Those who seclude themselves from the people are in no condition to help them.—Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 267.
At the risk of oversimplification, this warning provides a definition that perhaps goes to the very heart of this whole matter of community relations.
Here is a warning against seclusiveness in relations with our community neighbors. Perhaps we have had the characteristic of "drawing within ourselves," stemming most largely from the Biblical statement that God's people are a "peculiar people." "Peculiar" being understood to mean "odd" or "out of step" with society instead of being "peculiar" in the sense of having a different or distinct message.
"We are one big family," we sometimes boast. But in saying this we are at times likely to build walls about ourselves and establish what almost amounts to a closed community—a "family" community. Not so long ago a gentleman living in a community with a large proportion of Adventists expressed this thought in conversation with one of our members: "You Adventists. I have known you since I was a boy. I have the greatest respect for your high principles, but you seem to be a group that is hard to break into from the outside."
As in the case of public relations, community relations is something an organization has whether or not this fact is recognized. It is not a matter of choice. It isn't something you choose either to have or not to have. Rather, it is a question of what you and your church are doing about it. For there is one thing you can do, and that is to determine whether the quality of your community relations is good, bad, or merely indifferent.
It is a common error in community relations to concentrate on making things look good instead of actually making them good. Community relations for a church starts on the inside and from there moves to the outside. We need to look at programs more than at campaigns.
Our basic philosophy and program can well be summed up in the words of our Lord: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."
With this philosophy of a church in which every member has a deep sense of involvement, of being bound up in the ideals and purposes of the church, let us briefly examine some community activities that will help to bring about the desired identification of members with the work of the church in the community.
The reality of the church is in its outreach to people, and the church member can strengthen this outreach immeasurably by establishing strong personal contacts with community neighbors, business and professional people, officials, and those engaged in welfare activities. Surveys have shown that distortions about an organization arise primarily from a failure to communicate the reality of a plan or of activities. In our case the distortions or misunderstandings about Seventh-day Adventists that are prevalent in many communities arise from a failure to communicate the reality of our beliefs to the public. True, Seventh-day Adventists are quite well known today. But the important thing is the kind of image or picture that is conjured up in the minds of members of the public when they see or hear the name Seventh-day Adventist. Nothing can more effectively rid their minds of the common stereotype of Seventh-day Adventists as "a people with queer notions about diet and who keep Saturday for Sunday" than personal contact with church members who demonstrate a practical concern for the needs of those about them and an active interest in the welfare of the community. Genuine interest in the welfare of others is the keystone in making friends for the church.
Participation in appropriate community causes, such as the Red Cross, blood bank, and civil defense will identify us as a people who are not narrow-minded and seclusive, but who have a broad outlook of community needs and problems. This will also identify us not as a fly-by-night group that is here today and gone tomorrow, but as a stable force for good in the community. It will also win friends and support among other religious groups when Adventist church members find themselves working and associating with key figures in the community.
From the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy we have this interesting observation: "There is a great work to be done, and every effort possible must be made to reveal Christ . . . ; and the Lord will give us favor before the world until our work is done." —Testimonies, vol. 6, pp. 20, 21.
Recognizing that this promise is contingent upon our making every effort to reveal Christ to the world, we can, if we take in its over-all meaning, find encouraging signs that the Lord is carrying out His promise. One way in which the Lord is using some of His people to "give us favor before the world" is through association with ministers of other faiths and with other professional and business leaders in the community. Said Ellen G. White: "Let some of the workers attend religious gatherings in other churches and, as there is opportunity, take part in them."—Ibid., pp. 74, 75. Our ministers should seek to come near to the ministers of other denominations."—Ibid., p. 78.
Round the circle of the earth there has been demonstrated again and again the value of membership of some of our ministers and other workers in such organizations as the Ministerial Association, Rotary International, Kiwanis and Civitan clubs. Often this is the only contact community and "thought" leaders have ever had with the church under favorable circumstances. In some cases a complete change of atmosphere in a college or church community has occurred, a change from a suspicious or even hostile attitude to one of friendliness and understanding.
Along with these suggestions and observations should go a word of caution. While it is possible for every church member to be a living "testimony," not all, and this does not exclude ministers, are equipped to lead in community activities. Church members would need to be advised by the pastor and other church leaders about the desirability of joining organizations or accepting leadership responsibilities. Ministers would frankly have to ask themselves whether they feel their own membership in some of the groups would lead to a more enlightened understanding of their church and its mission in the community. In accepting these responsibilities there will be times when we must dare to be different. There will even be times when we must be embarrassed for conscience' sake. But if we can quietly and without ostentation abide by our profession of principles, we will in the end receive the respect we deserve. Conformity to standards of the world or a compromise with principle would of course defeat the very ends toward which we strive.
A community speakers' service or bureau serves much the same purpose as membership in community organizations, but requires much more planning and effort. This is generally possible only where there is a reasonably large Adventist center, a conference office, or institution. Where already established, this type of community activity has proved and is continuing to prove to be a most effective channel of communication. A speakers' bureau provides a roster of organization representatives who are available to address groups in the community. This technique has valuable two-way communication potential; speakers not only have the opportunity to present information to the public but they can learn at first hand the views of members of the groups they address. In spite of the development of the more impersonal mass communication media, person-to-person or face-to-face communication still remains far and away the most effective. Here the speaker delivers his message in a personal, intimate manner, and since he is there by invitation, he meets the members of his audience under the most favorable circumstances. Unless particularly requested to do so, he does not discourse on Seventh-day Adventism. The fact that he is introduced as a representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Church will make the desired impact on the minds of community leaders.
Another effective method of communication and one requiring less personal effort and organization is the use of the motion picture or other visual media. The film More Than Singing, recently released by the General Conference Public Relations office, provides a new dimension for Seventh-day Adventists in this type of community service. It is the first nondoctrinal film produced by the denomination especially for non-Adventists. Its purpose is to help project an accurate and favorable image of the denomination among organizational groups of the public. Though it distinctly carries a message, the reason for the church's existence, the entertainment value makes it a film worth showing to almost any type of organization or group. There is a growing interest today on the part of most people everywhere to know why other people live and act as they do. A film such as More Than Singing helps to satisfy that curiosity in an easy, entertaining fashion.
A few, but not nearly enough, Seventh-day Adventist churches are discovering that it can also be a rewarding experience to invite attendance or even participation by community neighbors in some of the events of the Adventist Church. There are a number of special services throughout the year to which members of the public can receive a special invitation. What, for example, could be more appropriate than for physicians, nurses, and other medical personnel to be invited to attend or participate in a well-planned Medical Day program? The same may be said of educators and teachers on Education Day, of newspaper editors and other communications people on Community Day, or local attorneys and civic leaders on Religious Liberty Day. True, we can assume that the great majority will not accept the invitation, but the very fact that a gracious invitation is received will help to engender a feeling of good will and interest on the part of those receiving it.
It will at once be apparent that this subject of the impact in the community of a church and its members is far from being exhausted as a result of these few comments. There are ways not mentioned, some not yet discovered, and still others as yet undreamed of by which the church and its members may be more effective witnesses for Christ in the community.