Taking Heed to the Flock: A Study of the Principles and Practice of Family Visitation
Peter Y. de Jong, Ph. D.
Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 3, no. 1 (January 1994), pp. 18-21
Chapter VIII: The Value of Family VisitationWe look in upon the Christian family, where everything is on a footing of religion, and we see them around their own quiet hearth and table, away from the great public world and its strifes, with a priest of their own to lead them. They are knit together in ties of love that make them one; even as they are fed and clothed out of the same fund, interested in the same possessions, partakers in the same successes and losses, suffering together in the same sorrows, animated each by hopes that respect the future benefit of all. Into such a circle and scene it is that religion comes, each day, to obtain a grace of well-doing for the dayÖIt leads in the day, as dawn leads in the morning. It blends a heavenly gratitude with the joys of the table; it breathes a cheerful sense of God into all the works and tempers of the house; it softens the pillow for rest when the day is done. And so the religion of the house is life itself, the life of life; and having always been observed, it becomes an integral part even of existence, leaving no feeling that, in a proper family it could ever have been otherwise (Horace Bushnell, Christian Nurture).
In spite of all the objections which have been raised against the practice of family visitation as we have come to know and love it in our churches, so much spiritual value inherent in the work if conducted properly that we greatly impoverish ourselves by either carrying it on carelessly or neglecting it altogether.
Spiritual blessings, we are convinced, will accrue not only to the members of the church but quite as much to the consistory which zealously seeks to perform this part of its calling.
For the Eldership
(1) The first benefit for the elders which ought to be mentioned is that diligent pursuance of this practice will enable them to know the spiritual condition of the flock over which the Lord has placed them.
Many experienced elders will cheerfully witness to the truth of that statement. Especially in our larger congregations where members come and go regularly there is a danger that only the pastor knows who belongs. And since he may be called to another field of labor at any time, it is essential to the well-being of the church that the elders are as thoroughly acquainted with the needs of the people as possible. They will in periods of vacancy be compelled to carry on many of the labors which otherwise devolve upon the minister of the gospel. How much easier it is to visit the sick and call on the delinquents, when the members of the consistory are acquainted with the conditions in the family beforehand. Many situations which else would be puzzling often present no problem at all, when one understands the background of the case. The more the elders know the spiritual level of the members, the better able they will be to give wise Christian counsel. And this will contribute in no small way to help them present the challenge of their church intelligently to their next pastor.
(2) By conducting the work prayerfully and regularly the members of the consistory will also know whether or not the believers over whom they have been placed make spiritual progress by using the means of grace. Those who superintend the flock must not only know whether the members are diligent in church attendance but also whether they receive spiritual blessings.
Of course, this does not mean that minister and elders must make it their policy to cater to the tastes of the people. Such an attempt is beneath the spiritual dignity of the officers of Christís church. Many people in Jesusí day also followed Him solely for the loaves and the fishes and forsook Him when His words seemed hard and mysterious. The rule may well be applied here that what people do not like is often just what they need.
Yet it must be a matter of deepest concern to consecrated office-bearers whether or not the Word of God challenges their lives and influences them for good. This knowledge which may best be gleaned at family visitation should be frankly and freely discussed in the spirit of Christian brotherliness and concern for the advancement of the gospel cause at the meetings of the consistory.
(3) These visits likewise give the elders a much-needed opportunity for engaging in preventative work, with the result that instances of glaring defection from the rule of gospel become more infrequent among the people of God. An ounce of prevention in spiritual work is worth a pound of cure any time. Family visitation affords an opportunity not to be despised, of pointing out the weakness of the flesh and of encouraging Christians to put on the new man, that after God hath been created in righteousness and holiness of truth (Ephesians 4:24).
This is quite different from trying to frighten people into a life of godliness. Such an attempt would fail miserably. True growth in grace is always the result of an internal compulsion worked in the heart by the Spirit of God. However, by means of words of wisdom and kindness such spiritual desires, which for a time may seem to lie quite dormant in the heart, may be fanned into a flame which will burn purely and brightly to Godís glory and the good name of the church of Christ.
(4) We should not forget that such visits also stimulate the spiritual unity of believers.
How easy it is to forget in our days of rank individualism that we are members of the body of Christ, and though our callings differ, we are all given to each other for the purpose of mutual edification. Paul writes to the believers at Corinth, So also ye, since ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may abound unto the edifying of the church (1 Corinthians 14:12).í
Many minor difficulties and misunderstandings have been removed in congregations where the elders were faithful in the execution of their holy office. Long before such problems become ripe for consistorial action, they can be nipped in the bud and thus prevent much unpleasantness and rancor. So often when discipline must be applied, the case in hand defies a happy solution. When at the time of family visitation it becomes apparent that members live at odds with each other, the elders can point to the rule of Matthew 18 before the matter assumes serious proportions. At such a time the lofty ideal of living together as brethren and sisters of the spiritual family of God can be appropriately held up, and with the unfailing help of the Holy Spirit who alone applies the Word effectually stumbling blocks will be removed.
(5) Finally this custom enables the elders to demonstrate in a practical way the spirit of Christian love and helpfulness.
