Who Rings the Door Bell Now?

Is the home visit by the pastor finished? Has this classic pastoral care strategy gone past its use by date?  The doorbells are not being rung these days. The preacher cum house caller model of pastoral leadership, much loved and appreciated in its day, has almost disappeared. The old adage of the “home visiting pastor producing a church going people” might have carried weight once but not now.

Yet the good, old fashioned home visit had much to commend it:

  • This was the prized opportunity for informal conversation on the church member’s home turf and conveyed accessibility and genuine interest.
  • Spending time in the home offered an immediate understanding of how couples related and families functioned and often hit on the real issues of life.
  • Domestic informality meant that needs could surface and be observed, felt and heard in a manner not possible in the rush of a Sunday morning.
  • Friendships were developed, common interests identified and mutual respect and care established so that, when the inevitable crises struck, the pastor called as a friend in need not as the professional fixer taking time out of a busy day away from the office.
  • Networks built in the homes often alerted the pastor to underlying issues which otherwise could have blown up into major dramas.
  • Within the context of the sharing of needs, the pastor was able to offer prayer, counsel and encouragement warmly and naturally.
  • Sunday morning’s sermon could be offered within the context of the joys and struggles of people’s lives

So, what has happened? Why the change? There are some obvious reasons:

  • Many homes are empty during the day. Aspirations for increased levels of home comfort, extra space, recreation and equipment require partners to become earners.  It’s all about keeping one’s head above water.
  • Evenings are quickly swallowed up. Parents have to juggle the academic, sporting and social activities of their children and young people. If they have a community focus, some of those evenings will be given over to meetings of one sort or another. In other words, many families are in perpetual motion.
  • Pastors are cautious about solo home visits. The last thing a pastor needs is a sexual harassment charge to deal with. Circumspection is key.  Some pastors visit with their spouses where possible. Others make use of the church office where people are usually coming and going.
  • Pastors no longer know each individual worshipper intimately. This is the price of increasing church attendances. While being thankful for growth, the more a church grows the more likely the loss of intimacy within the congregation. Round the clock visiting will not address this problem.
  • Regular church attendances are declining. The commitment to worship every week without fail is a thing of the past for large numbers.  A couple of services a month is standard. This makes it even harder for a pastor to get to know the people.
  • Team ministries have led to a specialisation of roles. It is common for senior pastors to delegate the hands-on pastoral care to persons appointed especially for the role. The larger the congregation, the greater the likelihood of this occurring for very practical reasons. For some a house call by the pastoral visitor is not a “real” visit. Only senior pastors make real visits!
  • The church office has become the focal point of the action. The office administrator has become the key player in many churches. They are responsible for direct contact with all comers. Direct and immediate access to the pastor is less likely. The administrator may be protective of the pastor to the point of being overly controlling.
  • Visits are now on a needs basis only. The complexity of modem church life has gone along way to eradicating the pastoral call. Many pastors believe that the only reason to call on an individual or family is to sort out a definite need or follow up an illness or bereavement. No problem means no visit: score a hole-in-one for pragmatism and several dropped shots for pastoral care.
  • In more recent times pastors do not see any real purpose or value in the home visit. But there are pastoral benefits just waiting to be claimed. There are still people at home.  The asking of a simple “Are you likely to be home?” question will soon reveal who will be at home and when.
  • Some pastors find the home visit a huge personal risk. Surprising as it may seem, not all pastors have the internal confidence to make the home visit easily. Although there is no need to be confused with the Avon lady or the Mormons, there is still a reluctance to move past the front gate.

