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Visitation: a ministry of love
A 1988 Gallup survey of 2,556 unchurched Americans revealed the following:
Gallup's conclusion: These people are ripe for harvest, but it will take creative strategies to reach them.
Is a visitation ministry to guests, prospects, and fringe members important to the growth of a church? Research reveals that both growing and non-growing churches practice visitation. However, 76 percent of growing churches maintain a weekly visitation program compared to 51 percent of churches that have plateaued and 44 percent of declining churches (Hadaway, C. Kirk. Church Growth Principles: Separating Fact from Fiction. Nashville: Broadman, 1991, pp. 21-23).
Lyle Schaller said that visitation is "the second most effective single approach to evangelism today" (Parish Planning. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971, p. 214). Kennon Callahan identifies visitation as one of the 12 keys to an effective church (Twelve Keys to an Effective Church. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983, pp. 11-23).
While some churches can and do grow without a visitation strategy, the majority grow because they have an established visitation program.
Further research reveals that regular contact with prospects directly relates to the growth of a church. Keeping and working updated prospect files is a characteristic of growing churches. According to Hardaway, these churches have higher growth rates and higher conversion/baptism rates (21-23).
Churches that actively seek to identify and make appropriate contact with viable prospects are more likely to grow by true conversions.
Guests of worship services and Sunday school classes are impressed when they receive a visit within 48 hours of their attendance. The visit shows that the church cares.
Visitation is still an effective church growth method. Although cold call, unannounced visits to strangers may not work, visiting guests and fringe members is worthwhile.
Visitation must include personal contact with individuals wherever it is appropriate and productive. This may be in a home, over lunch, during a work break, riding on a bus, at a fitness center, or over a back yard fence. We build relationships in order to love them into the kingdom of God.
By definition personal visitation is an intentional direct encounter by an individual with another person for the purpose of getting to know them, understanding and addressing their needs, providing encouragement and assistance in the name of Jesus, and expressing through word and/or deed the constant love and care of God.
These guidelines will help you develop an effective visitation ministry in your church:
1. Make a commitment to care for people. Identify with the mission of Christ who came to "seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10) and to "minister and not be ministered unto" (Matthew 20:28).
A visitation ministry demonstrates the personal interest that Jesus modeled. In our fast-paced, high-tech, impersonal society, people still need a human touch. Visitation expresses sincere interest in people and affirms their worth.
The Church is responsible for initiating and developing relationships with the unchurched, the hurting, and the lost.
2. Evaluate your church visitation ministry. A church is healthy if it contacts a number of people equal to 20 percent of its morning worship attendance. Ten percent of these contacts are usually with regular attenders. The other 10 percent are unchurched an new families. Based on the Church Growth Spiral, an effective visitation strategy makes weekly contact with 50 percent of the Sunday school enrollment. Of this number 80 percent should be those who are enrolled but who are absent or need ministry. Twenty percent should be prospects not yet enrolled. If the enrollment is 200, make 100 contacts per week. Of the 100 contacts, 80 should be those enrolled and 20 those not enrolled.
3. Organize for visitation. Sunday school provides an excellent structure for visitation ministry. It is organized by age-level, and its weekly meetings make it easy to maintain accurate, current records on each person. Sunday school exists for people. Its goal is to reach, nurture, and disciple.
Consider dividing your Sunday school enrollment into care groups of five to eight people. Each care group is responsible to maintain contact with its group. Give care groups the names of two or three prospects. Some prospects will only attend worship services. Others will be fringe attenders, guests, or friends, relatives or neighbors of members.
The Church Growth Spiral suggests each class should have an outreach coordinator. This person oversees the care groups and coordinates visitation ministry in the class.
Another visitation strategy is the G.R.O.W. team idea. Divide your church or classes into four groups: Green, Red, Orange, and White. Each team visits for a week or a month. The rotation involves as many people as possible. Anyone who encounters other people, planned or spontaneous, and has the desire to learn about, understand, and assist those persons can be used in visitation ministry.
4. Plan weekly visitation. Weekly visitation is not monthly; but monthly visitation is weak. Intentional, regular visitation ministry is the key. Members left to visit church guests at their convenience seldom do. Support and accountability are essential. Growing churches visit weekly.
Visitation builds relationships and meets needs in Christian love. Provide multiple, various opportunities for the visitation of prospects, meeting them where they are.
Well-planned, organized, weekly visitation will bring life and excitement to a church and keep it from becoming self-serving and stagnant.
5. Leaders must be involved. This includes pastors and lay leaders. Leadership must equip and mobilize others for ministry while setting the example by accepting personal visitation assignments. Leaders set the example, but they should not be responsible to do all the visitation.
6. Establish and maintain a prospect list. Begin with the names of visitors. Ask regular attenders to write down names and addresses of three people they know who do not regularly attend Bible study or worship.
7. Incorporate variety in your visitation ministry. Some people are excellent at personal visitation. Others are better at writing notes or letters. Still others relate only to certain types of people. A few are better at making phone calls. The more people you involve, the more effective your visitation ministry will be.
Some churches have used the Bakers of Men idea effectively. Skilled people bake cookies or breads, and those effective at personal evangelism deliver them.
8. Visitation is a care ministry and takes time. Callahan suggests that it takes between five and nine visits with a viable prospect before he responds fully. He also said, "It is important to realize that the purpose of the visit with unchurched families is not to get them into the church. The focus in on being the church with them where they are rather than on seeking to get them to come to church on Sunday morning. This self-giving approach is the most responsible form of mission visitation."
Consider visitation ministry a process of extending God's love to people. It is planting, cultivating, and nurturing relationships with people so they will reach out for the Giver of abundant life, Jesus.
Be flexible in developing the strategy for visitation that works in your community. Visitation is a priority. Although it is not always easy, its rewards are eternal.