By Michael Morss

As a fourth generation Adventist, going to church was a way of life for me, but having spent most of my twenties out- side of the church, when I finally decided to go back, the transition was not as easy as I had anticipated. My exploration began with a prominent church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I was met by friendly greeters who faithfully handed me a bulletin and helped direct me to the sanctuary, but that’s where it became awkward. After the initial welcome, no one spoke to me for the rest of my visit. I have to be honest; at this point, I didn’t want to return. I ended up visiting several other churches, and having similar experiences.

Unfortunately for many, when visiting a church, their first encounter is much the same. Thom Rainer has surveyed hundreds of guests regarding their experience when visiting a church for the first time, and in his book Becoming a Welcoming Church he identifies unfriendly church members, in- sider church language, and boring or bad church services as three of the top ten reasons why visitors don’t return. While I don’t believe the churches I visited were unfriendly, they did a poor job of making me feel welcome.

Looking back, I now realize that many churches struggle with the dilemma of being friendly but not welcoming. Speaking to this challenge, Rainer says, “Churches perceive they are a friendly church because the members are friendly to one another . . .”1 In other words, they have well established relationships, so they see their church as welcoming, but this is where many churches and leaders go wrong.

As I reflect on my own faith journey, I can’t help but think that this is a blind spot in the Adventist Church that must be addressed. We spend millions of dollars every year in an effort to win souls to Christ’s kingdom. Taking that into consideration, we can’t afford to lose guests—especially when they come to us. So how do we move past just being friendly to becoming a truly welcoming church? Let me present three ways I believe our church can progress in this area.

Empathy. Jesus exemplified what it means to show empathy towards others. Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that we have a high priest who is able to empathize with our weaknesses. He’s walked in our shoes, and therefore is merciful and long- suffering with me and you. The great challenge we face is that many of us have been here for so long that we have nearly, if not fully, forgotten what it was like to be a new face in the church. But come on, we all know what it’s like to be a new student at school, or the new guy or girl on the job. It’s a place of vulnerability, and in the church, this is a time that requires nurturing and a safe environment in order to grow. When I find myself being judgmental of others, I reflect on God’s patience and loving kindness in my own life, and I am reminded that I am here not to judge, but to return to others what God has given to me.

Another way we can empathize with others is by taking time to listen longer than we normally would, and part of that is learning to listen with our hearts as much as our ears. In the compilation A Call to Stand Apart, we are reminded to, “Learn about others’ needs! That knowledge kindles empathy, which is the basis for effective ministry.”2 In so doing, I would argue that we will have a much greater chance of reaching the hearts of those visiting our churches, which ultimately fosters a welcoming culture. Unfortunately, this was missing in some of the churches that I visited on my way back to God, and continues to be a void for many when visiting parishes throughout the Adventist Church. Often this is not purposeful, but a result of members lacking awareness.


According to Rick Muchow, pastor of worship at the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, “The six most important minutes of a church service, in a visitor’s eyes, are the three minutes before the service and the three minutes after the service.”3 That said, greeting a new- comer requires more than just saying hello. It takes intentionality, training, and prayer. Going back to my experience in Chattanooga, the initial greeting was something a lot of churches did well, but being welcoming doesn’t stop there.

Follow-up is just as important. One church finally got it right when they connected with me through an interest card. Within a few days of filling it out, I received a call to join the worship team, and for me, this was the determining factor that caused me to join that church.

As pointed out in Rainer’s survey, another obstacle for church guests is insider church language, and as Adventists, this is an area in which we are guilty as charged. As harmless as it may seem, it is often our dialect that impedes our ability to effectively connect with visitors. I recently read about a couple that decided to give church another shot after step- ping away for more than five years. One of the main reasons cited for their exit was that too often the pastor preached on subjects that were completely irrelevant to their lives. Thank- fully, this was not an issue that I encountered, but then again, I was raised as an Adventist. Nonetheless, whether it is Adventist church-speak, or a message from the pulpit, I think it’s safe to say we can never be too careful in making sure our message is relevant for those who may wander in.

Service. Empathy and intentionality play a huge role in welcoming guests into our church, but I would argue that our greatest opportunity to connect and impact the wayward stranger is through service. To be clear, I’m not talking about our church service. Rather, I’m speaking of serving our local communities. This can happen in many different ways, including random acts of kindness, taking a stand for social justice in the community, or serving at the local hospital or police department.

This does two things. First, it helps people in the community see Jesus in our church which communicates that they are accepted, and secondly, it helps our church learn how to effectively interact with people outside our church walls. In a word, it keeps us relevant, which will ultimately help those visiting our churches to feel welcome.

For Rainer, “Welcoming means going. . . . The welcoming church is not merely a church that waits for the world to arrive at the physical address of the congregation. . . . It represents the mindset of an outward focus rather than inward focus. It is about serving rather than being served.”4

Conclusion. As I consider my church in the context of reaching strangers, I am reminded of the song “If We Are the Body” by Mark Hall of Casting Crowns. The lyrics of the second verse and chorus are as follows:

A traveler is far away from home
He sheds his coat and quietly sinks into the back row The weight of their judgmental glances
Tells him that his chances are better out on the road But if we are the body
Why aren’t His arms reaching?
Why aren’t His hands healing?
Why aren’t His words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t His feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way? Jesus is the way

If we’re not careful, we can become a barrier to Christ. I pray the Lord finds us faithful . . .

–Michael Morss is Campion Seventh-day Adventist pastor of discipleship. Email him at: [email protected]

Footnotes: Rainer, T. (2018). Becoming a Welcoming Church, Location 224. White, E. G. (2002). A Call to Stand Apart, p. 84. 3Muchow, R. (2011). 5 Must-Know Facts About First-TimeGuests[online].ChurchLeaders. Rainer,T.(2018).BecomingaWelcoming Church, Location 1029.