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.
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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
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 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.