In his Nov.16, 2017, newsletter to members, Victor Kubik asked the following questions: “We talked about the phenomenon of people coming to our services but dropping out after a few visits. Why? Are we failing somewhere? Are they repelled by our in-speak or slow integration into our church relationships?”
I believe I can answer these questions.
I walked into my first United Church of God congregation in the spring of 2016. I had no knowledge of Herbert Armstrong or of the Worldwide Church of God. God led me to the Church. I discovered the truth about the Sabbath first and after I had studied and worshiped on my own for many months, I felt a need to find God’s people. The path to UCG was not a straight one. The Church was difficult to locate, even with the Lord Himself illuminating the way.
In my search for local Sabbath-keeping churches, I only found two listings, and they were both Seventh Day Adventists. I attended one for about a month until I realized that SDA had adopted the Trinity in 1985. To my surprise, most of the members were not even aware that their official doctrine now included the Trinity, nor did they understand its pagan roots. Unfortunately, I knew then that I could not remain with them, or be baptized by them. So I left the church and went in search of God’s remnant. I was truly afraid I might be the only one left who knew the truth!
Since I had already searched extensively for Sabbath-keeping churches, I knew that I wouldn’t find God’s people that way. After much prayer, a thought finally occurred to me to do a search for “God’s people.” I typed: “Where are God’s People?” and hit the search button.
Since everyone’s search results are different, I’m not sure what would come up for anyone else, but my results brought up a very plain black and white text page that said: “These are the characteristics of God’s Church.” As I scrolled through the 30-plus characteristics, every one of them matched my understanding of the truth, and there was no Trinity! I quickly scrolled to the bottom of the page to see if I could find an author. The link at the bottom said simply: “Church of God,” and I actually laughed out loud. “There’s no Church of God,” I said to myself. “Only in the Bible is there a ‘Church of God.’” But I clicked on the link anyway, and it took me to the United Church of God’s main website.
I spent several hours that night on the UCG site looking at the doctrinal beliefs and listening to a sermon or two. Everything seemed to be in line with what I knew to be the truth. So I hit the congregations link with some doubt. I figured the nearest congregation would be 300 or so miles away. But I was wrong. It was only a half-hour away! It was a Thursday night when I found the UCG website. That night and all through Friday and into the Sabbath evening, I wondered what the church would be like. I had a picture in my mind: This would be a place filled with joy and zeal. These were God’s elect after all! His chosen people! I wondered if I would know anybody there. By Saturday morning, I was so excited, I could hardly wait to meet everyone. But by the time I arrived at the little building where services were held at 10:30 a.m. on Sabbath, two other emotions had emerged: fear and doubt. What if this church was just like all the others? What if they also had serious doctrinal errors. Where would I go then? I parked a distance from the door and sat in my car for about 15 minutes, watching people go into the building. Finally, I heard them singing and I mustered the courage to go inside.
Many members of UCG have been in the Church for many years, and others have grown up in the Church. I think it would be very difficult to remember what it felt like to come in for the first time. And if someone has grown up in the Church, it is impossible to explain what it is like to live in a world without the light of truth. The world has gotten much darker since Armstrong’s days, and it is getting harder and harder to find the path. So when one of these lost ones finds their way to our doorstep, it is cause for celebration!
I’ve written this simple guide from the eyes of one who was on the threshold just a short time ago.
Guide for Welcoming Visitors to UCG
1) Be Welcoming: It takes courage to walk through the doors into a UCG congregation for the first time. Most UCG buildings do not look like an ordinary church, and it’s difficult for a stranger to blend in because there are far fewer people in attendance than in worldly churches. The music is unfamiliar, and the prayers and messages are unfamiliar. Referring to Bibles, taking notes and carrying briefcases are also all unfamiliar behaviors to a visitor. They may not even have a Bible with them. What they will be looking for are a people that reflect and demonstrate God’s love and character. They will be looking for the fruit of the Spirit. Most may have left large, welcoming churches, friends and family behind as God called them to the truth. So be welcoming, helpful and happy that one of God’s children has found their way home.
