Learning from a Faithful Shepherd: Pastor John Thornbury

I was delighted to find this interview Dr. Ray Van Neste conducted with Pastor John Thornbury upon his recent retirement from Winfield Baptist Church. I have never met Dr. Thornbury, but have grown to deeply appreciate this brother’s ministry in the past few months. I ran across his name on several different occasions in connection with pastoral ministry reading, and investigated a bit into his ministry in Pennsylvania. What I have found has been such an encouragement to me that I want to highlight a few themes for you here.  

First, his ministry demonstrates a commitment to the task of shepherding the flock of God. Thornbury spent 44 years, from 1965-2009, as pastor of Winfield Baptist Church in Union County, PA. This fact alone speaks volumes to his understanding of pastoral ministry as a shepherd’s work. A shepherd does not ambitiously seek out larger, more profitable flocks for himself; he settles in and keeps watch over the ones entrusted to him. Very few people around the world know the name of this church into which Dr. Thornbury poured his life right now, but their names will be known at the revealing of the sons of God. And standing with a company of the redeemed residents of Winfield, clothed in the spotless righteousness of Christ, will be their faithful pastor, John Thornbury. This is exactly the kind of faithfulness I pray for in my own ministry. Dr. Thornbury speaks to the  of shepherding in greater detail in the interview with Van Neste.

His ministry also demonstrates a commitment to God’s Word preached. Several of his sermons are available online, and they model a confidence in the sufficiency and power of Scripture. Again, we will not know the full value of this kind of week-in and week-out preaching of God’s Word until the resurrection from the dead. In addition to Biblical preaching, Dr. Thornbury is concerned that his people be nourished by sound doctrine. Among other examples, his A System of Bible Doctrine, published in 2003, is a systematic theology tailored for accessibility to any church member. 

His ministry also demonstrates a commitment to disciplined learning. He is the author of numerous articles as well as a number of books, including: A Pastor in New York: The Life and Times of Spencer Houghton Cone, God Sent Revival: The Story of Asahel Nettleton and the Second Great Awakening, David Brainerd: Pioneer Missionary to the American Indians, A System of Bible Doctrine, and Help Us to Pray.  I find it difficult enough to read substantive books in addition to the weekly workload, much less write several of them! The time spent in the research and composition of these works, in the midst of a full-time pastorate, shows a remarkable commitment to disciplined learning which I admire very much.  

Finally, his ministry demonstrates a commitment to serving the broader community in which the Lord placed him. It is very easy for me to become so consumed with the day-to-day demands of pastoral ministry — preparing sermons, visiting the people, preparing the order of worship — that I isolate myself from the broader community. This is a real weakness of mine, and I was challenged to  read of Dr. Thornbury’s work in his community. For example, he conducted a radio program for several years on area stations, one half-hour program called “Windows of Heaven,” and a daily fifteen minute program as well. He also recently lead an initiative to revive the state song of Pennsylvania:

In the fall of 2007 Pastor Thornbury launched a project to revive the use of the Pennsylvania State Song, which had fallen into disuse.  He suggested that the song be printed by the government and that an official “Sing Pennsylvania Week” be proclaimed by the House of Representatives.  Assisted by local state representatives Russell Fairchild and Merle Phillips both these initiatives were approved.  To the surprise and delight of the church, the church chorale was invited to sing at the plenary session of the House of Representatives in Harrisburg. On November 20 the chorale, led by Pastor Thornbury, sang “Pennsylvania” to a standing ovation.  This performance was broadcast statewide by the Pennsylvania Cable Network. The house passed by a 196 to 0 vote an adoption of November 25-30 as “Sing Pennsylvania Week” and distributed the sheet music of the song. The state song had previously been unavailable.  Dennis O’Brien, Speaker of the House, asked the chorale on this occasion to present a program at a gala Christmas event at the rotunda of the capitol, an invitation that was accepted.  Since the adoption of this resolution the song has been sung across the state in various organizations. The Shikellamy marching band played it at the Fourth of July parade in 2009. 

Isn’t that a great story? As a pastor who dearly loves his region also, I found this particularly moving. 

These are just a handful of brief observations I have made from afar; there is much about Dr. Thornbury’s life and ministry that I do not know. However, this was too fine an opportunity not to commend such a sterling example of time-tested pastoral ministry. Thank you, Brother Thornbury, for your faithfulness. May the Lord bless your continued work for the Kingdom, and may he raise up more pastors who will not be ashamed when the Chief Shepherd appears.

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About Eric Smith

Sinner saved by the grace of Jesus, husband of Candace, father of Coleman and Crockett, West Tennessean, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church, student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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