Are there creative alternatives to the home visit? If the times have changed, what are the new opportunities for relationship building within the congregation? These will vary from church to church­

  • Many churches have play groups which offer an immediate connection with the families of the church and the community. The pastor only has to step outside the office to build contacts and friendships.
  • Although avoiding the perceived dangers of the solo home visit, too many pastors are seduced by their technology instead. A visit always outguns a text message.
  • Where there are netball, cricket or other sporting clubs, there is a golden opportunity to cheer the locals along and catch up with families at the same time. In terms of cost effectiveness, this is a winner for being there, enjoying the small talk and keeping an ear open for the deeper needs.
  • Although someone has to undertake the organisation, the church barbecue, social or fun night open up real possibilities for casual communication.
  • On a much larger scale, the church family camp is a winner although this is a logistical nightmare for the larger church with costs probably being a problem for families.
  • Picking up the mobile for a casual “I-missed-you-how-are-you-going” call is a solid relationship builder. It does not take much time but is always appreciated.
  • Where there is a special group program be it children’s, youth, senior citizens’ or anything in between, the pastor can capitalise on a ready made forum. A drop in visit to an activity even for a short while conveys active interest and support. Many the lay leader who has bemoaned the fact that “the pastor never shows up.”
  • Where there is a Christian Education program, the pastor’s casual call will not only mean much to teachers but will increase the range of contact with all participants.
  • Many churches now (both large and small) have first rate small group activities. These have become the new pastoral care strategy in many congregations. By prior arrangement with leaders, the pastor can spend an evening without being overly intrusive or distracting.
  • Some pastors have developed a special knack for visiting their people at their place of study or employment. A lunch time at the office, plant or college gives the pastor a glimpse of the responsibilities being carried by lay people in the work place.
  • Nothing goes down quite as well as some entertaining in the manse. This is not for everybody and can be difficult with small families. Some pastoral couples run open door manses while others choose to preserve their privacy. Both views have to be respected.
  • A development of more recent years is the breakfast meeting. Not satisfied with late nights only, some devious mind has produced a fresh way of shortening sleep. Provided the mind is switched on, these may have real merit. Many the McDonalds restaurant which has hosted a small group study or planning meeting.
  • The church working bee can be a lot of fun. Pastors can run up quite a few bonus points by swinging on a spade, trimming the trees in the church garden or waving a paint brush around. There is nothing quite as equalising as a church clean up.
  • If the young people are running a car wash as a fund raiser, be there. They will see this as active support and the manse chariot may have its first wash in quite a while.
  • The cuppa after the morning service is a great time for catching up provided you do not get heavily into church business. Do not let that talkative deacon bail you up in a comer. This is not the time for church administration to be discussed. Anyway, train the deacons to use this time to spend with the people too.

The value of all these different points of intersection with the congregation is the certainty of connecting with individuals in casual and natural ways. The truth is that we need a little more joy and humour in our lives. Far too much of our church life is serious business with the risk of almost every issue taking on the dimensions of a federal case. In losing the serendipity of being together just to enjoy each other, we move into the heavy weather of remaining as a collection of individual believers instead of knowing the delight of being united as the family of Christ who wanted His joy in us to be complete.

The pastor who operates like a recluse, never attending any church activities except those where attendance is required, is quietly but surely building in distance and remoteness. This body language (or lack of it) is interpreted as the pastor being too busy, uninterested or living above the concerns of the ordinary people in the congregation. The outcome for such a pastor is an obsessive preoccupation with theological correctness or congregational neatness which can never be applied in the topsy-turvy world of human experience.

The home visit may no longer be the primary expression of pastoral care yet there is still a place for a knock on the front door. Even allowing for the need to be discreet and wise, the home call is highly valued. Many smaller churches feel strongly that the pastor should visit and become anxious and disenchanted when there is seemingly so little interest in this. Informal, caring contact is not an optional extra. There remains a pressing need to be around our people to enjoy them, encourage them and inspire them.

Jesus loved the ordinary herd and clearly chose to hang around with them. He knew the address of Simon Peter’s Mum-in-law and obviously made a habit of dropping in on Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He may have even been a very good lounge lizard, raconteur and board game champ. The image of Almighty God relaxing with his feet up on the coffee table might propel us all into switching off the computer, putting aside our latest grand idea and hauling out the church directory. Now where did you say the Smiths lived?

Rev John Simpson