The Praying Elder and the Annual Home Visitation
Prayer at the Start of the Annual Home Visitation
The elders are preparing for the annual home visit that they are bringing at this or that address tonight. They know the family situation.
Personal prayer is a good and necessary preparation. Without a prayer from the elder himself it is not possible to make a good home visit. Through prayer the Lord will give what is needed.
In their personal prayer elders will thank the Lord that they are esteemed worthy by God to do this official work. They confess their own impotence and pray for heavenly wisdom. They need that wisdom in order to teach, to encourage, or to admonish, depending on what will be discussed.
Even experienced elders cannot do without prior personal prayer. Whoever thinks he can achieve things based on his experience, is in danger of thinking that he is capable of making home visits without God’s prayed-for strength. Elders with experience have an advantage compared to elders without experience. But for both ‘groups’ it is important: pray before you start.
Starting with Prayer
There is a difference of opinion whether the annual home visit by the elders should start with scripture reading and prayer. Dr. A.N. Hendriks is among the proponents of this. He advocates starting with a short prayer. The argument for this is not that by such a short prayer at the beginning of the home visit the right atmosphere is created, but that a home visits always concerns a labour of the office bearers. “It is a good habit to first pray for the blessing of the LORD for all official labour. Do we not always start our ecclesiastical meetings with prayer?” (Hendriks, 1972).
Hendriks also makes a plea for Scripture reading at the beginning of the home visit. “Reading from Scripture underscores that the elders do not come with their wisdom, but with the Word of the Lord”, says Hendriks.
For now we are leaving the Scripture reading outside of the scope of this chapter. I am convinced that arguments can also be put forward that argue against Scripture reading at the beginning (Meijer).
As far as prayer is concerned, it is a good rule that a home visit is started with this. When we call it a good rule, it immediately implies that there are exceptions. Elders have to watch out for hard and fast rules in this regard. It can happen that a proper conversation has started immediately. Then the home visit actually started. If the elders then propose to start praying halfway through the already started conversation, this can be detrimental to the progress of the conversation. A prayer at that stage then actually breaks up the conversation.
Why is it a good rule to start with prayer? We concur with Hendriks’s criticism of P. Biesterveld, who suggests prayer at the beginning of a home visit in order to set the right mood immediately and to discharge himself from his rejoinder as a pastor (Biesterveld, 1923).
Incidentally, Biesterveld also writes: “It will not always be necessary to start with prayer.” Of the argumentation that Hendriks gives for prayer at the beginning of a home visit, some aspects are disputable. Certainly, the elders do official work when they make home visits. But they also do that when they visit the sick and when they make interim visits. As a rule, these visits will not be started with prayer. Most will not argue for that either.
We are of the opinion that the annual home visit should be distinguished from other pastoral visits. In the church order the home visit is mentioned. Article 21 (the actual number may vary) of the church order states, “The specific duties of the office of elder are, together with the ministers of the Word, ...faithfully to visit the members of the congregation in their homes to comfort, instruct, and admonish them with the Word of God...”
Prof. Dr. C. Trimp calls the home visit the “most advanced” post “in the ministry of the office bearers” (Trimp, 1982).
Trimp also writes: “The home visit is characterized by the personal and confidential interaction of the office-bearers with the members of the congregation and as such can be regarded as the culmination of pastoral work. It is an official activity, through which Christ himself engages with a church member or a family in all the concreteness of his daily work” (Trimp, 1982).
I draw attention to the terms “most advanced post” and “culmination”. If elders do the annual home visit, per appointments, then there is a “high visit”. It is the great Shepherd who, through his under-herdsmen, visits the church member or the family in the situation in which the person(s) is living. The under-shepherds search for the fruits of faith in God and of fellowship with Christ. When we are well aware of this, we would like to see our good God involved in it. And that is what the elders do when they start praying. So they bring this “high visit” to a high level.
