It was 9:10 a.m. Sabbath morning when my wife and I drove up to the front of the little Adventist church. The sign in front clearly announced that Sabbath school would begin at 9:15, so we were glad to have arrived on time. In fact, we were so on time that we were the first ones there!
"Oh, well, someone will be along soon," I said as we pulled into the gravel parking lot at the side of the church. Since it was a bright, beautiful morning, we opened the car doors and let the breeze blow through. And sure enough, soon someone did arrive. A man and his wife parked in front of the church, and he hurried toward the side door about 20 feet in front of our car. As he walked he fumbled through a wad of keys in his hand. Halfway to the door he stopped and shouted to his wife back at the car to find out if she had the keys. Finally, keys in hand, he came on down to the door. I smiled at him as he approached. He man aged a quick nod, then looked down at his keys. Soon he had unlocked the door and disappeared inside the church, closing the door behind him.
His wife was next. She managed a weak smile in our direction before disappearing.
One by one, cars pulled up and disgorged their passengers into the lot. Some people looked in our direction; others, like the lady who parked right next to us, made it a point not to. I smiled at everyone I could make eye contact with, and some even said "Morning" as they nodded. But all soon disappeared behind that side door and never appeared again!
"What do you suppose is behind that door?" I asked my wife, a touch of mystery in my voice. "A pool of alligators, maybe?. . . I notice that no one who goes through it ever comes out again!"
Of course I was only joking, but I was trying to see the church from the view point of a first-time visitor who might have watched an Adventist television program and decided to drive over and visit his neighborhood church on a Sabbath morning. Would he be made to feel welcome? Would he be invited in from the parking lot? We resolved to sit in the car until someone invited us in, or until 9:30, whichever came first.
I've visited a lot of churches in recent years—both Adventist and non-Adventist. Unfortunately, more often than not I've found myself sitting or standing outside the church, wondering just how to get in properly.
There was the Adventist church, for instance, that I arrived at 9:35 one morning—it had taken me longer to drive there than I had anticipated. The church was built in an L shape and had two exterior doors, one at the head of the L, and the other at the foot. Feeling quite confident in my powers of discernment, I noted which door appeared more used and made my way through it.
I found myself inside a dimly lit corridor with several closed doors on either side. I could hear singing, but wasn't sure which room it was coming from. At the end of the hall another corridor led to the right. At the end of that corridor stood a white door.
The side doors obviously led to Sabbath school rooms. But what about the white door? Did I dare open it? Or might it lead directly into the sanctuary? Feeling adventurous, I approached the great white door. As I grasped the knob and began to turn it, I became aware of a certain amount of resistance that indicated that the door was slightly sprung. In other words, there would be no opening it silently. It would open with a pop.
Pop! it went. And as I peered around its edge I discovered to my horror that I was at the very front of the sanctuary. Fortunately, I had had the good judgement to arrive in the middle of Mission Spotlight, and a large projection screen hid me from all but a few of the congregation.
Had I been a first-time visitor, I no doubt would have hightailed it out the door I'd come in through and never come back. But I had to preach there that day! So I quickly made my way around to the other door, showed myself in, and claimed a corner of a pew in the back.
Space won't allow me to regale you with more stories of untoward arrivals, but I do have quite a collection.
May I suggest that one of the simplest and least expensive evangelistic tools every church can employ is an open door (or at least a glass door) with a friendly person just waiting to go the extra mile to make sure every potential visitor is invited in and helped in finding a seat. You may need to hook up a special heater in the vestibule to keep your greeters from freezing during the winter, but it would be a worthwhile investment if it allowed you to have the door open at least a crack.
You may need to relieve your friendliest member from other Sabbath school and church duties, but it will be worth it if you can get that person stationed where his or her warmth can envelop visitors and members as soon as—or preferably even before—they set foot in the church!
You're probably wondering whether we ever got invited into the first church. No. But I must say that after we were inside, the people were very friendly— especially when it came time to officially greet visitors—and this is typical. It seems to me that what we need is well qualified people whose official job it is to make visitors feel welcome from the parking lot right on in to the pew.— Kenneth R. Wade