Family Visit Tonight
1. Whatever Possesses them?
When summer has passed its highpoint; when the days incline towards fall and from week to week become shorter; when work has recovered its regular beat, when meeting schedules are prepared and published, then too, the elder of God's congregation begins his special work known to children and adults alike by the common and yet so special a name as "family visit".
Then, in the months from September to April, inconspicuous to the world and hardly noticed by the churches, it happens that week after week hundreds of men devote all their energy to visiting the families, which together form the congregation of Christ.
For the man, who has a full-time job and must also give his attention and strength to family matters that is a heavy load — not many words are needed to make that clear. There may be in our time an abundance of leisure time, however, the work that must be done in a given time demands so much energy and dedication that at the end of a work day home and hearth beckon much more than ever before. After a little while the elder leaves that home again and braves the storm, the rain and snow, the slippery roads and heavy fog to look for a certain address in the city or country, in lonely places and deserted streets where he, by order of the great Sender, must bring a visit.
He has, so we posed, in all probability a heavy workday behind him be it on the farm or in industry, in business or in education, in the office or in the laboratory, in technology or with the police, as employer or as employee. He perhaps hurried so that all the work would be done before five o-clock and perhaps he had to drive more than a hundred kilometres before he would reach home. There was hardly any time for a quiet evening meal and a change of clothing was perhaps necessary before the special work for this evening could begin.
Now he sits, together with his fellow-elder, in the midst of the family, whose members have reminded each other several times: "Don't forget, we have family visit tonight."
The question may be asked: what possesses these hundreds of people, often too busy and tired to leave their own homes week after week in order to visit other families and to urge them to be present when they intend to come, and to put all other less important matters aside?
Actually we have already touched upon it. They come by order of...; they come with a mandate — the mandate of their Sender. Among other things that mandate includes: to examine whether or not the Word of God which Sunday after Sunday is preached to the congregation by their fellow-elder, the minister, bears fruit in the families and single members visited that night; to inquire whether or not the family members bow before that Word and that Word alone in all things, be they great or small; to see whether there is a walking with God, a seeking for Him in all ways and all paths; whether the battle of faith is fought and whether it is fought in the correct way; whether there is a thirsting for a true faith, for an enlightening and encouraging hope, for an ardent and burning love for God and the neighbour in the family as a whole and in each member individually.
They visit families, which together form God's church in this world and they look for fruits of faith and repentance, fruits of love, and also for fruits of works and of being busy with the Christian hope. Even though, for many, their visit has the character of an inspection, the purpose of the work is not that which we generally understand by inspection, of course that element, in a special sense, is present. We will get back to that later and elaborate on it.
We ask again: What possesses them? That question cannot be answered in the sense the phrase is ordinarily understood. In common usage the question means: Are they insane to do or say this or that? They do and say things that are incomprehensible for an ordinary person. Neither their motives nor background are discerned.
That is why the question is asked. Yet with this kind of an approach we are probably on the right track. For with regard to the elder on family visit the intent of the questioning outsider is really: What drives these people to do work week after week, year in year out, which no sane person can comprehend. The outsider shakes his head and shrugs his shoulders in a less than complimentary fashion.
The unbeliever cannot understand it at all, unless we formulate an answer which, by excluding all vertical considerations, is purely horizontal in content. Only an interest sanctified by faith, brings us further and it says: Our elders feel themselves to be called to do this work, which to the world is foolish but to God is beautiful. They are called by Him who gave His blood for the church as a whole and for each member individually and who, after taking his rightful place at God's right hand, sent His Spirit.
It is that Spirit of God, which possesses them, which drives them, which makes them push aside all difficulties and which gives them the courage and joy, the strength and stamina, to begin the work anew and to see it through year after year.
It is that same Spirit which drives them to inner chambers and makes them bow their knees before they begin their taxing evening work and confess: "In my own strength I cannot do this work. All my help, all my strength, all my wisdom, I only expect from Thee, who has called me to do this beautiful but extremely difficult and responsible work."
2. The Higher Office
We will not give an elaborate account of such matters as: the origin of the office — the meaning of the word elder — the history of elder's work through the ages etc. Such discussions fall outside the scope of this publication. What we wish to emphasize is the fact that family visitation has a strong reformed character.
Calvin introduced it in Geneva and precisely through regular family visits, greatly promoted the flourishing life of faith in the city.
We must say something about the greatness and the magnificence which characterizes the office of elder and about the responsibility it brings with it.
