A Favorite Gospel Word

Continue to pray for the iMonk and health concerns.

Today’s guest post is from Chaplain Mike Mercer…

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people (Luke 1.68, NASB)

In his wonderful book on pastoral ministry, The Jesus-Driven Ministry, Ajith Fernando quotes a classic seventeenth century manual of pastoral care by George Herbert. Herbert sets forth the exhortation that the good minister…

holds the rule that nothing is little in God’s service; if it once have the honor of that name, it grows great instantly. Therefore neither does he disdain to enter into the poorest cottage, though he even creep into it, and though it smell ever so loathsomely. For both God is there, and also those for whom God died.

My work as a hospice chaplain involves visiting people in their homes every day. I also visit people in the hospital, in assisted living apartments, and in extended care facilities (nursing homes). Our entire team is a visiting team. We meet people on their turf. We enter their world. We do not ask them to make appointments and come to us, to an office somewhere. We get in our cars, check the directions and make our way around the city to find them. We park in front of their homes, walk up their sidewalks, knock on their doors, introduce ourselves, and wait to be invited in. We sit on their furniture, pet their dogs and cats, breathe their air, look around at their pictures, their messes and their treasures. We come as guests and servants, to hear their stories, to learn about their faith, to assess their needs, to assure them of our goodwill and desire to help them, to minister to their pain, to embrace them when they weep, and laugh with them as we consider life’s quirks and absurdities together.

Sometimes I read Scripture. When asked, I’ll bring my guitar and sing a few favorite songs. I almost always pray, with their permission. On certain occasions I speak a word designed to give them perspective on what they are facing. Mostly I listen. When I speak, it is usually to affirm that what they are going through is just plain hard, but we are there to support them in addition to their family, friends, and faith community. And…that God loves them and promises his comforting and strengthening presence.

The ministry of visiting –it’s what I have the privilege to do.

I think it is what pastors and Christian people used to do, what they were expected to do. But something changed in the church.

When I was in Bible college and seminary, little was said about the ministry of visiting. The institutions I attended trained pastors to be teachers. Preaching and teaching the Word of God was the priority. Study at least twenty hours a week. Take care of the unavoidable administrative details, but make sure you teach, teach, teach. “Sound doctrine!” was our cry, “Discipleship!” (meaning feeding heads with sound doctrine) our mantra. We consciously set ourselves apart from those “liberal” churches that emphasized the “social gospel” and were active in their communities. And, since they practiced pastoral visitation, we avoided that as a method as well and disdained the practice as time-consuming with little to show for all the effort.

Then came movements that changed evangelicalism forever. The spiritual gifts movement taught pastors that they were to “equip the saints to do the work of the ministry,” not do it themselves. The small group movement taught that it is more efficient and effective to handle matters like pastoral care through delegation to a network of circles within the congregation. The church growth movement emphasized that the goal is to establish big, continually expanding churches, thus setting these principles and a whole new organizational mentality in stone.

Pastors became “ranchers,” not “shepherds.” Church staffs began to grow and terms like “senior pastor,” “executive pastor,” and “preaching/teaching pastor” described the CEO at the head, whose job description changed from “ministering to the people” to “casting the vision”. Ministries like home visitation got delegated to associates. They in turn, saw themselves not as ones to actually darken the doors of someone’s home, but as mid-level managers in the system. They saw their job as developing “programs” to parcel out the personal caring ministries of the church. If one was “so gifted,” you could sign up for one of these programs, get trained, and participate. If it’s not your thing, that’s OK, there were plenty of other opportunities to serve.

If your church was lucky, you might find an older, retired pastor or missionary from the “old school” who could relate well, especially with those in their golden years. He might get added on to the staff part-time to take care of this ministry, which was deemed necessary but no longer vital to the “mission,” the “vision,” or the “core values” of the church.

I had a patient whose wife was an artist, and their situation meant that she was the only one available to care for him. She was struggling with this because she had an artist’s temperament and needed some space and time for herself. She was burning out and needed help. I encouraged her to call one of the local “mega-churches” nearby, thinking that surely they would have a caring person who could come and simply sit with her husband for an hour to give her some respite.

