The question we are asking of the history of the Church in this post is, “What place has regular pastoral visitation held in the practice of the church?”
Starting at the beginning, the Apostles, including Paul, went “house to house” preaching and teaching the Gospel. (1) And in the couple centuries following the New Testament time, many writers, including Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, the writer of the Apostolic Constitutions, Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, and Augustine, spoke about people needing more than the public times of teaching, but private instruction as well. (2)
As the Church came to emphasize the sacraments as the means of grace in the middle ages, the focus of pastoral work shifted to “the glory and power of the mother church rather than the spiritual development of the members.” (3)
The private confessional, which began in the monasteries and spread throughout the church by 1215, became the main contact point of the individual and the priest/pastor. It’s purpose was to make an obedient congregation worthy of the mother church. (4) In the words of Peter De Jong, “Every Roman Catholic manual on pastoral theology speaks at length of the confessional and it’s place in the life of the church. It is the heart of the spiritual care which the church exercises over the lives of her members.” (5)
The Reformers rejected the idea of the priest mediating forgiveness and turned away from the practice of the private confessional. Eliminating that “heart of spiritual care” they replaced it with the apostolic practice of going house to house. In doing so, “Protestantism devised an effective replacement for auricular confession that preserved the best aspects of personal pastoral dialogue, yet tended to protect it from familiar medieval abuses.” (6)
Naturally, such a practice was also very useful in spreading the teaching of the Reformers and correcting the practices they were purging from the Church.
John Calvin and the leaders of Geneva visited each family four times a year in preparation for receiving communion. They distinguished between family visitation and discipline. Visitation was not to “pry into the hearts…but rather to exhort and stimulate the believers to a life of sanctification,” unlike in confession. (7)
The Protestant teaching visit reached its peak form in Richard Baxter, the English Puritan, who wrote The Reformed Pastor, one of the standard readings for seminary students of all stripes. In that book, Baxter lays out his program of visitation. He believed that a church should be no bigger than what was possible for the pastors to visit once each year, which he estimated at about 800 families (!). Each week he and an assistant would set aside two days to visit with families for an hour each. Baxter would invite families to come to him in the town. The assistant would go out to the country. Together they would visit with 14 families a week. The purpose of each visit was to catechize, to instruct the families, usually continuing what has been publicly preached, and to inquire about their spiritual life as a family. Baxter makes a point to emphasize that such visits were always voluntary, but he never had a family refuse. (8)
That, in brief survey, is what I could ferret out about the history of pastoral visitation. It’s hard to pin down the practice, which isn’t always described, but the overall path from Gospel-proclaiming to sin-confessing to Bible-teaching is a telling one.
But more on that next time…
(1) Acts 5:42 & 20:20
(2) Peter Y. De Jong, Taking Heed of the Flock: a study of the principles and practice of family visitation, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1948, p. 21.
(5) De Jong, p. 22.
(6) Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology, Harper SanFrancisco, 1983, p. 175
(7) De Jong, p. 24.
(8) Andres Purves, Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition, Westminster John Know Press: Louisville, 2001, pp. 111-114.