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. 2 (April 1994)

Chapter IX: The Proper Practice of Family Visitation

“I have now, brethren, done with my advice, and leave you to the practice. Though the proud receive it with scorn, and the selfish and slothful with distaste, or even with indignation, I doubt not but God will use it, in despite of the opposition of sin and Satan, to the awakening of many of his servants to their duty, and to the promotion of a work of right reformation; and that his blessing will accompany the present undertaking for the saving of many souls the peace of you that understand and perform it, the exciting of his servants throughout the nation to second you, and the increase of the purity and unity of his churches. Amen.” (Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor).

We have considered at great length some of the basic principles of family visitation. This, however, will not be sufficient to carry the work out successfully. It is necessary to give some time and consideration to the question of its proper exercise also. Unless we are able to give a good account of the work itself, understanding what is required of both elders and members of the congregation, our efforts will be fruitless.

Preparing for the Work

To conduct family visitation successfully the elders ought to prepare themselves carefully for this important task.

It goes without saying, of course, that we who are Reformed are very averse to anything which would smack of legalism in our family visitation. The work is spiritual; therefore so difficult of accomplishment. For that reason we have never countenanced the Roman Catholic practice of supplying prepared manuals, the use of which would be obligatory. For spiritual life we can only lay down general principles. There cannot be specific applications binding equally under any and all circumstances.

God has also been pleased to glorify Himself in the variety of spiritual life found among His people. No two of His children have identical problems and experiences. Therefore the specific approach also at family visitation will have to be left always to the discretion of those elders who engage in the work.

In consequence, preparation for this work will necessarily be of a rather general nature. The elders will not be able to decide beforehand just what they shall say and do. A detailed plan of procedure would be of value only if we could predict with reasonable accuracy how the members of the congregation react under certain circumstances. Since the depths of the heart are known to God alone and only some small part is revealed at any time, we will have to rely upon the Holy Spirit for wisdom and guidance in approaching the needs of the people.

To be conscious of this situation challenges the elders to prepare their own hearts first.

Richard Baxter in his valuable, if somewhat antiquated, work on The Reformed Pastor beautifully delineates the spiritual oversight which the pastors (also elders) should have of themselves. According to this worthy divine it consists of five chief parts:

  1. See that the work of grace be thoroughly wrought in your own souls.
  2. See that you be not only in a state of grace but that your graces are in vigorous and lively exercise.
  3. See that your example contradict not your doctrine.
  4. See that you live not in those sins against which you preach in others.
  5. See that you (lack) not the qualifications necessary for the work.[1]

Only those who are conscious of their own spiritual state of grace can perform this arduous work. They should engage in prayer for guidance before they begin, earnestly beseeching God that the words to be spoken may meet with divine approval and prove to be a blessing to those toward whom they are directed. Any unkind word or gesture may easily prove to be a serious obstacle to the successful conducting of the work.

Let not one of the elders fail to give himself a good account of his personal attitude towards the brethren and sisters. Any censoriousness is out of place. Likewise will those fail who exercise the oversight in the spirit of superiority and tyranny.

But that the chief blessings may be insured, the elders ought not to fail to study the Word of God in which are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Only in its light will we be able to understand the spiritual problems which our people face daily. There will also be abundant occasion for defending the true faith against the false doctrines which are so popular today. In order to teach wisely and well, the elders must be grounded in the faith and have the ability to defend the truth as it is in Christ Jesus with tact and conviction.

Too often family visitation tends to degenerate into a social call. Then it is time and effort wasted to call upon all the members each year. But if we remember the spiritual duty of exercising oversight in the name of Christ, we will not be remiss in preparing ourselves for this work, knowing that no one is sufficient to these things of himself.

Choosing the Best Method

But how must the work be conducted, when the elders arrive at the homes of the members? This involves the problem of the most advantageous method.

Should the elders ask questions and then expect direct answers, in order to become better acquainted with the spiritual level of the members? Or should they allow the discussion to follow the course decided by those whom they visit?