However, when she called, the person in the church office couldn’t seem to understand her request — “No, we don’t have anyone to do that. Are you a member of the church? Is your husband a Christian? — we could send an evangelistic team over. No, that’s not what you want? Well, do you belong to one of our small groups? I could direct you to our small groups pastor and he could take your information and maybe get you connected there, and you could attend a small group meeting and maybe someone in the small group could help you. No, I’m sorry, none of our pastors is available right now. Do you want to make an appointment to meet with one?”

This is Christian “customer service” in today’s church. Press one and get no help at all. Sorry, no option available for “I’m your neighbor who needs some simple human attention.”

In contrast, did you hear what Zechariah said in his Benedictus? “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people” (Luke 1.68). Then later in the same passage: “…the Sunrise from on high will visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1.79).

The true and living God visits his people. He comes to us. He meets us on our turf. He enters our world. He knocks on our door. He comes personally to sympathize with us and meet our deepest needs. Jesus is the Incarnate One who visits us.

This is one of the most wonderful “gospel” words in the Bible. If we would be true gospel people, let us open our hearts to receive his visitation this Advent and each day of the year. And may his presence so change us that we become known as those who do not “disdain to enter into the poorest cottage, though [we] even creep into it, and though it smell ever so loathsomely. For both God is there, and also those for whom God died.”

34 thoughts on “A Favorite Gospel Word

  1. Had an interesting visit with a new patient’s wife the other day. The patient has had Alzheimers for a few years, and they moved back from Florida so that she could be near family. She was also able to reconnect with the evangelical church she had been very involved with, thinking they would be of help to her. The church had changed pastors. Since they’ve been back (a few years now), the pastor has NEVER visited. Nor has anyone at the church offered in any way to help her. They know and understand the situation but have never taken any initiative to see how they might serve her.

    Needless to say, she’s changed churches.


  2. Yes, she is both inspiring and convicting. But she also had her struggles and her limits which also inspire and encourage us.
    “Maybe we need to stop dwelling on ourselves so much: it might be the very thing that is draining us of our strength.”
    I think you are so very right in this statement. A journey each of us must make but it would be amazing to be in the midst of thousands (or a few) who were devoted to “I must decrease but He must increase”. It’s interesting that Mother T also appears to have had her bouts of self absorption like many saints of old. They seem to have received the grace not to live there or chose to live sacrificially inspite of such thoughts.


  3. I think about Mother Theresa, all of four foot eleven inches, AND with a bad heart, lifting the dying out of the gutters of Calcutta. Where she got the strength ? . . . maybe it was because she let the Lord Christ come so deeply into her life ?
    And when the doctors told her she had to stop her activities, she didn’t.
    Draining? Oh no. She would turn around and go out and do it all over again. Day after day, year after year.
    even if it is said that faith can move mountains, we can still wonder how a tiny nun with a diseased heart and badly deformed feet, can physically lift a grown man out of a gutter.
    Maybe we need to stop dwelling on ourselves so much: it might be the very thing that is draining us of our strength.


  4. “Ranchers” is not my own language, but a term specifically promoted by those who introduced the Church Growth Movement in the 1970’s. It was their way of saying that the church must adopt American corporate management structures in order to grow big congregations.


  5. oh my yes….ALL my excuses are ’eminently biblical’; typically it’s not a bible study that brings me around: it’s somebody doing the bible minus the microphone and hoopla, and usually unaware that anyone is watching.

    You are pretty darn good for a stand in, BTW. must have been a good ‘draft year’.

    Greg R


  6. ‘Pastors became “ranchers,” not “shepherds.” Church staffs began to grow and terms like “senior pastor,” “executive pastor,” and “preaching/teaching pastor” described the CEO at the head, whose job description changed from “ministering to the people” to “casting the vision”.”

    This is a fascinating description for the historically minded; I wonder if it will stand as an accurate summation for the preachers of our time? “Ranchers”, not “Shepherds”.


  7. Why is it draining, and not a source of strength?

    I don’t mean to ask disrespectfully or to question your skill or commitment, just wondering – I mean, I ‘get’ why people needing help aren’t friends and a source of strength for us. It’s the ultimate rhetorical question for me..


