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Visiting the sheep

This article is practical. It is about pastoral visiting. In it you will learn what pastoral visiting is, what it is not, and some advice about how to in a way that honours God and builds up the sheep.

What is pastoral visiting?

By “pastoral visiting”, we mean visiting church members, outside of church meetings, to have one-to-one discussions and fellowship with them. The purpose of this is to minister to them individually. On Sunday, as preachers, we can deal with a wide variety of problems. We hope that our words will go deeply into their hearts. We can pray that the Holy Spirit will show them exactly what the Bible means for their situations, today. However, teaching on Sunday in public is not enough. We also need to deal with our people on their own, personally. This is what “pastoral visiting” is for.

Why should we do pastoral visiting?

Firstly, visiting believers one-by-one is Biblical. When Paul spoke to the church leaders at Ephesus he told them to follow the example of his ministry (Acts 20:18-35). He reminded them that he had preached both in public and in private: “I … have taught you publicly, and from house to house”. The same pattern is in his letters; he not only wrote to churches, but to Philemon, Timothy and Titus personally. Jesus himself preached in public, but also ministered to individuals on their own, sometimes in their homes (e.g. the woman of Samaria, John 4:3ff, the man born blind, John 9:1ff, Mary and Martha, Luke 10:38ff).

Visiting church members individually is needed, because public preaching cannot deal with every sheep’s individual problems. How could it? In a church service, there may be dozens of people in dozens of different situations. How can you speak to the problems and needs of each one, at the same time? Of course, Christ himself is the great solution of every spiritual problem. But how is he, in each particular case? What great truth about him or about his saving work needs to be remembered? What promise of his needs to be remembered? What comfort or challenge or rebuke of his is the right one for this believer’s situation, today? We do pray that in preaching, the Holy Spirit will make every word personal to every hearer. But when we also have the opportunity to make personal visits, it would be wrong to not use it.

Pastoral visiting shows our deep love and concern for the sheep. It shows that that love is personal. We do not simply love the Sunday congregation generally, but each believer individually. We must do this, because Jesus does. He does not only love the church generally. He loves every single believer personally, and rejoices over each one’s salvation individually (Luke 15:3-5).

How should we do pastoral visiting?

The purpose of pastoral visiting is to help believers in their walk with Christ. Pastors visit their sheep as “under-shepherds”, coming to represent and serve the “chief shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4). The reason for pastoral visiting is not to enjoy chai, to eat free food, to swap stories and have a good time, or to receives honours as “pastor”. It is to do kingdom work that will last into eternity. This should never be forgotten.

Visiting is an opportunity to do what cannot be done in a larger group. We should use that opportunity. We can ask direct questions. Are you finding the preaching helpful? What are you learning? What are you not understanding? What questions do you have? What would you like to have explained? More particularly: how is your spiritual life? What challenges are you facing? Are you walking closely with God? Are you finding opportunities to serve him? How can we help you with that? Asking direct questions can often be difficult. For people really to trust us, they have to be sure that we love them. If they are going to open their lives up to us, they must be able to see the proof that we care for them as our own dear family – not in pretence, but in reality.

Asking questions can also be difficult for social reasons. Especially with the more educated and middle-class people, personal questions can be unwelcome. However, if we are servants of God who deal with eternity, then we must find and make a way to do it. Our work, caring for souls which are heading either to heaven or hell, is much too important. Our own comfort is not important.

Because we are caring for sheep individually, we should also think of their particular situation. We are not just going through a list of questions. Each believer will have their own challenges. Perhaps there has been a death in the family. Perhaps there has been no money for school fees. Perhaps friends or neighbours or even close family are opposing their Christian witness. We must not only be sensitive to these outside challenges, but also to the person themselves. Are they confident, or afraid? Are they doubting? Are they careless? Are they able to learn quickly, or must everything be very simple? In Kenya, a lot of training is done “by the book”. People learn what the instructions say, and then they keep very closely to it. But ministers of the gospel must be different. They are dealing with individual souls, and must treat them that way.

Every pastoral visit should finish with some reading and teaching from God’s word, and prayer. We are ministers of the word. After talking with a church member and learning about their particular challenges, we should then bring a part of the Bible which fits their situation. We should then pray for them and the things that they have mentioned, in a helpful way. Often we may find that the person is looking at their problems in too worldly a way (What shall I eat? Where shall I get money? How will we cope with this sickness?). Our prayers, as well as our words, can help them to see their issues from a more Biblical point of view, in the light of God’s kingdom.

Dangers in pastoral visiting

Sadly, pastoral visiting has too often opened a door to immorality. It should be a fixed and known rule that a pastor will not visit female church members on his own1. There should be no compromising on this principle2 – not just to avoid temptation, but also to avoid false accusations and suspicions of unconverted family and neighbours. Servants of God must be blameless before all. This may cause practical difficulties – it may make visiting some members very hard. A pastor’s wife may be able to help, but this should be considered carefully; just because a lady is married to a pastor does not mean that she has the gifts or godliness to do this work. Another way is for two leaders to invite the church member to the church office (if there is one), during the daytime, when people are around.

Where church members are young and in their parents’ homes, this must be respected. We do not want people to think that Christians are people who invade others’ home, without their permission.

Another danger is that the pastor is not disciplined. He becomes a person who enjoys visiting homes, eating bread and being given honour. If he does this, a lot of time will be wasted. Believers will learn from his example that they can be lazy and undisciplined in their own Christian lives. The pastor must always make sure that he has a purpose and direction in his work.

Probably the greatest danger, though, is that the visiting will just be neglected, or done half-heartedly. Nobody will complain at first if the sheep are not visited. Whereas people expect the pastor to preach to them every Sunday, they do not expect him to visit every week. From here, it can soon happen that he never, or very rarely visits them – or he only visits those who are his close friends, or who are easy for him to speak with, or when a crisis comes. We must again fix our eyes on Jesus Christ. His blood was not shed on the cross for everyone in a general way. It was given particularly for his own chosen, loved people – each believer individually. He has loved each one personally from eternity, and personally sends his own Spirit to make them alive, one by one. If we are his servants, then to be faithful we must care for each one in the same way.