Annual Home Visits and Small Group Participation

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In working with congregational leaders, I often point out that the ultimate goal of congregational care is discipleship – helping people mature in Christ.  This too is the ultimate goal for the annual home visit, even though few churches do this well consistently. 

For this reason, many churches have moved toward small group ministry.  Even the Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government (2008 revision) comments on Church Order Article 65 (p. 259):

“ … annual [home] visits have been abandoned by many congregations as the cultural patterns of access [to people’s lives and homes] have changed.  In some congregations a small group ministry has supplanted the pastoral care activities of officebearers.”

Not only have cultural patterns changed over the years; there are significant differences between the annual home visit and the small groups.  This means that small groups are not simply an alternative to the annual home visit; small groups on balance are much more effective at the task of discipleship to which Jesus calls every believer.  Note some of the important differences:

 Annual Home VisitSmall Group
1.once a year35 times a year (see Primer)
2.provides a snap-shot of spiritual stateprovides on-going spiritual monitoring
3.done by officebearersdone by members
4.more difficult to build relationshipseasier to build relationships
5.in homes of those visitedin homes of all participants
6.unable to meet chronic life challengesable to meet chronic life challenges
7.tends toward relational awkwardnesstends toward relational authenticity
8.makes the discipleship visit hardmakes discipleship routine and easier
9.awkward to follow upnatural to follow up
10.difficult to do welleasier to do well
11.training tools are hard to come bytraining tools are easily accessible
12.embedded in the Reformed traditionembedded in the Scriptures
13.top-down feelingpeer-group feeling
14.stresses responsibility of officebearers  stresses responsibility of the individual
15.usually anticipated nervouslyusually anticipated eagerly
16.leadership vested in the officebearerleadership is shared
17.holds those visited accountableholds everyone accountable
18.formal atmosphereinformal atmosphere
19.focus on needs of the churchfocus on the needs of the individual
20.  the Scriptures are readthe Scriptures are studied
21.slower to respond to needsquicker to respond to needs

After I made this chart, lay leaders have been able to see the advantages of small group ministry, declare that primary congregational care will be delivered through small groups, and consequently they now intentionally pursue effective small group development.

What's been your experience with small groups and annual home visits? Should small groups be the primary method for congregational care?

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Participant

Walt, 

This certainly is something to think about.  I have also consulted with churches along these same lines.  Many elders in churches that use primarily small groups as you've described only visit those folks not involved in a small group.  Even if there is a crisis, if the person(s) is in a small group, the pastor and elders work in conjunction with the group to meet that need. 

Having said that, both the pastors and council should be involved in small groups and be their champions in order for the church to fully buy in to their potential for discipleship.

Make sure you send them our way when they're looking at healthy ways to develop small group ministry that isn't just another "program" in the church, but a way of life and ministry to develop and grow disciples.

Participant

Great summary list of effectivenes, Walt! 

It was when our Council began to be honest about what was actually being accomplished in the home visiting work that we began to discuss more foundational questions. 

One thing we have been doing is trying to leverage the natural connections between those who oversee the faith and life of the believers (that is, their growth in faith and walk) and the membership.  There was somewhere a company that built a new facility but purposely did not pour sidewalks from their parking lot to the new building.  They waited to see where people walked, and then after those paths of foot trafic became clearer, then they poured their sidewalks there.  We have been working at the similar idea that we need to not re-invent connection between elder and the congregation via those random elder visits but by listening in on those who are discipling others already (small groups and more) and hearing from them how people are doing.  This has made keeping up with membership more effective and our elders know far better now what is going on in the lives of their districts than they did when it was all through a visit that such assessment had to happen. 

We gathered teams of 4 pastoral visitors, 2 care givers and 2 deacons under the leadership of each of our 4 district elder and it is amazing how such a group finds that someone in that team is already connected with a person in question.  Those relationships we leverage (encourage) for purpose of oversight and discipleship.  We have been using this approach for about 2 years and are still learning and adjusting. 

We have a membership of about 590 and our 4 District Elders are able to report by the end of a church year  that they have had useful contact with nearly every household in their district.  Under the traditional system, in even our best year, we could only say that for about %75 of the congregation.  It has also been well received for the most part from the membership and serving on a team is far more enjoyable than reporting to an elder meeting.  (If someone really wants a traditional elder visit, the elders are always willing to do so.) 

Always great to hear what others are trying so I thought I would share what we are doing right now.  Thanks!

Colin