  8. Again, please remember that my post was NOT just about pastoral visitation. Of course the congregation should be involved. The issue is church culture and ethos, not simply who does what.


  9. I would say that this problem DOES exist in small towns and very small congregations. Being without a priest for the foreseeable future (and leading the vestry) has opened my eyes as to how deep this issue of ministering to the sick and home bound may be, particularly in a priest-centric denominational culture like mine (meaning, The Priest is responsible for all areas of ministry. and evangelism. and PR. and everything else).

    In our vestry meeting a few months ago, a few concerns were raised about how to serve the congregations needs for ministry without a priest around to do that work. There was a definite sense of helplessness to it all that I (one that, in my relative youth of 37 years of age, I could not comprehend).

    I suggested that we should actually trying Being The Church and develop our own ministries (and processes) for visiting sick parishoners at the hospital, delivering communion to the homebound, etc etc…things that The Priest normally did. Squirms of discomfort all around.

    However tentative, we now have those ministries in place and hopefully the processes to ensure that no parishoners fall through the cracks. When we have a priest again, I pray that the laity continue to LEAD those ministries, co-laboring with the priest, rather than assuming that he or she should should be doing that work as part of the job description.


  10. You’re right, dumb ox. It will be a process to change things. The real question is: are our pastors and our people looking at Jesus? Because if they are, there will be no question about giving grace and personal attention to the needy. If, however, they are looking at the latest leadership advice, well, you know…


  11. I’m doubtful that this problem exists in small congregations and small towns. I think back to my Mother’s death last month and the long prelude leading up to it and the many visits by their pastor and his wife and their children. My mother lived in a town of 1200 souls, the church maybe has 50 members.

    This problem of folks no longer dropping by strikes me as more of a suburban/urban problem where people can get lost in anonymity and frequently choose to do so. The problem of pastors being unable/unwilling to visit his flock when they are ill or need help is probably more of a problem of having too many people to look after. The problem is that a church of 50 members can survive in a rural small town, it simply can’t make it in an urban/suburban area if its going to have its own facilities and pay for insurance, heating bills, etc.


  12. I didn’t mean that gifting or personal preference is a valid excuse, but if your pastor says, “I don’t like doing visitations” or “visitaion is not my gift”, don’t freak out. You got to help him out of this purpose-driven/spiritual gift survey paradigm. Don’t say, “well do it anyways, it your job!!!”, or “don’t let the door hit you on the way out”. Instead, say, “I understand, but pastor, it isn’t about you. The shut-ins need Jesus, and he comes to them through word and sacrament, through the frail, broken efforts of a pastor. Don’t do it because you have to, or because you are good at it, or because you are gifted; do it because Jesus goes with you.” Something like that.


  13. It’s true that many of us have lost the part of our culture where it was a given that Christian people would visit the shut ins, as we used to call them. How to get back to this? Baby steps. Encourage people to volunteer for Meals on Wheels or other similar charities. This will help people see the need and help them overcome their reluctance to visit the sick and the elderly.


  14. Would it be impertinent to ask for more details regarding Michael’s health?
    God Bless and Michael, You and your ministry our in my prayers


  15. greg r–“I think the ‘gifting’ thing is largely an excuse (I’ve used it myself many times) to not slow down and pay attention to the small, the weak, the uninteresting.”

    Bingo. Nailed it. The convenient religious excuse. Eminently Biblical too.


  16. most Churches I’ve seen have moved from the center of town to the suburbs. I wish more churches would place themselves in the heart of the community they serve. It would do wonders for the suburbites to have to drive into a community that is in need & make that community their ministry. Most churches seem to follow the money out to the Mcmansion communities. which allowes the wealthy to worship with other wealthy, Never having to see anything of the hurting in their larger communities. I do believe we need to simplfy our lives so we can be more attentive to others needs. Churches are too focused on functions instead of true ministry.
    Thanks for your post. peace


  17. As a chaplain myself, I will say that visitation is the one thing that drains me the most. I teach, preach, and do a lot of one on one counseling—all of which are draining, but nothing as draining as visitation. I’m in an institution and don’t have lay leaders to do it for me—and my congregation is the size of a mega-church. But I know that visitiation is the MOST important part of my ministry and, draining as it is, the most rewarding.


