One of the things my colleagues and I have implemented this year is a programme of home visitation, to visit every family in the congregation in order to do something of a 'spiritual check-up', so that we might better be able to pray for them, disciple them, and encourage them on in their faith. Our vicar had been reading Richard Baxter's classic work, The Reformed Pastor, towards the end of last year, and was convicted of the need to practice home visitation in our own parish. I've quoted Baxter on this subject before on this blog, because he rightly understood how crucial it was for ministers to engage in this sort of work. It would not be a stretch to say that for Baxter, the very life of the church, or at least its vitality, hinged on faithfully carrying out this practice. William Willimon understands this too, and helpfully speaks of the pastor's 'right of intrusion'.
The response we have received so far from our parishioners as they've welcomed us into their homes has been overwhelmingly positive, and we have been greatly encouraged by their openness, honesty, and desire for spiritual guidance. I find this particularly interesting because I recall having a conversation whilst in seminary with some fellow students who thought Baxter's practice outdated and unhelpful. They felt reticent about the idea of engaging in home visitation because it would infringe on the privacy of the members of the church and would implicitly communicate that the leadership of the church was seeking some sort of totalitarian dominance over the lives of their parishioners.
It occurred to me that perhaps part of the reason some might hesitate to engage in such a practice is simply because they are living in a culture that incessantly bombards them with the message that they are autonomous individuals, subject only to their own authority and responsible only for themselves. We have woven into the fabric of Western culture an aversion toward authority, which has largely defined the Christianity of this culture as well. The individual is the primary unit, evidenced by our over-emphasis on personal salvation or the tendency we have to turn subjective experiences and feelings into objective standards of theology and practice. In turn, this means the individual has full responsibility over their life and spirituality, and the church is there to serve them and meet their felt needs.
But this is not how it is supposed to work in the church.
When you are baptised, you are brought into a family. You are no longer an autonomous individual, but you have been bound to the community of believers who have a shared identity in their union with Christ. Naturally, this does not entail giving up your individuality, but you do undergo an objective change as you are given a new identity and incorporated into a new community. And that means that now you are bound to live life together with all the other children of our heavenly Father. Every baptised Christian has a responsibility for the spiritual well-being of one another.
The church is a family, and if you have spent any time living as part of a family, you understand what this means. Each member of the family has his or her own life, of course, but the nature of family life, even something as simple as living in the same house, means that these individual lives are going to constantly cross paths. And this crossing of paths is not something that family members try to avoid, but they recognise it as an important part of their life together. A family supports each other, encourages each other, and will call each other to account if need be.
Like a family, this is how it is to be in the church. Your life is intimately bound up with the life of the others you live together with. While you certainly retain a measure of responsibility for your personal life, this responsibility is also taken up by the other members of the church. When people are baptised, many congregations will make vows to them and promise to support them, pray for them, and nurture them in their Christian walk. An extra measure of responsibility for this task is given to the leaders of the church. Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus make the importance of spiritual oversight very clear. Likewise, the author of the letter to the Hebrews, clearly a pastor himself, makes mention at numerous points of looking after the spiritual well-being of those he wrote to.
One particular way the leaders of a church can do this is through the practice of home visitation. When I was growing up, my father served as an elder in a number of different Christian Reformed churches, and he will tell you that this particular task was among the most blessed and fruitful part of his ministry as an elder. This was largely because he came to really know the members of the congregation under his oversight, and he then knew how to minister to them and to pray for them more effectively. Whether or not the practice of home visitation will be as successful in every context depends on a number of different factors – the church must have godly leaders, and people must be willing to be open and vulnerable, for example – but it is a practice that can be cultivated, and which will enrich the life of each local community of believers.
I know that there are pastors and church leaders who understand all this and already practice it in one way or another. But I think there is a lot of wisdom and benefit to be gained from practising it in a systematic way, ensuring that during a period of a year, each member or family in a congregation gets a visit from the church leaders responsible for pastoral oversight. This method has something of a proven historical track record since it has been done for centuries. The simple act itself of stepping into someone's home is an intentional way of deepening the level of intimacy and trust in the relationship of the pastor and parishioner. It is a very concrete way of saying to each member of the church, 'We care deeply for you.' All of this lends itself on the one hand to fostering the spiritual growth of a congregation, and on the other hand to strengthening the bond of fellowship of the church as the members come to understand what it means to be a family.
The Christian life was never meant to be lived alone. Don't think of spiritual oversight as an intrusion into your private life, but welcome it as a blessing. God intends for the leaders he appoints to the church to shepherd his flock because, in Isaiah's words, we all like sheep will go astray and turn to our own ways. The church is a family, and her members are intended to live their life together. Our journey through life is enriched and deepened when we travel with others and help each other stay on the path. In my own church, we have been delighted to see that the people in our congregation get this. As a result, I have found the practice of home visitation so far to be very rewarding, and have been blessed by those visits I have carried out.
If you're thinking about beginning a practice of regular home visitation in your own church, let me share the following chapter from a book my father was given when he first became an elder, called The Elder's Handbook. I believe the authors come out of the Christian Reformed Church. It contains a bit of rationale for the practice of home visitation, as well as some practical tips for how to do it. I think you will find some really helpful suggestions here as you think about how you might carry out the task of visiting your parishioners.
*(This is an updated version of a post I wrote several years ago.)