May 26, 2020

UPDATE: Another Look at Visitation

Back during Advent, I put up a post on one of my favorite Gospel words: visit.

I encourage you to go back and read it HERE.

In that post, I made this comment: “I think it is what pastors and Christian people used to do, what they were expected to do. But something changed in the church.”

Over at the Out of Ur blog today, Collin Hansen cites and comments on a recent report that shows just how far we’ve come from those days when visitation, and pastoral visitation in particular, was considered an essential part of ministerial work.

Go read his observations, and then return to comment.

In the report, a woman named Lauren Green, who now attends Redeemer Presbyterian Church (where Tim Keller is pastor), recalled the days when she and her family shared

“a close relationship with their long-time pastor when she was growing up in Minneapolis. But she acknowledges that this model appears to be a quaint and outdated today.

“Today, it’s all about a personal relationship with God, not the culture of a church,” Green explained to Grossman. “And a megachurch or a multisite church can still offer this. If you are there to hear a message and it’s a powerful one, it shouldn’t matter how it’s delivered.”

Hansen comments:

“When Christians find a pastor who preaches a powerful message, they are willing to compromise elsewhere. They aren’t so concerned if he never visits them, never talks to them, or never even learns their name. Those tasks become the responsibility of a campus pastor and a small group of fellow members. But I still worry for the primary preaching pastors in this situation. They know their churches have grown due to God’s anointing on their sermons. So they naturally expect that sharing the pulpit will hurt church attendance and giving. The numbers drop when they go on vacation. Such a heavy preaching burden precludes them from spending much time with members. And even if they had more time to visit and counsel, where would they start?”

In contrast, Hansen quotes the famous Puritan pastor Richard Baxter, who deemed regular visits with all his parishioners essential:

“We must labor to be acquainted, not only with the persons, but with the state of all our people, with their inclinations and conversations; what are the sins of which they are most in danger, and what duties they are most apt to neglect, and what temptations they are most liable to; for if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians.”

Once again, I’m going to take my stand with Baxter and the traditional practice of pastoral visitation. Personally, I would never be comfortable pastoring a church that was too large for me to know every person and family by name. If I were in such a church, I would insist upon a “team pastoring” approach where every person designated as a pastor would be required to be involved in regular visitation to individuals and families where they live, work, play, and suffer.

And again, lest some of you think I am making this the sole responsibilities of the “paid staff,” I believe that this practice of visitation should permeate the atmosphere of the entire congregation. Christians ought to be a visiting people. It’s a face-to-face faith, folks. And the pastors set the pace.

Furthermore, I wholeheartedly reject the assumptions stated above by those who have become used to another way. I reject that the purpose of the church is to be a place primarily where a high-powered pastor preaches killer messages. Though I fully embrace the power of the Word, if churches are growing primarily because of what Hansen calls “God’s anointing on their sermons,” the churches are growing for the wrong reason and, IMHO, in ultimately unhealthy ways.

The sermon can be a “Sunday dinner” for sure, a special occasion for sumptuous dining on a weekly basis. But the church, according to the NT, is meant to be a thriving, interpersonal community in which the members “break bread” together daily, practicing the faith with each other from house to house, in the streets, gyms, workplaces, schools, hospitals, and marketplaces where we live and move and have our being.

Christianity as the Bible presents it and as it has been understood throughout church history is most certainly NOT about a personal relationship with God rather than the culture of a church, as the woman interviewed asserted. It DOES matter how a message is delivered.

Call me a curmudgeon. Call me “quaint and outdated.”

But that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Comments

  1. Chaplain Mike…I found it interesting to read in that article, “Many people don’t want to know their pastors because they don’t want their pastors to know them.” I bet there are a lot of people who get nervous if their pastor or priest was coming to visit. That could be because they feel they are going to be judged in some way. Or, they know that they are doing things they should change, but they don’t want to make the change. BUT…if they see the pastor or the priest as a person who truly knows and cares about them, they likely will have not have that nervousness. How to bring that real caring to the people is the important thing in these visitations.

    • Ross from Ky says

      “I bet there are a lot of people who get nervous if their pastor or priest was coming to visit.”

      So they need to stop VISITING and start making friends. Friend can drop by most any time. Our pastor was a family friend when I was growing up. He and his family were a part of our social circle. And we were on our “best behavior” just because they were around.

