Passing on the Big Stage

Below is an article for Bloomington, Illinois' The Daily Pantagraph about my late grandfather Rev. R.J. Zehr.  There is a lot that I admire about him - as seen from my earlier blog - however this article reminded me of his commitment to community or region where he served.  As you will see in the article, he was given the opportunity to a national radio program in the day when radio was king.  However, he passed on the "golden microphone" to say focused on the people with whom he lived, worked and played 

Looking back it is clear that he made the right decision.  Ture, he never got the name recognition of others in his era - many who were his friends - and as a result I am confident that you never heard of him.  Nevertheless, he got to know his people and his community and in the end had an incredibly fruitful ministry.  He earned the respect from those in and outside the church as he stayed focused on loving and serving the people right in front of him.

It has only been in recent years that I have come to appreciate his decision as I see countless men more concerned about their notoriety then they are about be faithful service to Jesus, His people and their community.  Yes, they get far too concerned with the number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers, but my primary concern is that they preach to the world wide web and not the people sitting right in front of them.  As result they miss the very people that God has called them to shepherd!

The next time you preach, will you pause and think about who you are REALLY preaching too?  If you are preaching to your web audience, why are you doing it?  Has God called you to that, or are you hoping to be discovered?  

BLOOMINGTON - "I guess the Lord must have known I would want to speak on the radio because he gave me a good radio voice," mused the Rev. R.J. Zehr in October 1969, on the occasion of his 35th year as on-air pastor for WJBC.

Way back in October 1934, about a month after WJBC transferred operations from LaSalle to Bloomington, Zehr began a Sunday devotional program. After 13 weeks, the station handed the reverend a daily slot, and as late as the mid-1960s, he had not missed a single day of radio work. The vast majority of Zehr's broadcasts were live, but on the rare occasion he was out of town, he made sure to provide the station with a prerecorded program.

Religious programming goes back to the earliest days of radio, when the new communication medium was the Internet of its day, profoundly remaking the social and economic landscape of the nation. During Zehr's early radio career, several charismatic Christian broadcasters enjoyed a level of popularity usually reserved for Hollywood starlets, including evangelist Charles E. Fuller, host of "The Old Fashioned Revival Hour," and Aimee Semple McPherson and her Los Angeles-based Foursquare Church.

Zehr, though, was cut from different cloth. Unlike his mesmeric, occasionally histrionic contemporaries who drew millions of listeners from coast to coast, Zehr remained local his entire career, with his plainspoken reasonableness befitting his rural, Central Illinois roots.
For more than 3 1/2 decades, Zehr's calming voice was the first thing many early risers, especially farmers, heard in the morning. His program's time slot varied throughout his career, but it normally aired between 5 and 6:30 a.m., lasting 15 to 30 minutes.

For his part, Zehr understood the uncanny ability of radio to connect, spiritually speaking, with listeners. "This radio program is just like talking person-to-person," he said late in his career. "It is an individual thing, you know. It is just like I am in a person's home."
Although Zehr came from a theologically conservative tradition, he did not deliver hellfire and damnation from his electronic pulpit. "It wouldn't do you or me any good for me to get up there and condemn something you believe in," he once said.

Zehr, who was born in Flanagan, received appointment as pastor of East White Oak Bible Church in 1928, and there he remained for the rest of his life. Located about four miles northwest of Normal, East White Oak was Mennonite before becoming independent and nondenominational in the 1930s.

For his first 15 years, Zehr broadcast from WJBC studios. In 1949, he began doing the program from his own parlor, sending it to the station via telephone.

Zehr, it must be noted, also spent many years on the McLean County Board of Supervisors, even serving a short while as chairman. During his time on the board, he helped establish the first county zoning laws, and chaired several key committees, including one charged with roads and bridges.

In his later years, Zehr suffered from heart trouble, and he passed away on the morning of Aug. 25, 1971. Fittingly, his final radio program was delivered just hours before his death.

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