By David Roach
CLARKSVILLE — Like many retirees, you can find James Shepherd, 84, fishing in his boat several days each week. But he’s set apart from many other retirees by what he’s fishing for.
When he and a friend bought a pontoon boat four years ago, he sensed the Lord saying, “Why don’t you fish for men off this?” So Shepherd made signs that said, “Get in the boat — Bible study” and “Worship on the water.” Then he launched a ministry of taking people for rides on the Cumberland River and sharing the gospel with them.
Over the past four years, Shepherd’s Clarksville ministry has seen 43 people profess faith in Christ as their Lord and Savior.
“It’s God’s ministry,” said Shepherd, who has pastored four Tennessee Baptist churches and done itinerant evangelism. “All I’m trying to do is orchestrate what God wants to do with it.”
On a typical day of ministry, Bro. Shep — as everyone calls him — docks his boat and has friends come aboard to play Christian music on their instruments. As interested passersby gather, he offers them rides and shares a lesson from Scripture during the ride. Preacher friends sometimes volunteer to speak during the boat rides, and laymen volunteer to give their testimonies.
Riders often receive cold water from Shepherd. Sometimes he even orders pizza for them.
The ministry is funded through donations from individuals and churches.
“Lost people don’t want to come to the church anymore,” Shepherd said. “… My job is taking the church to the people instead of asking the people to come to me.”
Among the recent beneficiaries of Shepherd’s ministry were a homeless couple named Michael and Monica. In July, Shepherd and some friends spotted them under a bridge on a Saturday, docked the boat nearby and began to play hymns.
The couple, both around 40 years old, responded well to a four-minute sermon by one of Shepherd’s co-laborers and agreed to attend church the next day. They also shared that Michael had terminal cancer.
At Clarksville’s Second Mile Church (see story) the next day, Michael and Monica were saved. They were baptized the following Sunday and have attended faithfully ever since.
“We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us,” Shepherd said. “But we have to do our part of it, which is faith.”
Among Shepherd’s challenges, his wife died two years ago. Then earlier this year, he found his ministry at a crossroads after he had sold his first pontoon boat but felt God leading him to start the ministry again. So he used the majority of his remaining retirement funds to buy a new boat in Nashville, with the confidence God would provide for his needs.
“The word got out about me taking my retirement money and spending it,” Shepherd said. “And five weeks ago, I went to my mailbox” to find a check for $25,000 “and a little note that said, ‘Here’s your retirement money back, and here’s $5,000 to operate the boat this summer on.’ ”
As for Shepherd’s future plans, he’s praying to win 96 more people to Christ before the summer ends.
When the boat ministry expands, two of his friends have offered to tie their pontoon boats to his so they can take 20-30 people on the river for Bible study at one time.
Eventually, however, he has even bigger plans.
“I’m waiting for them to put the General Jackson [riverboat] up for sale,” he said, “to have church on the water.”