Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
No matter what the specific method followed in family visitation, thorough preparation on the part of elders and ministers is necessary. They must know the specific family situation of the family being visited. And they must be prepared to bring the Word of God to the specific situations in that home and family.
Because these are official visits, family visitation must be conducted by a committee of elders, usually two. In some Reformed churches today, family visitation is conducted by individual elders. This is both dangerous and un-Reformed. Decency and good order demand that this work be done by a committee of at least two elders.
Various methods have been followed. Use has been made of the question method, some even following a prescribed list of questions. The discussion method has been used, attempting to involve the members of the family as much as possible in the visits. The best method is perhaps a combination of the two. There are certain important questions that should be asked, that need to be asked, year after year. A general discussion will hardly lend itself to the obtaining of information the elders must have before leaving each home.
Nevertheless, there ought to be flexibility as far as method is concerned. For one thing, the needs of the family being visited will have a bearing on the method used. For another thing, one minister or elder is going to be more comfortable with one method, while another minister or elder will be more comfortable with another method. Just as there are differences in pulpit style, there must be some freedom in the method of conducting family visitation. Rigid insistence on a particular method must not take precedence over the purpose of family visitation. Instead, method must be subservient to the over-all purpose being aimed at.
No matter what method is followed, it is usually most profitable to conduct the visits around a specific theme and passage of Scripture. This should be chosen by the consistory. It is well that at the beginning of the family visitation schedule the minister preach on this text, or a fitting passage connected to the general theme. This will provide him the opportunity of reminding the congregation of the importance and the benefits of family visitation, as well as prepare the congregation for a discussion of the theme on the visits.
One warning: Do not neglect the children! Make them as well as their parents feel involved in the visit. Ask them questions relating to their faith in their Savior, their conduct in the home, in church, and in school. The children expect to be asked some questions, and feel slighted if they are overlooked.
Written reports of each visit made should be submitted to the consistory. The reports should be specific and not general. Mention should be made of any problems encountered on the visits.
A word of caution may be in order at this point. Individual problems that arise in the course of a visit should not be pursued in the presence of the entire family. Instead, arrangements should be made by the elders for a private meeting at a later time.
There are various threats to family visitation that we ought to be on our guard against.
One serious threat is that family visitation is discarded altogether. Often family visitation is criticized as being of little practical value, a practice that has outlived its usefulness in the life of the church, a mere tradition that can safely be dispensed with. This is the trend in many Reformed churches today. From time to time sentiments of this nature are expressed even in our own churches.
There is also the danger that family visitation deteriorates into a mere social visit. Where family visitation has not been totally discarded, it has often been reduced to a mere social call by the pastor and the elders. This is wrong! It must never be forgotten that family visitation, as much as preaching, catechetical instruction, discipline, and dispensing of alms, belongs to the official labor of the church. The elders and ministers must be aware of this. The members need also to keep this in mind. In this connection, Prof. Hoeksema writes:
Family visitation is conducted by those who are called to office by Christ Himself, When a pastor or elder visits in the home of the sheep on the occasion of family visitation, it is not the same as when that same pastor and elder make a social call or come on a Sunday evening’s visit. The conversation of family visitation between pastor and sheep is not the same as a mere brother-to-brother conversation, even though the latter should be a highly spiritual conversation. Family visitation involves—both for those who visit and for those who are visited—an official visit. (“Family Visitation,” PRTJ, p. 29.)
There is also the danger—real in our churches where family visitation is a long-standing practice—that family visitation degenerates into a mere formality. The necessary questions are asked; the expected answers are given. Everybody goes home heaving a sigh of relief that family visitation is over for at least another year. Nothing could be more destructive to the practice of family visitation—as to any aspect of religion—than mere formality. Better we ban the practice than that it degenerate into such a worthless counterfeit.
Yet another threat to family visitation is a lack of cooperation on the part of the family being visited. At times it happens that the family resents really the presence of the minister and the elders and views family visitation as an unwelcome intrusion into their personal lives. The result is that they do not “open up” to the minister and the elders. Their answers are as brief and vague as possible. Visits under these conditions accomplish little or nothing. In family visitation the people of God must willingly give themselves to the inspection of the elders. They must be honest and open with the elders, and attempt to make family visitation as beneficial as possible for themselves and for the other members of their family.
Finally, it is also a danger that family visitation degenerates into a gripe session. Then family visitation becomes the occasion on which all kinds of complaints are lodged against fellow church members and all kinds of criticism leveled against the minister and the elders. Elders and ministers must not allow this to happen on family visitation. This is not the purpose of family visitation nor the place for this sort of thing. When this begins to happen, it must be stopped, and members must be pointed to the right way to deal with their grievances, if they are convinced that their grievances are legitimate and weighty.
The benefits of the practice of family visitation are many. We must be convinced of these benefits if the practice is not only going to survive in our churches, but flourish.
First of all, there are benefits for the elders. Family visitation provides an opportunity for the eldership to become acquainted firsthand with the spiritual condition of the flock over which they have been given oversight by Jesus Christ. The elders will also be able to determine whether or not the members, especially the young people, are making progress in the Christian life by diligent use of the means of grace. Family visitation will aid the elders in their oversight of the preaching, not only by providing occasion for analyzing whether and to what extent the preaching is edifying and instructing the members, but also by bringing to their attention needs that ought to be addressed in the preaching. Family visitation will also give the elders opportunity to engage in necessary pastoral work, thus giving occasion to demonstrate the care and concern of the office of Jesus Christ for His people.
Also for the members of the congregation, the benefits of family visitation are outstanding. In family visitation the members are reminded of and exhorted in their calling as God’s people in the midst of the world. Needed instruction, encouragement, comfort, and rebuke are received. Through the visits the congregation is built up in its unity. The visits result in a deeper appreciation for the officebearers. Family visitation especially serves to strengthen family life, fostering proper spiritual relations between husbands and wives, parents and children, and the children mutually. And the visits serve to encourage the members in their Christian duties, as for example, prayer, reading and study of God’s Word, covenant instruction of children, attendance at divine worship services, supporting faithfully the ministry of the Word, and contributing to the relief of the poor.
God grant that family visitation remain an institution in our churches. And God grant that we continue to enjoy the benefits that result from family visitation.