To most people who are aware of Adventists, we are known for Sabbath keeping, our health practices, and community service, among other things.
But, how do visitors view your congregation? What reputation does your church have in your town? What should your church be known for?
Jesus gave the answer to His disciples: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another,” John 13:35. Adventist congregations and members should be known by their love.
Why is love the most important thing your church can be known for? Love gives saving power to your relationships and witness. Without a loving witness, we are nothing.
A paraphrase of Paul’s words makes it clear. A church that is deeply involved in helping the poor through Adventist Community Services (ACS) and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), keeps the Sabbath, and follows health principles … but does not love … has a message that is like sounding brass and clanging cymbals, and profits nothing.
As a Church, we must seek to be known by our love so our ministry can reveal the Father’s character, be relevant, and meet the needs of our members and communities.
Regardless of the perception the community has of your church, it can become known as a loving church that draws people to Christ. Here are six suggestions that can make your church a loving church:
1. Love Everyone
Love sinners. Jesus loved everyone. Commenting on Jesus’ ability to love sinners, Philip Yancey, an American Christian author, says, “Somehow Jesus had mastered the ability of loving people whose behavior He disapproved. That’s a lesson the church has not been so good at learning,” What’s So Amazing About Grace? Participant’s Guide. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000, page 22.
Sometimes in our effort to defend and proclaim God’s law to sinners, we fail to reveal God’s love to them. Jesus balanced law and love, and thus was able to attract people most churches shun or castigate. The outcasts, the poor, the criminals, the downtrodden, the prostitutes, and the homeless flocked to Jesus. When we learn to love as Christ did, we will attract the marginalized, and we will not be uncomfortable, fearful, or flee when they come.
Love immigrants. Sabbath keepers recognize that the fourth commandment reveals God cared for “the strangers (immigrants) in our gates.” Leviticus says, “The stranger who dwells among you…you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Love compels us to resist the mean political rhetoric and social pressures of society and embrace immigrants; caring for them as fellow brothers and sisters, remembering that we were immigrants.
2. Create a Loving Community Within the Congregation
You can feel a sense of community, a sense of connectedness, in loving congregations. You sense it from the parking lot attendants who assist you before you even enter the church. You see it in the broad smiles of the greeters and ushers in the lobby. You feel it when you sit down and the person next to you looks you in the eye, smiles, and welcomes you. They make you feel comfortable. You hear it from the pulpit in tone and sermonic content. And, after the service, you know you are accepted because members intentionally reach out to connect with you with genuine love.
Churches that are successful in creating this sense of community do the following:
a. They pray for the Holy Spirit to help them experience the fellowship present in the early church in their congregation (Acts 2:42-47).
b. They encourage every member to intentionally look for new faces every Sabbath. They smile, they welcome them, they seek to know them.
c. They personally invite guests to activities, and to be involved in the life of the Church. They watch to see if someone needs a hymnal, and they share. And, if someone does not have a prayer partner, they pray with him or her.
d. They send a thank-you card to every visitor on the first Monday after their visit. This card is followed up by a call from the pastor, or a church ambassador, who expresses joy over their visit and invites them to come again.
3. Connect With Your Community
Become an externally focused church. Externally focused churches know that their reason for existence is not to serve themselves, but to save and serve their community. Therefore, their plans, programs, and budgets are all community focused.
Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson mention five aspects of an externally focused church:
- They are inwardly strong, but outwardly focused.
- They integrate good deeds and good news into the life of the church.
- They value their impact and influence in the community more than attendance.
- They seek to be salt, light, and leaven in the community.
- They see themselves as the “soul” of the community.
- They would be greatly missed by the community if they left.
(The Externally Focused Church. Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2004, page 12.)
Know your neighbors. One pastor and his church decided to meet every family within a half-mile radius of their church. They got out and introduced themselves to their neighbors with no effort to distribute tracts or even pray. They started out with one objective in mind — to make new friends.
