Family Visitation (Method)
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This article was written by Rev. G. VandenBerg in the March 15, 1956 issue of the Standard Bearer.
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the work of family visiting is the selection of the proper and most effective method. On the one hand, careful attention must be given that there is some definite system and order followed in this work with a view to attaining its spiritual objective. Unless this is done, the work, haphazardly done, will prove to be fruitless. On the other hand, however, the same caution must be taken to avoid making this work a matter of formal routine. The members of the family are then simply confronted with a list of prepared questions; answers are hastily heard and the visit is considered completed. Such formal legalism, however systematic it may be, affords little spiritual benefit. This method is no improvement over the complete lack of system. Both are extremely dangerous and must be scrupulously avoided in selecting a proper method for the performance of this work. To find a method that is entirely free from both errors is not the simplest matter.
Although it is important that there be some definite plan and arrangement followed in performing this work, it is quite impossible to lay down a specific and inviolable rule governing the method of procedure to be followed. The work itself is spiritual and, therefore, the selection of a method will to a great extent have to be determined by the spiritual condition and circumstances of each family visited. It may be very advisable that the visitors alter their method of approach according to these circumstances. Because of this, whatever method is selected will necessarily demand a certain amount of precursory preparation on the part of those called to do this work. Without this preparation, the best method will prove ineffective and the most persuasive labors will be fruitless. To this preparation belongs especially two things:
(1) Since this work is spiritual, it can be fruitfully accomplished only in the strength and power of “the wisdom that is from above which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17). Let those then who are called of God to look after the souls of his sheep enter the sanctuary of God before each visit and on bended knees “ask [this wisdom] of God, that giveth to all [men] liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5). This is the best possible preparation for the task, fundamentally important and an excellent safeguard against all “tyranny, lording, and misuse of Christ’s authority.”
(2) Since this work is essentially “ministering the word of God,” those engaged in it should be somewhat acquainted with the families to be visited and must be well versed in the scriptures in order that the word may be effectually ministered according to the particular need and circumstances. This knowledge should not be difficult to acquire if one is faithful in respect to the general task of “watching over the Lord’s heritage.”
Thereupon one is equipped to call upon the people of God to inquire after their spiritual well-being, to comfort, assist, and instruct them in the truth of the word and to exhort and admonish in love as the need may require. As is stated on page 71 of Taking Heed To The Flock:
“The elders will not be able to decide before hand 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.”
With respect to the manner in which to conduct the actual visit we wish to pass on to our readers the following “Notes” by the Rev. G. M. Ophoff which we feel contain some valuable suggestions and directives which will be helpful in keeping family visiting in the right spiritual channels. This any method selected must do or the very purpose of the work is defeated. We then quote:
“Each visit should be opened with prayer. It is the proper way to begin a visit. Through prayer, the pastor and the sheep visited enter the sanctuary of God consciously. That is where the pastor and his sheep must be during the hour of visit. Then the visit is certain to bear good fruit. Opening with prayer, the pastor avoids the pitfall of being directed in his conversation, and this at the very outset, by the members visited into purely secular paths of thought; thus in paths that lead, the longer they are pursued, further and further away from the things on which he and his sheep should concentrate. To get back to these things he must take a tremendously big step which is very difficult. The opening prayer must be brief and to the point. In this opening prayer, the pastor must limit himself to asking for what is needful for the task of the hour with respect to himself and those visited. In the closing prayer, the pastor or elder remembers the family, parents, and children before God’s throne. He invokes the blessing of Christ upon them but always, of course, in connection with the circumstances, conditions, joys and sorrows, trials and temptations peculiar to that family group and to each of its members.
There is the question whether the opening prayer should be followed by a brief passage from the scriptures. This is an absolute requirement for the task of the pastor is to administer the word of God to each family group. He is the preacher of the word as a visitor of the individual families as truly as he is the preacher of the word on the meetings for public worship. The pastor and those visited should understand this. They should be given to understand that family visiting is precisely a meeting for private worship. Because it is this, the scriptures must be read and the verses read should be used as a lead in counseling, instructing, admonishing, exhorting, comforting, rebuking, if need be, the family and its members. This of course does not mean that the pastor is obligated to limit himself to the teachings and admonitions, etc., contained in the particular scripture that was read. He may turn to other texts, to as many as he needs. But the point is that those visited must be able to perceive that the word is actually being administered to them; that the pastor in instructing and admonishing very actually comes to them with the word of God. The pastor should know his Bible. He should be able to turn with ease to its cardinal sections or verses, be able to explain them and administer the truth contained in them to those visited.
