Friendly churches are warm and happy. Their members greet one another on Sabbath mornings and enjoy potluck dinners together after church. Often church members visit in one another’s homes and have church socials. What is wrong with being friendly?
Just ask Russell Burrill. In his book How to Grow an Adventist Church1 he relates the story of his first visit to a certain “friendly” Adventist church. Once the service was over, he managed to find his way to the fellowship hall for potluck. He scanned the room looking for a seat. All around him were groups of friends enjoying one another’s company. Since all the chairs at the inhabited tables were filled, he pulled out a chair from an empty table and sat down. He then noticed a young couple approaching his lonely corner.
“Are these seats taken?” they asked.
Glad for the company, he replied that the chairs were available, but instead of joining him, they picked up the chairs and took them away.
Burrill never returned to that church. It wasn’t because of a boring sermon or an ugly carpet. It wasn’t even for lack of a greeter to smile and hand him a bulletin. It was because none of the members took the time to get to know him. They had been so busy fellowshipping with one another that they didn’t notice that Burrill was all alone. During the entire potluck the only people who talked to him were fellow visitors.
NOT THE ONLY ONE
Burrill isn’t the only one who has felt awkward at a friendly church. Kerry, a returning Adventist, wanted his wife, Chiare, to embrace the Adventist faith. When they moved to a new town, they visited several congregations, but no one connected with them. In fact, aside from the greeters, no one had said anything to them. The contrast between the warm fellowship they were accustomed to at a previous church and the cold reception they received at the Adventist churches was painful. They were nearly ready to give up when they decided to give Adventists one last try.
“We work so hard to invite people to our churches, but when God brings them, we pretty much ignore them.”
The next Sabbath, as they sat in the parking lot of yet another Adventist church, Kerry, Chiare, and their daughter bowed their heads and prayed, “Lord, direct us home.” The threesome then walked through the church doors and slowly navigated the long hallway, brushing past chattering clumps of happy people all around them. Just before they reached the sanctuary they hesitated awkwardly. As they were wondering whether this church would be like all the others, a woman introduced herself and spent time getting acquainted. The next week the family was invited over for dinner. Kerry and his family found what they were searching for. They just needed people to welcome them and make them feel wanted.
OUTSIDE OUR COMFORT ZONE
We don’t always realize how nervous some people are when they visit a church for the first time. Mary2 had been watching 3ABN and taking online Bible studies for some time when she decided to check out an Adventist church.
She drove half of the 45-minute trip to the Norfolk Seventh-day Adventist Church before turning around and returning home. The next week she got as far as the parking lot. Finally, on her third Sabbath, she managed to get out of her car—but then she froze, clutching her Bible. Somehow, though, she found herself walking toward the door. Once she got inside, church members warmly welcomed her and invited her to sit with them. She says, “It’s a good thing, too, because I was feeling pretty lost!”
Today Mary is an active member of the Norfolk church because the members made her comfortable. Her pastor, Adrian Atkins, adds, “If someone comes to our door and we can’t gather them in, there’s something wrong with us. . . . If we can’t love them as family, we have no business calling them out of the world!”
WHAT ABOUT YOUR CHURCH?
Would a guest go unwelcomed at your church? Bible worker and author Karen Lewis3 believes that we miss many opportunities to make people feel welcome. She explains, “We work so hard to invite people to our churches, but when God brings them, we pretty much ignore them.”
How can we make sure that guests aren’t being ignored? The greeters should take care of that, right? While greeters give the all-essential bulletin, smile, and handshake, they alone cannot make guests feel welcome. Visitors need to feel wanted by the congregation, and a relaxed conversation means a lot more than a dutiful handshake. Every member should take an active role in welcoming guests.
Making a guest feel welcome is not as hard as you might think. Here are a few tips:
Be aware. Watch for new faces, and when you spot someone you don’t recognize, introduce yourself.
Be confident. Extend your hand, look the person in the eye, and say, “I don’t think I’ve met you yet.”
Be interested. Learn the person’s hobbies and find out where they work.
Be a host. Give visitors a tour of the church, show them the children’s Sabbath school rooms, and ask them to sit with you at potluck.
Be courteous. Introduce the visitor to your friends.
Be encouraging. Get visitors’ contact information, and invite them back the next week.
As nice as it is to be friendly with our church friends, we need to include visitors in our fellowship. Friendliness is a great quality to have, but in order to truly welcome visitors we must go deeper. If we make our guests a priority, they will feel at home in our churches.
1 Russell Burrill, How to Grow an Adventist Church (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2009).
2 Bobby Davis, “Divine Paradox,” 3ABN World, December 2012, pp. 20-23.
3 Karen Lewis, “Bible Studies Made Easy,” Sept. 30, 2012; retrieved from www.audioverse.org/english/sermons/recordings/4322/bible-studiesmade-easy.html.
Nathan Sarli was a high school senior living in southeastern Tennessee when he wrote this article originally published in the August 28, 2014 issue of the Adventist Review. Used by permission.