      I think this is really an extension of the visitation concept. A pastor should be a part of the social fabric of his congregation. And for larger churches with multiple pastors or larger elder/deacon groups they should all be intertwined in the congregation. A church I recently left over many issues that were “behind the scenes” so to speak had the elders and pastors in a mostly closed social circle that just didn’t interact with the congregation as a whole. This allowed a lot of issues to happen but the congregation not be aware of them. If everyone is connected light shines in the darkness.

  2. Church is just mimicking culture. I remember the days when you knew your neighbors, the clerk at the grocery store, even the mailman. Now everyone has Internet, cable TV, air conditioning, and they are working longer hours to pay for it and don’t have time to socialize. We are more interested in programs than people and that will just continue to erode any sense of community we have left.

    • I suspect you’re right, John. But how then do we combat this erosion of Christian community? I say that if we want to preserve and perpetuate a sense of community in American church culture, then we’re going to have to both fight for it and live it out. And I think part of that means refusing to settle for anything less — no matter how great the preacher is at preaching or how program-driven things have become. But if we keep buying into individualistic, consumer-oriented Christianity, then the law of supply and demand will keep pushing things in that direction.
      However, if those who truly want it actively pursue a more close-knit, loving, and relational church environment, then they will find what they seek — inside or outside existing institutional structures. And if the big star pastors aren’t willing to trade the spotlight for a shepherd’s staff, then I’m confident that God will raise up more humble hearts and hands to feed His sheep.

  3. John, I wonder if the pendulum will swing the other way any time soon. Sometimes I wish our entertainment came from friends just getting together and singing, telling stories, making up poetry, painting together, reading together. But nowadays so much of our entertainment comes from a monitor of one sort or another. And when people get together there is often too much alcohol, too much stress, too many obligations.

    I watched some of the TV series recently called “Meet the Natives” which is about five men from a tiny Pacific island visiting places in the US. They were amazed to see homeless people in the USA. In their tiny community, everyone is taken care of and everyone has a role. One man is the designated “funny man.” He makes people happy. They are all so loving and wise and yet if we just see them on first sight in their community, wearing little clothing, living in houses very unlike what we are used to, we may think they are deprived. But, the more I listened to them, the more I realized they could make many Americans realize that the Americans are the deprived ones.

    Sorry if I got a bit off-topic, but these five men would be ones I would be thrilled to have visit me! They can remind us how important people are to one another and how we can truly be a loving community.

  4. I pastor a small congregation and have been endeavouring to do visitations. The thing is, with the community being small, I wouldn’t have called it “visitation” as they intimacy we share as a community just made it natural. I agree with your stance here.

    • Jamie, bless you and your work!

      I love the word “visit” because it carries such a profound meaning in Scripture, particularly in the prophets and in Luke. God visits us in Jesus.

  5. I wonder if this isn’t an extension of a lack of “visiting” throughout our country. Let’s face it, when is the last time you dropped by your neighbor’s house? For that matter, doesn’t an evening with good friends require two week’s notice to sync schedules? (And doesn’t the prospect of a visit send your wife into a tizzy of tidying and vacuuming?) I wonder if perhaps the congregants don’t WANT the pastor to visit, because it takes too much effort?

  6. I think others have rightfully noted that a lot of the problem is a bigger one with our society in general, not unique to the church. However, I wholeheartedly agree that the church should actually stand out in this area as an example of what community can and should be. I honestly can’t recall in the past ten years or so anytime a pastor (or even a staff member) has come to visit or made any overtures to communicate whatsoever, and I have not been an “invisible” member of my congregations. On the other hand, I can remember as a kid and a few times over my adult life seeing pastors who actually went out of their way to make personal visits and I’d have to say my impression is that their churches seemed stonger and more genuinely healthy.

    This same theme has come up in other posts: not just lack of pastoral visitation but similar lack of congregational interactions other than through “programs.” My wife and I were participants in a small group for awhile recently (in a church where neither pastor not staff ever visited), and even that group felt very “programmed” and artificial. No-one from the group ever attempted any social contact outside of small group, but yet we were supposed to come together once a month and share our most intimate prayer requests with each other. That doesn’t work for me: I can’t just “turn on” relationship once a month. Note, we’ve experienced other small groups that were much more positive—this was just one recent experience.

  7. I think most would agree it’s something that should be done. There are a lot of these in life, things we should do but still don’t take seriously enough to actually do. Plus, with the explosion of mega churches and the suburbanization of the congregation, it can be difficult to actually put into practice.

