The Importance of Presence in Ministry

Going Beyond Public Gatherings

God calls every believer to teach His Word to others at a grassroots level. To motivate and equip them to do this, He provides pastors. These are responsible to “hold nothing back,” devoting themselves to ministry in two venues: public gatherings and private settings (Acts 20:20). While both settings are necessary, it seems that prevailing Western models favor public gatherings over more personal settings. Perhaps this imbalance hinders our efforts to engage people in ministry.

We work hard at our public gatherings. Pulpit style. Stage lighting. Usher training. Multimedia presentations. Music of all kinds: congregational, choral, instrumental, solo, ensemble, instrumental and choral. Service orders and liturgies. Invitations (or not). Announcements. Special events. Dramatic interpretations. Guest speakers. Sound systems and auditorium acoustics. We give attention to all these things and more.

But do we give equal or adequate attention to the other important ministry setting? Do we devote ourselves to connecting with believers in personal settings to the same degree? Church ministry that occurs only (or primarily) at a central church building misses a key element of the “hold nothing back” approach that Paul emulates.

Embracing the Principle of Presence

I call this part of ministry pastoral presence. It occurs outside of the pulpit, away from a church office and building. It happens in homes and the many others settings of life where disciples of Jesus are living and working.

David highlights this concept in Psalm 23:4 when he writes: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me.” He shows us that Jehovah, our divine shepherd, chooses to be with us and among us.

Jesus followed the same approach with His disciples during His earthly ministry. “He ordained twelve, that they should be with Him” (Mark 3:14). We should not only say that Jesus chose these men to send them out to preach. He did this, most definitely. But He chose them first to be with Him. How did He equip them for effective ministry? By preaching to them in large groups and holding organized meetings at the Temple or synagogue? By enrolling them in a Bible college with a classroom mentorship program? While some of this happened, this was not his primary approach.

His ministry emphasized personal, pastoral presence, living and being with the men He taught. He spent time with them like a shepherd spends time with his sheep in the pastures of life. So when Paul says that he taught his disciples “publicly, and from house to house” (Acts 20:20), he follows the same approach. Outside of public church assemblies, he visited homes. In this way, he strengthened relationships and equipped believers to do the work of ministry.

What does this observation teach us? We learn that Jesus devoted Himself to being with His disciples. We see that Paul embraced a “house to house” ministry. And we realize that we should do the same. Consequently, we should check the degree of our personal contact with church members outside of church events.

Considering Some Aversions to Presence

Though Jesus and Paul embraced personal presence in ministry, Western church models seem less committed. In prevailing paradigms, ministry mainly centers on events, services and appointments at a central church location, whether primarily or exclusively. Why is this the case? I’ll offer some possibilities.

Pastoral Reasons

Some pastors (whether consciously or subconsciously) may prefer to address a crowd for various reasons, some better than others: perhaps the pride of being in front of a group (like Diotrephes), or the feeling of doing something significant, or the efficiency of addressing more people at the same time.

  • Ministering in homes and other settings increases scheduling challenges, time commitment and travel expense. It is easier to schedule Bible classes, counselling appointments and weekly services at a church site, asking people to meet at a central location.
  • Ministering in homes may feel uncomfortable. People may regard you in a more ordinary, less professional way.
  • No one ever showed you how to do ministry this way, whether by teaching or example.
  • Some pastors may find it difficult to build genuine relationships apart from preaching in a pulpit or counselling from an office.
  • Some pastors may be too busy preparing and organizing many sermons, lessons and programs for a crammed church calendar. They may not have time to meet members elsewhere, (except for a crisis or occasional appointment).

Congregational Reasons

  • Perhaps we are nervous about a pastor visiting our home, which may be under-decorated or less than organized; or perhaps we live in a rough neighborhood.
  • Perhaps we are too busy during the week to consider opening our home for a pastoral visit or small group Bible study. Reasons for this may include poor time management, a hectic work and family routine or an intense church event calendar.
  • Perhaps we live a double life and hope to conceal it, appearing one way at church but another way at home.
  • Perhaps we’re reluctant to build close relationships with pastors and others in our church family, due to prior bad experiences or certain misconceptions.
  • Perhaps we don’t know what to talk about, or we fear getting into a conversation we prefer to avoid.
  • Perhaps we only want to attend church on Sunday morning, and nothing more.

Do any of these aversions seem plausible? Do you have any more to offer? Whatever the reason(s) may be, we easily fumble this important part of “hold nothing back” ministry. As a result, we lack the benefits that this ministry of presence provides.

