In the early seventies, my wife and I were living in New York City and were members of the Prospect Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church. The pastor of the church was a great preacher, and I will never forget his sermons, full of theological substance, spiced with great anecdotes and gems taken out of the archives of history. Each sermon filled my heart with joy and satisfaction. But what impressed me the most was the pastor’s personal commitment to warmly greet each member and visitor at the front door each Sabbath morning. There was nothing formal in his greeting, but everything about him—be it a smile, a handshake, or a hug—spoke joyfully and personally that he was happy to see us that morning. When he said, “I’m glad to see you,” he meant every word; and we were glad to be in church every Sabbath.
During that sojourn, I promised myself that if I ever joined the ministerial ranks, I would be just like that pastor with my parishioners and visitors. Years later, God did call me to the ministry. Through the years, I have been able to serve as a chaplain and pastor. My greatest joy in ministry involves serving people both inside and outside the church, and especially in greeting them as they come to church Sabbath mornings.
Reason for the ministry at the door
The ministry at the church door is fascinating and practical in the accomplishment of our mission. Within the first five minutes of entering the church a person will decide whether to return to the church or not. In that brief period, visitors will quickly evaluate the environment of the church depending on how they were greeted—with warmth and love or with coldness and indifference. Every expression and gesture, every smile and body movement, shouts out loudly of a warm welcome or a cold indifference. This process of greeting at the door, whether by the pastor or a designated elder, becomes so important that I have called it the evangelism of the open door.1
Honesty and the ministry at the door
Pastors (or in the case of large churches, designated greeters) are the first component of this ministry at the door. People who come to us should see us as ministers with honesty in the cause of Christ. Both our members and visitors want to see that we live what we preach and have no skeletons in our closets. Our lives should be open books. Taylor G. Bunch, the famous Adventist evangelist, once wrote that the secret of being a saint is to be a saint in secret.2 As pastors and greeters, we need to exert a spiritual influence that flows out of our inner connection with Christ. Greeters at the door should be aware of what is happening in the congregation—a couple may have been blessed with a baby, a family member may be sick at home, loss of employment may have hit the family, or they may be struggling with a particular spiritual problem. On Sabbath morning, the pastor or greeter should say an appropriate word of affirmation, joy, concern, or an assurance of prayer. The entry point of the church must become the first place where each member and visitor may encounter Christ through us as ministers.
Be ready for the unexpected
When you stand at the door for the greeting ministry, all will not go as planned. Be prepared for surprises. On one Sabbath morning, I was greeting members at the door. A woman—not a member of our church—walked in and immediately impressed me as a person in need. Her face reflected trouble and fear, and as she held out her hand, it was shaking. The deaconess and I took her to my office and offered to be of help. After a few minutes, she told us that she had wanted to visit our church for some time, but her husband did not approve. That particular Sabbath, she was so impressed by the Holy Spirit to come that she walked the few miles to the church. The fear she was now demonstrating was of what her husband would do. We asked her if we could pray for God’s assurance and safety. With her consent, we prayed, and after a while, her husband showed up at the church door. God gave her the strength to tell him in a quiet but firm manner that she had found the God she had been looking for at the door of this church and would never leave the Adventist Church. Somehow, God touched the heart of this man because he bowed his head while the woman kept looking at him in God’s strength. He finally left, and she worshiped the God she came looking for.
Watch for details
Begin with parking. The parking lot provides the first experience to visitors of what your church is like. Have you reserved a few parking spots for visitors, with proper indicators? Are the deacons placed in that area trained to welcome visitors with courtesy, kindness, and cheerfulness? Are they soft in their speech and gentle in their manners? The first message we should give our visitors is “You are important to us.”
When visitors arrive at the church entrance, I meet them warmly and try to provide as much information as possible about the Sabbath School service and our visitors’ class. We also have deaconesses nearby to guide the children to their respective Sabbath School classes. I use the guest registry but with great sensitivity because some may have concerns about it, fearing some kind of commitment. I also let them know that we have prepared lunch and that they are welcome to join the fellowship meal at the end of the service.
As we welcome the visitors, we give them special welcome cards. The cards have a place for their names, addresses, and phone numbers. At an appropriate time, either as we close the service or when I greet them as they leave the door, I invite them to fill out that card if they desire a special pastoral visit or prayer. I make sure that this is absolutely voluntary. Cards are later sorted out, and, on Monday morning, we mail a Thank-you note for each one who has filled out the card. During the week, I phone those who requested a visit and confirm the appointment. During the first visit, I share information about our church and the services it provides and offer to be of pastoral help, if needed.
During the visit
The first visit is not to press for a Bible study or enter hurriedly into a spiritual conversation. The Holy Spirit will lead and provide that opportunity at the appropriate time. Pastor Robert Pierson, a great evangelist and a former president of the General Conference, used to say that God gave us two ears and one mouth so we should listen twice before we speak. The more we listen to people, the more we learn about them. We do not learn when we talk; we learn when we listen attentively. Physiologically, we find it hard to listen for we have been designed to hear five times faster than we talk. So, let us say that you are talking at a speed of 120 words per minute, I have the ability to perceive five times that speed some 600 words per minute. That may be one of the reasons why it is hard to concentrate when listening to someone.
We must concentrate on words that convey feelings or emotions for example, anger, happiness, or disappointment. We must lead people to the Holy Spirit’s intervention, for He is the Healer of our wounds and disappointments. Usually, during the flow of a conversation, I ask how they came to know about our church. At that time, I share with them how I knew about the church and came to visit for the first time. I also try to assess any particular need that we as a church may be able to fill or perhaps pray about.
Follow the method of Jesus
As pastors, we should recognize the particular importance of following Jesus’ method in our ministry. The multitudes encompassed Him and came close because they sensed and felt that this Man was more than a Teacher: He took a personal interest in people. For the first time, many of them encountered a Rabbi who spoke like no one they had ever heard, healed the sick, and met the needs of those who came to Him. As Ellen White says,
Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. . . .
There is need of coming close to the people by personal effort. If less time were given to sermonizing, and more time were spent in personal ministry, greater results would be seen. The poor are to be relieved, the sick cared for, the sorrowing and the bereaved comforted, the ignorant instructed, the inexperienced counseled. We are to weep with those that weep, and rejoice with those that rejoice. Accompanied by the power of persuasion, the power of prayer, the power of the love of God, this work will not, cannot, be without fruit.3
Ministry at the church door may be one of the best ways to meet visitors and make them feel welcome and loved. Perhaps this may be the only way some will find love and respect in a way they have never before felt. A lawyer came to one of our churches for the first time on a Sabbath morning. At the door, an elderly lady greeted him with a cheerful smile. After the service, the pastor shook hands with the visitor and during the conversation asked him what impressed him the most (perhaps thinking that his remarkable sermon may have made the difference). The lawyer surprised him by answering, “What impressed me the most were the words of the lady who received me at the door of the church. I have not been able to forget her words: ‘Sir, I sincerely wish that you may find happiness in Jesus today in the same way I found it many years ago.’ ” That’s ministry at the door.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. What do people see in our church? Do we have a ministry at the door?
1 For more information, access our Web site at www.upasd .org. See also the author’s book The Evangelism of the Open Door.
2 Taylor G. Bunch, Secrets of Godly Living (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1953).
3 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942), 143, 144.