Should pastors visit? Some pastors feel the need to be at every hospital procedure for the duration of the procedure, and others never leave the study to darken the doors of a hospital. Pastoral care can be a divisive issue and one that surfaces routinely in church revitalization.
Puritan pastor Richard Baxter understood pastoral care as far more than visiting the sick and afflicted. Baxter viewed his role of spiritual shepherd similar to that of a good parent. During his 17th-century pastoral ministry, Baxter made a practice of visiting every family in his church annually. This may not seem impressive, but consider that he was pastorally responsible for nearly 800 families — not members — families!
Baxter encouraged young ministers to give two days per week to visit families in their homes. These were neither surgeries nor hospital visits. Baxter was making “well visits.” During these annual visits, Baxter would visit the family in their home and ask diagnostic questions examining the family to see if they were spiritually growing in good health.
Revitalizing a church means revitalizing the members and the families of the church.
In his classic work, The Reformed Pastor, Baxter lays out several reasons for such a view of pastoral care. Here are two primary reasons:
- Baxter says that this is a great way to make sure that, as the pastor, you are building on a solid foundation. Visiting folks in their homes, when they are not sick or near death, is a great opportunity to evangelize and be sure that your church members are actually regenerate born-again believers in Christ.
- For those who are indeed believers in Christ, these are great opportunities for personal discipleship and spiritual growth. He would use catechisms during these visits, asking family members theological questions expecting certain answers, to gauge the spiritual health of the family.
Baxter believed that these personal visits would edify believers and strengthen their faith. Baxter thought that church reform, or revitalization, would not happen until family reform happened. Revitalizing a church means revitalizing the members and the families of the church.
Here’s the point: Church revitalization is all about seeing sick and dying churches come back to life. Pastors should be concerned with the spiritual growth and health of each and every member, and they need some system to use as a framework for examination.
Richard Baxter left the study to go to the entire community to examine their spiritual life and minister the gospel. Perhaps you could begin by simply thinking beyond the typical hospital visit. Perhaps you could begin visiting with your church members — in their homes, at the café on their lunch break, or at the coffee shop before work — and ask the hard questions about their spiritual life.
Perhaps you are thinking that you do not have time to visit all of the families of your church like this. I cannot imagine visiting 800 families every year. Our time is already filled with all sorts of meetings and counseling sessions. Imagine a different priority though. Imagine how many marital counseling sessions might be avoided if we discovered, and treated, spiritual issues before they actually arise. Imagine how many addictions might not happen. Imagine a ministry that is proactive instead of reactive.
Though the field of revitalization may be relatively new, the concept is as old as the New Testament. When John wrote the words of Christ to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, Jesus was exhorting them toward new life. Essentially, He was exhorting them to revitalize. In our efforts to revitalize, we need to consider the spiritual lives of individual members and families and, as pastors, to do the hard work of pastoral care.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the first in a series focusing on notable voices in revitalization.