Diaconal Home Visits The deacons task of visiting the church members
For more than ten years we have been making diaconal home visits within our church. On a few occasions I had the privilege of accompanying a deacon on such a visit. Our first question was consistently, “Do you find it strange that the deacons have come to visit you at home?” Almost without exception, the answer was affirmative: “Yes!” Of course you find it odd that deacons come to visit when nothing is the matter, because you think — and that’s how you were taught — that deacons only come to visit when there is an emergency. But nothing could be further from the truth. For about thirty years now, diaconal home visits have meant that deacons go on home visits to all church members without immediate cause.
In our churches — as far as I could tell — the diaconal home visit was first discussed in 1965. Deputies of ADMA1advocated this for the first time in their Diaconal Guide of March 1965. In 1983, this concept even got an official tinge, when a question about diaconal home visits was included in the form for church visitations.2You would expect that by now the custom would gradually have become embedded in the churches. Yet this is not the case. It is still like a tender greenhouse plant, requiring a lot of care. It is true that in more and more churches, deacons are making these visits. But I still encounter great hesitation when it comes to diaconal home visits. We have been brought up for centuries with the idea that deacons only visit homes in order to relieve poverty.
In diaconal work you have to take into account an almost continuous backwardness when it comes to people’s diaconal awareness. I fear that it will take some time before the broader diaconal task description is commonly known. Until then, a deacon on a home visit will face certain obstacles, with reactions such as, “We have no financial problems!” While many people consider it normal that elders go on home visits, a diaconal home visit is often thought unusual or even strange.
What a Diaconal Home Visit Entails
What exactly is a diaconal home visit? As has been noted earlier: deacons have long been known to go on visits. Our Church Order identifies a limited target group: to visit the afflicted (Art. 25 CO).3We have seen something of a shift in the 1960s. In recent decades there has been a stronger emphasis on the spiritual gifts of every believer. All attention was given to the question as to what the members are doing. It is against this background that people started thinking about “the church diaconate.” With this is meant that Christ wants all believers to be involved in diaconal service to each other and to all. You can well imagine that members of the church will need to be equipped for their diaconal service.
The diaconal home visit came about as a result of the emphasis on the diaconal office of all believers. The diaconal church and the diaconal home visit are closely related. The one requires the other. Thus you don’t make diaconal home visits only to a selected group within the church, but rather to all the church members. It is not their neediness, but the calling that they have as believers to diaconal service that occasions the visit.
Deacons visit all members at their homes. You could say that the church service is the centre of diaconal ministry. That is where the diaconal service of the church members has its starting point. Proclamation, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, collection, singing — these all have pre-eminently diaconal aspects. Christ serves the church in these things, the church receives its diaconal task in the church service, and the church begins its diaconal service there where the people are assembled. Blessed, among other things with the gifts and commission of Christ, the members leave the church service to continue their ministry. The diaconal ministry is addressed in a very general way in the church assembly. With a more individual focus, the deacons now visit members at their homes to discuss the personal accents of the diaconal service of these members and their families. The diaconal home visit seeks to equip all members for their diaconal ministry in the church and in the world.
Next to their liturgical service, I consider this diaconal home visit the most important task of deacons as office-bearers.
Motives for Diaconal Home Visits
The various motives for diaconal home visits combine in this one main objective: the personal equipping of members by the deacon at their homes. The deacon should know his members in order to equip them appropriately. This question is more pressing than ever because of the mobility of church members. How can you get to know your members better than during a visit and conversation at home? In this way one gets to know the special gifts of those members, but also their special questions. Through diaconal home visits, trust is established between the deacon and church members. The diaconal home visit is in itself already an act of service of the deacon to these members, as he is building at a relationship. But he also helps them to carry out their diaconal task. There is a need for support in the diaconal service that the members are already performing. You map out what help is needed, and what kind of help these members themselves can provide. The members also need to receive certain information about diaconal matters from the deacon; and in turn the members can inform the deacon of diaconal matters that have come under their attention. In this way all kinds of obstacles to diaconal ministry can be removed through diaconal home visits. This is how the deacons can appeal to, encourage, and equip the whole church toward diaconal ministry. The treasure that was received at the church service is now put to specific uses at home.
Elder and Deacon: Separate or Together?