It simply cannot be proper to begin family visiting with asking questions; inquiring after the condition of spiritual life, for then the pastor begins with the members while he should begin with the word of God.
Family visiting, of course, consists in something more than preaching the word, as this is done on the meetings of public worship. On these meetings the minister is the sole speaker. The congregation listens in silence. There can be no opportunity for asking questions. But on the meeting for private worship, members too must speak and then their speech reveals themselves to the pastor and the conditions and circumstances and trials peculiar to them so that the word of God may be administered accordingly. And this is certainly the purpose of family visitation and the sole reason that the pastor asks questions is to encourage the sheep to reveal themselves in relation to Christ and all things that concern them personally.”
Thus far we note that the procedure concerns an effective method of applying impressively to the individual the truths of the word of God. From this principle the practice of family visiting then broadens out so that directly or indirectly the word is applied to every phase of life. Then there are so many matters for consideration that an hour’s time is inadequate even in the smallest families so that careful selection must be made according to circumstances. The most necessary and urgent matters are not to be evaded but rather considered first. To make this work spiritually effective the healing balm of the word must be applied to the sorest wounds. Of course it is natural that this makes the work itself the more difficult. Concerning these other matters, Rev. Ophoff continues:
“In stating the matters that should be investigated, the purpose is not to provide the family visitors with a body of rules according to which the investigation always must be conducted. This would be impossible. That is a phase of the work that should be tended to by the consistory. The only purpose is to make suggestions!
Family visiting should lay hold of the whole of life—civil, economic, family and church life, and personal religious life. If it is well with a man’s soul, all is well. But it is not advisable to begin family visiting with personal spiritual life; to set out, for example, with questions such as these: ‘Are you assured that you are a child of God? Are you a Christian? Do you believe you are? and if the answer be in the affirmative to continue with a question of this character: Why do you believe you are a child of God?’ These are difficult questions and often prove confusing and they should be reserved. The conversation should lead up to them. The thing to do is to put those visited at ease by natural, easy, spiritual conversation. The confidence of the sheep must be first won. It must be made easy for them to speak about themselves and matters that concern them personally. The pastor must make it easy for the sheep to open their hearts to him. He must remove the distance that separates their hearts from him. He must truly draw nigh unto them and they to him in order that there may be actual spiritual contact between pastor and sheep. To be sure, much depends on the pastor in the achievement of this purpose.
Matters upon which the pastor must dwell are the following: (1) Civil and social life—The scriptures require that in every department of life and every relation, the believer lives from the principle of regeneration in following his daily and earthly pursuits of life: In all the contacts and transactions he makes in doing so. Here is a large field. Of course, the questions will vary according to the kind of work in which the believer is engaged.
If he be a common laborer and employee, questions such as the following are proper: (a) Just what is the character of your work? (b) Do you find it so physically taxing that it interferes with your pursuit of the spiritual? (c) Are you rightly disposed to your employer? Are you constantly aware that your real employer is the Lord and that you must be faithful to your earthly employer for his sake? (d) Do you know then that the true reward of your toil you receive of him, which is the reward of grace? (e) Standing in this faith, do you find joy and satisfaction in your work even though when your human employer is hard and exacts the unreasonable?
If the sheep is an employer of men, questions such as these are in order: (a) Can the people who work for you know that you are a Christian? (b) Are you considerate of your employees? (c) Your employees are your neighbors whom you are required in God’s law to love. Do you do that?
For a business man: (a) Can you conduct your business honestly and with a good conscience before God in this evil world? (b) Do you feel the peculiar temptations to which you, in your position, are exposed? (c) Does the Lord give you grace to resist these temptations?
If a farmer: (a) Do you live in the consciousness that the earth and its fullness is God’s? (b) Do you cultivate your farm merely for crops? (c) Do you murmur and rebel when God in his providence destroys your crop?”
(to be continued)