That there are arguments which can be adduced in favor of the latter practice is self-evident. Particularly when Christians are somewhat advanced in the way of sanctification, it is gratifying to allow them to direct the discussion. They will naturally bring up those matters which they feel to be of greatest concern to themselves and their families. Especially when they are fully conscious of the proper spiritual relationship which should obtain between the members and the officers of the church at the time of family visitation, this method can be successfully pursued. Thus we escape the difficult of having the work assume the form of inquisition to any degree.

But we should not forget that most people are not able to direct a spiritual discussion profitably. Many times they do not see and understand their own needs as well as the elders do, whose calling it is to watch for their souls. Never may we lose sight of the distinction between official family visitation and free spiritual discussion between the brethren of the church for mutual edification. The former seeks not only the profit of the individual but above all the growth of the whole body of Christ in truth and love.

Bearing these things in mind, we will understand the necessity of carefully considering the questions which should be asked and answered.

Suggestions by Certain Reformed Fathers

Biesterveld in his work on family visitation mentions what some Reformed writers considered to be proper and necessary questions at the time of these visits.

Zepperus, for example, thought that the minister ought to ask about the knowledge which each member had of the Reformed faith, also whether family worship and catechism teaching in the home were maintained, and further whether the members diligently attended the preaching of the Word and partook when the Lord’s Supper was administered.

Helmichius strongly stressed the personal character of the work and considered it essential that family visitation be used to bring the wandering sheep back to the fold. He regards the pastor as the physician of souls who must prescribe the spiritual medicines and as jurist who can help the believers in their difficulties. William Teelinck, Reformed pastor at Middelburg during the first quarter of the seventeenth century, speaks of the profitableness of carrying on family visitation at the time of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Already in his days some were beginning to depart from this practice, which he considered a grievous loss for the spiritual welfare of the congregation.

One of the most complete discussions of this official work is to be found in the works of Voetius. He speaks of two types of visitation; the regular visitation by the ministers and elders before each celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and the occasional visitation (visitatio occasionata) which ought to take place at least once each year. Upon the first occasion three matters were to be considered: first, whether the believers understood and practiced the proper preparation for and use of the Holy Supper; then, whether the religious services in the church were attended and godliness was practiced in the home; and finally, whether the believers lived in harmony with their neighbors. If the results were unfavorable, the consistory was obliged to continue its labors regularly with such a family until a change for the better took place. At the time of the occasional visitation the pastor was to ask more confidentially about the spiritual condition of each member of the family. Thus the sorrowing were comforted, the weak in faith encouraged, and the wayward warned.

This list could be considerably lengthened, but surely the above is sufficient to suggest the direction taken by leaders in the Reformed churches in the period of their greatest influence and prosperity.

In times past some have drawn up series of questions which could serve as guides to the elders. Never were these meant to be followed rigidly and in routine fashion. Yet in so far as they were used as guides, they served an admirable purpose. Two of these we would include here, in order that their value may not be lost. It should be remembered that they reflect the social and spiritual conditions of the times in which they were written and therefore can hardly be considered satisfactory in that form for us today. New problems have arisen, and these too should be faced. However, because of their value we would include the two given by Biesterveld.

In the year 1708 the Synod of Glasgow in Scotland passed an act respecting “Ministerial Visitation.” By it the visitation of all the families in every parish was regulated for the Scotch churches. The following manner of procedure was prescribed:

