Regrettably, though, much of the advice is as applicable to insurance agents as to Christian ministers–e.g., pack breath mints, bring a small gift, listen more than you talk, don’t rearrange people’s furniture without permission.
The central matter, however, remains largely a mystery: What do you actually do when you visit someone in their home? Why, in other words, are you over there in the first place?
I can remember being puzzled about this as a young pastor, and, frankly, seminary provided few clues. Visits generally involved (or, more accurately, devolved into) so much small talk, interspersed with pained smiles, slow nodding, staring off into the distance, and awkward silence before it all ended in (pastor-led) prayer (i.e., more small talk, slightly holier).
Actually, it wasn’t that bad. I genuinely loved my church members deeply, and they were unfailingly gracious in returning the affection. Even as I write I can recall specific visits from decades ago. I miss the saints who have passed on, and some of my favorite pastoring stories came from those visits. But I never could shake the feeling that, other than the breath mint industry, everyone would have been about equally well off whether I had stopped by or not.
Enter Richard Baxter.
Richard Baxter redefined pastoral visitation. He held it to be the epicenter of pastoral ministry. Never was he mistaken for an insurance agent. And when he entered a home, he–and everyone else–knew exactly why he was there:
The thing which I daily opened to them, and with greatest importunity laboured to imprint upon their minds, was the great fundamental principles of Christianity contained in their baptismal covenant, even a right knowledge, and belief of and subjection and love to, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and love to all men, and concord with the church and one another…. The opening of the true and profitable method of the Creed (or doctrine of faith), the Lord’s Prayer (or matter of our desires), and the Ten Commandments (or law of practice), which afford matter to add to the knowledge of most professors of religion, a long time. And when that is done they must be led on… but not so as to leave the weak behind; and so as shall still be truly subservient to the great points of faith, hope and love, holiness and unity, which must be still (i.e., always, constantly) inculcated, as the beginning and end of all.
Baxter wrote The Reformed Pastor specifically to teach pastors how to devote two days a week to visitation in order to reach not just church members but every home in their city. In his case, that meant the 800 homes and 2,000 inhabitants of Kidderminster, England. He thus had no sympathy for pastors whose congregations or jurisdictions were “too big” to be visited regularly:
If you have but a hundred pounds a year, it is your duty to live upon part of it, and allow the rest to a competent assistant, rather than that the flock which you are over should be neglected. If you say, that is a hard measure, and that your wife and children cannot so live, I answer, Do not many families in your parish live on less? Have not many able ministers in the prelates’ days been glad of less, with liberty to preach the gospel?
The book reads as well today as it did when Baxter wrote it in 1656 (as notes for his presentation to a local pastors group). It’s in the public domain now, with free PDF versions easily locatable online (or grab a printed copy for a few bucks here). My only regret is that its readership is usually limited to pastors–a big mistake. My eighteen-year old son was doing weekly discipleship of a McDonalds’ coworker in the coworker’s home last year. It was a struggle for him to figure out what to say and do during those visitations. I wish I would have thought to have him read this book. He could have saved a few dollars on breath mints.
And the text is helpful not only for Christians doing discipleship visitation but for every development director and executive director at a nonprofit organization or Christian ministry working with donors. This is how to do donor development. Forget fundraising seminars. Read this book and do exactly what it says instead, adapted to catechesis in your particular Christian cause.
Oh–and don’t try to “adapt” it to “modern times.” Baxter’s advice was as radical and out of place in 1656 as it is today–which is why Jonathan Leeman precisely misses the power of the thing when he recommends stripping Baxter’s approach of its more challenging elements. Writes Leeman, “In a modern urban context, a pastor cannot go house to house catechizing people like Richard Baxter did in eighteenth-century England. Pastors today make breakfast and lunch appointments.”
Which is exactly the problem. As Baxter notes (and, by the way, this applies as equally to donor development as it does to general Christian discipleship),
You are not like to see any general reformation, till you procure family reformation. Some little religion there may be, here and there; but while it is confined to single persons, and is not promoted in families, it will not prosper, nor promise much future increase.
So pack the breath mints by all means. But don’t forget to pack this book. And don’t forget to procure copies of The Reformed Pastor for every Christian visitor you know.