    I think that’s the point where you just get out and do it. Hustle. It’s like the pastoral version of Gary Vaynerchuk… talking and interacting, getting down in the trenches, really getting to know people. It’s a lost art, but I think it’s the responsibility of all of us, not just the pastor (though certainly it would help if he lead by example).

    -Marshall Jones Jr.

  8. As a pastor of a small congregation in Canada, by far my greatest opportunities for ministry have occurred in one-on-one settings. The Lord has affirmed my teaching gift, but let’s face it–even the best sermons are hazy memories by Wednesday.

    We have a God who does not simply give us information–He gives us relationship; He gives us Himself!

  9. As someone who receives pastoral visitation, I appreciate it very much.

  10. Cutty: Tell me, how is it you got so much wisdom about who should be where?

    Deacon: A good church man is always up in everybody’s sh**; that’s how we do.

    –The Wire (Season 4, episode 4)

    If you’ve seen the show, the deacon character is a very good illustration of a pastor involved with those in his congregation and neighborhood. Sometimes just showing up, hanging around, occasionally prodding, provoking, or challenging, helping out, and just listening. It is clear it’s more than just “visiting”. It’s a continual involvement in the details of the ups and downs of the lives of people. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Good habit to be in for everybody and not just those serving as pastors.

  11. 2 factors contribute to this.

    First is the personality aspect. Some just are not good at visitation, and perhaps we should not push them. The recent book on introverts in the church goes into this further.

    Second is something that BondChristian mentioned above- the megachurch and suburban situation makes this difficult, and not necessarily practical. The senior pastor cannot tell new people to stop coming because he will not know everyone. I think there is an understanding in large churches that the senior pastor will be more distant. However, the associate pastors can step-up to fill that void, and the senior pastor can invest in those he is in close contact with. They, then, can invest in others.

    • A “senior pastor” like that is not a pastor, in my view. He/she may be a preacher, a leader, an administrator, etc., but he/she is not a pastor. If you have a person on a staff like that, this should be made clear to everyone involved, and in my opinion, such a person’s role should be subordinate and accountable to the pastors in the church.

      • I agree, Mike. But, then again, the doctrine of good preaching = God’s special annointing = absolute authority in all church matters is very strong in many evangelical circles. Many of these preacher / tyrants have consolidated their power to such an extent that bringing them into any kind of accountability is not possible without fragmenting or destroying the church bodies or institutions they rule. But, maybe, that’s something that needs to happen in such cases, no matter how messy the outcome.

  12. As an associate pastor (at a large church) who loves to stand and teach in front of crowds I find this post refreshing. It reminds me that ministry is about relationships not performances.

  13. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    “Today, it’s all about a personal relationship with God, not the culture of a church…”

    My first gut reaction to that line? “i.e. It’s Just ME and JEESUS! All the rest of you can Go To Hell!”

    Though I fully embrace the power of the Word, if churches are growing primarily because of what Hansen calls “God’s anointing on their sermons,” the churches are growing for the wrong reason and, IMHO, in ultimately unhealthy ways.

    As in Personality Cults with the Anointed Great Leader?
    (By the Pricking of my thumbs, Jonestown Jonestown this way comes…)

  14. Wade Phillips says

    I’ve been a part of two churches in the last ten years. One was a borderline mega-church, where I got a visit from the pastor the day after our first visit. That was nice. Though he was very busy and the church grew a lot while I was there, we always managed to keep a relationship. He obviously never knew me well enough to be up in my business, but there The other pastors of the church, as well as church members, helped out with visitation also.

    I am now a member of a large, growing, but not mega-church. The pastor is a good friend, and we have contact throughout the week most weeks. But that’s because I am in his, for lack of a better phrase, “inner circle.” He’s not able to have the kind of relationship with everyone that he has with me. Nevertheless, he does visitation every week, and often has lunch with young men in the church in an attempt to get to know them better and mentor them. Visitation is much like my previous church, in that all of the pastoral staff, along with members, do it regularly.

    I don’t understand a church model that doesn’t include visitation, no matter how big the church, but I don’t see why that means everyone has to have a close relationship with the “lead” pastor.

  15. As a new pastor, I really liked this post.

    I grew up in the personality-centered church and witnessed firsthand how popular pastors kept away from their flock. I think it’s a mixture of too much work and responsibility – pastors just want to get it done and relax. I also think it is due to what others have mentioned – we simply don’t sit around and “visit” with others. We run to our little “entertainment centers” and/or communicate with others electronically – which sucks – communication involves body and facial movements; it involves a lot of non-verbal factors. People will say a lot of things online that they would not say face-to-face (and I don’t think this is a good thing – yeah, it might allow to “let go” and say somethings hidden deep down – but so does getting drunk!).