Every year when elders are installed in the congregation of Christ, the Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons is read. When we listen carefully to the words of this form, they make a great impression on each member of the congregation and not in the least on the candidate elders. What the form talks about is no small matter. The questions, which the candidate elders answer with their "yes" give expression to the great responsibility which the elected officers take upon themselves.
To what does the elder speak his holy "yes"? He says "yes" to the question whether or not he believes the Old and New Testament to be the only Word of God and the complete doctrine of salvation and rejects all doctrines conflicting with it.
That certainly means something in our times now that liberalism comes rushing along like the sea at springtide.
He says "yes" to the question whether or not he promises to discharge faithfully the duties of his office and to adorn it with a godly life.
He says "yes" to the question whether or not he promises to submit to the discipline of the Church should he become delinquent in doctrine or conduct.
Is it any wonder then, that a candidate elder gives his "yes" as a holy oath, with a trembling heart in the midst of the congregation and as it were before God's holy face? There is still more that deserves our attention. For when the "yes" has been spoken, the minister continues and reads what is expected of an elder. Because of the importance of this section for family visits we will quote it in full.
You, elders, as good shepherds of Christ's flock and faithful watchmen over the house of God, be diligent in governing the Church, in comforting the distressed, and admonishing the wayward. Take heed that the congregation abide by the pure doctrine and lead a godly life. Tend the flock of God that is your charge...
If one knows something about the function of a watchman and about tending flocks in the near East, one will understand that this demands the utmost from that member of the congregation called to be an elder.
To make the measure of the office full, the officiating minister then prays with the congregation. This prayer again shows what is expected of the elder. The prayer is for men "who are endowed with the Holy Spirit". The prayer is for "the gifts they need — wisdom, courage, discretion and mercy".
When after the ordination the elder has the courage to read once more what the Scriptures say about a good elder, it will be possible that his first reaction will be, "I can never attain that". For in 1 Timothy 3 he reads that an elder, being an overseer, must be among other things, above reproach, sober, thoughtful, civilized, hospitable, able to teach, not hot-headed, but friendly, not quarrelsome nor money-hungry, someone who can rule his own house well, and who with dignity disciplines his children.
When he turns a few pages he will discover that also in the Letter to Titus, Paul busies himself with the high office of elder or overseer. Paul instructs Titus to appoint elders in all cities.
Such men, must be blameless — not overbearing, not quick tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather they must be hospitable, lovers of what is good, self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. They must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that they can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
What is impressive here is that all the qualities one would hope to find in a perfect person, ought to be present in an elder.
One is inclined to ask: does such a summary not discourage the newly-installed elder? And isn't it just possible that an elder, who in the morning joyfully said "yes" and takes his place in the elders' bench in the afternoon, now has a heavy heart, because he knows: "that's not me and I'll never be that". It is of course possible that these defeated (deflated) men become the best elders. For he who begins to see his imperfection, his inability, will the more seek the inner chamber to ask his Commissioner for what is lacking in him. Then he can begin his family visits in the knowledge that He who sends him will give all the assistance necessary. He will feel marvellously strong knowing that the Holy Spirit can and will make him capable of doing the work. Yes — now the elder can begin his family visits.
Before this can happen, something takes place, which in our opinion, receives far too little attention and yet is of the greatest importance to both the elder and the family to be visited. We mean: the announcement of the family visit.
3. The Announcement and Appointment
The family visit is preceded by an announcement and /or appointment. In many villages family visits are announced on Sunday by the minister on behalf of the consistory. There is something royal about these announcements. A royal visit is announced. The minister of the Word simply announces, that the following families will be visited on such and such a day at such and such a time. Those families will have to submit themselves to it. Previous arrangements are cancelled. Other plans cannot be realized for the ambassadors of the King come for a visit, and for this all things must make way. In practice of course it may happen that for special reasons the announced visit must be postponed.
At other places, particularly cities, the family visits are not announced. They are arranged, and therein lies a difficulty. All too frequently it happens that for all sorts of reasons, it is made clear to the elder who tries to arrange his visits that certain evenings are out of the question. It often happens that an elder must phone a number of families until — finally a visit can be arranged.
After what we have said about the greatness and magnificence of the office, it won't be too difficult to show that there is something wrong with that. An awareness of the office must be present in the elders and an honouring of the office must be present in the members of the congregation.
I am, therefore, of the opinion, that everything must make way for the family visit, be it announced or arranged. There will always be a reason for requesting that the family visit take place on another evening than arranged. The reason for that, however, may not be the club evening of one of the children, nor Bible study meeting of one of the members of the family — unless that member has an introduction etc. For if his contribution is cancelled the Bible study is made impossible, and that of course may not happen. For the rest, night school courses, even catechism classes — important as they may be, must give way to the planned family visit.
When we begin to realize this, we have taken the first step on that path which leads to a full restoration of family visits. A certain misjudgment of the significance of family visits, a devaluation of the significance of the family visit, as a result of a general devaluation of authority, can be best rectified by beginning to give the arranging of family visits their full significance. I mean this: in cities as well as in villages the family visit should be properly announced. Then there is no longer any need for making new arrangements and absenteeism for all sorts of reasons is done away with as well.
The significance which the family attaches to the family visit is directly related to the way in which the elder is treated when he announces the visit. We think that as a rule family visits are to be announced. Of course the announcement must take place well before the planned visit, not one or two days prior to it. That sometimes can happen, but then such an announcement comes more or less in the form of a request. It can only happen when the elders have a "legitimate cancellation" and yet wish to use the evening as they had planned.
Here we are dealing with the exception which establishes the rule.
4. Knowing the Families
A very important matter in the whole of what we understand by "family visiting", is that the elders know the families and continually learn more about them. At the very least that knowledge means that they are informed about the composition and structure of the families. Through further acquaintance this "knowing" will become deeper, so that the word will receive its full meaning.
This complete knowing becomes clearest, when we once again read the letters which the apostle John, on Christ's command, had to write to the various churches in Asia Minor. Seven times we read there, albeit in different phraseology, the impressive words: "I know..."
I know your deeds and your hard work..." So reads the first paragraph of the letter to the church in Ephesus! "I know your afflictions and your poverty", we read in the letter to the church at Smyrna. To Perganum the exalted Saviour writes: "I know where you live — where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city — where Satan lives." Thyatira hears: "I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance". The congregation of Sardis is addressed with the following alarming words: "I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead." The congregation of Philadelphia hears this praise from her Lord: "I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name." And finally through His ambassador John, Christ thunders against Laodicea: "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot."
He who takes the effort to compare the letters with one another, gets the impression that Christ's "knowing" entails far more than what we commonly understand by knowing. It is a knowledge of the congregation in a most general form. It consists and includes the knowledge that we like to use when we speak of somebody as, "I know him through and through! ... I know him better than myself!" Christ's knowing encompasses all. It means that He knows the structures of the congregation, which have been instituted in heathen lands by the preaching of the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit. It means all the cares and worries, all the temptations and aberrations, all the steadfastness and each measure of love. It means that Christ knows of the small strength and the great faith, that He knows the possibilities for the Gospel. It is a knowledge of the hearts, whereby appearances and realities can be judged for their true value.
Christ knows His congregations and He certainly knows the families which together make up the congregation. He knows each heart. It is as David revealed in one of the psalms:
O Lord, you have searched me and you know me, You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.Ps. 139:1-3
May we now after this introduction assume that, as Christ knows His congregations, the families, those He bought, those baptized in His name, so the elder and the minister must also know the families? We are of the opinion that the answer to the question is 'yes' as well as 'no'.
The answer is "yes" in so far as the possibilities of a sinful man with a limited intellect and an often narrow mind, can know. Nothing should be too much for elders going on house visits when it comes to knowing all about the families they will visit. They must know what the composition is, what the cares and worries are, what temptations and aberrations there are. An elder must not only obtain such information — of course always in legal and accepted ways — but must have that information before he sits down and receives a cup of coffee from his hostess. He must do this as well as the members of the congregation must do this to a certain degree. Too often one still hears the excuse: "What I am going to say is not gossip." — even when it is not necessary to say it. The idea that speaking about each other is always the same as gossiping must not take form among us.
How can a congregation ever flourish if the members do not talk to one another about each other. It is, however, a question of how and why we do it. Is it our desire to know one another truly in the love of Christ and with the realization that together we are the body of which He is the Head? (In this connection I think of the beautiful and always touching chapter twelve of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.) Or does unhealthy curiosity drive the one to the other in order to get to know, in an unhealthy and unbelieving way, things about one another which are unnecessary when it comes to true communion?
In that case the desire to know is not only unhealthy, it is also deeply sinful. For the rest I think that I may put it this way: A congregation can never truly be the congregation of Christ as He intended it to be, when there is no knowing of one another; a knowing which grows into love, in assistance, in tolerance because one has understood much about the distress, which probably at first was misunderstood and interpreted in a sinful manner.
