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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Have You Ever Had a Pastoral Visit?

Have you ever had a pastoral visit?  What about a visit from your elders? 

The answer to that question is an indicator of whether you belong to a “celebrity church” where the big man up front is too burdened by the size of his congregation (or its “satellites”) to be your shepherd.  He has too many gifts, too many people who acknowledge his gifts, too many burdens and books to read, to be your pastor.

If that’s true, then maybe you’re not really exposed to the rich benefits that Christ has provided in the pastoral ministry.  I grew up in contexts where you sometimes knew the pastor, but in many other cases did not.  He may have greeted you on the way out of the church, but even that’s increasingly rare. By the way, “celebrity church” doesn’t mean that your pastor is well known in the broader church.  It could mean that you’re in a little Reformed, Lutheran, or Baptist church whose pastor is simply out of touch.  He may even use “confessional integrity” as a magic wand to dismiss you from his presence.

One of the things that I love about The Gospel Coalition is that there is frank conversation.  Younger pastors with little background or experience in Reformed church practices are interested in learning about “the old paths.”  Recently, they hosted a discussion where former Covenant Seminary president and now pastor Bryan Chappell talks about this ordinary practice that seems remote from contemporary experience.

When my colleague Kim Riddlebarger and I were ordained in the Christian Reformed Church, our parishioners (nearly all either new Christians or coming from non-Reformed backgrounds) were often surprised when a pastor or elders called to make an appointment for a “house visit.”  It’s not books, but “boots on the ground,” that tell you what really matters when it comes to the shepherding care that Christ provides for his sheep.

Those reared in the medieval Roman church would have understood this anxiety.  “What’s the priest doing at my door?  Do I have the plague?  Is it time for last rites?”  Those today unfamiliar with “house visitation” may offer a similar response.  Why can we do door-to-door evangelism, but we can’t talk to our own parishioners in their homes?  Why can’t we ask people how they’re doing spiritually?  Why is it seen as some sort of threat to “their personal relationship with Jesus”?  I suppose it’s because we have a problem with being cared for spiritually.

Luther knocked on doors and discovered that his parishioners didn’t know even the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer.  Some were not even prepared to receive Communion.  What should a pastor do about congregants like these?  Well, he should get to know them in concrete situations.  He should go to them.  He should basically evangelize his own congregation.  When Luther did this, the result was the Small and Larger Catechism.

In Reformed circles, too, Calvin—arguably, a busy guy—taught his Genevan Catechism to the youth.  Consequently, they understood that the faith they were learning from Calvin and other pastors in Geneva was the same faith that their parents and others held in the church.  They weren’t simply passed off to a “youth ministry” that had little connection with the regular life of the church.

Pastors today aren’t as busy as Luther.  Yet Luther said that it was the pastor’s duty to teach the catechism to the people, and he did so.  He did it for the young people. And he taught them on personal visits.

This view of the pastor was carried over into Reformed practice also.  Right down to today, pastors and elders make it a point to visit every family in the congregation—at least once a year.

This is church discipline at the most concrete level.  We’re all under discipline.  I love it when our elders come to our home to ask us how we’re doing in our Christian walk as a family.  In every instance, I see areas where I need to improve as a father and husband.   I need it.  My wife needs it. They encourage me as they read the Scriptures and pray.  Our children speak up about how they are growing in the faith—and what they wish to improve.   “Seriously?” I think to myself. “Why didn’t you tell me that?”  But they told their church officers.  That’s great.  And I learned something in the process.  It’s simply a part of the shepherding that we all need in this present age that seeks to distract us from the story of Christ.

Many Christians today don’t have any idea of this visitation practice.  It’s odd, unfamiliar—to pastors  and to the congregation.  This is especially true where the “preacher” the congregation sees on a Jumbotron screen is someone other than the person they meet and encounter as their own spiritual leader week-in and week-out.  That’s just wrong.

With wisdom and humility, Bryan Chappell, formerly Covenant Seminary president and now a PCA pastor in Peoria, Illinois, challenges the “New Calvinists” to rediscover some of the practices that the “Old Calvinists” knew as a regular part of their ministry.  In an age of celebrity preachers and gifted teachers, the recovery of visitation is a key component of any restoration of office and reformation of the church in our day.