This article is about home visitation and pastoral care from elders.

Source: New Horizons, 1995. 3 pages.

Home Visitation: Back to the Basics

Most of us feel that our society is growing increasingly impersonal. Few of us have personal relationships with our grocer, mail carrier, police officers, bankers, or civic leaders. Not too many years ago, even in large urban areas, these were people whom we knew by name, and they often knew us. I don't know of anyone who believes that this trend toward depersonalization is healthy.

Sadly, depersonalization is becoming the norm in church life, too. I find it amazing that many people do not know the names of the elders in their church, and even when they do, they have little personal dealing with them.

Fortunately, our religious tradition places a premium on the personal relationship between an elder and the members of the local congregation. Biblical elders are shepherds. They know their sheep by name. They know their needs, and, using the resources of God's Word, are ready to meet those needs with the compassion that any true shepherd has for his sheep.

Building on this biblical truth, the Presbyterian tradition has a long history of elder visitation in the homes of its member. The purpose of this brief article is to lay before you some goals in home visitation, both for elders and for those who assist them in this work.

Home Visitation: What it is Notβ€’πŸ”—

  • Systematic home visitation is not a hospitality service. Although we want to encourage hospitality among members, the purpose of home visitation is not simply to demonstrate the hospitality toward believers that should characterize the church.

  • Nor is systematic home visitation a counseling service. From time to time, members of the church have great needs that require counsel from mature and experienced persons. Such needs might be discovered while visiting in a home. However, the purpose of home visitation is not to build counseling relationships.

  • Finally, systematic home visitation is not a social visit. I enjoy getting together with people and discussing Red Sox baseball, politics, and the vicissitudes of New England weather. And, no doubt, such socializing helps to build relationships. But it is not the purpose of home visits.

Home Visitation: What it isβ†β€’πŸ”—

Systematic home visitation is designed to encourage the spiritual growth of our church's members by assisting them in living a well-disciplined spiritual life. Personal or family growth requires a commitment to key spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, and worship. Home visits should foster those disciplines.

But, you ask, β€œHow will people react if I come to discuss spiritual matters?” They may be uncomfortable, and you may be uncomfortable, too, but home visitation serves an important purpose and needs to be done.

Church members have already been asked probing questions concerning spiritual matters. They may not be completely comfortable with such questioning (at least initially), but they have had at least some experience with it. Why disappoint them? If people expect church leaders to visit them to discuss spiritual matters, let's meet their expectations!

What to Askβ†β€’πŸ”—

After the usual exchange of pleasantries, it is good to remind people that the elders of the church are servants. You might say, β€œWe wish to help you grow in your Christian life. That's the happy task Christ gives us. So here we are. To help us understand how we can assist you, we would like to ask you a few questions. May we?” Then proceed to ask:

  • In what specific ways/areas are you growing as a Christian?

  • What obstacles are you facing in your growth as a Christian? How can we assist you in overcoming these obstacles?

  • Are you praying regularly? Personally? As a family? What can we do to assist you in your prayer life?

  • Do you have family worship at least once a week in your home? Can we help you?

  • How can the pastor and the elders pray for you?

  • How can the church assist you in areas where you need help?

My experience, even in reserved New England, has taught me that people appreciate sincere concern for their spiritual life. If we listen patiently, most people will not only be grateful for such care, but, more importantly, will find that it is helpful in their Christian growth.

Please let me share a personal illustration. I only remember the names of two Sunday school teachers from my childhood. One of these dear ladies taught a senior high Sunday school class. I was the only high school student in the church, but that lady prepared fine lessons each week just for me. Years later, when I preached at churches that had only a few people in attendance, she was a good role model for demonstrating the loving diligence and careful preparation that God always expects – even when the audience is small!

The other lady who deeply influenced my understanding of pastoral care was not a talented teacher, and she knew it. Her monotone voice droned on as she lectured through her classes. Most of the material would, by popular standards, be declared irrelevant to elementary school students (I was in fifth grade). But she had my respect and the respect of her class. As she did with all her students, she occasionally called me up by phone to ask me how things were going. Even if life was a mess, I always said, β€œFine, thank you.” Of course, this evasive answer never satisfied her, and, being a lady of indefatigable zeal for the Lord, she would then proceed to ask me questions about the basis of my salvation, my spiritual habits, and other questions concerning supremely important matters that could not be dodged with yes or no answers. Her name and her questions have stuck with me. Here's a person worth imitating!

So, take a deep breath, and ask the right questions. You may never know how much help you will be as you seek to focus attention on the great issues of spiritual life in Christ.

How to Conclude a Visitβ†β€’πŸ”—

When it is time to end the visit, I do three things.

  • First, I share a brief Bible passage. For example, I might read Psalm 119:105 and note that in a dark world the Bible functions as a light that shows us the direction in which we need to walk and where the obstacles are that would trip us up. Then I might read the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 90. (The catechism has much fine instructional material, and, as I always say, why work hard when somebody else can do the work for you? The writers of the catechism have done much work for us.) On the basis of the catechism, we can say that there are three ways in which we allow the Word of God to function as a lamp for our feet and a light for our path:

  1. by receiving it in faith and love (believing it to be God's word to us),

  2. by laying it up in our hearts (through meditation and memorization), and

  3. by practicing it in our lives (doing what it says).

  • Next, I pray, asking God to help us to live according to his Word, and also praying for the special prayer requests that have been made during the visit and for the broader needs of our church. We pray not only because God answers prayer, but also because many people do not have the blessing of hearing other people pray aloud specifically for them. Your prayers will be deeply appreciated.

  • Finally, I leave a book, booklet, or tract that I believe will encourage the person. You should have literature that will be helpful for specific spiritual needs.

After you have left the home, the work that you have begun can continue through solid, Bible-centered reading materials.

What ifsβ†β€’πŸ”—

What if someone has a complaint about the pastor or a church program? Simply ask for permission to go to the pastor or person responsible and tell him about the problem. Then he can call up the person you are visiting and seek to resolve the matter. These are opportunities not for conflict, but for growth in mutual understanding and unity in Christ.

What if someone is sick? Remind them that, on the basis of James 5:14-15, the elders would count it a privilege to come, pray for them.

What if someone brings up a problem that needs immediate attention, but you are unqualified to help with it? Call the pastor, and he will take over and find appropriate help.

What if someone tells me very personal problems? If it is a problem that requires attention, ask for permission to share the problem with an elder who can give appropriate assistance. Remember that you should never share information you learn while on a visit with the congregation at large.

If I am a man, will I ever be asked to visit a single woman? No, not by yourself. When elders must visit the home of a single woman, they should do so in pairs. Integrity and propriety must be hallmarks of every area of church life, including the visitation program. Similarly, men and women should not visit a home together unless they are married.

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