A Short Prayer
It is clear that the prayer at the beginning of the home visit should be brief. The elder who will be leading the conversation thanks God in a few words for the opportunity given to talk with each other about his service. In some cases it may be good to pay attention in this brief prayer to the fact that the home visit in this family or with this church member takes place in a period in which one has or had a lot of grief or adversity. We think of the visit with a widow and her children, where the husband and father has died not so long ago. We are thinking of the visit in a family in which a child has recently passed away. It is not desirable to present the grief or the setback in detail in the initial prayer to the Lord, but it is good that it is remembered. Elders bring home visits to a concrete address in a given period.
Next, elders pray for the blessing of the Lord over the home visit and in connection with that for openness in speaking to each other about (the fruits of) faith. Finally, the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit are requested, which are indispensable both for the visiting elders and for the congregation members who are being visited.
When we start the home visit with such a (short) prayer, it prevents a situation where the initial prayer is used (or abused?) for all sorts of things, which in themselves are very important, but which do not have much to do with the purpose of the home visit. Elders must pray specifically. That is true, by the way, not only when they make home visits. This also applies to other occasions. Elders do not have to pray at the beginning of a home visit, or after a visit to a patient, or at the end of a consistory meeting, for church and state and society; for the queen and country; for mission and evangelism; for the Theological University and other educational institutions. These things must have a place in prayer, but not in any and every situation. The prayer for these things does not bring the home visit to the desired level, because it is not aimed at the home visit itself. When elders are praying for all these things, there is a great danger that they will therefore already create a stumbling block to the desired fruitfulness of the coming conversation. That holds true especially when home visits are made in a family with growing children. W. Meijer says of such a long prayer at the beginning of a home visit: “This may not happen, for Christ’s sake. This may not occur with the whole family. And especially this may not happen to the young people who nowadays — perhaps fortunately — are more critical than we are in our youth and who rightly are offended by such a prayer.”
Prayer During the Annual Home Visitation
A Personal Matter?
It is almost impossible that prayer will not be discussed during the home visit. Also in churches where home visits are based on a theme, it will almost always be the case that prayer is connected to the theme. After all, at such an important visit the elders are looking for the fruits of faith. Prayer is a very important fruit. It is the most important element in our thankfulness (see Heidelberg Catechism, QA 116), which is characteristic of Christians.
It is said that prayer is a personal matter and that it is therefore not correct when elders start digging into such a personal matter. This reasoning is incorrect. On the one hand, faith is also a personal matter — and everything that comes with faith, including prayer. After all, it is about a personal relationship with God. But on the other hand, faith is also a matter of the community. We confess our personal faith in public, in the midst of the community of the church. In this community we talk with each other about our personal faith: when we drink coffee together; when we get together with other people to discuss the Bible, in study societies.
Likewise, the elders talk with us about our personal faith, including prayer. After all, the elders are appointed by the congregation to watch over us. Of course elders do not need to know in detail what we present to the Lord in our personal prayer. It does not testify to pastoral wisdom when the elders are attempting to dig into this. But they may, yes, they need to raise the matter of prayer life of the members during the annual home visit. Do they not have the task to look for the fruits of faith, according to the fruits of the preaching and the celebration of the sacrament?
The Practice of Praying
During the home visit you can talk about the practice of praying. In the families it is asked whether at mealtimes — when as a rule the family is present in its entirety — prayer is said out loud. That praying out loud is of great importance. In families with older children, the significance can be pointed out of one of the children praying out loud. No, that does not have to be done with every meal, but every now and then it should be possible. As a result, such children learn to formulate their own thoughts. They “practise” in this way for later when they are called upon to speak aloud.
As a rule, father or mother prays out loud. Usually it will be the father, and in his absence the mother. Incidentally, it is best to use as a rule that father and mother take turns and the older children participate once in a while.
When the habit of praying out loud in a family is lacking, the elders must be busy teaching. They may point out the meaning of the mutual prayer. Just as in the great family — the church — the mutual prayer in worship demonstrates solidarity with each other and togetherness with God, so it is also the case in the smaller family. The family constitutes a communion and praying together unifies them.
Elders also come to single people; older or younger ones who live on their own. These brothers and sisters can also be reminded of the importance of praying out loud. Many find it strange to pray aloud while they are by themselves. But why is this strange? Praying out loud helps to prevent your thoughts from wandering during prayer. It obliges you to formulate your thoughts; to put your worries into words; to express your gratitude.