  1. After the minister has received a list of all the persons in the family, he is to speak to all in a general way about the necessity of regeneration and the examples of sincere, religious and pious living; also about piety towards God and righteousness and mercy towards men.
  2. Then more specifically to the servants; about their duty to serve God and to be conscientious, faithful and obedient servants, and about the reward which is given to all such; commending to them the reading of the Scriptures and prayer, and exhorting them to love and unity, and above all to give diligence to hallowing the day of the Lord.
  3. The minister is also to address the children according to their ability to understand, speaking to them of the profit of knowing and loving and serving the Lord in the days of their youth and of honoring their parents, reminding them how they were presented to the Lord in baptism; when they are older and have been instructed in the nature of the Covenant of Grace and its seals, to admonish them personally to devote their lives to God, to desire and prepare for their first celebration of the Lord’s Supper, likewise to read the Scriptures daily, to engage in personal prayers and to hallow the day of the Lord.
  4. After the minister has spoken to the servants and children, he must address himself especially to the master and mistress of the family about their personal obligations to God and their care for the salvation of their souls; their duty to promote the true religion and worship of God in their home, opposing and punishing sin, promoting true godliness, and honoring the day of the Lord. Here it is also proper to admonish the fathers to see to it that in the daily family worship the Lord is served in prayer, thanksgiving and Scripture reading. Furthermore the minister must ask about the conduct of the servants and the fulfillment of their duties towards God and man, likewise how faithfully they attend family worship and public worship on the Lord’s Day, and whether some are godly and sincere. Then, too, whether the ignorant and weak are instructed, and whether proper care is exercised for the training of the children; especially whether they are sent to school, what profit they derive therefrom and how they spend the day of the Lord in the home and in private after the sermon. Together with all this the minister must add appropriate encouragements, directions and admonitions, as he sees fit.
  5. The minister is also to inquire about the supply of Bibles.
  6. He must admonish the communicants to remember and to pay their vows.
  7. And because all this requires much care and zeal towards God and love for the souls of men, it must be done in dependence upon God and with fervent prayer to Him, both before the minister goes out to do this work, and when he is with those whom he visits.[2]

The same author has also provided us with a copy of the resolution adopted by the consistory of the Reformed church of Utrecht about fifty years ago. This action was taken to facilitate the work of family visitation by the elders and the ministers by following a rather well-defined pattern. If we bear in mind the size of such a congregation, we will understand why such a decision was necessary to give more unity to the work. Questions which the Elders of the church at Utrecht are to ask the members of the congregation at the time of family visitation:

  1. How many constitute the particular family and who these individuals are (father, mother, children, servants, others);
  2. Whether all the members of the family have received Holy Baptism;
  3. Whether all the members of the family have placed themselves under the supervision of the consistory;
  4. Which members of the family have been permitted to partake of the Holy Supper;
  5. Whether all the members of the family faithfully attend public worship, especially on the Lord’s Day, and as far as this is possible also during the week; whether there is growth in the knowledge of the truth; and whether the head of the family investigates this, particularly on the Lord’s Day;
  6. Whether all children of school age attend the Christian School, and if not, what reasons are given for this;
  7. Whether the members of the family who do not yet attend the Lord’s Supper faithfully attend catechetical classes; whether the head of the family supervises their preparation for this; and whether he is acquainted with the fruits of that work;
  8. Whether those who have been permitted to come to the Lord’s Supper also faithfully make use of this means of grace; and whether the father and mother of the family set a good example in this respect;
  9. How those who are under church discipline are conducting themselves (this to be done in private, especially in the case of those who are under silent censure);
  10. Whether the head of the family faithfully leads the family in prayer and in teaching them the Word;
  11. Whether the children and servants manifest obedience to the fifth commandment;
  12. Whether there are any children away from home, and if so, in what circumstances they find themselves; whether these have already made profession of their faith; whether they faithfully attend the services where they are;
  13. How the head of the family watches for the spiritual welfare of the servants which may be in the home;
  14. Whether there is any difficulty or trouble in the home, and whether the members live in peace and unity with their neighbors and the members of the church;
  15. How the family conducts itself on the Lord’s Day;
  16. Whether the family according to its ability supports the poor and the church;
  17. Whether the family in any way needs the advice or help of the consistory.[3]

Following a Definite Plan

Although the Reformed churches have been opposed to the routine use of prepared manuals for the conducting of family visitation, they as a general rule insisted that some definite plan be followed. Time and again the synods took up the matter and issued certain directives for the proper execution of this work. It is therefore not amiss that we also give some consideration to the definite plan which may be followed with profit.

