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BY ANITA JAMES

PICTURE THIS SCENARIO.  IT IS SABBATH morning, and as you enter church, people of varying ages are standing at the door to greet you and welcome you inside. Some of them you have never seen before. Several are dressed somewhat unconventionally: some in T-shirts, others in sneakers. However, you note that everyone is smiling prettily, bubbling over with happiness.

On entering the sanctuary, where members are congregated, you hear lusty singing, singing with pathos. You notice that the chorister is also someone that you have never seen before. The choir members strike your eyes engagingly. A motley crew, they are singing spiritedly, raising their voices in hymns of praise and worship to their Creator, all the while smiling contentedly.

You look to the platform personnel as the morning proceeds and notice that there are again unfamiliar faces among the panel. One of them prays the morning invocation from the deepest depths of their heart. It really transports you. You are Spirit-filled. You do not want to leave such an atmosphere, such a place filled with the presence of the Lord.

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What has happened? The last time that you were around, which was about three Sabbath mornings ago, things were so humdrum, so routine, so dead with cold formalism. People had then sung as if God had died, and their faces had generally been very glum. The prayers had sounded no different from those that you had heard repeatedly for the past 10 years. There was no power attending their utterance. What has indeed happened to this church? Why are you so pleasantly surprised? What is this feeling? Happiness? Acceptance? Is this dedication built on love?

Back in the Real World
Well, wait a minute—let’s go back to the “real” world. Let us refer to Jesus’ poignant saying in Matthew 19:14: “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” At first glance, first reflection, we say that in speaking of children Jesus meant those who were under 12 years of age. But let us think again. Perhaps Jesus was also referring to those who were children in the faith. Those who had only recently got a glimpse of who Jesus was, where He could take them, and who they could be in Him—and by catching that glimpse were then very willing to “come as they are” to learn all they could from Him.


Advice for Christians

Patience Needed
“Ministers should be careful not to expect too much from those who are still groping in the darkness of error. They should do their work well, relying upon God to impart to inquiring minds the mysterious, quickening influence of His Holy Spirit, knowing that without this their labors will be unsuccessful. They should be patient and wise in dealing with minds, remembering how manifold are the circumstances that have developed such different traits in individuals. They should strictly guard themselves also, lest self get the supremacy and Jesus be left out of the question” (Ellen G. White, Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 1, p. 79).

Resort to Prayer
“Resort to prayer, persuade in meekness and lowliness of spirit those who oppose themselves” (White, Messages to Young People, p. 23).

Time for Personal Reflection
“I would ask the youth of today who profess to believe present truth, wherein they deny self for the truth’s sake. When they really desire an article of dress, or some ornament or convenience, do they lay the matter before the Lord in prayer to know if His Spirit would sanction this expenditure of means? In the preparation of their clothing, are they careful not to dishonor their profession of faith? . . . It is one thing to join the church, and quite another thing to be united to Christ” (ibid., p. 357).

Come as they are. Yes, you read correctly. In Isaiah 1:18 we are told, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Come as you are. Not “Change yourself and come.” Not “Put on your nicest clothes and come.” Not “Go and spend money that you do not have to look right and come,” but rather, “Come as you are.”

Now let us take Jesus’ words again slowly and dig deeper into their meaning. “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Here we see that Jesus is asking us not to keep away those who are children, those who have little knowledge in the faith. He is encouraging us to let them come as people with little knowledge. Let them not come as—or looking like—those who have already attained. And maybe He’s telling us to change our approach in dealing with them. To allow them to feel free to let their outward appearance reflect their growth in the Lord. To do away with pretense and discouragement.

“Suffer” means to be patient with people. Even when they are male and wear earrings but still want to pray. Even when they wear T-shirts but want to give a testimony or sing a song that tells of their experience with Jesus. Even when they invite us home for lunch and serve cheese or chicken. Even when all they ever wear on their feet are sneakers but they want to welcome other members to church.

If we look around our churches today, we see that many people have the outward appearance down pat. They appear very well dressed and acceptable. However, when we have cause to examine them spiritually, we discover that they are still in diapers in terms of their growth and nurture. Is it because we did not suffer Jesus’ little children to come unto Him? Is it because we were so impatient with them that we wanted them to look right immediately, even though their spiritual development did not indicate that that level had been reached? Many of these members are very well dressed outwardly. They have no earrings, jewelry, or makeup on, but are frustrated with their Christian experience. They’ve lost their happiness. They have no joy.

Did we drive them into growing up too fast, and did we not encourage them to take time to grow in the faith and grace of God? After all, Peter says in 1 Peter 2:2: “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.” This verse surely gives the impression that a Christian becomes fully mature solely by leaning on God’s Word. Not by being coerced into displaying the expected characteristics, but by depending totally on the grace of Christ, which they will and do learn mainly through Bible study.

Did we, for example, discourage these “new” members from immediately putting their talents into use in the service of Jesus because they were not dressed to suit? Perhaps they had painted fingernails and toenails. Or perhaps they did not wear a tie. Or perhaps they were in a dress with spaghetti straps—or worse yet, their skirt was much too short. Is our shutting them out of certain things while they are “getting it together” why they end up not wanting to do anything anymore for Jesus and they have to be continually harassed to do so?

