Visiting the Congregation in Their Homes
I received a number of responses from the electronic Ethos last week about how some pastors wish that young seminarians would think more seriously about working in a small congregation, learn to know the people personally and intimately, and visit them in their home. When the apostle Paul was bidding farewell to the Ephesians Elders he reminded them that he did not shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God to them (Acts 20:27). Before he told them that, however, he pointed out that there was something else from which he did not shrink: “…I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house…” (20:20).
Teaching the faith is not an either/or proposition but rather a both/and one. One of the major problems that faces the modern Church today is that it has been fed a steady diet of public entertainment at the expense of the true preaching of the Word and a blatant neglect of visiting the “lambs” in their homes; from house to house. In terms of the latest and greatest CEO-like strategy, home visitation is rather low on the totem pole, or to change the analogy, not even on the radar. Home visitations seem so…well, unglamorous; uncool, unless of course you’re going to talk to someone who might be able to help your church financially. But as we shall see, home visits are not for the purpose of sucking up to someone that you believe might write a big check.
The Jewish talk radio host, Dennis Prager, once said, “One thing I noticed about Evangelicals is that they do not read. They do not read the Bible, they do not read the great Christian thinkers…. When I walk into an Evangelical Christian’s home and see a total of 30 books, most of them best-sellers, I do not understand. I have bookcases of Christian books, and I am a Jew. Why do I have more Christian books than 98 percent of the Christians in America?” Apart from the fact that merely having the Christian books has not caused Prager to convert to the Christian faith from Judaism, he does make a valid point.
I want to take this a step further and add that not only the run of the mill, garden variety Christians don’t read great Christian thinkers much anymore but I would also add that a number of seminary students don’t either. For example, I simply cannot fathom how a seminary student can complete a seminary curriculum without Greek, Hebrew, Systematic Theology, Church History, Ethics, and a rock solid Preaching classes. (I could add Practical Theology to that, but I’m still trying to discern who it is that teaches Impractical Theology.) In truth, seminaries should add a course called “Poimenics” which derives from the Greek word for “to shepherd” or “to pastor.”
As often as not, however, a number of seminaries and seminarians are not studying the classics. Adjunct professors of the variety of Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Bobby “God-Loves-You-and-so-do-I” Schuler, and Brian McLaren are brought in to instruct the students in how to be cutting edge and how to build a mega-church. One can only wonder—but not for long—if any of the above-mentioned “Christian celebrities” have read many—if any—of the Christian classics, but we do know that they certainly have gathered quite a few Christian groupies around them.
Let me refresh our memories about the importance of home visits given to us in what is surely a Christian classic: Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor. Two things are noteworthy: First, Baxter says, “When we are commanded to take heed to all the flock, it is plainly implied, that flocks must ordinarily be no greater than we are capable of overseeing, or ‘taking heed to.’ God will not lay upon us natural impossibilities: he will not bind men to leap up to the moon, to touch the stars, or to number the sands of the sea.” Poor Rick Warren and Joel Osteen; they must be famished from visiting all the folks that show up on Sunday! But what about the pastor who has a smaller congregation and does not visit his flock regularly? Baxter’s words should be indicting if we are not visiting all those in our congregations.
Second, Baxter continues, “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.” Look, we all understand that where there is more than one pastor and with a working Eldership a great deal of what Baxter is talking about can be done even within a larger congregation. It simply takes some organization and practically dividing the congregation into “shepherding groups” under the oversight of an Elder. But the point is this: once that is done, the flock needs to be visited and there are times when the “lamb” needs a spiritual visit from his or her pastor in addition to the visit from him shepherding Elder.
A couple of times in the above quotations we’ve observed Baxter using the word “all” in connection with the flock. That was intentional on his part. He writes, “It is, you see, all the flock, or every individual member of our charge. To this end it is necessary, that we should know every person that belongs to our charge; for how can we take heed to them, if we do not know them?” To parody R.C. Sproul, “Now that’s a good question.” In actuality, this is just common sense, isn’t it? When I was a tank commander, I knew every man in my platoon by name. I knew where he was from; I knew his family background; I knew when his birthday was; and if he were married I knew when his anniversary was. I did all of this as a non-Christian. How much more should we as pastors/Elders know those that God has entrusted into your care?
So What Should a Home Visit Look Like?
Let’s take the rest of the time allowed in this issue and ask about the nuts and bolts issue of a home visit. What are some of the essential steps that should be taken in such a visit?
First, the visit should be prepared for by prayer. It’s one thing to rush into the visit in order to get it done, over, and checked off of our “to do” list; it’s quite another thing to prepare for this spiritual exercise by exercising ourselves spiritually.
Second, the visit should be done in pairs. Sometimes there are surprises that occur during visits and corroboration might be needed. I rarely visit members alone; especially pastors/Elders should not visit married or single women alone. This is a recipe for problems.
Third, there should be a theme and/or a specific Bible text for each visit. At Grace, we work with yearly themes. For 2006 it was “Equipping the Saints for Ministry and Service.” For 2007 it will be “Conformed to the Image of Christ.” Select appropriate texts that deal with the theme and incorporate them in the home visit.
Fourth, open the home visitation meeting with prayer and Scripture reading. This sets the tone for what will be discussed the remainder of the time. Be cordial, relaxed, and natural during the visit. It should not be contrived. You are there as an office bearer in a true congregation of Jesus Christ who has been tasked with the spiritual oversight of this family coming to talk about faith.
Fifth, if there are small(er) children in the family make certain that they are included in the first part of the visit. Talk to them and ask them questions. This is a good time to inquire about their catechism instruction at home. If they are not being catechized, have some copies of an age-appropriate catechism with you and give it to the children. After a while, they should be allowed to be dismissed.
Sixth, ask probing questions. Inquire about the person’s or couple’s Bible reading and prayer life. Don’t let them get away by saying something like, “It should be better.” Ask questions that will allow them and yourself to come to a realistic understanding of what their spiritual condition is. If they tell you that they read Scripture regularly ask them what verse or verses has spoken to them in a particular manner lately. Ask the couple if they read together; pray together; and catechize the children together.
Seventh, ask how you can pray for them—specifically. Let them know that they are important to you and you want to be in prayer for them because you care for them.
Eighth, don’t overstay the visit. Once you have come to a point to close the visit do so. It would be appropriate to ask your fellow-Elder to close the time in prayer.In our next installment, we’ll take a look at visits in hospitals and nursing homes. Both of these are a little unique and require some extra preparation. Some pastors neglect both of these types of visits, but they are essential parts of the pastoral ministry. Quite often—except for the birth of a child—one of your “lambs” is in the hospital for a serious reason and they very much need a visit by you and/or a fellow-Elder. Nursing homes present some unique opportunities in that so many of the people there never receive a visit from anyone. More on this next time, Lord willing.