Elders should hold in high esteem the practical skills of hospitality and visitation. Hospitality is “they in our homes.” Visitation is “we in their homes.” These are twins impacting assembly life and providing a barometer of its health. In a past issue, we looked at hospitality (Mar. 2011); in this article we’ll think about visitation.
First a word about the title. “Reviving a weak . . .” is gratuitous, for in many cases visitation is not weak but dead; a resurrection is needed! Some may object to the word “program” as too structured. But it makes the point that we are not talking about occasional, random visits by elders which almost all elders do anyway (especially when there is a crisis), but a planned, systematic approach that skips no one in fellowship.
Facing the Problem
In assemblies where visitation has fallen on hard times, it is not that the elders have ceased to love the sheep, but only that a disciplined approach has been given up, often due to the demands of administrative functions like decision making. It is fine to substitute a different word for “program,” but there must be greater consistency and dependability than “as led,” or “where needed.” It is a fallacy to think that the Holy Spirit is grieved by accountability structures; we insist on breaking bread every Sunday, or beginning each day with time in the Word.
Think of the middle-eastern shepherd who makes his sheep “pass under the rod,” i.e., admits them into the fold one by one, accounting for each and checking each for problems or needs. The idea is to give personal attention to every individual, making certain that nothing is taken for granted. The idea that “they didn’t complain so they must be OK” is unacceptable, simply because it’s not true.
Setting Good Goals
Elders may need to commit to a fresh start. Trying to patch up procedures that have already proven ineffective will not work. Four steps can simplify the process: 1) clear the air, 2) set realistic goals, 3) decide on actions, and 4) embrace accountability.
First, elders must be convinced, based upon Scripture that visiting the flock is not a “make work” project, but at the very heart of Biblical shepherding. Most would already be convinced of this, but a restudy of relevant passages such as Psalm 23, Ezekiel 34, John 10, Matthew 25:36 and James 1:27 might be in order. In addition, the elders may need to admit (confess?) among themselves and possibly to the saints that things have been neglected, and affirm that with the Lord’s help a new direction is being undertaken, requesting prayer and cooperation.
Second, given the size of the congregation and its available leadership, a realistic goal should be set. It would seem prudent to visit each individual or family unit a minimum of once per year in their own residence. This latter point is important, because part of the information gained during visitation comes from seeing believers in their own home setting, thus becoming aware of special needs for prayer and any extenuating circumstances which might otherwise remain unknown. An opportunity is thus afforded to pick up on early danger signs that rarely are discovered through contacts made in public such as in the church or at a restaurant.
Third, visits should begin with two elders, or with one elder taking along a younger man. Make it clear to all that the first round of visits are not to deal with problems, but only to see where the people live, and open the way for healthy communications in future visits.
Setting the people at ease is very important at this point, for if visitation has been neglected for a long time, they may understandably be nervous. Thus it is wise to work alphabetically after making it known to “expect a call in the weeks ahead.” Insist on brevity; an hour should be sufficient. In order to avoid time consuming preparations, be sure to mention “no food please.”
Arrive on time! Plan a simple agenda of greeting, explaining what will take place, and then get started. Keep it simple. Include a brief prayer at the outset, perhaps the reading of a short Scripture to show the Lord’s love for His people or the desire of the elders to care for the sheep, and then follow with a few questions. For the first visit, plan to use a few standard questions to draw interaction. Some have found it helpful to make these known in advance, which helps people prepare and reassures them that the tone will be positive. Remember, this is not a teaching time, or a time to deal with needs and problems that may arise. To this end, it will be helpful if those visited see at least one elder taking notes, implying prayer, follow-up help, answers, etc.
Questions should be simple and disarming. “How are things in your walk with the Lord?” “How are you getting along in the assembly?” “How can we pray for you?” “Is there anything you would like to mention that would help us be better servants?”
Don’t rush things but try to steer conversation away from doctrinal discussions. Make note of prayer requests and any doctrinal or moral concerns raised. Close in prayer.
If time constraints are followed carefully, it is not unreasonable to make two visits in one evening. With (for example) three teams each doing two visitations in an evening yielding six individuals or families seen, it will not be long before the goal of everyone being visited will come into view, which is rewarding.
Fourth, be disciplined about accountability. This involves good record keeping (who, when, where, needs for prayer, etc.), and letting the believers know of progress. Some part of the elders meeting can be devoted to brief reports of each team’s findings. Incidentally, some elders have found it helpful to reduce the number of regular elders meetings, using the freed-up time for visits instead adding more nights out in the week.
Reaping the Benefits
Space does not allow a full discussion of blessings which will follow, but here are several. Pleasing the Lord tops the list, as He said: “Feed [care for] my sheep” (John 21:15f.) Could there be a better indication that those in leadership value people? And it’s hard to think of a better way to extend practical discipleship to young men than to involve them in true shepherding work.
Then there is the satisfying sight of people within the church coming to a higher understanding and practice of fellowship among themselves, opening their homes to one another freely. As society continues to degrade, it is interesting to note the growing trend of people evaluating churches by the fellowship available rather than doctrinal details.
One of the largest benefits is best seen in hindsight. Troubling issues that once required large blocks of time (and therefore extended elders meetings) are detected early, like sparks diffused before turning into forest fires. This in turn allows more time to be spent with people.
Finally, looking farther down the road, additional (or replacement) elders will eventually be needed. It’s a good sign when men desire the work of an elder (I Tim. 3:1) having seen it as a loving team serving among the people rather than the frequently heard, “I’m glad to do the work, but I don’t want the title.” This attractive quality of an elder group (that is, doing the work of elders in love) is better displayed through time in the homes listening to the saints, than time hidden away in a room making decisions into the night. Both have a place in the Lord’s work of course, but we dare not neglect the former because of the demands of the latter.