In addition, there is a danger for those living alone that prayer is limited to a minimum. What do they do when they eat their sandwich while busy with something else? The elders may point out that in such a case, prayer must also have a fixed place. Such a fixed place is better guaranteed when someone has the habit of praying out loud.
The Content of Prayer
During the home visit the content of prayer must also be discussed. The elders have a teaching task in this regard. For how often does it not appear that during the discussion about the content of prayer, the prayer at the table of father or mother is stuck in some generalities? A blessing is asked for the food. Thanks are expressed for health. There is prayer for the forgiveness of sins. Of course these are important things. They must be mentioned in prayer. But it is not sufficient if that is all. This is especially true in our time, where as a rule the entire family sits at the table to use the meal only once a day. Then it is necessary to pay attention in prayer to events that are important in the lives of parents and children. This could include school events. The family prayer for teachers must be there. In a time of exams and tests and in study weeks, there should be prayers for wisdom and recall for the children. The father continues to pray for society work and catechism.
In addition, it should become apparent in family prayer that the family lives in this world and that the family is part of the big family, the church. It is not necessary that prayers are offered every day for all church activities, but all kinds of activities must be given a place in prayer; one day this, the next day something else.
The elders must stimulate that there should be prayer for the office-bearers and for the church council meeting that evening. It is not without reason that this date is announced on Sundays from the pulpit or via the local church bulletin.
Elders can point to the possibility that parents will consult with their children before prayer as to which things will be presented to the Lord together. This promotes the prayer of the family members and the openness towards each other.
When elders speak in this way about the content of prayer, also with those who live on their own, this will also contribute to the intensification of prayer life.
Besides the “family prayer” personal prayer should also have an important place in the life of Christians. That is why the elders will as a rule also raise the matter of personal prayer. This case can also be discussed with the children, who take part in the family visit and who attend (a part of) the home visit. It is possible to ask these children whether they talk to their Heavenly Father at fixed times, and pray to him; give thanks to him for all things. Sometimes you hear young people say: “I pray when I feel a need to.” Then the elders can point out that they do not just get up and eat when they need to. The elders can say that it is not good to go to church and to love God, only if it suits them.
Elders can encourage children to let prayer be preceded by Bible reading (possibly using a Bible devotional appropriate to their age). By linking the Bible reading with prayer, the covenant relationship between the praying person and the Lord is accentuated: the Lord speaks through the Bible and the praying person responds through prayer.
You can also talk more to the parent(s) about the personal prayer. They must create space for personal prayer. This also applies if husband and wife have the habit of concluding the day together in mutual prayer. Of course no bad word can be said of this practice. Yet in such a case it often turns out that little time is spent on personal prayer. That is not good. The elders may point out that praying together—no matter how beautiful and important — can never take the place of personal prayer. Not because man and woman have to hide things from each other, but because there are often things in God’s children that they need to discuss personally with the Lord.
In general it is best to pray at set times. That will help to prevent the situation where personal prayer is omitted.
The content of our personal prayer can be discussed further. Rev. C. Van der Leest writes about this: “Such an extensive prayer always includes these elements: praising and thanking God, especially for his love through Christ, but also for his further gifts; to ask for forgiveness for specifically mentioned violations and also for transgressions in general; to submit to God our troubles, if necessary in detail, as long as God is not reproached; asking for God’s Spirit and everything that is really needed for one’s own task; praying for family, friends, fellow believers, the government, aid agencies and even our enemies.”
I want to go into some further detail about a few things in this enumeration, where elders can go a little deeper when talking about personal prayer during the home visit.
First of all: praying for forgiveness of specifically mentioned sins. The elders will discover that often the prayer for forgiveness of debts often stays stuck in generalities. When they discovery that, they must urge the church members by teaching them that this is not a good thing. They can point to various psalms in which the poets confess their guilt very specifically to the Lord. A fine example of this is found in Psalm 51 where David professes profoundly and in concrete terms his guilt towards the Lord and people after his sin with Bathsheba.