  18. I concur with those others that have emphasized that pastors can’t be expected to do it all, and that a balance such as a Stephen ministry seems to be in the right direction. Although I understand Chaplain Mike’s issues with overemphasis on doctrine, I honestly think that it’s pastors’ distraction from concentration on teaching that is one of the church’s biggest problems. But I understand the sentiment and can appreciate it.

    As others have pointed out as well, it’s not really just a pastoral issue but a problem with the whole church focus turning from people to programs. I know sometimes I’ve tried to just get together informally with someone from church, but it’s impossible since Tuesday is this program, Wednesday is that program, etc. “Busy-ness” and programs (which can be touted as showing the level of success of a church during fundraising drives) seem to get in the way of actual interpersonal relationship building.

    One question: do you think this has any connection with a population being more suburban where we’re used to driving away from our homes for absolutely everything? Perhaps in small towns or even in large cities where folks walk to a neighborhood church and live close together, is the problem as acute? Just wondering if it’s more an issue of general culture rather than church culture, per se.

    Thanks for the very relevant topic.


  19. Fr Ernesto: I agree with your post but…..it’s n ot as if our pastors generally ‘rose up from the ranks’ and had this kind of visitation and care as part of their experience. No, they came from seminary, largely, and had dozens of classes where they were taught to preach and adminster. I know this is somewhat of a stereotype, but you catch my drift: I’m thinking in days of old, men put in their time, so to speak, showing themselves faithful in the little, the everyday. This doesn’t seem to be the case, in most places, today. The sr. pastor as CEO delegates from the get-go, as any successful ‘rancher’ would do.


  20. not-so-dumb-ox; your post speaks to me; the irony, to me at least, is that this seems to be a case where relatives are given an “OK” by the church to put the needs of the elderly on the fourth or fifth tier. I mean, there’s serious ChURCH work to be done…. Meanwhile, the pastor preaches on, and on, and on…about loving thy neighbor. I think the ‘gifting’ thing is largely an excuse (I’ve used it myself many times) to not slow down and pay attention to the small, the weak, the uninteresting.

    I’m growing increasingly tired of hearing words about following Jesus. If we won’t care for our own aged parents and friends, then what have we got to say ??


  21. Chaplain Mike said, “The true and living God visits his people. He comes to us. He meets us on our turf. He enters our world. He knocks on our door. He comes personally to sympathize with us and meet our deepest needs. Jesus is the Incarnate One who visits us.”

    That is beautiful, Mike. Thank you.


  22. Fr Ernesto and DebD, I agree with both of you. Though I did not stress it in the post, I did say at one point, “I think it is what pastors and Christian people used to do, what they were expected to do. But something changed in the church.”

    My point is not simply that pastors are not doing visitation. Rather, it is that the culture of the entire church (led by its pastors and lived out by all its members) has moved away from a focus on a personal visitation style of ministry and moved to a temple-oriented program approach where we expect people to come to us, connect with us, and get involved in our programs. I focused on pastors because I have been one, and know the problem from that perspective. The horribly deficient pastoral theology taught in evangelical training institutions has led not only to the distortions of the vocational ministry I described, but also the entire ethos of the church.


  23. I think this is something the whole culture has lost, and the church has emulated it. People used to “drop in” on folks when I was growing up, and spend an afternoon or evening just visiting with one another. It seems like people now think it’s rude if you show up without warning. We think our time and our lives are our own and resent other people interrupting our time… or at least we think people will resent us for interrupting theirs.

    I don’t know how to change this but I think it needs to change.


  24. I find myself having mixed feelings about some of what you said. I fear that there is a reductionism that equates being a pastor to doing way too many things in the Church. The Twelve Apostles quickly divested themselves of visitation and practical help responsibilities. They insisted that those jobs belonged to others, called deacons. You appear to be shoving those responsibilities back on the pastor. Those who insist that the pastor’s jobs are preaching, teaching, praying, and evangelism are correct because that is precisely what the Twelve Apostles insisted were the jobs of those in the ministry of being either an apostolos or a presbyteros.