As they met their neighbors, they listened to them, discovered their needs and aspirations. They then shaped the ministries of their church to meet the needs of the community. They opened a family life center where youth from all over the community could gather and play. They also helped the unemployed secure jobs. Now that church is thriving and is viewed as a church that cares for the community.
Connect with area pastors and congregations. When I went to the South Columbia Church in Columbia, Mississippi, there were less than 20 members in the church. The members told me they wanted to grow. We immediately began to connect with the area churches of all denominations. We scheduled special events, such as “Family and Friends Day” and “Choir Day,” and invited the area pastors and churches to attend. These opportunities helped us make friendships that broke down the perception that Seventh-day Adventists are isolationists who think they are better than other churches. We then began to grow, and within two years, had more than 50 members in attendance.
How do you get started? Identify the needs and issues that your community is seeking solutions for. Then, discover the skills and resources in your congregation that can be marketed as solutions to the community’s needs.
When your church is seen as a place where the community can find help for their needs, the parent who is looking for help with their children will see possibilities in your Pathfinder and Adventurer programs. The couple that is looking for a small group where they can find wholesome fellowship and Bible study will look to you. The elderly person who no longer drives at night will be pleased to know that they can attend a weekly midday “Lunch and Learn” at your church. There they can study the Bible, listen to guest presentations from agencies that serve the aging, and get a free meal.
4. Partner with Community Organizations.
In one small church, we had two children in the congregation. I saw that the local Girl Scouts needed financial support and a place to meet. We offered the use of our church and supported them financially. Though we entered the relationship without seeking to proselytize, God blessed us to change the perception that the community had of us, and to baptize the county Girl Scout director.
To partner with organizations in your town, start by getting a directory of social service agencies from your local Chamber of Commerce. Find agencies your congregation can partner with, such as the Red Cross, Area Agencies on Aging, and food banks. Consider ways you can partner with these organizations by providing volunteers and resources, or serving on boards if invited. Through these partnerships, we demonstrate that we are community-minded, and are able to get involved in coalitions that can effect positive changes that one church could never do alone.
5. Begin a New Narrative of Love
Change your congregational narrative. Sometimes there is inconsistency between the church’s branding and the congregational narrative. The church slogan may say, “Loving Church,” but when you listen to the members and leaders of the church, you hear stories of hurt, jealousy, and negativity. This negative congregational narrative undermines the message the church is seeking to tell the community, and inhibits growth.
To change the narrative, schedule a forgiveness seminar to help your congregation discover how to heal and forgive. Then help them put their past behind, and reframe the victim stories into stories of victory. When hurt people in your community see the transformation in your church, they will come for healing and love.
Watch your online narrative. Sometimes the posts that we make on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter) can negatively affect the perception people have of your congregation.
Here is a quick suggestion for changing the character of your online narrative. Before making a post, consider the content and tone of your post. Use the Philippians 4:8 test. Is it true, noble, just, pure, lovely, and of good report? Also, pray, “Let the words of my mouth and the posts on my page, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.”
6. Love Unconditionally
During a tour of Israel with an interdenominational group of 14 journalists in December of 2010, someone in the group saw the Adventist Church with the Adventist Community Service shield on the wall. She immediately turned to me and said, “Steven, you are Seventh-day Adventist. Your church is the one that does service in the community as a way of proselytizing.” I was embarrassed. But, sadly, this has too often been true. Churches that do not have a lifestyle of compassion will hold a kindness campaign just to prepare for an evangelistic meeting. Then, after the meeting is over, they withdraw within their walls. We must have a lifestyle of love without an agenda.
How do visitors view your congregation? What reputation does your church have in your town? What can you personally do to make your church be known as a loving church in your community?
We are counseled that, “If we would humble ourselves before God, and be kind and courteous and tenderhearted and pitiful, there would be 100 conversions to the truth where now there is only one,” Testimonies to the Church, vol. 9, page 189.
When your congregation is known by its love, your community will know that you are His followers and will glorify the Father, and they will be attracted to His Church.
is the Southern Union communication director and Southern Tidings editor.
Southern Union | November 2017