Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
When we take up the matter of the elders’ work of family visitation, we are dealing with a Reformed tradition. Family visitation is a practice not found in other branches of the church. The venerable practical theologian J. J. Van Oosterzee points this out when he writes, “… it is sufficiently evident that house to house visitation may be looked upon as a peculiar fruit of the Reformed soil.”1 Though it makes an interesting study in itself we do not intend to consider the history of family visitation, except to note that it was initiated by John Calvin in Geneva.2
Family visitation belongs to the official work of the elders of the church. The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America states in Article 23:
The office of the elders, in addition to what was said in Article 16 to be their duty in common with the minister of the Word, is to take heed that the ministers, together with their fellow-elders and the deacons, faithfully discharge their office, and both before and after the Lord’s Supper, as time and circumstances may demand, for the edification of the churches, to visit the families of the congregation, in order particularly to comfort and instruct the members, and also to exhort others in respect to the Christian religion.
Strictly speaking, this article requires eight visits per family per year when it stipulates that these visits must be “both before and after the Lord’s Supper.” The greater frequency was due to the fact that when this article was written the Reformed churches were in their infancy in the Netherlands. The people of God needed more careful supervision and instruction in the faith. In our churches family visitation is conducted annually.
Because the Lord, the Chief Shepherd, calls elders to shepherd the precious flock of God, the flock purchased with the blood of Jesus, He demands of them that they thoroughly prepare for the work of family visitation. This preparation ought to be spiritual. This means that, both collectively as a consistory and individually and privately, the elders should ask the Lord to enable them to do this work. By means of prayer the elders must seek the Lord’s blessing upon this work among the families of the congregation.
On a practical level, consistories ought to decide on a theme or subject to be used on the visits to the families of the congregation. A specific passage of Scripture should be read. Both the subject and the Scripture passage should be discussed prayerfully and thoroughly by the elders at a regular consistory meeting. This, obviously, needs to be done before the annual visits by the teams of elders begins. The subject and Scripture passage should be announced to the congregation several weeks prior to the beginning of family visitation. This allows the individual families ample time prayerfully to meditate on the passage and in this way prepare themselves to receive the elders.
The elders must prepare for each family they are scheduled to visit. What is the occupation of the husband? What are the specific needs of this particular family. How old are the children? Are the children faithful, obedient catechumens? Are there young people in the family? The youth ought to be reminded of their calling to make public confession of their faith (Romans 10:9). Family visitation provides an excellent opportunity for the elders to remind the young people of their calling to “marry in the Lord.” If there be a spiritually-minded young man in the family with intellectual abilities and other natural and spiritual gifts which would qualify him to serve the Lord in the ministry of the Word, let the elders encourage him to face the question whether the Lord calls him to pursue that lofty calling. Are there any weaknesses evident in this family which ought to be addressed? Any strengths in which they ought to be encouraged to persevere? What specific applications from the Scripture passage should be made to this particular family?
Sometimes it happens that the subject and Scripture passage chosen do not apply with quite the same force among all the families of the congregation. For example, the elders may want to select an appropriate Psalm upon which to base their visit with an elderly couple living in a retirement or nursing home. Sanctified discretion needs to be used in this regard.
Family visitation should be directed towards the normal, not the abnormal. By this we mean that matters of a disciplinary nature ought not be saved for the annual family visitation. The same would apply to the work of the deacons. The elders must not be called upon to admonish someone concerning poor stewardship. Nor must family visitation become the time for families to bring their criticisms of the way things are being done in the congregation or of the minister’s preaching, criticisms which they have accumulated during the past year. If a member has a problem of this sort he ought to speak to the officebearer involved or the consistory immediately.
A record should be kept on file of all the visits made. This gives the elders a record of the content of each visit. Elders know what subjects and Scripture passages have been discussed. Thus consistories avoid duplication and repetition. Elders ought to take note of any particular problems or concerns which might arise and which might need to be pursued by a committee of elders or brought up again the following year. In this connection the reports of the various visits must not be oral and ought not be mere generalities. They should be detailed enough to give the consistory some idea of what is going on with each family.
As to the method of conducting the visit we note that each visit must be opened with prayer. Petitions must be directed to the Lord for each member of the family concerning his/her place and calling within the family, the church, and society. Prayer serves the purpose of putting all concerned in a proper frame of mind for a fruitful discussion of each one’s needs and concerns on the basis of God’s Word. This prayer ought to be offered very soon after the elders arrive. Time must not be wasted on “small talk.”
After the prayer, one of the elders must read Scripture. He ought then briefly expound the verse or verses chosen for the basis of the visit. After this the elder must ask questions of and discuss the Word with each member of the family. The elders must take care not to dominate the discussion. Rather, they must try to get the people to “open up.” Let the elders listen carefully and “between the lines” so as to discern the needs, concerns, and problems of the family members. Care should be taken by the elders too that they not neglect the little ones and the young adults of the families. Near the end of the visit opportunity should be given for any of the family to bring up any questions or concerns he/she may have. This must not be allowed to degenerate into a “gripe session.” But, for all of that, family visitation can often provide the elders a wonderful opportunity to offer well-founded advice and/or instruction from Holy Scripture which will prevent little problems and concerns from becoming big and serious later.
It should be remembered too that there are always a few “chronic complainers” in every congregation. The late and highly respected Rev. Gerrit Vos told this writer during his seminary days, “Robert, the Lord puts a ‘billy goat’ or two in every congregation to keep the preacher humble.” Rev. Vos proved to be right! These complainers usually direct their sometimes cruel criticisms against the officebearers. More often than not they complain against the preacher, criticizing some aspect of his work (especially his preaching) or of his life. The sermons are too long, too brief, too doctrinal and deep, too practical and light, etc. With these let the elders be patient, but firm. Sometimes chronic complainers need sharply to be rebuked from the Word of God. The spiritually-minded, godly elder will know how to respond to these.
The minister ought to be required to take part in leading the family visitation. Especially in the larger congregations wherein the minister is kept extremely busy, he ought not have any more visits than any of the other elders. In other words, divide the families by the number of elders (minister included), so that each elder has an equal number of family visitation calls. When the team consists of the pastor and an elder, the elder ought to participate. The elder ought not allow the minister to dominate and do all the talking.
Each visit ought to be closed, as it was begun, with an appropriate prayer. The elder who leads the visit ought to allow time and opportunity for his fellow elder to ask questions and make appropriate comments. The non-presiding elder ought to lead in the closing prayer.
May God in His mercy grant that the Protestant Reformed Churches may continue faithfully to maintain the practice of family visitation along the lines offered above. The practice has proved to be a wonderful means to instruct, edify, and unite the people of God in the truth of Scripture.
1 J. J. Van Oosterzee, Practical Theology, p. 520.
2 Those interested in the history of the practice of family visitation may consult: P. Y. DeJong, Taking Heed to the Flock, pp. 19-24; J.J. Van Oosterzee, Practical Theology, pp. 518-520; or John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, XII, 2; Commentary on Acts 20:20-21.