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One of my sons is reading early modern history.  He sent me some articles based on research into church visitation records from the late 16th century.  Among other things these records reveal that

  • visitation tended to happen in smaller towns because visitors were not welcomed in the cities,
  • pastors used visits to complain about their salaries and housing,
  • even when catechism was well attended, older students didn’t think they should have to participate any more,
  • in some towns the cost of wedding and baptismal celebrations left people impoverished, and
  • even with a shortage of pastors, churches in Rotterdam asked that pastors not be sent from Friesland or the eastern Netherlands, because they could not be understood.

Some things have not changed much over the centuries. The articles reveal, however, that the tone of church visitation reports has changed. I can hardly remember seeing or hearing a church visit report that was anything less than glowing. In contrast, late 16th century reports were so harsh that some historians have used them to suggest that the Reformation did not succeed in making common people think, feel and act like Christians. Others have suggested that the tone of these reports might have something to do with the questions the visitors asked. For various reasons visitors were geared to finding out what was wrong in churches, not what was going well. The reports were negative because that is what the visitors were looking for.

I wonder whether something like that could be said about us; does the generally positive tone of church visit reports reflect the questions we ask? The 2000 revision to the “Guide for Conducting Church Visiting” is a vast improvement over the previous guide. Simple “yes” or “no” questions (“do you have preaching services at least twice on each Lord’s Day?”) were replaced by more open ended questions (“what creative ministries have you considered or initiated this year?”). While the newer guide does ask about obstacles and difficulties faced by council members, most questions tend to have an appreciative cast (“What success have you seen in your ministry this year?”). The guide seems to be geared to finding out what is going right.

I think there is a place for appreciative inquiry, but a solely appreciative approach does not tell the whole story. The articles my son sent me demonstrate that the challenges faced by churches in the days following the Reformation were different from challenges of today. One comment, however, sounds a little too familiar. Bemoaning the lack of Biblical literacy and piety observed in a parish, one 16th century visitor said “pastors are doing all that they can; if only people would go to church”. We can almost hear someone say that today; “if only the people would go to church.” Our reports reveal that pastors, elders and deacons are working hard, but our churches are not full.

Like 16th century visitors, we have a suspicion that our efforts are not producing the results we’d hoped for. Their reports seemed to focus on what was going wrong. Our reports seem to glide over what is going wrong. What questions should church visitors ask to help church councils evaluate the effectiveness of their ministries?

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