Considering Some Benefits of Presence

What benefits does this off-site, in-home approach to relationship-building, Bible teaching, disciple-making provide? Much every way. I’ll offer a few.

Pastoral Benefits

  • You will learn to understand people better and know them in a more personal way. You will learn many things: their personality and viewpoints, strengths and weaknesses, life routine and commute, special burdens, economic conditions and more.
  • You will be able to preach, pray and plan programs and events based upon the actual rhythm, condition and circumstances of the people in your church. This is much better than following an abstract, standard model borrowed from another church, conference or popular book on ministry strategy.
  • You will increase trust, build rapport and develop important, invaluable friendships. Over time, this strengthens the effectiveness and quality of your large-group gatherings.
  • You will encourage people to take part in large-group church events, just as you do in their lives throughout the week.

Member Benefits

  • You will know your pastor better, as a person and not just a pastor.
  • You will be able to share thoughts, speak with your pastor and ask questions in a more meaningful, personal way. This level of interaction is not possible in a passing church conversation or office appointment.
  • You will learn how to build friendships and minister to others as you observe your pastor doing this with you. You will gain confidence to open your home and minister to other friends and believers.
  • You will appreciate gathering together for larger church services and events at a deeper level. You will know people at church as friends, not Sunday acquaintances only.

When churches overlook in-home gatherings and personal connections throughout the week, they forgo these invaluable benefits and more. But when we embrace this principle, we practice it in simple ways that correspond with the needs, schedules and culture of a church. By doing this, we strengthen the church and bless one another in ways not possible through large church assemblies.

Considering Some Opportunities for Presence

What forums and venues should we consider to practice this crucial ministry approach? Whenever possible, homes are a good place to start. Invite people to your home, or offer to visit their home. Paul did this regularly, and we should too. However, not every community, church, family or individual will be equally comfortable or eager to do this.

As you look for ways to encourage this, you should adopt other good options, such as job sites, offices and campuses where church people are working and studying throughout the week. Meeting up before a shift or during a lunch break works great. And coffee shops and diners also provide excellent settings for getting with people.

Meetings like this should be a regular feature of your ministry schedule. As a pastor, I like to say that people visit me at least once a week at church; so it’s the least I can do to go see them! Does your weekly calendar feature a healthy balance and mixture of ministry at church and ministry out among the people of the church? It should!

Besides these venues, you should also consider other important settings for being with people. For example, major life events are important times to be with people. Birthdays and graduations, hospital calls, and of course, funerals and weddings all provide important ways to practice the ministry of presence.

And there are many other possibilities. Consider attending or participating in other scheduled or routine events, such as: cheering a church teen on at a high-school soccer match, working out with a member in the gym, walking together in the park, or joining some members in some other recreational or education venue that they enjoy (whether you enjoy doing it or not).

Conclusion

Pastoral presence is just as important as corporate worship. Sharing your life with people throughout the week is a core ministry principle. This happens apart from general assemblies and events at your church location. It follows the pattern established by Jesus and Paul: meeting needs, building relationships and equipping people for ministry in ways that corporate gatherings alone cannot achieve. Consequently, this in-home, shared-life approach should receive as much attention (or more) than ministry in public gatherings. Our churches in the Western world need a revival of pastoral presence. Does your church observe this principle? And how might you take steps to observe it better?

Thomas Overmiller bio


Thomas Overmiller has served as pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Corona, Queens, New York since 2014. He blogs and podcasts at Shepherd Thoughts. He received his BA and MA from Baptist College of Ministry and Theological Seminary in Wisconsin, where he served on Bible faculty for nine years. He has received advanced graduate training from Maranatha Seminary. He and his wife, Sarah, have five young children. He enjoys freelance writing, urban cycling, pickup basketball and Mets baseball.

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There are 9 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I much appreciate the overall point here. Ministry isn't complete if personal work is neglected... and this is really easy for some of us to do.

On the other hand, 2 things that suggest a stronger emphasis on pulpit work is not just a product of western culture:

(1) The early churches met mostly in homes, so when Paul taught "house to house," he was most likely doing what we now class as pulpit work. (Though I have no doubt he also worked with individuals during these times). This is especially evident in the context of Acts 20:7-12 (Eutychus) where many were gathered in what appears to have been someone's home. 

(2) Looking at where the emphasis lies in Acts--there are standout examples of individual discipleship (enough to warn us not to neglect this) but I'd estimate off the top of my head that more than 85% of the time we see the gospel being declared to groups gathered in synagogues, the temple, or some other "it's teaching time" type of gathering.