    The problem is not that pastors are not visiting. The problem is that the diaconal ministry has been lost, and–as Brian K said–that Church practice has been reduced only to the “sacrament” of preaching and teaching while ignoring the Gospel and Old Testament imperatives about the poor, the needy, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, etc.


  25. We have let church become a business with all of the typical concerns associated with operating one; cash flow, results (membership bottom-line), schedules, time budgeting, etc. Jesus never cared for all of that stuff. His was and is an intense personal love for people with no time for the mechanics of the “business.” God forgive us!


  26. Our pastor this morning talked (among other things) about how we ought to give, and focus on giving, not just presents at Christmas, but our presence, citing of course the incarnate Christ as the supreme example of this. It’s one of the reasons I keep going back to this small church; they seem to really get it. i hope that many more churches will as well. Many have gone too far in the direction of a business/corporate model of operations rather than seeking to act as a body and community.


  27. evangelicals seem to make the sermon “the most Holy Sacrament” . feeding the hungry, administering to the sick, or walking the lonely road with the poor is given less energy because it’s hard to make those thing seem “Word centered”. Preaching, teaching & evangelism is easily shown to be “Word centered”. What Churches need to be is “Gospel centered”, Jesus will tell us that we cryed out Lord, Lord — but we never feed him when he was hungry, sick, or in need of shelter. (there I go being liberal again!) The best pastors I have ever had where not the greatest preachers, but they lived out the Gospel in their lives & we as a congregation grew out of there examples, & encouraging. Sermons need to be brought back to earth, what we needed is preaching without words! peace


  28. I absolutely agree. I find myself in the post evangelical wilderness largely due to the exact scenario you described: emphasis on programs and small groups and the secularization of the title and function of “pastor” or “rancher” (I love that!!!) actually diminishing rather than increasing a church’s effectiveness in proclaiming the gospel.

    I have met pastors who don’t feel comfortable doing visitations. Some of this is gifting; some of it is personal preference; some of it is the result of a generation of pastors being trained to reach youth and have no idea how to serve the elderly population which is quickly becoming a dominant group in America. Some of it is elderly members expecting something that particularly younger pastors can’t provide. I think there is a balance somewhere: pastoral visits augmented by the equivalent of the Stephen Ministry in many Lutheran churches. Pastors can’t do it all. I think their focus should be on word and sacrament, and a pastoral visitation should be understood as an extension of that ministry. Other church members can sit and read with elderly members, or help them get to doctor visits. Getting people to step up and help care for their own elderly family members is the real challenge. There’s something almost “corbin” in reverse, when people expect the church to take care of their own family members. It’s hard to talk about loving ones neighbor when ones own family is being neglected.


  29. I spoke once with a Baptist (I believe) pastor who was a great guy, but was talking about how churches needed to have a team consisting of lay members to do visitation, because as the head pastor he didn’t have time to teach, write sermons, and be the head administrator of the church and also visit sick parishioners or counsel parishioners who needed a pastoral presence.

    I understood that his job was stressful, and he also needed to find time to spend with his family, but at the same time I rebelled against the idea that a pastor would think it’s okay to say to a parishioner who wanted to see him for pastoral reasons, “No, I don’t have time, we have a team that does that. Talk to them.” I know that in the past, when I was struggling with issues of scruples related to OCD, I went directly to my head pastor because he was the one I knew. At both churches I attended during that time period (one at university and one at home), I either knew the head pastor through years of close relationship (at my home church) or because he was the most visible pastor and the one who preached the majority of the sermons, so I knew how he thought and trusted his ability to provide me with an intellectual answer that was satisfactory (at my university church). Both churches had assistant pastors for the more pastoral, as opposed to teaching, duties, but I didn’t know them.

    Thankfully, both the head pastors were willing to talk to me, and I made the effort to respect their time by making appointments and by not demanding the same amount of time a pastoral counselor or psychologist would give. But I know if they had tried to hand me off to the assistant pastor, I would not have been as willing to share what I was going through, because I just didn’t know them. Even if the ‘teaching’ pastor isn’t able to make a regular pastoral commitment to that person, he should at least be willing to meet with them once to either address their issue or help them start a relationship with the person who will be able to help them more.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: