By David R. Barnhart
Volume 30 Midwinter 2015 Issue 1
“Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain but with eagerness...” (1 Peter 5:2).
The church photo above and the Scripture verse “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near;" (Isaiah 55:5) represent precious memories from my youth and childhood. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Worthington, Pennsylvania, founded in 1847, was the church where I was baptized, confirmed and from where I began to sense my call to the ministry. Members of my family, going back several generations, are buried in the cemetery adjacent to the church.
The present building was constructed in 1888 after the congregation outgrew its previous facility. Next to the church stands a chapel that dates to 1881. Both structures were donated by Peter Graff, who owned a store and an iron furnace at the edge of town. Mr. Graff held Sunday School classes in his place of business two years prior to the church being formed.
Ammon W. Smith was the pastor of the Worthington Lutheran Church during my formative years. He accepted a call to Worthington following his seminary training in 1917, then came back to serve the congregation from 1946 until his retirement in 1956.
An exceptional preacher, Pastor Smith closed nearly every sermon with these words from Isaiah 55:6: “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near.” Then he would lean over the pulpit, look us all in the eyes, and declare, “And He may never be nearer to you than He is right now!” Eventually I came to understand the meaning of this sermon postscript after I surrendered my life to Christ at the age of fourteen.
Several of Pastor Smith’s sermons still stand out in my memory. One exceptional message that greatly impacted my life was entitled “A Changeless Christ for a Changing World.” After Pastor Smith went home to be with the Lord, his wife gave me his handwritten manuscript of that sermon. What a privilege it was to be brought up under the ministry of a man whose heart was driven to reach people with the precious gospel of Christ. Throughout my entire ministry, Pastor Ammon W. Smith has been my role model of what a parish pastor should be.
Pastor Smith visited the homes of his members with great regularity and faithfulness. Even as a young boy, I loved to listen to him pray when he came to our home or the home of my grandparents. Whatever the situation or need, Pastor Smith was there with words of hope and comfort.
Thankfully, there are still pastors today for whom congregational visitations are a top priority, but it would seem their numbers are dwindling. Over the years I have received numerous letters from readers of The Vine and Branches who complain that their pastors are more inclined to remain in the church office at the computer than they are to get out and visit the folks. While computers have much value, they can hardly substitute for authentic pastoral ministry. Pastors who fail to visit their members are cutting off their ministry at the knees.
Today’s rapid decline in church membership and attendance might well be halted in its tracks if more pastors were inclined to visit their members with greater frequency. High above most other qualities people look for in a pastor is his genuine concern for them.
A Southern Baptist pastor once wrote about his many visitations to places where his members earned their living. “It was in the workplace,” he said, “that I gain an understanding of their life-struggles as well as something about their character. Those visits changed the focus of my ministry, especially my preaching.”
One cannot be certain if the reason many pastors today fail to visit their people is due to poor seminary training or simply because they fail to comprehend what Peter meant when he said, “Shepherd the flock of God among you.” Indeed, one can only speculate why so many pastors seem willing to settle for superficial relationships with their people.
Next to preaching, visitation should be the most important aspect of a pastor’s ministry. Pastoral visitation is essential not only for effective preaching but also for bonding with the church family. Only by learning to know his people as well as their needs and challenges is a pastor truly able to “rightly divide the Word” in a way that touches hearts and blesses their lives. Blessed, indeed, is the congregation whose pastor is out among his people, sharing their dreams, bearing their burdens and lifting up the precious gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.