On a theology of hospital visitation.
These moments are not for waxing sermonic but for listening, praying, and reaffirming the good news of Jesus Christ.
There are, perhaps, few pastoral obligations that incite more apprehension than conducting a hospital visit. But there are also a few duties that allow for more practical applications of gospel truths. Hospitals are foreboding structures, often becoming symbols for the grief, heartache, and loss that is experienced within their walls. But, by the same token, that is also what makes them some of the most profound sanctuaries since the grace of the gospel is predisposed to gravitate towards the grieving, the heartbroken, and the lost (Ps. 34:18; 147:3).
For some, the notion of hospital visitation can seem like an intrusion on “more important” matters. For others, the lack of experience with fatal illnesses or even death corresponds to hospitals becoming sinister places. Whether because of interruption or inexperience, the avoidance of visiting those in the hospital represents an inattentiveness to what constitutes “pure and undefiled religion” (James 1:27). In fact, visiting the hospitalized, asserts Kent Hughes, “is not something that derails the pastor from his ministry, but is something central to it” (523). The gospel, with which every believer is entrusted, is itself a message that is primed to speak to both the spiritual and physical needs of the sick. Therefore, the “interruption” excuse falls by the wayside in the awareness of the pivotal role hospital visits play in the ministry of the local church.
To that end, when making a hospital visit, some helpful and practical reminders include: (1) Confirm your visit with the patient or the patient’s family before you arrive. It is not only courteous but also gracious to inform the patient or the patient’s family of your scheduled visit. Do not presume upon your presence, rather, be mindful of the condition of those you are visiting and respect their time. (2) Confirm your phone is silenced ahead of time. It is disrespectful and discourteous to the one being visited if you are constantly receiving loud notifications or checking to see if there are any notifications that require your attention. The truth of the matter is that when you are visiting someone in a hospital bed, there is nothing or no one that needs your attention more. (3) Do not refrain from visiting under the assumption that another elder or church member will do it. If you are made aware of a hospital-bound church member and it is within your capacity to visit with them, that is a moment for ministry. And, perhaps, most importantly: (4) Do not overstay your welcome. One of the fundamental lessons to keep in mind when making a hospital visit is that a little goes a long way. Longevity is sustained by brevity. Over-long visits with the sick, injured, or grieving not only often make for more infrequent visits overall, but are also inconsiderate of the patient and the patient’s family. “It is a mistake,” continues Hughes, “to imagine that a long stay will be interpreted as a demonstration of love” (524).
Hospital visitors need not bring expository homilies with them. You are not there to preach or to pontificate; you are there to disseminate the grace of the gospel. In the context of hospital visits, that often takes the form of just showing up (Matt. 25:36). The success or value of a hospital visit can be hard to ascertain. However, as long as the Lord Jesus reigns preeminent over the visit, it can be deemed “successful.” Indeed, the best course of action to take when making a hospital visit is to not only bring one or two passages of Scripture to share that are encouraging and appropriate for the time and context of the patient’s condition, but to also bookend the visit with prayer. “Praying together,” writes Derek Prime and Alistair Begg, “should be seen as the principal purpose of a pastoral visit” (76).
The misgivings related to inexperience with hospital visitation melt over time. But they also vanish when the purpose of those hospital visits is rightly apprehended. Those moments are not for waxing sermonic but for listening, praying, and reaffirming the good news of Jesus Christ which is the remission of sins to those who believe. The seminal goal of hospital visits is the same as any other meeting between church members: worship of the God of all glory and grace. A visitor with the Scripture in tow can often convey a sense of calm into an otherwise chaotic moment — not because of anything intrinsic in the visitor but because of Who meets them there. Even there, in the sterility of a hospital room or the anxious confines of a waiting room, God is present (Matt. 18:19–20).
R. Kent Hughes, The Pastor’s Book: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide to Pastoral Ministry, edited by Douglas Sean O’Donnell (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).
Derek J. Prime and Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work (Chicago: Moody, 2004).