Skip to content

How to Have a More Open Church


As we approach the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference session, I have been thinking about the many issues we face as a church. I have written in other places about the way we in the church relate to each other. Now my thoughts have turned to how we relate to those who wish to become a part of us. Any church worth its salt has to be bringing people in. The whole point of the Christian movement is to make disciples (Matt 28: 19, 20). But what has often distressed me is that we don’t treat people the way we should when they show an interest in us. I think that in order for the church to be successful in its ultimate, God-given mission, we have to get better at how we treat people that we define as sinners. These are the people who should be coming to us for help, and yet I have found that we are not always in the best position to help them. Here are some things I think we should consider changing within church culture in order to make the church a more welcome place for the people who need it most. (I think I should say here that I can only speak with authority about the Adventist Church, but I think these principles apply to any Christian denomination.)

1.       Welcome people in love. I know that seems self-explanatory, but many Christians I know have a really hard time hanging out around “sinners.” I guess the first thing would be to stop thinking about them as sinners. But there’s also just a pragmatic element to this problem. If the job of the church is to make disciples, who are we making disciples? Obviously, it would be people who are not disciples now (sinners). If you can’t get comfortable around sinners, how are you going to help make them disciples? I find it funny that this is the same problem that Jesus had in His day. He spent His time trying to help people, and was criticized by “church people” because He spent too much time with those who were considered too far gone for the church. Jesus’ response? “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice, for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt 9:12, 13)

2.       Speak (and receive) the truth in love. Here is the truth – everyone in the church is a sinner, some of us saved by grace and some of us not so much. But all of us are here because at one point or another we decided that we wanted to live a better life that was more in line with what God has asked of us. Now for the person who is coming into the church seeking to learn and to grow, we cannot present to them something other than this honest picture. If we do, then all we are doing is setting them up for disappointment when they find that we are not as advertised. In addition to this, we also have to learn how to receive truth from the very people we think we’re trying to save. In Romans 2, Paul talks about those who instinctively do what the law requires because the law has been written on their hearts. (Rom 2: 14, 15) There are several implications of this text, but for our purposes here it lends credence to the idea that it is possible for someone outside of the church to know and understand thing about God that we inside the church do not know or understand. We have to be just as willing to accept truth from them as they have to be in accepting truth from us. We are here in this body called the church to learn from each other. The fact that I have been here longer does not mean that I have nothing to learn from the sinner who just walked in the door.

3.       People are not the sum total of their past. We have a nasty habit in the church of defining people by their past, as soon as we discover it. We define them by the sins that we discover that they are seeking deliverance from. This is a particularly nasty habit because some people are better at hiding their sins from others, and therefore escape this labeling. But it is also just functionally incoherent. All of us are in the church to be different from who we were, so what sense does it make to define people by that? We are all attempting to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Rom 12:2) Furthermore, what does it matter the sins someone has in their past? Christ died for all of us while we were yet sinners (Rom 5:6-8). If He loved me enough to do that for me when I was in that state, why would I accept His gift and then turn around give a sinner something less than my all? The problem is that we have yet to create a culture and environment where people can feel comfortable laying their sins open before the church and asking for help. Too many people have tried this and seen their lives torn about by gossip and scandal. Too many people have had no choice but for their sins to become known (I’m thinking of every unwed mother here) and have had to watch the eyes of judgment follow them in the house of God. If we’re ever going to fully become what God has called the church to be this must change.

4.       Let people know that we are no better than them. I’ve been hinting at this throughout, but I believe this is the only way that the culture can change. We have to let people know that we are seeking to live a better life, just like they are, and that we continue to struggle with our secret and open sins, just like they will. The good news is that they can have victory, just like we do, and grace to cover them if they should fall, just like we do. Paul’s example is instructive here. The Book of Romans was written approximately ten years before Paul died. This was towards the end of Paul’s life after several years in ministry and starting churches all over the world of his day. At that point in his life he said this to the Roman church, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.  But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” (Rom 7:18-20) If Paul was saying that towards the end of his life, I think it’s safe to say that many of us will continue to wrestle with good and evil. But this also gives me hope. Because Paul continued to wrestle and at the end of his life was able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.” (2 Tim 4:7-8)

If Paul can fight and win, we all can do it. I’m not saying that if the culture changes then every person who walks into a church will be saved and never leave. However, I want people to leave because they have a problem with Jesus, not because they have a problem with us.


Jason Hines is an attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at Adventist University of Health Sciences. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.