Shepherdess: Through a Visitor's Eyes

"O would this gift the good Lord give us: to see ourselves as others see us." (Apologies to Robert Burns!) Barbara Huff notes a number of areas we may check that relate to the impression we make on our visitors.

Barbara Huff writes from Mound, Minnesota.
Barbara Huff emphasizes a number of elements that can militate against church growth. (Read her article to your husband!) Her descriptions of conditions in many churches are not exaggerated. Yet she offers remedies that are simple, effective, and cost nothing.

Just a comment on one of her most important points. Few realize that greeting is an art and that qualifications are needed!

"Qualifications?" you say. "I didn't realize a person had to have any kind of qualifications except to smile, and say Hello."

Receiving guests in the church is similar to receiving guests in our homes. Preparation of the home and food has been done before our guests arrive. Greeting them warmly immediately causes them to feel "I'm glad I came.'' Both in the home and in the church our hospitality can become a catalyst for the miraculous in the lives of those who are seeking to know God. Since greeters are usually the first church people visitors meet, they truly are the door through which guests pass to enter the church. Christian hospitality is not a human talent. It is a marvelous gift of the Holy Spirit to help us minister to a dying society, imparting to all who enter our church doors some thing of the presence of the Lord. God loves you. —Marie Spangler.

In my career as a minister's wife I had often felt like the proverbial "jack of all trades and a master of none." The things I was really trained for or that I enjoyed doing were not always the things that seemed to need my attention.

No longer! Since my husband left pastoral ministry for administration I have finally become a master in one area. I have become a master visitor. Now that no church is "home church" for us I am always a visitor: Being a professional visitor has been an eye-opening experience. In my new role, I want to pass along some observations that may be eye-opening to you too as you realize how a visitor may see your church.

At most churches it's quite obvious which outer door worshipers use to enter the sanctuary. But I've found churches where this isn't true. When no one is present to greet visitors at the apparent main entrance or when what appears to be the main entrance is even locked, guests can readily become confused. Before you enter your church next Sabbath, look at the outside as a visitor would. Is the entrance well defined and inviting, or would you have to follow someone to find your way inside?

Once the visitor finds the right door, are the greeters alert to him and his needs?. A smile is basic, but it is not enough. Greeting is an art, and the greeter who looks a visitor in the eye and then listens with the heart, as well as with the ears, will make guests feel more welcome.

If there is to be a potluck dinner the greeter should invite the visitor to it. On several occasions my husband and I were halfway to our car before someone caught up to ask with a hurt expression on his face, "Aren't you staying for the potluck?" Just because delightful aromas are wafting into the sanctuary during the closing song doesn't automatically mean a potluck. Once, after coming up from the children's division, my husband confidently whispered, "There's food sitting around downstairs. There will be a potluck." Not so. The food in question was being warmed during church to be taken to a private home later. Now, we, and other visitors, aren't standing around looking for a handout. But we do like a meal after driving a couple of hours, teaching a Sabbath school lesson, preaching a sermon, telling a story or two, et cetera.

One more thing about potlucks. Nearly every church group asks visitors to go through the line first. I recognize this gesture as one of friendship and honor. But what the hosts do not recognize is the awkward position in which they can place guests by sending them through the line first. Usually the children are encouraged to follow guests through the serving line. Who does this leave me to talk to as I eat? No one! The children are off with their peers, and by the time someone finally sits with me I have finished eating. So I play with my fork and the olive pits on my plate and try to make conversation with the latecomers who are trying to eat. Exaggerated? Not much. I suggest that a host couple be appointed to go through line with the guests, sit with them, and enjoy the meal and conversation together.

Now let's go back upstairs where the greeter has just welcomed the visitors and advised them of the forthcoming potluck. Look at your sanctuary as a visitor might see it. Are the lights on if they need to be? How well I remember entering one sanctuary moments before Sabbath school was to begin. The room was dark and unfriendly. A few lights burned dimly at the front of the church, so we bravely tunneled our way through the gloom toward those pews that were lighted enough for us to see the words in our hymnals. The time for the service to begin came and went. Finally a deacon attacked the microphone. He thumped on it a bit, blew into it. and uttered those famous words "Testing, one, two, three"! It was obvious that the people of God here weren't really planning to meet their King that day.

I know that emergencies arise and that well-planned programs can come unglued. When this happens, my advice, from a visitor's perspective, is to carry on as best you can and don't apologize. Apologies and excuses usually only make a bad situation more noticeable. Thank your minuteman in private instead of drawing the congregation's attention to the fact that the person with the mission story didn't show up.

But sometimes the congregation deserves to know what is wrong. I recall the time that we were in Fort Worth for a special service in which Elder George Vandeman was to speak. The prelude music went on and on and on! At last the song service began and continued at length. Then there was more music--post-prelude music, I guess. Just as the pastors had decided to dismiss the congregation with no sermon Elder Vandeman appeared at the pulpit, breathless, and explained his delay.

