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Improving the elders’ home visits

It is October and as “home visit season” ramps up, my thoughts turn to how home visits are being conducted and whether our methods serve well to accomplish the purpose of the visit.

I believe that elders visiting members in their homes is biblically based and has for long stretches of church history been implemented to the good of the church. However, are they today as effective as they could be? In Reformed churches of Dutch descent we have our customs in the way such visits are conducted, but are these truly “best practices”?

A typical home visit

What exactly are our customs? Well, in my own denomination, the Canadian and American Reformed Churches, most homes see the elders once per year in the annual home visit. Elders duly prepare themselves for this visit by studying a passage of Scripture and praying for the family. Many godly and sincere elders have thus entered numerous homes with every intent to build up and bless. And no doubt the Lord has used their efforts to bless his people (including me and my family) and yet I can’t help feeling that, despite the best of intentions, something is off kilter with our practice.

A typical home visit goes something like this: two elders enter the home and are invited to sit with the family. Small talk follows for a few minutes. Then one elder clears his throat to “open” the home visit with prayer and Bible reading. An air of formality fills the room and the family falls quiet.

The passage chosen could be out of the blue or, as is often the case, the Bible reading is connected to the “home visit theme” adopted by the consistory and perhaps preached on by the minister. That theme could be centred on one of the ten commandments, a petition of the Lord’s prayer, worship, Christian lifestyle, living membership in the church, or the like. The lead elder then begins to expound on this theme out of the Bible passage and starts directing questions to the children and parents about either the passage’s meaning or how it might apply to that person’s life. The bulk of the visit is spent conversing about this Bible passage (and/or chosen theme) and how the family works out this biblical teaching in practice.

Toward the end of the visit the elders may or may not ask more general questions of the kids and parents, but time-wise the thrust of the visit is spent explaining and applying the teaching of a particular Bible passage to that household.

While discussing a Bible passage can certainly be beneficial, I ask myself: is this the purpose of a home visit? For elders to enter and teach? To the family it can feel like they’re being tested on their knowledge on the Bible passage in question. When a theme is chosen, members and families are often asked to read the passage in advance and “prepare for the home visit.” Again I ask: is this the intention of a home visit? To have a mini Bible-study on a passage and ascertain how well parents and children understand and apply that particular passage (or theme) in their lives? And if a passage is “sprung” on the family and questions are asked of them, it can be a very intimidating experience for children and parents alike. It seems to me that we are missing something significant in this approach to home visits.

The purpose of home visits

As churches and as elders we have made a promise to make home visits. That promise, captured in Article 22 of our Church Order, summarizes the purpose of such visits as well:

“The specific duties of the office of elder are… to faithfully visit the members of the congregation in their homes to comfort, instruct, and admonish them with the Word of God.”

There are three verbs here: comfort, instruct, and admonish. From the above description it would seem that elders have the second verb in the forefront of their mind and so they come prepared to instruct. In itself this is commendable. Scripture tells us that elders should be “able to teach” and should indeed “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine” (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9). And no doubt many families have learned and benefitted from what elders have taught. But should that teaching be “out of the blue” or with little understanding of the particular circumstances and needs of the family (or individual)?

That’s where I think the way we conduct our home visits has gotten out of focus and become imbalanced. Elders enter the home focussed on conveying a scriptural message, intent on teaching and applying the doctrine of the passage they’ve been intensely studying on their own, without having first listened carefully to what’s going on in the home. While gentle admonitions and words of correction might come out of the teaching passage, almost forgotten by the elders on a home visit is the duty to “comfort.” That shows that something is out of whack. There’s been a largely one-way period of instruction on a pre-chosen topic instead of a careful application of God’s Word to the specific circumstances of the family.

