I have been amazed how, in the past five years, a few simple gestures helped change the reputation of a church.
In the process of considering an invitation to serve as senior pastor of the Spencerville Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, I began to ask those I knew of their perceptions of the church. I routinely heard three answers: beautiful music; healthy adult Sabbath School classes; great children’s program. They all sounded wonderful. But the fourth response I consistently heard worried me: “But they aren’t friendly.”
When my wife and I visited to assess the church for ourselves, we went incognito to get a real picture of the church and its culture. This meant that most of the members didn’t know who we were or why we were there. We were simply guests, something Spencerville frequently has. As we walked in, we were handed a bulletin with a friendly smile, but no words. We found a seat and sat down. Someone from the front asked everyone to stand and greet one another. The search committee members who knew why we were there came and said hello, but no one else. A woman two rows in front of us stood. People walked by her. A couple even reached around her to shake hands of people in the same row. “I can’t take this,” my wife said, and walked up to welcome her. We now understood the reports we had received. It didn’t seem friendly. Or was it?
Perception is reality, but it’s not always the truth. I accepted the call, and we’ve now been members of the Spencerville church for five years. It didn’t take long for us to realize the truth. The Spencerville church family has some of the warmest, most supportive people we’ve ever served. So why did everyone, or nearly everyone, outside of the Spencerville church, and even a few of the members themselves, have the perception that Spencerville was unfriendly?
We did some studying, even posing the question to members themselves. Why does everyone think this church is unfriendly? What can we do about it? There was lots of speculation, but we needed more than that. We needed action. We needed to address what our members seem to have forgotten (or perhaps never learned)—how to welcome people.
I engaged one of our members who, I was told, had the gift of “seeing the big picture.” I laid out the problem and the principles I wanted to embrace. She said she’d pray about it and see what she could create. What developed was a new way to “do church.”
In our church, and probably yours, too, members have jobs to do on Sabbath morning. Some are greeters. Some distribute bulletins. Some sit at the “welcome desk” to answer questions. The list goes on. One of the things that was happening was that while a member came and did their job, they didn’t do anything else. So if the bulletin person was called away, the greeter didn’t pick up the slack. There wasn’t anything wrong with the system; it just wasn’t contributing toward welcoming members or guests.
The new system eliminated all the individual jobs, and created HIS teams in their place. HIS is an acronym that stands for help, inform, support, and reminds us whom we really work for. Spencerville is a large church, so each team was made of 30 people (or more). Initially, there were five teams (we’ve since grown to six, plus an academy team and a Pathfinders/Adventurer team).
Anyone, member or other, could be on a team if they wanted to. There were adults, senior citizens, teenagers, children, and those with disabilities. Each team was given one responsibility: make the Sabbath you are on duty the best Sabbath anyone has ever seen. Each team had to contribute whatever they thought would make that Sabbath great.
Minimally they provided: greeters at the door and in the parking lot (with umbrellas on rainy days); people at doors so that no one ever opens a door for themselves into the church or the sanctuary; someone to answer questions, offer directions, and escort people where they need to go; not just handing a bulletin, but offering friendly words as well. But there’s more.
We asked the HIS teams to be creative. They soon set up a welcome table in the foyer that provided water. Sometimes on cold days there’d be hot chocolate or juice. Occasionally a cookie or mint might be available. They planned themes about seasons, special Sabbaths; they honored veterans, graduates, or teachers. Decorations around and on the table added warmth to the foyer. Members began to look forward to what they would find. We soon found the foyer a place where conversation flowed and smiles were seen.
As we shared these principles with our church family and our new system of welcoming, our greeting team grew from being the burden of two or three people to a family of 200 people all working together with one goal: to welcome everyone who drives onto the campus of the Spencerville church. Everyone worked together. Our senior citizens who might not be able to stand worked as schedulers or greeted at the table. Our preschoolers stood at doors with their parents and learned to say hello. We had teens and young adults who said, “Someone at church needs me!”
I’ll be the first to admit that we still have strides to make to become the warmest church one can find. Yet, I know God has used this simple plan to move the reputation of the Spencerville church out of the unfriendly zone into the inviting.
This is evident when a fellow pastor tells me, “I’ve been in this community for more than 20 years, and never attended Spencerville before. But I had so many members tell me, ‘Spencerville has changed,’ I had to come check it out for myself.”
The change is evident when a couple stands up and says, “When we came to this community 18 years ago, this is the church we wanted to attend, because we loved the music. But no one even looked at us when we walked into the church. Recently, a friend said to give it another try. That first Sabbath, after not attending for 18 years, we were greeted by four different people before we even got to our seats.”
We know the culture has changed when a millennial says, “When I was a child, we used to be able to leave church 15 or 20 minutes after the service ended. Now people are still mingling in the foyer up to an hour after the service.”
We know it has changed because our fellowship meal is no longer limited to the fellowship hall, but in the hallway, and primary and junior rooms.
This didn’t happen because people changed, or because they became more friendly. They were always friendly. We just needed to be reminded how to give a proper hello.
Chad Stuart has been senior pastor of the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church for nearly five years.
