that it is impossible for me to know them all, much more to take heed to all individually.”[24] In response, Baxter challenges the objector's motives. Was this charge really thrust upon him, or did he desire and orchestrate it? Did he know he was getting in over his head?

At the least, Baxter urges such a man to seek a pastoral assistant for the congregation. He should do this even if the assistant's salary might be secured by reducing his own!  Baxter challenges:  “Can your parishioners better endure damnation, than you can endure poverty and want?”[25]

Such a pastoral assistant Baxter is not just a “small group leader” or “campus pastor,” but a man who comes alongside to aid the pastor in his exercise of personal ministry. Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson describe how Baxter “catechized church members two days a week. He went from home to home with an assistant, speaking with each family for one hour and providing each family with an edifying book or two, usually written by himself.”[26] Baxter's assistant joined him in such work.

Individual care must be given, because the eternal destinies of men and women are at stake: “O sirs, it is a miserable thing when men study and talk of heaven and hell, and the fewness of the saved, and the difficulty of salvation, and be not all the while in good earnest.”[27] Besides the eternal destinies of his congregation, a pastor should give greater heed to his own. They are men who “must give account” (Heb 13:17) and who “shall receive the greater condemnation” (James 3:1).


Baxter's thoughtful reflections on the nature of pastoral ministry should give us pause before adopting a multi-site church model. Will the pastor be able to offer genuine spiritual oversight to the people? Will he know his people well enough to be able to pray for them? He cannot merely delegate pastoral care or primary preaching to others.

Above all, Baxter hammers home the seriousness of the spiritual task of preaching the gospel with which pastors are entrusted:

It is no small matter to stand up in the face of the congregation, and to deliver a message of salvation or damnation, as from the living God, in the name of the Redeemer. It is no easy matter to speak so plainly, that the most ignorant may understand us; and so seriously that the deadest hearts may feel us; and so convincingly, that the contradicting cavillers may be silenced.[28]

This earnest preaching of the gospel must be connected to the pastor's personal relationship with his people. Baxter explains: “When the people see that you unfeignedly love them, they will hear anything and bear any thing from you.”[29]

He continues:  “Let them see that you spend, and are spent, for their sakes; and that all you do is for them, and not for any private ends of your own.”[30]

The greatest spiritual danger of large, impersonal churches, including those that try to be “one church meeting in multiple locations,” is that they undermine the ability of God's man truly to shepherd a particular and defined body of believers. This is what Richard Baxter teaches us centuries before the church growth movement appeared on the evangelical scene.

Jeff Riddle is the pastor of Jefferson Park Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.

For a description of this movement and an argument for its adoption, see Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon, and Warren Bird, The Multi-Site Church Revolution (Zondervan, 2006).
2 Ibid., p. 18.
3 J. I. Packer, “Introduction” to The Reformed Pastor (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 9.
4 Ibid., p. 12.
5 All references will be taken from Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Banner of Truth, 1974).  This is the most widely available version of the work in the popular “Puritan Paperbacks” series.  The book was originally published in 1656.  The Banner of Truth edition is based on an abridged edition of 1829. 
6 Packer, p. 14.
7 Ibid., p. 87.
8 Ibid., p. 88.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid., p. 89.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid, p. 90.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid., p. 91.
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid., p. 92.
26 Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans (Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), p. 63.
27 The Reformed Pastor, p. 92.
28 Ibid., p. 117.
29 Ibid., p. 118.
30 Ibid.


May/June 2009
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