With the worship service over, I was heading for the fellowship hall, where a lovely potluck lunch was waiting. As I was about to enter the hall, a dear, elderly saint stopped me and asked, “John, isn’t there a verse in the Bible about once a person has known the message and then stops going to church, there is no hope for that person?”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Hebrews does say something to the effect that, ‘If we sin willfully after we learn the truth, there is no more sacrifice for sin.’ I think that’s around chapter 10.”
“Yes,” Bob replied. “I think it’s right after the verse that tells us not to stay away from church. And, you know, I got lots of family that don’t go to church. What’s going to happen to them?”
My elderly friend seemed quite distraught, and, knowing a little of his family’s experiences I said, “Bob, let me tell you something that happened to me back in the fifties. Have you the time?”
“Sure. I always like your stories,” Bob responded.
So I began. When I was about 17 or 18, on a Friday I had gone to a certain city to collect payment for a rather lucrative transaction. Not wanting to have a lot of cash in hand as I traveled on the bus, and planning to spend the weekend with a single uncle whom I had-n’t seen since he had moved there, I purchased a return ticket and pocketed a few coins.
Because of delays en route, banks, shops, and even my business contact had closed when my bus arrived. Hiking to my uncle’s address, I discovered that he had moved and the apartment administration didn’t have his new address or phone number; however, they did have his work address and phone number. Hurriedly calling his place of employment, I discovered that it, too, was closed for the day. What was I to do?
Returning to the bus depot, I placed my suitcase into storage and, because the depot would close after the last bus of the day, stepped out onto the city sidewalks. All night I walked around that city. Finally, as the Sabbath dawn was breaking I returned to the bus depot, retrieved my suitcase, went to the restroom, washed, shaved, and changed into my suit and tie. After returning my suitcase to the locker, I once again stepped out into the city and headed, on foot, of course, toward the only Seventh-day Adventist church address of which I was aware. Hopefully, I’d meet Uncle there.
Arriving about an hour early, I loitered around the area. After a time a neatly dressed man stepped briskly to a basement door and unlocked it. I greeted him cordially, but he bluntly dismissed me, entered the building, and relocked the door. Finally, at about 9:15, the building opened and people began streaming in. I found a seat near the rear of the sanctuary on the right-hand side. At least now, I could be warm, but as a young man with only a skimpy lunch and no supper the previous day, and no breakfast, I was tired and hungry. All through Sabbath School and the church service, I tenaciously strove to stay alert.
There I sat. No one spoke to me. No one asked me to sign a guest book. No one welcomed guests. One or two people moved to sit in the pew that I occupied, but then moved to another. When the Sabbath School separated for classes, no one asked me to join their class or suggested a youth group. I was avoided as if I had the plague. After the sermon, as we were filing out, the pastor cordially shook the hand of each person ahead of me, and they warmly exchanged platitudes. Then as I moved forward, the pastor, ignoring me, enthusiastically grasped the hand of the per-son behind me with another exchange of pleasant words.
As the people mingled around out-of-doors in little clusters before leaving, I lingered, too timid to interrupt any group. Still no one spoke. Finally everyone was gone and the church was locked. There I was, alone, a hungry, weary youth, with only a bus ticket home, at a church where I thought I could have felt welcome.
As I shared this story with Bob, before I had gotten far into the story, a number of other members had drifted within earshot and seemed quite interested. Suddenly I was interrupted as a listener exclaimed, “And you stayed an Adventist after that!”
“Oh, yes. My home church wasn’t like that!”
Another voice spoke up, “Could we be guilty of treating a stranger like that?”
And immediately a remorseful answer came, “We’ve done it. And worse.”
For several more minutes the little group discussed the consequences of that kind of behavior and other negatives toward strangers or even people they knew who seemed to be different.
Finally, a rather thoughtful, quiet member commented, “You know, that experience and some of those other things are the reasons why so many of our youth and new converts fall away. Don’t you agree, John?”
“Could very well be,” I replied. “In fact, I broke the Sabbath (as some may charge) that day and went to my uncle’s work place after church and found him there. He told me that he had gone to that church once, had experienced, more or less, the same thing, and never went back. ‘Yes, Iknow better,’ he added, ‘but if they need me really bad here, I come in. After all, these people treat me better than our church does.’ ”
“You see, Bob,” I replied, “there may be people out there who we think have turned their backs on Jesus, but maybe we’ve chased them away from the church by the way we have behaved (or misbehaved), and they have only turned their back on the church.”
“By the way, John, have you ever been back to that church?” Bob asked.
I thought a moment. “As a matter-of-fact, I haven’t. But,” I hastened to add, “it’s not for that reason. I’ve just never been in that city over the Sabbath since. I believe that there are a number of churches there now. And I’m sure I’d be welcome in any one of them.”
As a footnote: I found myself, alone on the Sabbath, in a different city some years later. Remembering the above experience, I decided to put the “city-center” congregation there to the test.
Loitering until lots of people were entering together, I tried to slip in quietly, casually, unnoticed. It didn’t work. When I finally got into the sanctuary—after being asked to sign the guest book and with bulletin in hand—I found a seat away from the crowd, and several people soon joined me. I was invited to join three different Sabbath School classes. The pastor spoke with me before Sabbath School and after the worship service. I had several invitations for lunch and afternoon functions. That church almost made me feel like I was a celebrity.