TOvermiller's picture

Thank you for some good thoughts, Aaron, as always. I really like your reference to the "pulpit work" and "personal work" terminology.

  1. Acts 20:7-12 is a clear example of Lord's Day worship, in which many were gathered. The Lord's Day definitely appears to be a time when the early church gathered in a more corporate way for "pulpit work" and worship (i.e. 1 Cor. 16:2). 
  2. Yes, public Gospel declaration is a significant feature of the Acts narrative, the first part of our Great Commission responsibility (Matt. 28:19). The second part is teaching obedience to all that Christ commands (Matt. 28:20), which likely includes "equipping the saints for the work of the ministry" (Eph. 4:12). While "pulpit work" is a significant element of this second part (2 Tim. 4:2), the "personal work" also seems vital. I find the example of Jesus instructive, spending intentional time "with" his disciples in a more personal setting or small group in daily life (Mark 3:14).

Without diminishing the importance of "pulpit work," I believe that "personal work" in the lives, homes and settings of the people who listen to our weekly "pulpit work" deserves serious attention, more serious than we may realize. This kind of one-on-one (or one-on-small group) attention accomplishes significant things that "pulpit work" alone cannot do. (One notable example of this focus is, in fact, the book of Acts itself, by which Luke gives one-on-one attention to Theophilus, providing careful instruction beyond general gospel preaching.)

Ultimately, I believe that "personal work" on par with how Jesus ministered to the Twelve will enhance the effectiveness of "pulpit work" profoundly. A pastor who is only in his study and pulpit, but rarely in the homes and lives of the people he shepherds, may preach well. But a pastor who is faithfully in his study and pulpit, and faithfully in the homes and lives of the people he shepherds will preach far better.

If I am correct, I think we agree on this point.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Looks to me like we're pretty much on the same page on "both-and" rather than "either-or" other than seeing a couple of passages applying differently here and there.

What would you say to the idea of a team where the guy who is much better at the pulpit work majors on that and the guy who is far better at presence majors on that? (Maybe it's really too easy for both of them!)

TOvermiller's picture

What would you say to the idea of a team where the guy who is much better at the pulpit work majors on that and the guy who is far better at presence majors on that?

I would say that this approach is one way to provide a congregation with a balanced pastoral experience. The key would be for both guys to communicate and pray together closely so that the two ministries overlap. Otherwise, the preaching pastor might grow more distant to the congregation, while the personal work pastor develops close, trusting relationships throughout. But that's just my two cents.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

Richard Dayton's picture

In my ministry as a law enforcement chaplain, our presence is the center of what we do. At an accident scene, a death scene, or a death notification, our presence is far more crucial than our words. Especially a we seen an increased secularization in society, people in those crisis situations are not ready for words, but they will usually accept presence, comfort, and sympathy.

TOvermiller's picture

Yes, presence is a vital aspect of being the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13). Salt cannot preserve the meat when it stays in the salt shaker. It must be present on the meat to make a difference. God bless your vital ministry or presence as a chaplain.

I am presently enrolled in the NYC Citizens Police Academy and building some wonderful relationships with local law enforcement officials. One significant way to practice the principle of presence.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

Bert Perry's picture

1 Timothy 3 notes that the bishop/overseer/pastor/elder must be hospitable and able to teach.  Now theoretically one could demonstrate hospitality at the beginning of one's ministry and would not have to demonstrate it further, but....is that something you should really be able to turn off?  Or should the hospitable man be happy when he's not....being hospitable?

So I would be really, really skeptical about the scenario Aaron mentions---especially as megachurch pastors use an extension of it to isolate themselves from their flock.  Yes, it's not one-one, but one-many, but it doesn't seem that it's possible for a man to have the qualifications for the pastorate and suddenly stop being hospitable.  Just doesn't work with human nature--and even if I'm wrong and it does, you might end up in the same place because the flock would assume that distance from their pastor.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TOvermiller's picture

Aaron said this in a comment:

Looks to me like we're pretty much on the same page on "both-and" rather than "either-or"

In presenting this article, I hope to encourage increased attention to "personal work" in ministry, outside of the pulpit, the study and the church building.  It seems to me that American churches in general tend to focus on "pulpit work," while giving much less than equal attention to "personal work" as described in this article. I do not intend to diminish the crucial importance of pulpit work; instead, I hope to encourage equal attention to "personal work."

At no point does a pastor graduate out of the need to maintain regular "personal work." I agree. As Aaron assented, it should be both-and, not either-or.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

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