Several years ago, a group of elders asked me to help them out prior to a series of visits they were planning to make to individuals and families in their responsibility district. The specific help they were looking for was not an unusual request. “Help us tie the visit together with a unifying theme so that we are able to bring a blessing to them, so that they understand the purpose of the visit, and so we don’t waste time with superficialities and trivial conversation.” Amen! To that request, I can only add my enthusiastic endorsement.
Below appears, in summary format, a series of thematic plans for visiting the people of God entrusted to your care. In each, the theme is established upon the basis of a central Scriptural passage. Some suggestions are made for an opening statement, an area most elders I know have the greatest problem with. (“If we could only get started, we’d be fine. We can ask and answer questions fine, but at the beginning, well, my mouth is dry like cotton. I can never figure out how to begin.”)
Review the suggestions made below, either in personal study and reflection in the event your congregation expects you to be a “self-starter;” or through group discussion in the event your board of elders plans visits together. Use these as “skeletons” upon which you can build some thematic plans of your own.
SOME BASIC GUIDELINES
Before you begin to concern yourself with the content of the meeting, however, spend a moment with me planning the setting. It’s amazing how the setting affects the visit.
• Hold the visit at the kitchen table or some other comfortable location, but probably not in the formal living room, if possible. Meeting in a room that is not part of the routine daily life of the household suggests that the dynamiC power of God’s Word and the urgency of living according to its Truth are somehow partitioned off from the stuff of daily living. Try to make the visit as non-threatening as possible. Drink coffee or a soft drink if offered.
• Have your Bibles in hand, and make sure every one in the room has theirs as well.
• Always involve children if present; I suggest you do so at the beginning of the visit, so that if they become antsy, they can be dismissed. (Having squirmy children present is tougher on the parents than it is on the kids. Help the folks out!) Simple questions, on their level, about their faith, their knowledge of the Word, their favorite Bible story or song, are remarkably revealing.
• Think about visiting on a Saturday morning or on a Sunday afternoon, especially for those people whose week is so hectic that finding time would be difficult.
• Although it is not widely practiced, consider making the visit alone, without a visiting partner. To be sure, Scripture (Matt 18:16, and its Old Testament antecedent Deut. 19:15) make reference to visiting along with a witness. But be dear about this: such is only needed in a judicial climate, where a formal rebuke or a disciplinary action will take place, and where a witness to both the rebuke and to the heart-response of the believer are materially important. In routine visits, like those to encourage or for ongoing pastoral care, individual elders are certainly free to conduct the visit alone. Most people have no problem with the preacher making such visits alone; in fact, most of the visits preachers make are solo. So it can be with elders. (There are exceptions, of course. For example, a visit to a single woman brings with it sufficient collateral baggage as to make it wise for the presence of a partner.) Solo visiting has several benefits: it simplifies scheduling; it can double the number of visits made on any given evening compared with elder visiting teams; it often enables nervous people to open up to their pastoral elder more freely, and it can easily be cut off if you determine a partner should be present.
THEMES AND IDEAS
1. Theme for visit: Growing to Maturity
Scripture: Eph. 4:11–16
Opening statement: Explain your priority commitment as a pastoral elder to their maturity in Christ, and give them a simple definition of what you mean by that.
Starter questions for discussion:
• According to this passage, what does spiritual maturity look like? (This will take some time.)
• How are each of you doing in your growth toward this maturity? Do you see the evidences in your life of the fruit of maturity? What hinders or helps your growth? How can we as elders help?
• (If children are present): What are your spiritual goals for your children? (You may assist them to establish such goals, should they appear willing and interested.) How will you measures success/achievement? Ask the children about their patterns with reading Scripture and prayer. Encourage them to read, study. Ask about their favorite Bible story and why.
2. Theme for the Visit: Spiritual Warfare
Scripture: Eph. 6:10–18
Opening Statement: Explain Scripture’s teaching of the ongoing struggle of every Christian against sin. This contra the theology of “perfectionism,” and in light of the theology of antithesis—the very real historical struggle of believers against the enmity of Satan, the principal victory of Christ, and the ultimate victory only after this life. Assure them of the commitment of the elders to assist, encourage and challenge believers in their fight. Starter questions for discussion:
• What do you see as the devil’s most effective strategies and schemes today (v.11)?
• What are you doing to combat those schemes in your life, in your home?
• Are there weaknesses you need help strengthening?
• If children are present, ask the parents what they are doing to protect their children and to equip them for their own battle. Ask the children, likewise, how Satan tempts them, and how they respond.
• Spend some time looking at the protection and weaponry listed in verse 14 and following. Emphasize how often Scripture is implied in these word-pictures: truth, gospel of peace, faith, sword of Spirit.
3. Theme for the Visit Dealing With Suffering Biblically
Scripture: 1 Peter 3:8ff
Opening Statement: If they represent a home that has endured severe hardships, such difficult times cannot and ought not be overlooked while you try to conduct “routine business.” Begin by talking about their struggles frankly, openly, tenderly. Inquire if they have become bitter, angry, depressed, numb. Ask if their faith has been challenged, strengthened, weakened.
Minister God’s Word to them from 1 Peter 3:8ff based on your opening conversation. If you wish to ask a leading question, one based on v. 15 is good: “Based on v. 15, what would you say to someone who asks you how come you can maintain faith and hope after what you’ve been through?” Their answer will open up a great deal of opportunity for further advice and counsel.
Spend much time in prayer.
4. Theme for the Visit Singles and their Blessings and Challenges
Scripture: 1 Cor. 7:1 (refer to last verses of chapter 6, other verses in chapter 7)
Opening statement: Discuss their life; inquire about their work, their worship, their commitment to the Word. Gently seek to discover whether they are content in their singleness, or, as is often the case, committed to marrying and very frustrated in their Single state.
Starter questions for discussion:
• What is good about being single—good, that is, for the Kingdom of God—according to the 1 Corinthians passage?
• Is it hard to remain single in today’s world? What are the pressures, subtle or otherwise, that make it difficult?
• What ministry/service are you currently offering to Christ in and through His church? (Can we help you find one?)
• The Apostle mentions in chapter 6 the dangers of sexual immorality, and in 7:2 he mentions it again. In a world in which sex is viewed as free recreation without obligation or consequence, how do you combat such pressures and avoid immorality?
• Have you ever viewed the church as your “family,” its children as yours, its future as part of your responsibility? Might that change your perspective positively?
5. Theme for the Visit General Introductory Assessment
Opening Statement: This is for visits to those individuals or families you don’t know very well, often a first visit to a new home in your elder care group or in the church. The goal is general conversation about their spiritual condition; the purpose is familiarization. Look for pictures on the wall; ask about the people in them.
Starter questions for discussion: • Talk about your spiritual history: When did you become a Christian? (Have you become a Christian?) What has been your church involvement? What brought you to this congregation? • What are your practices with God’s Word, in personal prayer, with family (if appropriate) devotions? • If you look at your life today, and compare it with your life 5 years ago, would you say you are more mature in your faith? Why or why not? What practices or experiences have affected you in developing this maturity?
Dr. Sittema, editor of this department, is pastor of the Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX.