On Doing Home Visitation
C. Eric Fennema
Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 7, no. 2 (Apr. 1998), pp. 32-34
In a Reformed church-order book we read the following:
The elders, with the minister(s), shall have supervision over the congregation...They shall, with the minister(s), exercise pastoral care over the congregation.
Pastoral Care shall be exercised over all the members of the congregation. The minister of the Word and the elders shall conduct annual home visitation.
These two articles of a Reformed church order are a succinct description of the biblical calling of the elders and ministers of the Word in their task as overseers of the church of Jesus Christ.
The purpose of this article is to examine this time honored reformed practice of family visitation. What is it? Why is it important? How should it be conducted?
What is family visitation?
It is one of the official means by which the ruling elders, the overseers exercise oversight, pastoral care, shepherdingin the church of Jesus Christ. Family or house visitation is when teams of two elders (or an elder and a minister) personally visit the home of a church member or family to discuss the spiritual vitality of their Christian life and the life of the church as a congregation, the body of Christ.
What is the purpose of family visitation?
Family visitation receives its Biblical focus from the words of the apostle Paul, when he addressed the Ephesian elders, in Acts 20:18-21, 28-31. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you, but have taught you publicly and from house to house...I never stopped warning each of you, night and day with tears.
When we read the above passage, and the other passages concerning the work and calling of the undershepherd, we could summarize the purpose of family visitation as pastoral care. Family visitation has a threefold purpose:
- It is intended to strengthen the spiritual lives of faith of the members of the congregation of Christ.
- It is intended to challenge the worship and witness or service of the members of the body of Christ, that it may be found acceptable to the Lord.
- It is intended to promote and encourage the fellowship or communion of the saints of the household of God.
The purpose of family visiting, in other words, is to see that Gods Word is alive and functioning in the hearts and lives of the members of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. By this means, the officebearers called to and entrusted with the souls of Gods people, are enabled to check the spiritual pulse or welfare, the condition of the body of Christ.
The Importance of Family Visitation
Family visitation is important, therefore, because the elders come as representatives of Jesus Christ, the Head of the church, in his kingly office. The elders have been given by Christ the calling to watch over your souls, as men who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you (Hebrews 13:17).
As Berghoef and De Koster rightly emphasize in their guide for church leaders, A regular program of family visitation promises the following benefits:
- It extends the care and supportive concern of the Church into the homes of the membership (2 Thessalonians 5:11-13).
- Family-visiting provides ways to determine the precise needs of the congregation....
- It allows the elders to assess the peoples reaction to the preaching and teaching and all the other functions of the Church.
- Visiting establishes a meaningful relationship between eldership and congregation apart from emergency situations....
- It provides a way to detect problems...
Their whole seventh chapter on Visiting the Membership is worth the reading and study by the eldership.
How should family visitation be conducted?
First, we ought to be reminded of the negative. It should not be conducted as a Bible Study or a private preaching session or worship service. Certainly, the Word of God must be the starting point and guide for the visit. Certainly, the Word of God ought to be explained and applied from house to house. Surely, in one respect, we are worshipping the Lord. But family visitation is to be viewed as Christ, through His ordained representatives, coming to our house, so that elders and church members might together examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you unless, of course you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test. (2 Cor. 13:5-6)
Self-examination, as the body, and as members of the body is not a matter of condemnation according to the apostle. It is the fruit of faith. Self-examination is not meant to cause us doubt, to question our salvation, our adoption as Gods children, whether we are dead or alive. Just as a doctors examination, a physical examination does not check whether you are alive, whether you have a heart...but whether you are well, whether your heart is operating properly. So family visitation is to be conducted as a spiritual checkup as the body of Christ and as members of the body.
Of course, we need a standard, and that must be in the church, the Word of God. This standard, the Bible, the Church as a body, as a whole has been called to be the pillar of the truth. The church holds up the truth by her confessions of faith, her creeds. Therefore, the Scriptures as explained by the confessions of the Church, the common faith are certainly a necessary ingredient in family visitation.
Family visitation is found beneficial when it begins with a family visitation sermon at the beginning of the year. A family visitation guide for the church members is made available so that the family prepares for this important visit. These are distributed to the families generally a week before the visit is scheduled. An example of such a guide is appended to this article. Families are encouraged to discuss this guide before the visit by the elders. These visits can be made once a month by the whole eldership (in teams), and covering the congregation in about a years time. This way the eldership keeps a regular contact with the whole congregation throughout the year.
The elders, in their first meeting of the year are given a more detailed guide for understanding and applying the passage in discussion with the family. A basic theme and a main question are the common focus for the visit, and generally has to do with the issue of spiritual growth. Areas of concern to which the passage is applied range from worship, public- family-personal, stewardship, participation in church life...to our witness or conduct in society with our neighbors.
This kind of preparation for family visitation by both elders and church members has been blessed by the Lord, and strengthens, builds up the body of Christ. As the apostle has said, Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58b). Have you considered family visitation? 2
The following is a sample of material for church members which supplements the material for elders presented on the previous two pages. Guides such as the following are provided for members of the congregation each year in preparation for the annual family visitation.
A FAMILY VISITING GUIDE
Scripture: Ephesians 6:10-20
This month we hope to have family visitation at your home. Hopefully this letter will help this visit become a blessing to all.
The purpose of family visitation is threefold:
- to strengthen our spiritual lives of faith,
- to challenge our worship and service, and
- to promote the fellowship of the saints in summary, to see if Gods Word is alive and functioning in all of our life.
The elders come as representatives of Christ and his Kingly office, who have been given responsibility to watch over your souls as men who must give account. Let them do so with joy, and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you. When the elders come, the Lord is proclaiming his love for you! (Hebrews 13)
Before the elders arrive, it would be well for you to gather as a family, to discuss the passage in the light of the following questions. Our aim in family visitation is not the church as an organization remember, but to help each family live closer to the Triune God and His Word.
The basic message is: The Christian life is the life of a soldier. This life needs to be strong in the Lord...it needs the armor of God and prayer.
- Do you believe you are living as a good soldier of Jesus Christ? Why or why not?
- What do you believe it means to be a good soldier of God? What makes a good soldier?
- Do you find this to be true in your life? Why or why not? What does a good soldier need? How do you face defeats? victories? enemies?
- What do you believe we as soldiers...personally, as a church, face as enemies (evils, dangers) in the world today? How can we fight them?
- How would you describe your prayer life? Why do we need prayer? How can it be improved?
- Where do we need the armor of God? Cf. 5:21-31,6:1-9,20ff.
We pray for the Lords blessing on our meeting, and on your home.
Yours in Christs service,
 I. Van Dellen and M. Monsma, The Revised Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967).
 G. Berghoef and L. De Koster, The Elders Handbook: A Practical Guide For Church Leaders, (Grand Rapids: Christians Library Press, 1979).
C. Eric Fennema is presently serving as pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Rock Valley, Iowa. This article resulted from a paper he presented recently at a meeting of the Barnabas Fellowship of Reformed Pastors in Northwest Iowa. We thank Rev. Fennema for his response to our request for this article.