    Anyway, it hurts in more ways than one. How does one disciple others in such an environment? The Willow Creek method doesn’t work – even they admitted that. You can’t program living obediently to Christ – you’ve got to live it out with one another.

    How does church leadership recognize God’s calling on individual lives and help them to be all that God wants them to be and do all that God wants them to do?

    In the end, I left the Evangelical/SBC craziness and went back to the denomination that I grew up in (UMC). There’s a lot of problems but at least there are no superstars (well, maybe Adam Hamiliton) and we are expected to “visit” and do the things traditionally associated with the pastorate.

    Note: I am sorrry if I trespassed Imonk’s rule of saying “it’s better if you join my denom” – it’s not – but some denoms due promote this culture rather than discouraging it.

    Praying that all comes out well for MIchael

  16. Personally, this is one of the reasons I usually avoid “megachurches”. I believe the intimacy that can and should be attained, comes more naturally with a smaller church congregation setting. I’m not discounting larger churches, but it takes much effort and is sometimes quite cumbersome to achieve the level of intimacy/sharing/transparency that we should be striving for as Christians in a community of fellowship. Visitation is one integral part of that level of intimacy. I may be old fashioned as well, but I stand with Chaplain Mike.

  17. On the one hand, I think the increasing rarity of pastoral visitation reflects the modern American evangelical view of the pastor as more CEO and less shepherd, which is abhorrent.

    On the other hand, we as a congregation should be a “visiting people”, not necessarily waiting for or demanding that the pastor be the exclusive (or even primary) fulfiller of that role.

    Hard to find that balance.

  18. I have noticed some disparity in visitation. As in, the folks who will be pledging most get the most visitations. As do the folks who will be volunteering the most. Which, in a way, makes sense. But it doesn’t seem especially shepherd-like, to me.

  19. “Though I fully embrace the power of the Word, if churches are growing primarily because of what Hansen calls “God’s anointing on their sermons,” the churches are growing for the wrong reason and, IMHO, in ultimately unhealthy ways.”
    o.K is it just me or is there some inherent arrogance in the thought that a congregation is growing because God has anointed one’s sermons? I don’t know but I take a bit of offense to this concept myself. It could just be that people are gathering to have their ears tickled. Am I to believe that a small congregation is somehow a sign that the pastor’s sermons are not Anointed.
    That said reading a post like this makes me wonder why I am commenting and not visiting. It is so important. More smaller congregations is much better than fewer but bigger.

  20. Chaplain Mike,
    I whole heartedly agree with you, but I believe the answers are buried in Hansen’s article/blog.
    Notice Ms Green says it’s all about a “personal relationship” with God–this is what Christianity has been reduced too. Despite Christ dying on the Cross 2000 years ago it’s now all about my feelings. Thus Megachurches are merely houses with thousands of individuals each enjoying their own personal experience–there is no more Kingdom of God. Notice also Hansen says Pastors preach a “powerful message” to attract individuals–but are they preaching the Gospel? Clearly Baxter is preaching the Gospel, but who knows what is preached in most Churches today.

  21. This is a great little piece.

    Thanks for posting this.

  22. I agree with much of what has been said above. The gospel is often presented only in its vertical (me and God) dimension, to the neglect of its horizontal (interpersonal) dimension. The reality is that it is both. The (relative) “success” of small church ministry models demonstrates the fellowship that can occur when people are put in proximity. The challenge is for pastors to deal with the inherent sociological realities of leading a church. Pastors would do well to take into account the soul-numbing, dehumanizing affects of any form of leadership that puts them at a distance from their congregation(s).

  23. Several years ago our family attended a United Reformed Church in SoCalif for several months. The pastor spoke to us personally on our very first visit and came out to our house to visit not once, but twice! At that time I was really into reformed theology & asked him all kinds of questions & had the most interesting discussions. In addition, he invited us and another new family (we were all in the new members inquiry class) over to his house for a delicious Armenian meal, prepared by his wife. We ended up not joining, due to a couple issues that bothered me, but this young pastor so impressed me with his genuine friendship and caring. I will always remember that.

  24. When I saw the title of this post, I immediately thought of Baxter. It is refreshing to see you mentioned him! Visitation is the main point of his little book with a big whump, The Reformed Pastor.