It is generally expected that a minister and an elder will make home visits. But the same expectation is not commonly held of deacons! The question “Why is this needed?” forces us to reflect more about the relation between elders and deacons. It is also fairly common for elders and deacons to go on house visits together. Often the question is asked, “Is that proper?” Allow me to say right up front that in principle I cannot think of any argument against it. However, in current practice I am not in favour of a joint visit. I do not know of any scriptural argument that makes a joint home visit impossible. In the church of Christ, the ministry that goes out from Christ through the work of the elder and the deacon is a unified ministry. We receive the ministry of our one Saviour; the gifts come from the same Spirit; the ministries are both focused on the upbuilding of the church. Word and deed, the material and the spiritual, belong together. The New Testament uses the same word for these different types of ministries: diakonia. My point is that we are to take up seriously the calling and the duties of office-bearers. Christ has given an elder a task as elder, and a deacon a task as deacon. Brothers with gifts given by God have been proposed by the consistory, designated by the church, and ordained in a distinct office for a specific task. Of course, the deacon and the elder can go on a home visit together, but then the elder should go as an elder and the deacon as a deacon. Having said that, we should realize that diaconal awareness is not well established yet. Therefore, in my opinion, joint home visits can only be made where the deacon is strongly grounded in his diaconal office; where the elder has developed some diaconal insight; and where the ideal of a ‘diaconal church’ is alive among church members. Unfortunately, I have to conclude that these three conditions are not currently being met. If deacons want to aim for diaconal equipment through their home visits, then in general I still think it is necessary for deacons to make their own visits.
The Content of the Diaconal Home Visit
The diaconal home visit seeks to equip the church for its diaconal task. This determines the content of the visit. And this can be very broad: as broad as the diaconal task in all of its branches and facets. The form for ordination mentions, among other things, the deacon’s task of encouraging the church to show mercy to their neighbours. On a diaconal home visit one does not easily get done talking about this: the diaconal aspect of the Christian life.
I have noticed time and again that people find it difficult to imagine the content of a diaconal home visit. I have prepared a memo for the deacons of our church with questions to use during their visits.4I will mention a number of specific topics for discussion:
- as deacons you give information to the members about the diaconate in general and about the work of the deacons;
- you call on the members to participate in diaconal work inside and outside the church; this is how you search for gifts that might benefit the diaconal work that is ongoing or that is going to be started with;
- you call on members to support others in the church and ask whether they themselves receive support;
- you ask whether people are aware of diaconal needs: in the neighbourhood, in the church and in society;
- you discuss the employment of the family members; whether they experience their jobs as a way of serving in Christ; any concerns about work or the lack of work should also not go unmentioned;
- you address issues of stewardship; whether people are prepared to give something out of their abundance; whether someone can find a way of helping others financially; or, for instance, whether someone can see and find a godly way of dealing with environmental issues;
- you ask the young people about their educational and career choices; their diaconal ministry to young people; the diaconal needs that they identify among younger and older people;
- you remind the members of the hospitality that should characterize God’s children; discuss ways of opening one’s door for foreigners, asylum seekers, new members, people in need, child adoption;
- you inquire about the situation of this family; to possibly uncover hidden concerns, loneliness, challenges with raising the children, marriage difficulties;
- together you read what the Bible says about diaconal service done out of love for Christ;
- you come together to pray for the needs of each other and everyone.
In other words: whatever is a diaconal need in God’s eyes, and in whatever way Christ guides us towards diaconal service, can be the subject of conversation in a diaconal home visit. It is not as if there is any lack of topics. The concern is rather: how do I bring an end to the conversation?
Precisely because there are certain obstacles to diaconal home visits, it is necessary to do this work in a manner that is purposeful and well prepared. We have had a diaconal information pamphlet in our church for some time. One side of the pamphlet shows how the diaconate functions during the church service, especially in the Lord’s supper, intercession, collections and preaching. On the other side of it you can literally see what our diaconal service looks like during the week: the work of visiting, helping in broken relationships, financial support both inside and outside of our country, and world diaconate. Some discussion questions are also listed in the pamphlet. The pamphlet is handed out when a diaconal home visit is arranged. It informs the family in advance about the purpose of the visit and can serve quite well as a guideline for the conversation. The pamphlet with its list of diaconal themes guides the deacons and the members through the diaconal work of the church.
Before the first round of visits, much effort should be put into equipping the deacons for their diaconal home visits. It is not going too far to discuss this extensively on a yearly basis. Especially in the beginning, more frequent evaluations will be necessary. Newly ordained deacons should at first make a number of visits together with other deacons. Often there are fewer deacons in our churches than wards or districts. In such a case it is better not to strictly require a diaconal home visit at every address every year. Agree from the start that you want to have things done well, and will therefore spread visits out over a period of four years if necessary.
As I have stated and as will be evident from this article: I consider diaconal home visiting to be a core task of the deacons. If there is one way in which you can get to know the members both for their gifts and their concerns, and personally equip them for diaconal service in faith, then it is indeed the diaconal home visit. I plead that this will receive priority in our local, classical and national policy. We are living in historical times. In the 16th century the elders began to make pastoral home visits; in the 20th century the deacons began to enter homes for their diaconal home visits. It would be a beautiful thing if we could experience over the next four years that the introductory period has come to a close. That diaconal home visits are functioning without obstacles.
It is an excellent vehicle for the visible love of Christ!