He had been driving up and down the freeway in front of the church for nearly an hour, looking for an exit that would lead him to where he needed to be. The elusive exit, located about two miles from the church, was difficult even for the natives to locate. Finally in his desperation, Elder Vandeman stopped on the shoulder of the freeway and called across the highway to a deacon who happened to be standing in the driveway of the church, "Do you know how to get my car over there? I'm supposed to be preaching!" Without waiting for an answer Elder Vandeman ran across the median, Bible in hand, dashed through the grass, and hurriedly entered the back door of the church.

In this case the congregation needed to know what had happened! After Elder Vandeman caught his breath he delivered a stirring sermon, and because everyone's mind was at ease, not a word was lost.

Does the Sabbath school superintendent in your church dismiss the group for classes but fail to point out to visitors where the classes will be meeting? Many do, causing guests to feel uncomfortable and even hostile. My husband and I just sit tight and wait until we see where the little flocks are going. Then we try to join in inconspicuously. The most helpful thing a Sabbath school member can do for a visitor is to come to him and say, "Won't you come to my class with me?"

Once safely in a class, the visitor faces another hazard—the welcome. Blessed is the teacher who can make the visitor feel welcome but not embarrassed. Some teachers make such a fuss over the visiting preacher that he'd like to crawl under the pew! It's amazing (and amusing) to me to note that when I'm alone I sometimes get a very different welcome than I do if my husband is with me.

May I make a suggestion here? Don't use the lesson period to ride a hobby horse or to lambaste something or someone. I'll never forget how humiliated I once was when a teacher went into a tirade about a particular denomination. Although we were visitors, we were Adventists; however, we had a visitor with us who belonged to the church being attacked! To make matters worse, the accusations the teacher was making were totally incorrect. I've heard Sabbath school classes lambaste psychologists, young people, and those who eat sugar. How much better it is, visitor or not, to keep the discussion positive, not critical!

At the risk of being judgmental myself, it seems to me that too many Sabbath school teachers try to demonstrate their intelligence by not following the lesson and by deliberately guiding the discussion into unprofitable and unsanctified paths. My cheeks still flush when I remember the time the Sabbath school teacher announced, "We're not going to study the lesson today; we're going to discuss ..." (He mentioned a story that had made headlines in the local newspaper for a week.) Besides being a totally inappropriate subject, it failed to have any spiritual value. I was hungry for the Word that day and I remember feeling that I had been invited to a banquet only to have the food snatched away just as I sat down to eat!

Still, it is with joyful anticipation that my husband and I and other traveling workers go from church to church to worship with God's people. We gain far more than we give. One of our most tender Sabbath visiting memories is of the day we pulled up to a tiny rural church. A single car was parked in front. We expected Sabbath school to be finished shortly, after which my husband would preach his second sermon for that day. As we opened the outer door we heard a resonant voice reading. Through the crack in the inner doors we could see a man at the pulpit. We combed our hair and straightened our clothes in the matchbook-sized vestibule and quietly started to slip in.

The voice had stopped reading, and its owner was now at the door to greet us. "I'm so glad to see you," he said sincerely. "I have just finished with the Sabbath school lesson."

Our eyes searched the little room to see who made up the congregation, but we saw no one.

Catching our quizzical expression, the old elder said, "I'm not alone, the unseen host is with me."

My unspoken Oh? was reflected in my husband's eyes.

"Come right in and we'll get started with the service," he said as he turned toward the front of the church.

He positioned himself on a chair in front of the first pew, picked up a violin, and told us what page to turn to in our hymnals. He adjusted his own songbook on a music stand and reached forward to turn on a tape recorder. The recording was a piano accompaniment of the song he had indicated. He joined in with his violin and he, my husband, and I sang—all the stanzas.

I wondered what would happen next. But the dear old gent's frequent references to the unseen host that worshiped with us turned any anxious feelings into cozy, warm, reverent ones.

My husband presented a brief devotional. He closed his thoughts with prayer and then turned to shake the hand of our visible worshiper. I collected my Bible and purse, we exchanged pleasantries, and started to exit. "Oh, we haven't had our closing song yet," our brother exclaimed. We went back to the pew and turned to the hymn he had selected. With tape recorder and violin accompaniment, we sang praises to the Lord and properly ended our service.

Since then I have wondered whether some of our practices drive away the unseen host (not to mention the visible visitors) who come to worship with us on Sabbath morning. Does our church look as though it's been prepared for a King's visit? Do our manners show that we really care?

Next Sabbath, take a look at your church through the eyes of a visitor. What could be done differently to make guests feel more welcome, more comfortable, more loved? And when you are tempted to say, "It's good enough" or "It doesn't matter," remember the unseen host who worships with you.

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Barbara Huff writes from Mound, Minnesota.

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