  25. given my current context and experience as a campus pastor I have a different perspective.

    The main issue I see here is Gospel Stewardship. Theologically it’s rooted in the Great Commission. I believe it’s our missional responsibility to reach the largest number of people possible. So we stretch our imaginations to leverage technology, systems, and structures to advance the Kingdom.

    From everything I see this is a Biblical precedent in the early church. When I read through Acts 6 it appears that apostolic leaders are devoting themselves to prayer and teaching and then select other leaders for pastoral care with the widows of the church. i.e. helping feed them, making the visits, having conversations, and knowing them by name.

    If Peter made his primary responsibility “pastoral care” and visitation for the 3,000 plus, there would be no time for prayer and study. Peter depended upon those that they and the HS empowered to serve. The pastoral care we see in the book of acts comes from apostolic directives rather than the apostles themselves. Historically the apostles had a great reach without being physically present. Like the NT church we are just leveraging the technology of the day (NT church – written / modern – video) that opens new opportunities.

    I believe pastors who lead multi-campus ministries effectively have an apostolic gift. J. Robert Clinton defines apostleship as “the gift to have the leadership capacity to move with authority from God to create new ministry structures to meet needs and appoint leadership in those structures.” While the apostles in the early church were responsible for the church they were not obligated to do personally all of that for which they are responsbile.

    I hope to be an apostle one day, I really do. I dream of being able to devote the majority of my time to prayer and the ministry of the Word, but for now I’m just waiting tables as a campus pastor.

    • With all due respect, Kevin, I think you are reading an awful lot of contemporary culture back into the Bible. Peter was not the great CEO who holed up in his study and prayer closet and then came forth to “cast vision” and delegate the ministry to others. These are American business concepts, not reflections of the way Peter and the apostles actually lived day by day in down-to-earth ministry.

      Acts 9:32 says Peter “went here and there among all the believers,” taking time to visit a bedridden man, visit a group of grieving believers who had lost a friend, staying with a believer named Jason in his house, and going to Cornelius’ home personally to share the gospel when the Spirit led him. When released from prison, he went to a home where believers had gathered for prayer to give them the news personally.

      Christian ministry is face to face, person to person, and house to house, meeting people personally where they are, or it is not the kind of ministry Christ and the apostles exemplified for us.

      I could not disagree with you more.

  26. By the way, this is not just a problem in megachurches or multi-site ministries. Today I had a conversation with someone who has left his small, traditional, denominational church in our small Midwestern town. One of the primary reasons is that they received no contact from the pastor, even when they had been absent for many weeks. Though I would not automatically blame the pastor when I hear a story like this, I heard something in my friend’s comments that went beyond his own personal dissatisfaction. It all added up, in my understanding, to this: the pastor did not have good personal communication habits with members of the congregation. The pastor simply didn’t keep in touch with people and what was happening in their lives.

    Our first congregation was a small church of 75-100 in a village of 200 people. I know there were many times when people there felt the same way about me. Visitation and personal work is hard, demanding, and it can feel inefficient and ineffective. But it is organic and absolutely necessary. Factories can churn out disposable products at high speed. Oak trees grow slowly from small acorns.

  27. A great post and comments. It reminds me of what I have seen happen in my own profession of medicine. When I was first in practice we did house calls – it is amazing what we can learn in a single visit to a person’s home, but in the name of efficiency we have given that up and now make people come to us so that they can have all kinds of tests done (many of which I suspect are not really related to good medical practice at all).

    When I taught a course on incarnation and the urban poor for Fuller seminary I read an article that asked the question “What do we give up to move from poverty into the middle class?’ The research showed that what we give up is relationship for efficiency and accomplishment. I think that this is what we see in both pastoral ministry and the medical profession these days – we have given up seeing our purpose as relationship and reinvented it as accomplishment and efficiency so what matters is how many people are in church and how well we preach rather than how well we relate and how well we know people (or even God).

  28. Wow, this is a great post. As a Pastor, I believe that the Pastor is duty bound to do his/her part in visiting, especially the hospitalized. But as important is the Pastor’s duty to build a culture of Christian visitation can love. So it is not one or the other, but both and the other. I know one of my challenges is to be fair and do for one what I can do for all. So hospital visits, followed by requests, and followed by simply being available especially after worship and study sessions are essential for me. Again thanks for the post.

  29. Thank you for everything. Very useful