For ministers called into God’s pastoral service, discerning the call of God can be devastatingly hard. Life goals may change, income levels may plummet, and those pursuing the pastorate may themselves need pastoral counsel and wisdom. For these reasons and more, following God’s call to ministry should not be a time of isolation and introspection, but a time of evaluated service in the local church. This ecclesial affirmation is known as the “external call,” and it is the passion and subject of Brian Croft’s book, Test, Train, Affirm, and Send Into Ministry: Recovering the Local Church’s Responsibility in the External Call.
Brian Croft pastors Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. The church he serves is a good model for church renewal, and as his book indicates, he has committed from the beginning to building into the lives of the aspiring ministers God has brought into his fold. Thus, he is in a good position to write a book on this subject, and as my own interactions with Brian have taught me, his shepherd’s heart is worthy of imitation.
Brian Croft begins his book by setting the pastoral office in the framework of redemptive history. Like a miniature version of Timothy Laniak’s Shepherds After My Own Heart, Croft traces the biblical idea of shepherding from Creation to New Creation. He develops the idea of the good shepherd as Israel grows in the Old Testament and as Christ comes to lay down his life for his sheep in the New. This is the pastor’s call, to shepherd the flock of God under the authority of the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1–4). It is no light thing, and Croft begins with a biblical theology of shepherding to show how important the call of the shepherd is.
After setting the context, chapters two to six ask a series of questions. First, Croft asks, “Who is responsible for the external call?” He answers first in the negative: It is not seminaries, parachurch organizations, or individual Christians who are authorized to make the external call; it is, by God’s design, the church. Croft grounds his answer in Scripture, appealing to Acts 13 and the call of Saul and Barnabas. Using that descriptive model, he crafts his four-fold pattern for the external call-testing, training, affirming, and sending out (33–37).
The next question Croft answers is, “Who should receive the external call?” He exposits 1 Timothy 3 and gives solid advice on the kind of man who is qualified for ministry. The man should be converted, desirous of the work, above reproach, and actively involved in a local church. This again assumes a local church context for this external call.
Then in chapter three, “Who gives the external call?” This is an important question that presses churches to be Word-driven assemblies, led by qualified shepherds, that are willing to discipline their members. In short, churches must be moving towards “church health” if they are going to ably participate in sending God-called men into ministry. On this note, Croft makes an excellent point that if churches are unwilling to follow through with church discipline, they are unprepared to make the external call, because the affirmation of a young man into ministry means nothing if that church is uwilling to deny some men from ministry who are unqualified (57).
Next, Brian Croft asks, “How should we proceed with the external call?” Croft details how churches can help men pursue ministry, and it is not based around a bookish curriculum. Rather, it is the intentional leadership of seasoned ministers showing ministerial trainees the daily duties of pastoral ministry. Hospital visits, discipleship to new Christians, and occasional preaching are some of the ways Croft suggests qualified men may gain training and opportunities for godly evaluation and counsel.
Finally, Croft inquires, “What is at stake with external call?” This question drives the whole book, because Croft’s premise is that contemporary churches have ignored the biblical mandate to “call out the called” and thus need to ‘recover’ this sacred act. In short, the glory of Christ and his church is what is at stake. If churches do not recapture the responsibility of testing, training, affirming, and sending, it will have harmful effects on the lives of individual Christians; it will produce undisciplined, anemic churches; and it will lead to further doctrinal deficits. Sadly, these trends are ever-present today, in part, as the result of unconcern for the external call.
In conclusion, Croft paints a true-to-life picture of a seminary student and his experience in the kind of training program Croft describes. It is a wonderful model for ministerial training. If only every minister would be so fortunate, if only every church would be so committed, and if only every budding seminarian would realize that ministry is more than mastering theological jargon and acing the test.
Assessment and Use
Pastors should read Test, Train, Affirm, and Send Into Ministry as a challenge and a guide to developing young men in their ministries. Aspiring ministers should read it as a roadmap for what they should look for in preparing for ministry. And para-church ministers would do well to read it because it will challenge them to be more church-oriented.
With that said, I must admit that Croft’s book requires a healthy dose of ecclesiology to benefit from its pages. That is to say, it is intermediate reading in the life of the church-not because the content is hard to understand, but because the concepts are so uncommon today. Croft’s argument assumes that his audience already agrees with him about healthy churches and the need to disciple others.
Two books that might serve as primers and that Croft’s book depends on-explicitly for the first and implicitly for the second-are Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and Robert Coleman’s The Master Plan of Evangelism. In these two books, readers can find the prerequisite principles that undergird much of Croft’s book.
This critique is not to demean Croft’s book in the slightest. His book is desperately needed. Where else can you find a contemporary author who has devoted 100 pages to the subject of the external call? Yet his message may not be as readily received (or understood) by those who are “born again” and raised in a parachurch ministry and who have not come to grips with the centrality of God’s plan for the church. Thus, in recommending this book to others, make sure that they have a good ecclesiology and understand the disciple-making work of the ministry in the context of the local church. If they do, they will benefit greatly from this book. If not, have them read the books mentioned above, and then to read Croft’s book.
Overall, Test, Train, Affirm, and Send Into Ministry is a helpful, biblical exposition on the subject of discerning God’s call in the lives of budding pastors. Croft’s writing style is easy to follow and solidly committed to Scripture. It is a book well worth your time. May God use this book to catalyze generations of pastors who take seriously the mandate to test, train, affirm, and send into ministry, just like it was done in Antioch (Acts 13:1–3).