When we as a staff spoke about an issue dedicated to welcoming churches, one person came to mind almost immediately: Steven Willsey, former pastor of nurture and visitation at the Spencerville, Maryland, Seventh-day Adventist Church. Not only did Bill Knott reference him in his editorial, we also decided to interview him. Now retired, he shared with us his philosophy of connecting with people and connecting them with the local congregation. What follows is a portion of our conversation.—Editors.
How did you develop a burden for welcoming people? Did it come naturally, or is it something that developed over time?
I’m an extrovert; I like being with people. I grew up in an Adventist home. I remember hearing from my family, as well as others, that good pastors were often those who did a lot of visiting. That was in the back of my mind as I began my own ministry.
When I went to Spencerville, my responsibility as an associate pastor was pastoral ministry and pastoral care. It was quite a large congregation, so in order to meet the needs of everyone, I had to look for ways of finding people who were most in need.
I soon found that if I stood in the foyer, I could meet most of the people. I came to ask open-ended questions. “How was the week for you?” If I discovered some special need, I made an appointment or called them.
When I asked how things were going, they’d always say, “Fine, Pastor; everything is fine.”
Then I would often ask, “What does that mean?”
I asked one man, and he said, “Oh, everything’s good.”
“What does that mean?”
He said, “Well, Pastor, the truth is that my wife and I have decided to separate.” They did eventually divorce, but it was important for me to know that from him rather than follow up a rumor. I tried to meet people who were especially in need, talk to them about whatever they were going through, and support them as best I could.
Did you think of yourself as an institution at Spencerville church?
Well, yes. Friends would later say, “You’re the reason I’m here.” That was very fulfilling.
Because we had Sabbath Schools for toddlers and younger children, young couples would come to church after they had children. Many times they would kind of dare you to say anything to them. They didn’t want to be noticed.
So I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to talk to them. But I did go to the Sabbath School teachers afterward and find out if they had the names of those individuals. The next time they came I would call them by name, and gradually they became more friendly. I became close to many of them.
Did you use any other churches as role models for the type of ministry you did, or was it something you developed on your own?
It was something that I felt was my role as a pastoral-care minister. It came naturally out of who I am.
Besides ministry during the period between Sabbath School and the worship service as people were gathering in the sanctuary, I made a point of going up and down the aisles and greeting people after they had found their pew, greeting people I had not had a chance to touch in the foyer. That seemed to have a big impact on people. I found it to be a lot of fun.
We heard about one person in particular. Apparently, he got used to you greeting him, and he tested you by coming in through different doors. We heard that one time he slipped in, sat down, and thought that he’d escaped. Then you showed up to greet him in spite of his efforts to slip in unnoticed.
He wasn’t the only one I did that to. I made a point to find them and tie them as closely [to the church] as I could. He became a really great friend.
How effective do you think most Adventist churches are in making people feel welcome?
I’ve had the occasion to visit a number of churches, and most of them aren’t very effective. You can go to some churches, go out, and nobody speaks to you.
But I remember once when with my family went on vacation in northern New York state. We went to church, and they were very welcoming. They made sure we signed the guest register. Somebody invited us home for lunch. When we were back in our cabin on the lake, we had a knock at the door. Some church member and his family came and brought us a quart of freshly picked strawberries from their garden.
I asked, “How in the world did you find us?”
They said they just drove around until they found a place where they thought an Adventist pastor would be. That church really knew how to welcome people.
If you could give a piece of advice to those who greet on Sabbath mornings, handing out bulletins, what would you say?
I would say be as persistent as you can in welcoming people. It’s an important part of what you do, and people remember you for how you support them, not only when they worship, but how you support them through the crises in their lives.
I was in Spencerville for 15 years as associate pastor, so I was able to accompany people through various high points and low points in their lives, from the time a child is born, to the time the child is baptized, hospitalizations of various family members, even deaths in the family.
Our culture seems to thrive to some degree on anonymity. In some large churches they come, they sit, they leave. What would you say in view of the social climate we live in?
You have to be diligent and purposeful. Make sure that people don’t leave the sanctuary without some kind of contact with other people.
It has to be something you set out to do. People, even though they seem to desire anonymity, appreciate it once they have gotten acquainted, and they will remember if they have been touched by somebody. In fact, they’ll complain if nobody spoke to them, even though it was difficult because of their own attitude.
You see welcoming as a ministry?
It was the most fulfilling of any part of my ministry. I discovered that my visiting and welcoming ministry really prepared me for preaching.
Before that, my preaching was more doctrinally focused. But as I grew in my ministry and began my visiting, I discovered that it was easier, more appropriate, and more meaningful for people when my preaching grew out of the needs of the congregation. Most of them knew the doctrines; they didn’t need to hear that again and again. They did need to have their needs cared for, and you did that for them individually, personally, in their homes or in the foyer.
What would you like members to know about making their churches welcoming places?
If their church is going to grow, and if they’re going to have the [right] kind of meaningful experience in the church themselves, it means reaching out to one another and caring for one another.
Caring for one another is not just saying hello, but also having meaningful relationships, inviting others home for lunch or dinner, social occasions, social events. Get acquainted with people. Just determine that you’re going to be friendly regardless.