First of all there are certain preliminary considerations. Those who engage in the work must know how many members constitute the family and approximately how old each one is. This knowledge should properly be gleaned from the church records before the visit. So, too, it is of great help to know something of the spiritual background of the particular family. Have they been members of the church for years, or are they recently converted to the Lord? There is a danger that the visits become mere repetitions of previous calls, especially in the larger congregations where it is practically impossible for every elder to become acquainted with the whole church. This obstacle may be overcome to a degree, if the elders are assigned to certain districts each year and if the consistory insists on reports when family visitation is completed. If these facts are borne in mind, the elders will be better prepared to meet the needs of the family.

But how shall they begin? This is perhaps the most difficult part of the whole work. It is so easy to make a few remarks about work or weather, with the result that most of the time is consumed with matters that only very indirectly concern family visitation.

Some have profitably made use of prayer at the very beginning. This is appropriate indeed, especially since it reminds both elders and members that the work will not attain its goal unless the Lord gives His blessing. Others have suggested beginning with the reading of an appropriate passage of Scripture, which then serves as the point of departure for the whole discussion. There are, however, certain difficulties which this practice presents. If the reading is to serve its purpose, the passage ought to be particularly appropriate for that family—not some general passage which might be discussed by anyone. Family visitation is to be distinguished from the preaching of the Word precisely in its more personal and direct application of the gospel to our lives. But also, there is the danger that the one who reads begins to comment on the passage, with the result that most of the time is consumed by the exhortation and the elders do not get to know the spiritual condition of the family at all.

If the congregation understands the nature and purpose of these calls, it is not awkward to begin with a direct question to one of the members of the family. And in order that the discussion may be guided properly, some of the following questions ought to be asked.

There are first of all questions of a general nature which should be asked of all.

  1. Are all the members faithful in attending divine worship and using the means of grace? That this comes first occasions no surprise. From the lips of the members themselves the officers should know whether they are interested in the service of the Lord.
  2. Is there a measure of spiritual growth with each according to age and circumstances? To be able to ask this question properly the elder himself should understand the nature of spiritual life in its several manifestations. We may not expect, as a general rule, the same clear testimony from the young Christians as from those of a more mature age. Although Christ should be personally known and loved and served by all, Christian knowledge and experience deepens as the years go by.
  3. Is there peace and unity in the home? Do the several members manifest love and helpfulness in their relations to each other? Often disharmony in the home will do great damage to the tender plant of faith. How careful particularly the father and mother should be in setting an example of love and godliness in the home!
  4. Are spiritual matters discussed in the home, especially on the Lord’s day? Where secularism so strongly prevails today and threatens the church with undoing, it is necessary to insist on the cultivation of this Christian virtue. Also in connection with this, is provision made for good reading material for old and young alike! We are living in an age when the printed page is very influential. Books and magazines of all sorts find their way into our homes. Does the father supervise the reading of his children, especially of the young people? Nor is it inappropriate to ask whether what is heard over the radio, particularly on the Lord’s day, contributes to the spiritual edification of the family.
  5. Is family worship faithfully and profitably conducted? This of course requires ideally that the father leads in audible prayer, reads the Scriptures reverently and if possible comments on the significance of the passage for the family. Likewise, the elders should know whether every member of the family, even the younger children who have learned to read, are in possession of a Bible and make diligent use of it for themselves.
  6. Do the children and young people who have not yet professed Christ in the church faithfully attend the catechetical classes? Is their study properly supervised by one or both of the parents? Does the father speak especially to the young people of his family about the necessity and privilege of confessing Christ before men, also warning his children of the sin of breaking the covenant of the Lord?
  7. Does the proper spiritual relation exist between the members and the church, particularly the officers? Do the parents by their words and works set an example of honoring the minister, the elders and the deacons for the sake of the holy offices to which these men have been called?
  8. Do the members of the family make use of the societies? Also this opportunity for spiritual development should receive greater appreciation by our people. The elders ought to stress the value of such Bible study as well as of the Christian fellowship which is enjoyed at such meetings.
  9. What is the relation of the family to the neighbors? This includes not only those who are members of Christ’s church, but also unbelievers. Do the members of the family witness for Christ whenever and wherever possible?
  10. How do the several members of the family conduct themselves in their daily life? Are they aware that they are “living epistles, read of all men?” The elders can do much to instill in the minds and hearts of the believers the consciousness that all of life must be controlled by the Word, and that one’s daily work is a vocation of the Lord.
  11. Does the family faithfully and according to its ability support the causes of the kingdom of God? These gifts should be preceded and accompanied personal prayers. Likewise, the parents should be asked whether they teach their children Christian stewardship, so that when these grow up and make their own living, they realize their obligations to God in financial matters too.
  12. Does the head of the family try to promote the sense of true Christian distinctiveness among the various members, especially the young people?