The elder must know something about the composition of the family. He must know something about the work of the father and the older children who are working. He must know the mutual relationships — whether or not it is a "healthy" family or whether there are deviations and misunderstandings. Especially in large families, he must know in what way the mother can do her not-so-easy task and whether or not she is assisted by the members of the family. He must know about the education of the children, which schools they are attending and which dangers or worries this brings with it. He must know which children are married and which children live on their own and why they live on their own! Only when the visiting elders, as much as is reasonably possible, know about all that, a fruitful conversation can take place and a basis for deeper knowing be put into place. Conversely, the members of the family may also know which elders will be visiting them. That can do away with barriers and prevent misunderstandings.
In some villages the foregoing may seem to be somewhat useless. People have known each other for generations — even though that may not be the case any longer.
Yet we think that something ought to be said about that kind of knowing. To be sure — the village knows the village, but such knowledge also brings with it the opposite of healthy knowing. The passing on of traditional information may have been such that the whole matter has grown awry. The visiting elder must distance himself from such information. He must try to banish all sorts of biases from his mind. He is faced with the difficult task of approaching the family as new and unknown, in order to gain a trust which sometimes has been badly damaged. Whatever the case, be it a city, a village or a district, the elder must prepare himself before he starts on his official work, in order to be "at home" in the family he is going to visit.
It should not happen that elders after a visit confess to one another: "We hardly know them." It may not happen either that the family visited says in deep disappointment: "Do you believe that those people knew who we really were and what place we occupy in life?"
We, therefore, wholeheartedly answer "yes" to the question, whether or not the elder must know the family before he visits them. At the same time we amplify it with a careful 'no'. It is the 'no' of restriction, of relativity, of inability, of imperfection of this world in which we live. Also within the congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the place where we are put.
A healthy family visit must meet at least three extremely important conditions, which must be honoured before the actual visit takes place. We mean:
a true awareness of the office and the ability of the elders;
the arrangement of the visits in time by means of announcements;
a knowledge of the families and the circumstances under which they live.
5.The Start of a Family Visit
As we are discussing the start of a family visit, it seems desirable to us to do so within the context of a complete family. By that we mean, a father, mother and a few growing children. We choose that "complete" family — no doubt a much debatable term — because that way we can bring out a number of points in the quickest way, which cannot be done in a family where there are no children or where the little ones are in bed.
In a complete family, the members have already reminded each other during the day to be there for," Family-visit tonight." We are not mistaken when we say that there is somewhat of a nervous tension prior to the visit. A family visit is something different, outside of the ordinary. Every day life has a certain structure of rising, eating, Bible reading, working, visiting, meetings etc. Today, however, there is a family visit.
As such it does not conform to the rhythm of a normal day. It is also totally different from going to church on Sunday and yet, a possible connection lies precisely there, in the church. For in the church, the parents and the children have seen a number of men enter the church just prior to the service. Those same men now come for a visit that cannot be compared with any other visit. Even adolescents, who are possibly somewhat skeptical about family visits, are not all that sure of themselves now. One never knows what will come up for discussion during such a visit. One never knows when one will become involved in it or in what way. Only the hostess has some healthy diversions; arranging the living room, decisions about who is to sit where, the making of the coffee and then to check and see if everything is in order... And now the brothers sit in their appointed chairs. The conversation is free and cheerful, but a certain tension remains.
Who are these elders? Office-bearers in Christ's congregation. They, however, are also known for their daily occupations. Consciously many a young person must make a rapid adjustment. For it is very well possible that the visiting elder is also the baker, who a few hours ago sold you the cookies for tonight. He could very well be the teacher who a few hours ago sternly dealt with one of the youngsters because of unacceptable behaviour. Or he might be a family member or a friend of the family. Now, however, they are here as ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ. Even in families where this high office is recognized and honoured, the mental adjustment still causes a certain amount of difficulty. There is no remedy for that and no remedy is necessary either. It is the reality of church life. This is the way it has been decided by the King of the Church and, therefore, each member must willingly and heartily accept it. In most cases one of the elders is the discussion leader. When the elder comes together with the minister, then too, one of them leads. The office-bearer, who is the leader, takes his Bible and proposes to read a passage from Scriptures. After that, he prays. Only then does the conversation begin. At least that is the way it is commonly done. We think that it is important to pay some attention to the Bible reading and the prayer. We do that in the first place because not every elder begins with reading a passage from Scriptures and because there are numerous visits that do not begin with prayer. About this important matter, there has already been much discussion and much has been written concerning this. There is namely, a difference of opinion about the necessity of reading and praying together.
