Church leaders engage in a variety of types of “visitation.” Evangelistic visitation focuses on persons outside the congregation and seeks to draw them in. Pastoral visitation focuses on those who have some personal need or problem with which the pastor can help. Family visitation takes in all the members of the congregation, is carried out by all the elders, and does not wait for some pressing need to arise.

The denomination in which I serve requires that “the minister of the Word and elders shall conduct annual home visitation.…” In this it stands in the tradition of historic Christianity. In the early Church there was a conviction that the preaching of the Word should be supplemented with a type of spiritual care in which the members were contacted personally in their homes. Gradually a new view made headway: the sacraments were considered the primary way in which the Church dispensed grace to the faithful. But at the time of the Protestant Reformation there was a determination to return to a more meaningful pastoral ministry. John Calvin, along with others, broke with the system of the confessional and returned to the previous practice of visiting church members in their homes in order to exhort and stimulate them to spiritual growth.

Here are five of the benefits our church has found in a program of family visitation:

1. An atmosphere of supportive Christian concern is created. Although the Scriptures speak very clearly and frequently about the personal caring that should be exercised within a Christian church, in our impersonal society much of that caring does not come through. “I’m a lonely nobody!” is a cry that comes from many even within the church. This loneliness is enhanced by the mobility that marks our society. It is the responsibility of the Church to step in with warm pastoral care. It should create an atmosphere of fellowship in which each family can feel the supportive Christian concern the Church needs to function as the Body of Christ.

2. Problems can be detected before they become serious. No person or marriage or family is immune to the pressures and stresses of life in our world. If people are not part of a supportive and caring fellowship, they may not feel free to seek the help and encouragement they need when the stresses come. So the problems are buried for a while, only to reappear later, probably in a more critical form.

People often feel that their problems are not serious enough to need special attention, or perhaps are shy about asking for help; but if caring officers of the church visit them in their homes they may find it much easier to reach out for the help they need.

3. People are visited in their own surroundings. Often pastoral visitation or counseling is carried on in a “neutral” place such as a hospital room or a counselor’s office. That has the disadvantage of leaving behind the feelings and spirit of the home. To visit a family at home is to communicate with them in the context of their needs and feelings. The visitor may be able to help a family develop communication. Especially in a Christian family, members should feel a freedom and comfort in communicating with one another about matters that concern, irritate, and inspire them. Church officers, when they announce their visit ahead of time and indicate their concern for the welfare of the family, can be a healthful influence in stimulating family discussion.

4. Sustained contact with families and individuals is provided. Most problems and disorders do not appear overnight. And they often cannot be easily spotted in their early stages. If the same officers visit a family for several years and keep adequate records, they can encourage and help the family on the basis of long-term knowledge.

5. A large number of church leaders can be involved in the pastoral task. When most churches were small and in rural communities, the pastor was expected to maintain a great deal of social contact with all the members of the congregation. It was assumed that part of his calling was to have coffee in nearly every home regularly. But as congregations increased in size and became geographically diffuse and as the program of the church became more complex and diversified, this pattern became an impossibility. Therefore, the practice of regular family visitation really calls for a team ministry of pastor and elders.

The Scripture portrays church officers as “undershepherds” when it speaks of them in Hebrews 13:17 as those who “watch for your souls” and tells them in First Peter 5:2 to “tend the flock of God.” Elders are to function as representatives of the Chief Shepherd.

But they need training. Persons are often chosen and installed in office in the church with no training or orientation. They need information on matters of church government, but they also need some training in leadership and in understanding and helping others. Such training should be an ongoing process in a church.

A family visit is likely to be unproductive if the family has had no advance notice of the visit and its purpose. The church might well send an instructive letter to the family shortly before the visit, expressing the church’s concern for the members of the family, reviewing the general purpose of family visitation, suggesting that all the members be present, if possible, and giving some indication of the kinds of matters they might like to discuss. Confidential matters could be reserved for a more private appointment.

The visit at one home may follow quite a different format than that at the next home. In some there will be no difficulty in turning the conversation to substantial matters; in others it might be advisable, after initial friendly conversation, for the visitor to direct the conversation by suggesting the reading of a few verses of Scripture and a prayer for guidance.

A spirit of loving and supportive personal concern should always be shown. Sometimes it will take the form of interest in the home, relatives, jobs, and the like. Other times it will take the form of comfort in distress, or advice about impending decisions, or perhaps warnings about potentially dangerous trends evident in the lives of family members. When specific needs are raised, the officers should always be ready to offer the services of the church and to emphasize that members of Christ’s body stand ready to rejoice together and weep together. Still another element of the visit might be an inquiry about the effectiveness of the church’s ministry to this family, which could well lead to an evaluation of the church’s ministry as a whole.

The benefits of family visitation are potentially so great that the program is worth all the time and effort it demands.

—HOWARD VANDERWELL, pastor,

Bethel Christian Reformed Church,

Lansing, Illinois.

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