There will of course be other questions which should be asked. First of all, the elders should direct their attention to the father and satisfy themselves that he is faithfully seeking to do his duty. (1) Is he mindful of his position as the head of the family, and does he daily strive to do justice to the obligations involved? (2) Is his authority in the home properly respected by all? (3) Does he execute his priestly duties in the home, praying for himself and his family and the church both privately and publicly? (4) Does he concern himself with the spiritual development of his wife and children also seeing to it that the children faithfully attend church and catechetical classes and providing them with good Christian literature in the home? (5) Does he see to it that the Christian school is attended? If not, why not? (6) Does he set a good example in his personal life and in his relations to his family and his neighbors?

For the mother there are also certain questions.

  1. Is she as a Christian mother aware of her position and influence in the family, especially in regard to the training of the children? (2) Does she seek to assist her husband in every way possible in his important work as head of the home?
  2. Does she give all her time to her calling as wife and mother? If not, are there legitimate reasons for her to seek employment outside the home? Is she aware of the peculiar difficulties involved in trying to be gainfully employed and still keep up her home? Does her home, particularly the children, suffer in any way, if this is the case?

Also the children are to be addressed. Some of the questions which may be asked of them include the following.

  1. Are they obedient to their parents and superiors, for the Lord’s sake?
  2. Are they conscious of their peculiar covenant relationship to God? Here the parents have a great obligation, since they have promised to train their children in the ways of the Lord and to explain to them the way of salvation.
  3. Are they faithful in attending the catechetical classes, and do they benefit from these as well as from the preaching of the Word in accordance with their age and training?
  4. Are the young people preparing for profession of faith?
  5. Do they understand the church’s position on the Christian’s relation to the world in general and to the use of amusements in particular?
  6. For what calling in life are they preparing themselves?
  7. Have they given any consideration to the possibility of entering full-time kingdom service in one form or another?

It must be recognized that this list is merely suggestive. Simply to follow a set of questions, no matter how excellent and exhaustive, would breed formalism and legalism of the worst sort. But even though the above list is rather incomplete, it will not be possible to ask and answer the questions above within the space of an hour, if each question receives a fair share of attention. For that reason the elders should know what has been considered previously, if this is at all possible.

Once again, those who conduct the visitation must be filled with deep love for the whole flock of Christ over which they have been placed. As the Great Shepherd knows His own and calls them by name, so should the under-shepherds be acquainted with all and thus be able to guide and comfort them according to need.

No man is sufficient to these things of himself. Here a thorough understanding of the Scriptures must be combined with practical wisdom which knows the wrestlings of spiritual life, patience which is able to lead the erring sinner back to the fold, firmness necessary to oppose all sin and keep the church pure, love for the brethren and sisters in spite of all the weaknesses and failings which they may display, and boundless zeal for the glory of God. Yet no elder need perform this work in his own strength. If we lack wisdom, let us with confidence ask God who giveth liberally and upbraideth not. He will supply all our needs, even to putting the words into our mouths. But this demands diligent study of the Word of God and fervent prayer when we engage in His work. Those who do these things will be able to say with the apostle, “But our sufficiency is from God.”[4]

[1] Baxter, The Reformed Pastor.

[2] Biesterveld: Het Huisbezoek, p. 251-253.

[3] Biesterveld: Het Huisbezoek, p. 254-255.

[4] Biesterveld: Het Huisbezoek, p. 254.

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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