Because it is a complete riddle to many people why there is a difference in opinion about such important matters, it is good to present both sides of the argument. The proponents of Bible reading state their position as follows: The office-bearers are not the most important persons at this visit. There is only One who is important and that is their Sender, the great Shepherd of the sheep. Therefore, not the office-bearers' words, but the His Word, must come first. That is why a portion of Scriptures is read. After that a brief explanation of the passage can be given which forms the bridge to the conversation proper. Others — and among them we count ourselves — are not convinced by this argument. They fear that in this way a family visit becomes a diminutive "worship service". In our opinion there is even a more pressing objection, namely the following: Those who begin with Bible reading may never do so in order to give the visit a certain feeling of solemnity, as a ritual to bring it to a certain level. We may never use the Word of God for that reason. In discussions we have discerned more than once the thought that to give the occasion some solemnity, to raise it to another level, Bible reading is needed. Let us, however, assume that this is not the intention of the elder who leads the family visit. He wants to read a Scripture passage to indicate that Christ comes first. He is the One who actually brings a visit and He does that by means of people who occupy a special office in His Church. In all things, however, it must be evident that with the office-bearers, the Great Commissioner has come.
It is a beautiful thought which contains a great truth. For how can the elders ever have the courage and self confidence to come on their own authority. Christ then has the first word. Everything that follows comes from it and is subject to it. This point of view appeals to many people.
Let us now list the objection to such an approach. In the first place we point out that the elder who opens his Bible, must be thoroughly familiar with the Scriptures. It is simply not a question of just reading any passage. He will, we assume, read something on purpose. To do so he must know the family well in order to present a passage that will speak to this family. At home he must constantly think about it and search for an appropriate passage. In addition he must be capable of improvising a little speech based on the passage. It must be brief, concise and to the point, so that it can serve as an introduction to the conversation which is to follow. Now it is well possible that there are elders who can do that and who in this way can give direction to the conversation. But even if that is the case, this well-meant Scripture reading is not such a simple matter. The number of conversations that unfold according to a pre-determined plan, are rare in our opinion. Thousands of family visits take a different turn than was thought, hoped for, or wanted. Only if the discussion is about a certain subject known to both parties, can it be meaningful to read a certain portion of Scripture.
There are probably elders who are able to begin each house visit with bible reading and who bring a good visit. There can be family visits which require the reading of Scriptures at the very beginning. However, these are, in our opinion, more an exception than a rule. Most visiting elders will see more objections to this practice, if they fully realize what is actually expected of them.
After this fictional debate we conclude that it is better not to begin a family visit with Bible reading. It makes more sense and there are better opportunities at the end of a visit, even though some of the objections are even then, still valid.
We would also like to point out that as far as we know, a minister who for instance visits a seriously ill person, never begins his visits by reading a portion of Scriptures. He will do so at the end. Yet his visit is certainly an official one.
A few words yet about the prayer at the beginning of the family visit.
We have experienced it as members of the congregation who have received a family visit. We have also experienced it as an elder on a visit. In both cases, as visited and visitor, we have encountered family visits that began with prayer and visits that began without prayer. In our opinion, to begin with prayer is preferable. Something should be added to that statement and that is this: make sure that the prayer is brief and to the point. One can give thanks to the Lord for giving us the opportunity to do this beautiful work. One can pray for a blessing — a blessing, which especially lies herein, that we may be open with one another, that we together may strive toward the same purpose — the Lord and His service, His Church and His Kingdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It may be said that it is unnecessary to state that, because it is self-evident. Make no mistake about it ... We have heard many prayers at home visits, in consistory rooms, at meetings, which had no direction whatsoever. In all those cases the prayers were for the Church; the nation and society; for the world and its distress; for the blind heathens who had not heard the Gospel; for the youth who have it so difficult; for the Queen and our country and for the ministers of the crown. Finally, the Lord was asked more than once to cast our sins into the sea of eternal forgetfulness...
If you think that it is our intention to make light of such prayers, you are mistaken. We only record here what we have heard over the years. We have experienced prayers which were nothing but a string of clichés a person would never use in daily life. That may never happen at the beginning of a family visit, for Christ's sake it may never happen, for the sake of the family it may never happen. It may never happen especially for the sake of our youth, who are inclined to be more critical than we were at that age and who correctly, are offended by such a prayer. It can become a stumbling block for the possible and much desired fruitfulness of the following discussion in which they will take part.
Yet one more remark. It is in connection with the prayer: the best preparation for a blessed family visit is the prayer of the father at dinner time, or of the mother, when father is absent or no longer present. A prayer in which the upcoming family visit receives its proper attention. Such a prayer will show the growing children the seriousness of the family visit and is better than an elaborate explanation by one of the parents.