Something can be added to this. Even if it turns out that members of the congregation call their sins by name, it may be said that the confession of guilt is not yet sufficient, because guilt is in essence what one should have paid, but what has not been paid. Every day Christians must write the book of God’s praise, but in that book there is usually very little recorded. Also that debt must be confessed.
Likewise, the unconscious sins must be confessed to the Lord. We often sin unconsciously. But unconscious sins are still sins, which God forgives in his affection when they are professed.
In the second place I want to make a few remarks about personal prayer for the fellow believers. Brothers and/or sisters are often placed on the road of fellow-members, whose lives are a succession of troubles and tension. We know in one way or another about that girl, who is burdened by the consequences of incest; we know that boy, who can no longer cope with life and often walks around with the idea of putting an end to his life. We meet a brother who suffers from the burden of a broken marriage; the divorced sister, who has a lot of trouble because of the constant agitations of her ex-husband. How important it is to pray for these people. The elders must point out to the church members that they do not forget to remember these neighbours in their prayers. They can say, “Brother, sister, go and see for yourself whether certain people who have been placed on your path have not disappeared from your personal prayer life.” Because of this very thing, we sharpen each other — and that is a wonderful thing!
Our Prayers are Heard
Christians must pray in the certainty of them being heard by God. That belongs to the characteristics of a prayer that pleases the Lord.
Office bearers will experience, when they talk at the home visit about the certainty of the fact that God hears our prayers, that many church members are troubled about this. Often a remark is made: “I experience that God does not answer all prayers.”
People have been praying for recovery in days of illness, but there was no cure.
Married couples have prayed for the blessing of children, but have remained childless. Such incidents raise the question of whether God does answer all our prayers. It is necessary for elders to point out that God does not always respond as we would like or wish. The Lord wants us to make our desires known to him (Phil. 4:6), but he also wants us to make the fulfillment of it dependent on his will. If we ask for healing in days of sickness, then that question will have to be accompanied by the prayer that God’s will be done.
Furthermore, elders should point out that God does not always answer at the time desired by the ones who pray. The response can sometimes take months or years. This is a terribly long time for the perception of the one who is praying, but it does not mean that man can squeeze God’s time into people’s timetable. God has a personal timetable. For these things too it applies that with God a thousand years are as one day, and one day as a thousand years.
Finally, elders should point to God’s response in the usual way. We often look for it in extraordinary things, but not God. God wants us to look at the small things, not at the exceptional things. When we pray in the evening before we go to bed to ask the Lord to get us up healthy the next morning, God has answered that prayer from us.
When we pray for strength for the minister to make a sermon for next Sunday and the minister preaches the joyful gospel on Sunday, then this is God’s response to the action of our prayer.
Thus, there could be countless examples of responses to prayer in what we call the little things. Rev. C. Van der Leest writes about this: “Whoever observes such connections through his faith will be encouraged to pray. On the other hand it will be true that God does not always give us what we have asked of him. It will then be a matter of trusting that he as our Father knows what is best for us.”
In practice it proves difficult to have open eyes for seeing that God hears our prayers. The Bible gives an example of this.
In Acts 12:5 we read of a number of believers, continually praying to God. They are praying for Peter who has been put in prison. They ask the Lord if he wants to give the miracle of liberation. They know that the Lord can deliver from the dungeon in a marvelous way: that has already happened.
The Lord answers the prayer. Those who are praying do not know that yet. Peter does notice the strength of the prayers: he is delivered. While church members are praying for Peter’s liberation, that rescue is realized: an answer to prayer.
Peter decides to go to the house of Mary, where the community is still praying (Acts 12:12). When he knocks, Rhoda, the maid, checks who is there. Maybe she is afraid that a robbery attack from Herod is about to happen. But to her surprise, she recognizes Peter’s voice. She runs back and tells the praying community that the answer to prayer is standing at the door. They do not believe her. They believe that Rhoda is talking nonsense. Her words are referred to the realm of fables.
From this it appears that faith in the actual hearing of prayer rarely reaches the height of what was requested. The brothers and sisters know that God is a hearer of prayers, but they still pay so little attention to the actual fact. Often they (and we too) still think too small of God.
Now it can happen that members of the church will ask office-bearers why God does not answer all prayers, while he himself says in Mark 11:24, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
When such a question is posed, the elders will have to respond to it. They must assume that people can really have problems with it that apparently not all their prayers are answered, while the Bible seems to say that God will always answer. That problem can even become so great that people start to doubt God’s omnipotence or their own faith. This is certainly the case when others tell them that the words in Mark 11:24 mean a prayer in faith. Was their prayer then not a prayer of faith?
Does Jesus say in Mark 11:24 that he gives what is being asked only when it is done in faith?
In this passage the words “whatever you ask in prayer” have no absolute significance. This is clear from the context. Thus we are kept from the thought that we will receive whatever we want at random prayer, if we have only prayed for it in faith.
Mark 11:24 is at the end of the story about the curse of the fig tree. The barren fig tree is symbolic of the infertility of Israel. The curse shows where this infertility, visible in the resistance of the Jews to Jesus, will lead to.
Jesus wants to encourage his disciples. The resistance against him will not stand. Pay attention to the fig tree: it withered.
Soon the disciples will have to take over Jesus’ task. They must go and preach. They are asking themselves, “Will they be able to do this task?” Yes. The disciples do not have to let themselves be stopped by any insurmountable difficulties. Christ himself guarantees that they will soon be able to perform that impossible job of official service.
The context shows that “all that you ask for” are things that are necessary for the continuation of Jesus’ work by the disciples and today by us. For the service of Christ to us, we are fortunately not dependent on our impossibilities and limitations, but on the power of God.
We may believe that we will receive all that we need for that service. Yes, that we have received everything we need for our task in the service of the coming of God’s kingdom. For God has equipped his children with gifts and powers to be of service until Jesus’ return. At the same time he wants the gifts and powers to be prayed for.
God determines what we need for his service. He gives that too, in answer to prayer. The knowledge that God gives what is really necessary does not detract from the omnipotence of God. It accentuates the omniscient character of the Almighty God.
When we talk to each other about prayer during the home visit, this will stimulate the prayer life of both office bearers and well as members of the church.
Prayer at the Conclusion of the Annual Home Visitation
Finishing with Prayer
The home visit, in which of course there are many other things to be discussed other than prayer life, is worthy to be closed with thanksgiving. Scripture reading may possibly precede this prayer of thanks. The latter depends on the way the home visits started.
The closing prayer is one of the most important moments in the whole of the annual home visit. It should therefore never be left out. Without this prayer of thanks, the home visit is not finished.
The elders cannot prepare for the final prayer. Although this planning does apply to the prayer at the beginning of the home visit, the final prayer, because of its contents, is determined by the home visit itself.
The final prayer must be a prayer directed by the visit that was brought, and focused on the address that was visited. Sure, the elders know beforehand at which address the home visit was brought. For this they can and must prepare themselves. They will also prepare themselves for the conversation, but often it will be different from what was anticipated, and the prayer of thanks must “respond” to that.
In the closing prayer “all threads of the conversation must come together” (Van der Leest). In this prayer of thanksgiving, elders will thank the Lord for the many blessings that the family has received. Especially for this: that the members of the family may belong to the covenant and have received a place in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Family members may share in the work of reconciliation of Christ through which they have forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Then, in the final prayer, the things that were discussed during the home visit also will be mentioned. The Lord is thanked for glad things that have been reported, very concretely, even if these are things that are perhaps insignificant in the eyes of the elders. Elders must get a feel during the conversation that also small things in that specific family have, in their view, given great joy.
Elders need to pray for wisdom when it has been shown during the conversation that there are difficulties. Whatever kinds of difficulties there may be. Here it is even more important that elders should realize that, what may appear as small things to them, can deeply affect the lives of congregation member(s). Elders will have to try to imagine the great concern over a son who has been married for a few years, and who now has become unemployed; that the sadness about a child who died at birth years ago is sometimes very strong; that the theft of things that had been inherited from father or mother can leave deep marks.
Praying for Those who were Visited
It is essential for the thanksgiving prayer that the family members and their concerns are brought before the Lord. The elders pray for the father, who is away from home every day; or who is at home every day due to illness or unemployment or for other reasons. For the father, who is the only one to take care of the education of his children; who has problems at work or who performs work in which he does not experience real joy.
There is prayer for the mother of the large family, who has her hands full with running the household; who has difficulties with the fact that her husband, next to his busy job, is also an elder or has another time-consuming function in the church. The elders of the family bring to the Lord the mother who has lost her husband, and who has the task of taking care of her children and, in addition, through a part-time job, to provide for the livelihood of her and her children. They pray for the mother who is divorced from her husband and still carries this burden, which in turn has a negative effect on her children. Prayers are offered for the mother of a small family who struggles to spend her time meaningfully and who would like to be more involved in the work in the congregation. There is prayer for the married sister who fulfills a social function, and has chosen that function because no children can be born and who, therefore, is so different from what she had imagined.
Elders pray for the children of the family who are already out of the house. They pray for the children who are present during the home visit. Their situation can be so completely different. One child cannot find suitable work. Another has to take an exam and is very worried about it. A daughter spends a lot of time on her homework for school, but that does not gain her good marks on her report card.
From the above it appears that it is very important to be concrete in the prayer at the end of the home visit. As a result, family members experience that the elders were really involved in the meeting. Elders who close every home visit with a stereotypical prayer pretend that the Lord has given families and singles a perfectly identical place in the congregation.
The significance of a concrete prayer of thanks can hardly be considered highly enough. “In this way prayers can be made, with surrender, with urgency, with an understanding of what lives there and what struggles there are, what wails or cheers may be present in the family that was visited, that perhaps the family members may easily forget most of the home visit in later years — yet the prayer is remembered” (Meijer).
It is possible that elders need to admonish and correct during the home visit. It would not be good to bypass that episode of the conversation in the closing prayer. Note well that the praying elder must then remember that the addressed family members must be able to join in with that prayer. It is not proper to use the final prayer in order to add strength to the admonition. Therefore this prayer also differs from a prayer that is expressed after a specific visit of exhortation (see chapter 6).
When the elders come back to the matter where a correction had to be applied, it could be asked whether the Lord would also connect his blessing to that part of the conversation. It may also be asked whether the person concerned will profit from the things that are said based on God's Word. Elders who pray like that give family members the opportunity to pray along.
It can also happen that a difference of opinion manifests itself during the conversation about certain matters. That difference was also not taken away. In the closing prayer this can receive attention. However, it is important to formulate this well. If elders struggle with this, it is better not to mention such a situation in the prayer.
Prayer may never serve the purpose that the praying elder is still trying to make the people see things his way. In this respect it is comparable with a chairman of an association: in his prayer at the end of the meeting he is not allowed to decide a discussion in his favour.
We have already indicated that it is necessary to thank the Lord for the fact that the family or the single person who was visited has a place in the congregation, which Christ is gathering in that place. It is not necessary to pray for all things that are current in the congregation however, the families do not live in isolation. They are a part of the whole of Christ's church. In the home visit to that specific address, the miracle takes place that Christ cares for his congregation. Especially in a time when more clamour is made of paying attention to yourself, it is necessary to thank God for the covenant he has established with his people. The covenant is characterized by the chain of generations, of which those visited members are the links.
When the church members visited have a special task in the congregation, the Lord must be asked whether he wants to give strength and joy in fulfilling that task. That may also be prayed for if during the home visit that special function has not been discussed perhaps in so many words.
From this it becomes apparent that the elders need to know which functions the family members may have in the local congregation. Paying attention to this aspect during the closing prayer helps to stimulate them. In this regard we are not only thinking of the function of an office bearer, but equally of other functions such as the caretaker, the organist, a member of a committee.
Together with the family the elders also thank the Lord for the faithful preaching of Scripture every Sunday. They will pray for the minister who has to prepare and deliver sermons. This matter will need attention also when during the visit there may have been some words of criticism about the preaching of the local minister. After all, it is of the utmost importance that the preaching will be in accord with Scripture. The preaching is the well of life for the members of the congregation, for the church and for society.
By giving attention in this way to the church to which the family of the single person belongs, it is also emphasized that overseers of the flock make the home visit.