Pastor reflects on leaving Amish life, founding megachurch

LANCASTER — Forty years sounds like a lifetime. It also can fly past in the blink of an eye.

Just ask the Rev. Sam Smucker. In 1977, Smucker and 30 other people gathered for worship in a room at the former Sheraton Conestoga Hotel on Oregon Pike. Three years later, they were renting space at the Lititz Rec Center for services.

Today, Smucker preaches to a weekly audience of 2,800 in an auditorium at the Worship Center — a 106,000-square-foot building along New Holland Pike complete with rooms, chapels and cafe. Adjacent is the first church building, now accommodating Lancaster County Christian School students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

On June 11, the 69-year-old will step down from his post as senior pastor of the nondenominational church he built; a June 10 ceremony is planned to mark his retirement.

Smucker, however, doesn’t call it a retirement. Rather, it is a sabbatical, he says — one that will last until October when he returns in a part-time role.

Leaving the Amish

On a recent morning, Smucker talked about how he, a former Amish youth from Ronks with only an eighth-grade education, became the pastor of a modern megachurch.

He is the eldest of Daniel and Arie Smucker’s 12 children — seven boys and five girls, including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker. Eleven of the siblings left the Amish church and lifestyle, with only Ruth Smucker Stoltzfus remaining.

Sam Smucker, the first to leave, said he knew at a young age that the lifestyle was not for him.

“I told my mom when I was 12 years old, ‘I’m leaving the Amish,’ “ he said. “There was nothing spiritual about it. I wanted a car. My parents weren’t as hard-line as some, so they didn’t throw me out of the house. They allowed me to keep my car at the farm.”

His parents ultimately were excommunicated — not because of the car but because they took part in Bible studies unsanctioned by Amish elders.

Smucker’s leaving coincided with “rumspringa,” the rite of passage when Amish youths — typically boys — gain greater freedom. Because they are not yet baptized, they are not subject to church’s authority. While many return to the fold after this time, Smucker did not.

And his spirituality suffered. At the age of 21, Smucker married his wife, Sherlyn, and moved to Phoenix, Arizona. He described it as a time when he was searching for purpose in life — something that would become a theme in his ministry.

Becoming a minister

It was during a Baptist church service in February 1972 that Smucker committed himself to Christ and began to contemplate a role in ministry.

That presented a bigger question: How does someone with an eighth-grade education become a minister?

He heard about Rhema Bible Training Center (now college) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which offered a nine-month ministerial program.

“They accepted individuals who didn’t have high school diplomas, so that’s where we went.”

A month before his course of study ended, Smucker received a call from a friend who told him that a small group of people were looking to start a church in Lancaster County.

“At the beginning, I was young, had no experience, and I just started teaching the Bible,” Smucker said.

And people began attending his services.

“It was amazing. People had a hunger for God in those days.”

In the first five years of the church’s existence, attendance jumped to more than 1,000.

In 1981, less than four years after his first sermon, the first Worship Center was dedicated. A year later, the church purchased an additional 8 acres to meet the growing demand.

The secret to his success has been his ability to reach people.

The Rev. Matt Mylin, who is taking over as senior pastor and has attended the the Worship Center since he was a youth, said the church’s vision has always been to help people build a personal relationship with God and to find their purpose in life.

“We help people understand the Bible and how to apply it to their lives,” Mylin said. That is guided by Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

As the church grew, Smucker continued to seek new ways to reach the disaffected, adding bands, a stage and audiovisual equipment.

“I’ve always been a big thinker,” he said.

Brother Lloyd Smucker, who is in his first term as Lancaster County’s congressional representative, attributes his brother’s success to hard work and his vision for what is possible.

“He has an entrepreneurial spirit,” Smucker said from his Washington, D.C., office. “He really is a servant leader. At the same time, he is a visionary.”

In 1998, the church purchased an additional 114 acres and, in 2010, dedicated the current facility. Total cost of the project was $20 million. Three-fourths of the debt already has been retired.

The Worship Center now has 15 credentialed pastors who work in a variety of areas.

“We’re a regional church,” Smucker said. “People come here from all different parts of the county. There’s one couple that comes here from Delaware every week.”

Local pushback

The Worship Center’s early growth was not universally welcomed. Smucker acknowledged that some pastors considered his ministry an intrusion.

Several Lancaster city pastors met with him after he began sending a bus into Lancaster in an attempt to attract an audience. “They had a point,” he acknowledged.

The church now belongs to the Conestoga Valley Ministerium.

The growth here tells only part of the story. The Worship Center sponsors 30 missionaries in 120 countries. It has planted other churches.

Is he surprised by the growth of the Worship Center?

“(I am an) Amish boy, eighth-grade education. Just to see what has happened and how God has been able to use that probably has surprised me the most.”

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