The rule which they bear has been given for the purpose of ministering to each other. Those called to the office should remember the example which our Saviour gave His disciples at the Last Supper, when after the foot-washing He said, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me, Teacher, and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one anotherís feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, A servant is not greater than his lord; neither one that is sent than he that sent him. If ye know these things, blessed are ye if ye do them (John 13:12-17). Striving to fulfill the law so clearly presented here will effectively banish from the minds and hearts of all elders any spirit of censoriousness and self-righteousness. In the discharge of their spiritual functions they will remember to mirror the office of the Savior who Himself was the Great Shepherd of the sheep.
For the Congregation
Not only do the elders derive much benefit from this work, but the believing church also profits much. They will experience that by means of it they are built up in faith and increased in love.
(1) First of all, as members of the living church they will see more clearly the value of discussing matters pertaining to spiritual life.
In our age, in which leisure is at a premium and the things of the Spirit are constantly clouded over by earthly and material interests, it is so necessary to emphasize this. Many find it difficult to speak to each other about these matters of supreme importance. Not only is there great reluctance to discuss spiritual problems and difficulties which are quite common to all, but most members testify very little to the joy of salvation which should be their portion. We have apparently lost sight of the necessity of edifying one another. This duty we too often leave entirely to the minister when preaching the Word.
Even a cursory and superficial reading of the New Testament will prove that such is the duty of all the members. Perhaps one of the chief reasons why many have no well-defined conception of what truly constitutes Christian living as fellowship with the Lord and His own must be sought in their reluctance to speak about these matters. They complain that they find themselves incapable of expressing their convictions in words. Indeed all of us will find this hard at first. But the oftener a believer gives a reasonable account of the hope that is in him, the easier it will be to witness to the power of Godís grace in His life from day to day. In order that the believer may be stimulated, those who conduct family visitation should guard very carefully against doing all the speaking. The visit should never become a one-sided discourse by minister or elder on the Christian life.
(2) Moreover, these visits will build up the confidence of the people in the leadership of the church.
The task of the elders is far from easy and pleasant. Many problems confront them, if they are zealous in keeping the church pure. Thus their decisions are often mercilessly criticized, and misunderstanding of consistorial action has robbed many a congregation of the blessing of living in the unity of the faith. Much of this can be obviated, if there is close contact between consistory and congregation.
Although the elders are always responsible first of all to the Head and King of the church for what they do, we ought not forget that they are elected by the congregation and therefore ought to be able to give a good account of their work to those who are entitled to that knowledge. If the members see the elders in their official capacity only at the time of public worship, the distance between the two parties will likely breed distrust and misunderstanding.
(3) The preventative work in which the elders engage at the time of family visitation will help the believers live more consistently Christian lives.
There are times when Godís people stumble into grievous sins before they are fully aware of the net which Satan has spread for them. The longer any particular sin has dominion over their lives, the more hardened their hearts will be, and the more difficult to break with that form of evil. Many will testify that the kindly words and fervent prayers of the elders have greatly aided them in escaping the snares of the devil and restoring them to the blessed fellowship of God.
(4) As a result, this work always presents a good opportunity for learning more about the Christian way of life.
It is at times difficult to see the implications of the gospel for daily life. Although words are wonderful vehicles for the communication of thought, we are still in an imperfect world. Therefore what may be clear to most of the members is by no means plain to all. These latter should be helped. Paul speaks to the elders at Miletus of his practice of going from house to house teaching publicly the things of the kingdom of God. Although the form will be different today, since we have regularly established churches, the church still needs shepherds who teach in the homes of the members.
(3) Finally, by contacting the families in this way, the elders can effectively point out the high ideal of living together as a Christian family from day to day. That our people need such repeated and personal reminders needs no proof.
No congregation is stronger than the families which constitute it. We have the beautiful New Testament picture of churches meeting in the several homes. Even though such an arrangement is quite impractical today and fraught with grave dangers, we may never forget that every Christian family is ideally speaking a miniature church. What greater blessing can be enjoyed than that of seeing Godís grace working in the generations, so that grandparents and parents and children alike bow to the same God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, rejoice in the same heavenly Savior and experience the gracious operation of the same Holy Spirit? How greatly Paul rejoiced, when he could write to Timothy that once and again he was reminded of the unfeigned faith that is in the; which dwelt first in Thy grandmother Lois, and Thy mother Eunice; and, I am persuaded, in thee also (2 Tim. 1:5).
We can hardly over-estimate the significance of the Christian family for the life of the individual believer. Our first religious impressions were gleaned at the time of family worship. Our childish lips learned first to pray to God at our mothersí knees. There we heard first the stories of the holy gospel and the way of salvation. In general the strongest and sweetest Christian lives are early molded in and by the most spiritual families. Our God is the God of the covenant, whose gracious promises to our children place us under solemn obligation to nurture them in the fear and admonition of the Lord. This is not only sound psychology but above all good Scripture doctrine.
Let the elders never weary of pointing out to children and parents alike their privileges and obligations. The whole Bible plainly teaches the significance of a truly godly home. And when our homes are permeated with the principles of the holy gospel, the future of the church is secure.
If family visitation did no more than keep alive in the minds and hearts of believers the ideal of a truly God-centered home, its value could never be overestimated.
Dr. P. Y. de Jong has served during all of his long ministry in the Christian Reformed Church. He was at one time a professor at Calvin Seminary, and more recently helped to organize Mid-America Reformed Seminary. In the intervening years he has served as pastor in several CRC congregations.
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