2) Be Gentle: Remember that the visitor may have just recently come out from the world’s deception. They may have just discovered that they have been lied to about the Sabbath, heaven, hell, holidays, the commandments of God and other biblical truths. They may still have worldly habits, language, dress, attachments or attributes. This is not a time for us to confront them about smoking, tattoos, how they dress, or whether they know about the feasts, tithing and the other requirements of God. They may be just coming to terms with the life-changing implications of the Saturday Sabbath! Placing additional burdens on them may be too much for them to bear all at once until they feel the love and acceptance of the family of God.
3) Bring Them Into the Fold: Listen to the visitor and share stories of how you came into the Church. Invite them to your home for the following Sabbath. Surround them with a group of people with which they might have things in common. Keep conversations light and positive. Share your joy. Give them materials to read if they ask about certain subjects. Give them a schedule of upcoming events, potlucks and social events. Give them your phone number and e-mail for contact in case they have any questions. (Do not ask for their information unless they offer it.) UCG congregations are very close groups, and it’s difficult for an outsider to know how to participate. Treat them like a new member of the family that has just married your son or daughter. Invite them to things, share Scripture with them, show them how to find things on our website, get them registered on the site, ask them if they have any special talents that they might like to share. Support them as they go through withdrawing from the world. And be joyful! God has just sent us another member of His family!
4) Work With the Power of the Holy Spirit: A new visitor has had the help of the Holy Spirit to bring them into the Church, but until they are baptized, they will not be able to overcome worldly things easily. There may be a strong desire on the part of the visitor to be baptized quickly for this very reason. Take their request seriously and remember that they will not be able to fully receive the word, nor overcome old ways, until the Holy Spirit is working within them. Your pastor will know when it’s appropriate to baptize, but be tolerant and understanding of the newcomer’s missteps until this is accomplished, and also after baptism.
5) Show Empathy: Giving up the holidays and and adopting the Holy Days are difficult for a new member of God’s family. Leaving the customs of Christmas behind is particularly hard to do since the adversary has intertwined it so effectively with friends, family, celebrations and joy. While sitting around the Christmas tree singing carols, it never occurred to me that it might be pagan. To me, I was celebrating the birth of our savior Jesus Christ. To throw out all the beauty, wonder and worship of Christ’s entry into the world because it has been infiltrated with paganism is the same as the first church throwing out everything Jewish. The Scriptures tell the story of Christ’s birth. They are part of the gospel for a reason, and this is what a new member cherishes when they remember Christmas, not the pagan elements. By contrast, the feasts are difficult to understand because they are traditionally considered Jewish holidays and Old Testament practices that do not apply to our times. It takes time to understand the multi-leveled meanings of the feasts and how they are a shadow of things to come. A new member looks to others around them to know how to observe them in the proper light. We should reflect that perfect attitude of love, joy and “rejoicing greatly” at the Feast of Tabernacles and introspection and service to each other at Passover
6) Don’t Focus on the Past: We all know what it feels like to start a new relationship with someone and have them constantly talk about past failed relationships. UCG has had a challenging past, which does not present the best face for a new member of the family. Save the dirty laundry for another day. This is a time to celebrate and share the wonders of God’s plan with this new person who is so eager to learn the truth. Talking about past splits only causes the visitor to wonder if the Church is a safe place to devote their time and their future.
7) Share the Mission: Share with them the truth of their amazing mission; that they are learning to be teachers and leaders in God’s Kingdom—kings and priests. Unfortunately, most single women in UCG feel their only contribution is to listen, take notes and prepare food for potlucks. And if they can sing or play an instrument, they may be allowed to serve in that manner. But that just isn’t the truth of our calling. The primary role of all people, men and women alike, is to learn as much as possible about God’s Word and His ways to be able to teach those coming into the Church now and to bring survivors from the coming tribulation into the light of God’s truth. This amazing job is our primary vocation. It is our calling. All other worldly pursuits and careers dim by comparison. There is great joy in sharing the truth with a new believer. It strengthens and refreshes our perspectives to teach someone else. And the Spirit is moved to joy as we share the Word with another.
God willing, there will be many visitors coming through our doors during the days and years to come. They will come in at the proper time. I hope and pray the Church will be ready for them.
Katherine Larson is from the Ann Arbor Michigan Congregation