The renewed call to gospel-centered discipleship in the last two decades has been extremely helpful in clarifying the purpose of ministry. It has helped center the church on Jesus and the commission he gave us to advance his kingdom. It has helped us return to our basic ministry to make disciples of all nations.
Within this discussion, however, we often forget to emphasize important aspects of pastoral ministry: we miss the calling to walk with men and women to the end of their earthly lives.
Much of the writing and teaching on discipleship seems to focus on those who are younger and healthier. When this is the case, we overlook the great privilege of shepherding those who are almost home. When we enter into a church and seek to disciple those in our care, we must think about discipling every generation.
We put an emphasis on children’s ministry, on youth and young adults, and on multiplying disciples through small groups or other ministries. But we must not forget those who have helped build our churches.
REMEMBERING OUR ELDERS
In many established churches, there is a generation of men and women who have given their lives to show the love of Jesus. They have given generously to reach their community, they have been faithful throughout the years. They need pastors who will love them well and point them to their Savior. Our discipleship of older saints must reach into homes, hospital rooms, nursing facilities, and hospice care.
To be the church God has called us to be, we should not ignore the needs of older disciples in favor of making new disciples. Gospel-centered discipleship does both, and honors those who have made it possible for us to reach our community for Christ. There is a great need for pastors to disciple all who are in our care. We must disciple our people through every stage of their lives, and this includes the end.
How do we disciple men and women in their last days—or even moments—on earth? God gives pastors three specific ministries to help his people finish well.
PRESENCE: THE MINISTRY OF SHOWING UP
There is so much we cannot do for those who are suffering and dying, but we can be there. We can show up. This sounds simplistic, but it is essential to being the pastor God has called us to be and loving those he has entrusted to our care.
We represent the God of all comfort when we enter into the hospital or hospice room. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 1:4, tells us God “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
Simply being there in the room, holding their hand, sitting in silence and lament, and rejoicing in the hope of eternal life can be a great comfort for those who are near the end. Our wider culture wants to ignore and hide the dying, but the church cannot do this.
God has called us to shepherd his people in these last moments. Our presence reminds those we visit of God’s presence. It reminds them he is always there and will never leave nor forsake them.
God doesn’t call us to have all the answers. He calls us to be present. God doesn’t call us to have the right thing to say. He calls us to show up and to show his love.
PRAYER: OUR GREATEST HELP
The work of discipleship can never be separated from the work of prayer. There is no more important work we can undertake. Again, in 2 Corinthians 1, Paul says in verse 11, “You must also help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”
Prayer is the greatest help we can give. It is the beginning of the pastor’s work. Prayer is where we fight for and with our people. It is where we remember they belong to God. And it is where discipleship must begin and end.
As we pray with and for those walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we remind them of the presence and power of God.
Prayer centers hearts back on the will of God and the glory of God even in the midst of great suffering, despair, and confusion. Prayer reminds us of the sovereignty of God and the goodness of God to hear the cries of his people. Prayer can help the hearts of those we pastor remember the one who knows all of their days, and who will be with them through the end of their life here and into their new life forever in his presence.
Sometimes we act as if praying is something we do when we run out of every other option. The truth is, prayer is the most important thing we do to help those we pastor finish well.
PROCLAMATION: SHARING HOPE
It is not our responsibility as pastors to know every plan and purpose of God. It is not our job to know exactly why God allows men and women to suffer through their afflictions and trials. But it is our job to proclaim the hope of the Gospel.
As we pastor men and women towards the end of their lives, we must proclaim the hope of Jesus, the promises of God, and the good news of eternal redemption and restoration.
Read elderly and dying saints passages of Scripture like Psalm 23, Romans 8, John 10, 2 Corinthians 4, and Revelation 21. When you don’t have the words, read the Word.
Remind them of God’s faithfulness, care, and love. Remind them “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Phil. 1:6).
Our people need more than our opinions. They need the strong foundation of gospel hope that sustains us until glory. Proclaim the hope of faith in Jesus. Proclaim the light of the gospel of God.
WALKING SAINTS INTO GLORY
It is a privilege to walk with saints to the end of their life. There has been no greater honor in my nine years as a pastor than to be present in these last moments, to pray with and for these precious men and women, and to proclaim the only hope that sustains and lasts through the end of their earthly life.
Discipleship is not just for those who are young. Our calling is not just for those who can physically come to church. We are called to shepherd and to disciple all God has entrusted to us.
Pastors, we must think more clearly and compassionately about how we will love those who are near the end, and how we can help disciple them up to the moment they see Jesus. There is so much outside of our control in those moments, but what we can do—what we must do—is be present, pray, and proclaim the hope of the Gospel.
Zac Harrel is pastor of First Baptist Church in Gustine, TX. He is husband to Shandra and daddy to Evahlyn and Jameson. You can find him on Twitter @ZHarrel.