The church I was raised in and spent most of my life in was a small church in rural Appalachia. And in that area, it was not uncommon for the pastors, the deacons, or even different groups of women and men to “go visiting.”
“Going visiting” was not evangelizing, although sometimes it might end up that way. It was not going to someone’s house with the express purpose of ministering to them or telling them about Christ. Nor was it ministry, although sometimes that’s what ended up happening. There was never a specific need involved in “going visiting.” It was not an organized activity that started at the church at six and then ended at eight. You didn’t “go visiting” because someone was sick or pregnant or someone had died or needed Jesus.
You “went visiting” to…go visiting. To talk to people. Literally. You’d be sitting around, minding your own business, and then someone somewhere would say by phone or in person, “Well, we better get to visiting [a random person or a whole lot of people],” and off you went. It was a way of checking in on people, hearing the news, catching up.
It is impossible to be too old or too young for “going visiting.” As a child, I have vivid memories of making a beeline for my grandmother’s neighbor, Faye, whenever I saw her in the garden. “Hey Miss Faye,” I’d yell over the fence. “How are you?”
She always came over immediately. “Hey, baby! Oh, I’m getting on…” And we’d talk.
“Going visiting” is never the same every time. Sometimes you talk a little. Sometimes you talk a lot. Maybe you volunteer to run to the pharmacy for someone or make a call for them, but often not. Mostly, it’s about checking up on people and having conversations. Building relationships.
Many books on Appalachia will tell you that many of the crises in Appalachia now – the opioid addiction, high suicide rates – have in some part been exacerbated by the loss of social and community networks in those areas. In other words: in areas where the population has declined and the churches have disappeared, people don’t “go visiting” like they used to. In poverty-stricken areas with little economic hope and an abundance of drugs, the loss of social ties and community bonds becomes one less restraint holding people back from bad choices and bad futures. The net of community togetherness has dissolved.
I miss “going visiting,” or at least the attitude behind it. I miss the simple act of stopping by to see someone and to chat with them with no other intent than the desire to make and keep a connection, and to take care of each other. Those acts create community, and it is within those communities that we can express and share the love of Christ.
I fear that we’re losing this practice in the modern church. We “do life together” so much in our small groups that we forget to do life with anybody who isn’t in them with us. We’re so intent on purposeful, productive ministry that we sometimes forget the best ministry to others can be time spent unproductively with them: just shooting the breeze with no agenda, no goal, and no real aim.
But it’s possible to revive the concept of “going visiting.” Here’s how.
- Identify your local community: the people around you and who surround you the most. This might be coworkers, neighbors, local parents, acquaintances you see fairly often… Look for the people you’re accustomed to running into and having around.
- Stop and chat. You don’t have to plan it out; just go when the Spirit moves you for as long as the Spirit moves you. Go when you see Roberta by the copier and you remember you wanted to ask her something. Or go when you see your neighbor hanging out in his front yard. Visiting is organic; it happens when you’ve got a minute, and they’ve got a minute. Go say hello. Catch up for a second. Let it lasts as long as it lasts. There’s no goal, no aim.
- Remember what you hear. If your neighbor’s fretting about her son, try to remember his name. If your coworker’s going on vacation, remember where she’s headed. Pay attention. Put your phone away. Let these little visits be learning sessions about other people. Use the time to check up on people, to strengthen those bonds, to catch up on news.
- Keep the thread going. Let your visits build on each other. If your neighbor talked about her son last time, ask her how he’s doing. If your coworker just got back from a trip, ask her how it went (and let her show you the pictures). This is how relationships are built: by listening, learning, sharing, and remembering.
- If needs cry out, try to meet them. In a conversation with a co-worker recently, she was expressing frustration about having to walk half a mile across campus to deliver a file that should have already been picked up. I was headed over there that afternoon, so I volunteered to take it. She was thrilled. Sometimes over the course of a conversation, a need pops up. Meet it when you can.
“Going visiting” isn’t hard. It requires nothing more than that you waste your time on someone for ten, fifteen minutes. But in a world where time is such a precious commodity that we can’t ever seem to find enough of it, ‘wasting’ it on another person is a cherished gift indeed.
So take a few minutes out of your day and decide to “go visiting” every so often. You won’t regret it, and the small community that forms of these wanderings and little check-ins will become place of rich growth and possibility. It’s up to us to make the spaces we inhabit welcoming ones.