All of this, I’ve observed, often creates an unintended disconnect. After an hour dialogue with the family about the passage where the kids and adults could gamely answer questions and make comments, the elders come away with a favourable impression. In the car they comment to each other: “that went well, don’t you think?” But meanwhile, in the home, the kids feel as if they’ve been in school for an hour and the parents feel frustrated that the elders didn’t inquire more personally into each family member’s walk with the Lord. The elders may have a good feeling that the family is on a solid footing in the faith but the family feels like the elders hardly know them and don’t “get” them.

Maybe the worst of it is that those visited fail to see how God’s Word speaks into the concrete reality of their day-to-day lives. We need to fix this.

Listening     

Here is where the art of listening and seeking to understand needs to find a fresh place in our thinking as elders. Though the Church Order does not mention the need to “listen,” it is clearly implied in the duty to “comfort, instruct, and admonish.” How can elders comfort a member or a family if they don’t first know what difficulty or misery they may be experiencing? Of course, every person as a sinner experiences the general misery of sin and its consequences, but almost always individuals or families are feeling the effects of sin in very particular ways. They have their own troubles and for the elders to bring comfort to that household they must first take the time to ask about and understand those troubles.

It is the same with admonitions. To admonish is to gently give reproof or words of correction to someone who’s acting, thinking, or speaking in an unbiblical way. How can elders correct a member unless they know if, how, and where he is going astray? In a conversation on a single Bible passage or theme, a certain limited area needing correction may come out, but there is so much to life and so many possible areas needing correction that a wide-ranging conversation (more than one even!) is needed before meaningful admonition can be brought. If the Bible passage is too much in the spotlight of the annual home visit, much of the family’s personal views and practices may remain in the shadows, unseen by the elders. Elders need to bring those out of the shadows by asking good questions in order to get a clear picture of a person and/or a family. Of course, it’s not to be an interrogation like with police officers but it ought to be a caring inquiry like that of a concerned father, who truly wants to help his son to stay on or find his way back to the pathway of life.

Teaching or instructing by elders in the home, too, is meant to come on the heels of listening. Certainly, members are instructed (and admonished and comforted) in a general way from the pulpit by the preaching of the Word. Although the Holy Spirit definitely applies the preaching to individual lives in personal (and often surprising!) ways, the minister can’t single out a particular family or individual and their needs from the pulpit. But elders can when they enter someone’s home. That’s one of the privileges elders have, to  bring God’s Word into the specific, individual lives of the members they visit. That means they must come to know these sheep very well, up close and personal, so they can skillfully apply God’s Word to the particular needs of the household.

It seems to me that too often elders are replicating what the minster does from the pulpit: they enter the home and the first thing they do is give a mini “sermon” on a passage with some pointed questions to the family. That’s like prescribing a certain medicine for a person without knowing the extent of his ailment or his overall condition. Wouldn’t it be far better if elders first took time to listen to all that’s going on in the lives of the parents and children and then came with the instruction, encouragement, comfort, and admonition of God’s Word? Wouldn’t that be establishing a genuine pastoral connection between elders and members that would be profitable for members and under-shepherds alike, upbuilding for the church, and glorifying to the Lord?

A revised approach

To bring this about I would suggest two things. First, elders make it a point to get to know the individuals and families in their ward as soon as possible after they are appointed to office. One home visit per year is hardly sufficient to get acquainted beyond the surface of things. Elders normally come into office in the spring. Home visits start in the fall. Why not use the summer months to drop in for a more casual acquaintance visit? Consider hosting a social for those under your direct care.

You might think: that’s a lot of extra work! Yes, it is. But it’s the Lord’s work and it’s good and beneficial. Besides, it doesn’t have to be a huge burden. Elders generally oversee a ward in pairs, so the two partners could divide the ward in halves with each taking responsibility to getting to know one half over the summer months. A casual visit to become acquainted plus regular chats in the church parking lot will do a lot to establish both a bond and a base level of understanding of the person/family. That will set up the home visit to be a time of deeper connection and thus more genuinely helpful for the household.

The second thing I would suggest is that elders re-order the flow of a home visit and change the focus of the visit. Instead of the customary:

  • prayer
  • Bible reading
  • instruction
  • conversation/listening
  • prayer

…which focuses on teaching a pre-conceived lesson, why not try:

  • prayer
  • conversation/listening
  • Bible reading
  • instruction/application
  • prayer

…which focuses on understanding the family’s needs in order to aptly apply God’s Word to their situation.

Remember that neither Scripture nor the confessions nor the Church Order prescribe the order or manner of home visits. It is left to us to apply the principle of God’s Word (i.e. shepherds caring for the sheep) to the situation.

As far as I can see, it would be a great improvement to the effectiveness of home visits if elders began with a brief prayer for the Lord to bless the visit with openness, honesty, a willingness to share what’s in the heart along with a good understanding for the elders and the ability to bring God’s word beneficially for the family. Indeed this is something those visited should pray for in advance as well – the ability to be vulnerable with the elders and for the elders to give wise counsel from the Word of God.

The next and larger part of the visit would be spent inquiring about the family’s daily life and their walk with the Lord, listening carefully to their struggles and joys, to what really lives in their hearts and home. Equipped with an understanding of where the person/family is really at, the elders could then open God’s Word to apply its teaching directly to their realities. The concluding prayer can then bring to the Lord the details of thanksgiving/praise and needs that were raised in the visit (drawing in also what came out of the Scripture passage).

In this way the individual/family will experience that Christ’s appointed shepherds have understood them well, genuinely care for them, and are using God’s Word to help them grow closer to the Lord. In this way Scripture (and prayer) can more truly and fully be used to comfort, instruct, and admonish members for their good and the glory of God’s name.

Too difficult?  

At this point an elder might say: but I can’t think that fast on my feet! Every household is different. How am I supposed to have a Bible passage that I can quickly pull out that will speak to the particulars of a given family?

I realize this may sound daunting but it’s not as bad as it seems. Even if an elder only prepared one text thoroughly in advance, he would be better able to apply it meaningfully to the people after hearing what lives in their home than if he read it before all of that was discussed.

However, many elders already have the habit of selecting two or three passages to use at home visits throughout the season. They study them so they know them well enough to use as needed. This allows both variety and flexibility to use a certain passage in a home where they have an inkling it will better fit than another passage. Elders can simply build on this approach. Even if a home visit theme is selected by consistory (and I’m not sold on the idea that this is the best way to go), experienced elders know that they need to be flexible and that the theme just doesn’t work in some situations.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch if an elder would work in advance to be very familiar with five distinct passages, each with its own accent. One passage could highlight the comfort we have in Christ as forgiven sinners; another the ability that Christ works in us to lead holy lives and his calling to do so; another could be the glorious future the Lord is preparing for us; still another could be a reflection on the love, power, and grace of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit); a fifth could deal with our task as living members of the church. After listening and grasping the nature of a person’s (or family’s) situation, the elder could mentally select one of his five passages, read it, and go to work applying its message to them specifically.

Elders should not feel intimidated by this, as if selecting a text to match the needs of the visit is beyond their capability. Not so. I have always found it amazing how so many Bible passages can be applied in a variety of circumstances and do good to God’s people. His word is living and powerful. It always has something to say to those who belong to him. When elders, prayerfully relying on the Spirit of Christ, seek to bring his Word to meet the needs of his people, they will be blessed in doing so. The voice of the Good Shepherd will be heard by the sheep and they will be fed and led by him to continue walking in his way. In this way the home visit may be revitalized and experienced by all as a blessing from the Lord.

Rev. Peter Holtvlüwer is pastor of the Ancaster Canadian Reformed Church and editor of the 4-volume commentary “Christ’s Psalms, our Psalms.This article first appeared in Clarion, Issue 16 (Vol. 69) under the title “Improving home visits” and is reprinted here with permission.


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