In keeping with the new format of www.missioalliance.org, we are adding a second post every week on Wed-Thursdays by other/former pastors of Life on the Vine Christian Community and our church planting network. This week it’s Ty Grigg. Read about him here.
Home visitation has had a long-standing place in pastoral ministry. My grandpa was a pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Decatur, IL in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. At least once a week he would go with another man from the church to visit people in their homes unannounced. They were people who had visited the church the previous week, or members that were no longer active, or even referrals from people in the congregation. They were not active members. The purpose of the visit was to proclaim the gospel to unbelievers or to recover the “straying sheep.”
George Herbert, a 17th century Anglican priest in England, describes the ideal priest in The Country Parson:
“The Country Parson upon the afternoons in the weekdays, takes occasion sometimes to visit in person, now one quarter of his Parish, now another. For there he shall find his flock most naturally as they are…”
And in his own home.. “having then invited some of his Parish, he takes his times to do the like to the rest; so that in the compass of the year, he has them all with him.”
Richard Baxter, a contemporary of Herbert, was a Puritan pastor in England who wrote The Reformed Pastor. He also emphasizes the need for a systematic visitation of the congregation as the primary way that “reformation” comes to the church. One-on-one, the pastor can specifically proclaim the gospel, teach, and heal.
Do pastors visiting people in their homes still have a place today in post-Christendom North America? Herbert’s Country Parson, Baxter’s Reformed Pastor, and my grandpa seem to be pastors of a bygone world. Can we trust their old maps to still work when so much has changed? Home visitations seem more difficult and untenable in our current contexts:
- The “parish” is more geographically unbounded. Life on the Vine is a church of about 125 people who live spread out across an area nearly the size of Luxembourg.
- Home is a private space. It is not a cultural norm to have neighbors or even friends over to our homes for dinner. If we want to be with people, we go out. The restaurant has replaced the space that home once occupied in society. Typically, for younger generations (40’s and under), a visit will be at a coffee shop or to grab lunch. In our suburban isolation, the home is too much of an intimate, sacred space for most non-family members to enter.
- The pastor has lost privilege of access. In past eras, it may have been an honor to have “a man of God” under your roof. Now, young pastors (like me) wrestle with “how do I invite myself over to someone else’s house?” We wonder if we are imposing or inconveniencing people. We don’t want to presume that others want us to come over. When we do visit a home, each family and individual has different expectations. Confusion abounds.
- In a co-pastor model, who visits who? Do we arrange it by geography, availability, gifting? Am I the “primary” pastor of a third of the church? If someone is sick, should they be hearing from all of us in some form? How does the expectations of the congregation change based upon whether there is one senior pastor, a dedicated “community care” pastor, or a polycentric co-pastor structure?
- We are busy. The windows of availability for members and pastors are narrow and often do not overlap. If a pastor has children, she walks a tightrope between pastoral responsibilities and family time. With other weeknight meetings, how many other nights are we available to be away from home?
- People are shepherded through house groups and by caregivers in the church. The pastor is not supposed to be superman. They equip, organize, and direct the body to care for the body.
- We pastor through facebook. In a world of text messages, social media, and rush hour traffic, house visits seem like an antiquated pastoral practice equivalent to a doctor carrying a medicine bag, walking down cobblestone streets making house calls. I think it is interesting that when a major event happens in someone’s life, I am more likely to hear about it first through facebook or a mass email.
In spite of all of these reasons, I don’t think we should be quick to abandon pastoral house visits for the following reasons:
- A house visit is vital for paying attention to people’s lives (Acts 20:28). One friend wrote to me: “Until you see the living conditions of a participant in your faith community, you don’t really know what is going on in their life.”
- A house visit is vital for the work of prayer. In the visit, I listen for their prayers to God – whether they know them to be prayers or not – and I am better able to pray for them throughout the week.
- A house visit is vital for the work of preaching. The hardest part of the sermon for me is “what is the good news of this passage that addresses the trouble that we face at Life on the Vine.” How can I proclaim good news, if I’m not in touch with the general and specific troubles of our community? How can I discover the troubles without real relationship and conversation?
- A house visit is vital for leading a community. It is a dedicated and private space to hear about any problems there may be in the church or to discover hidden passions or hopes. So much of the big problems and hurts that develop in the church could probably have easily been navigated if they would have been addressed early on. The absence of relationship and clear paths of communication foster bitterness, resentment, and hurt feelings.
- A house visit lays the relational groundwork helpful for future crises and celebrations. A death in the family, a birth, a sickness – these are such delicate and intimate moments in a person’s life. It is such a privilege to be invited in to these places. As much as possible, I want to have shown myself to be a trustworthy person before coming into that holy space with another person.
- A house visit is vital for blessing lives in their everyday context. This visit is a time to take notice of people’s interests and routines and as much as possible to name the ordinary goodness of work and play as a gift from God – something to be thankful for and to receive with delight. It is blessing by recasting the ordinary as a place where Christ is present and working.
- A house visit is vital for caring for lost and straying sheep. We often put the burden of shepherding on the sheep. If they have a problem, then we are available. They can call or email us. Okay, I may not be an expert herdsman, but I am pretty sure shepherds are not counting on the sheep to come to them for help. The shepherd goes and gets the sheep. Many people who are most in need of a pastor’s visit are the ones who are not asking for one.
If pastors will be held accountable for their oversight of the flock (Heb. 13:17, 1 Pet. 5:1-4), are we being faithful? I propose that pastors and church leaders build house visits into their regular schedule – one night a week, 30-45 minute visits, in one or two homes, listening, praying, proclaiming, blessing, and looking for the Spirit’s movement and work.
What do you think? Should pastors/churches have a systematic plan for being with the whole flock, visiting them in their homes? What does it look like in your context?