Did we drive them to the point where they have lost interest in using their skills and abilities to God’s glory and have become mere bench warmers? How would Jesus treat them?

Blessing the Unorthodox?
Remember the story of Mary and the alabaster box of perfume, when she washed Jesus’ feet with the perfume and wiped them with her hair? A totally unconventional approach but accepted by Jesus nonetheless. We can also take the case of Mary and Martha, when Jesus praised the one who spent more of her time listening at His feet above the one who seemed to have been busy preparing to entertain Him (as was traditional for women to do in those days). Jesus put priorities into perspective by His commendations of both Mary’s foot washing and the other Mary’s active listening. They were both unorthodox, but He gave both of them His blessing.

“Suffer little children” means take time to learn and understand others and their needs—at whatever level or place they are—and be thankful they are interested in being a part of God’s family. Take all the time necessary!

I put it to you that if we as a church would change our modus operandi as shepherds and leaders of God’s flock, we would see greater growth and discipling of our members in Jesus. We would not spend time wishing for our members to suddenly begin wearing all the right clothes and doing all the right things. And it’s not just those who wear the jewelry or the sneakers or the short skirts. Do you know that many new converts, who are perhaps not as well-to-do as they would like to be, cease attending church because they have only one pair of shoes, only two dresses or two pairs of pants and shirts? I’ve seen this happen right in my own area of the world. Is whether or not you have lots of nice things to wear to church that important in the eyes of Jesus? Why can’t a new member feel welcome even though they wear the same clothes (clean, by the way) for four weeks at a stretch?

The Benefits of Suffering
“Forbid them not.” What does this mean? It means that we would give greater importance to the impact and effect of the Holy Spirit on the lives of our church members. We would let the Holy Spirit lead them (and us, for that matter) from one rung of the ladder to the next, step by step, ensuring that new and old members alike would be grounded in Jesus, that they would grow up to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. We would love them anyhow, anyway. We would not be condemnatory and judgmental when they make mistakes, because, after all, do you condemn the baby when it spills its milk? We would be more long-suffering with them. We would ensure that we feed them constantly from the Word both by precept and by example. We would teach them to lean heavily on the Word of God, which is Christ Himself. By all these acts we would be encouraging, supporting, and affirming new members. Definitely not distressing them.

Suffer means to be patient with people.It means we would give our members the space and power to grow into the mature Christians that Jesus wants them to become. We would be very particular about doing anything to cause them to lose their joy in Jesus, their first love. We would exhort them to use their talents for Jesus to bless others as soon as they are ready—even though they do not look like we expect them to—even before being baptized, if necessary.

We would not coerce them into following Jesus. We would urge them to deepen their love for Him so much so that they would automatically keep His commandments. But note carefully here that the love would come first, so that there would not be coerced commandment keeping. We would help them do so by loving them so unconditionally that they would automatically want to know more of Jesus and His love. We’d live these words: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). And we would follow this dictate: “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).

Loving new converts unconditionally means that more seasoned members would ensure that there would always be an atmosphere of acceptance, nonjudgment, nurture, and compassion in which all members could feel that they are given the necessary latitude that they need to be who Jesus wants them to be. We more established members should first ensure that we are diligent and regular students of God’s Word, rightly divining the word of truth in Jesus. Then His Word would become flesh in our lives, and we would be better able to show compassion to newly converted individuals. Only by being in constant contact with Jesus, who is love, can we learn to love unconditionally.

I know of one case in which a young man was becoming very interested in spiritual matters. He attended a Revelation Seminar, and then began attending church regularly. He eagerly wanted to assist in church services. The only thing was that he wore an earring in one ear. A compassionate and daring Sabbath school superintendent allowed him to pray the invocation one Sabbath morning with his earring on. Sad to say, you should have heard the amount of criticism that that simple act engendered! Although he did eventually get baptized, today the brother is no longer a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

I know of another case in which a sister had been a regular visitor to church on Sabbaths for about 20 years. She never was baptized during that time because she apparently was “unequally yoked.” The woman was not ostracized but was called upon often to assist where her talents were, especially when it came to baking. Today she is still a baptized member and has given up the unprofitable relationship—and is still active.

These two anecdotes, in a nutshell, reveal how “suffering” and “forbidding” members can both affect the saving of souls.

Want to look at it another way?
Consider this quote: “Any marketing program has a better chance of being productive if it is timed, designed and written to solve a problem for potential customers and is carried out in a way that the customer understands and trusts.”* “Being like Jesus” is our marketing program. If we want our people, our church members, to be the kind of Christians that Jesus advocates, we have to ensure that their needs are met and that they understand our message adequately and trust our delivery of it. The focus must be more on the member than on the message.

“For of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Who does not want to be where heaven is? Just by the way we treat others we can establish a bit of heaven right here on earth! Then people would walk off the streets into our churches. Then we would have many unfamiliar faces serving Jesus joyfully every Sabbath. Then, in deed and in truth, we would suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto [Jesus]: for of such is [indeed] the kingdom of heaven. And all of heaven would rejoice!

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*Frederick H. Rice, “Marketing Strategies for the Growing Business,” Emerging Business Series (Manhattan, Kans.: Small Business Development Center, Kansas State University, 1991).

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Anita James is a young adult from Castries, Saint Lucia, West Indies, employed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries as an environmental education officer. She enjoys working with youth.

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