Meet Ben Scharfstein, 'the inviting guy'
Mar. 26, 2008
NOTE: Photograph available at http://umns.umc.org.
By Annette Spence*
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (UMNS)--Ben Scharfstein is bubbly. He's full of stories and smiles and warm affirmation that immediately put you at ease.
"OK, darlin'," he says, when informed that his noon appointment is running a few minutes late.
"Don't you worry about it," he says later, when the appointment turns out to be later still.
With coffee cup in one hand and oxygen tank in the other, he waits in the entry hall at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church, just like he waits for the people he invites to worship. He promises them he'll be there, to greet them and sit with them and make them feel darn glad they came.
Scharfstein is the "inviting guy" at this East Tennessee church, but it wasn't long ago when he didn't attend church at all. He is so glad to be alive and back in church, however, that he wants to share his joy with others.
"This is a mission God has laid on my heart," he says. "I finally found out where I'm supposed to be."
Church members have been so impressed with Scharfstein's personal evangelism style that Sunday school classes have asked him to share his inviting philosophy and tactics, says Dianna Cantler, Munsey director of connectional ministries.
"I believe he has given many people the courage to speak up and invite," Cantler says. "His outlook is, 'What do I have to lose?'"
In the last few years, Scharfstein almost lost his life. Although he never smoked, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1998. He overcame that bout--with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation--and continued to live the life he had created for himself, which involved lots of property and lots of work.
"I had it all: the big boat, vacation homes, nice Rolex watch," says the 61-year-old entrepreneur. "Like many Baby Boomers, I was so driven for material success."
He and his wife, Caroline, had two sons, who were active at Munsey Memorial, the church of Ben's childhood. "But somewhere in there, I let the church part go, and I let my wife take care of those obligations," he says. "My family tried many times to get me to go back. My classic statement was, 'Look, God is everywhere. I don't need to go to church to find God.'"
When the boys grew up, Caroline got tired of going to Munsey Memorial without her husband and started attending the Baptist church of her childhood.
At a party a few years later, a Munsey member put him on the spot. Her name was Barbara Cox.
"Ben, we're going to pick you up tomorrow, and we're going to take you to church," she said.
Scharfstein was slightly annoyed at Cox's forwardness. "Some people would say Barbara is pushy, and sometimes she is," he says today. "But we live in an age of e-mails and Blackberries. You have to individualize the invitation to get people to come, and that's what Barbara did. You have to make it personal."
Thinking that Cox wouldn't take "no" for an answer, he agreed to come to Sunday worship--on one condition. "I'm not a baby. I can drive myself," he said. "But I will meet you there."
Cox met him before the contemporary worship service, and Scharfstein found himself annoyed, again. He didn't like the idea of going to church in a gymnasium, singing music that he had never heard before. He almost left, but he decided to stay.
It was a turning point.
Scharfstein was touched by the acceptance he received from parishioners. "I had never experienced so much love and caring in all my years. It was like I had never missed a day at Munsey," he recalls.
He also was excited by the inviting atmosphere of a contemporary worship service. He liked how people could feel comfortable wearing blue jeans or shorts, or carrying in coffee. The seats, he said, "weren't the most comfortable in the world," and sure enough, he didn't know all the songs. But he liked the music. He really, really liked it.
"It wasn't some sort of funeral dirge," he says. "This music was upbeat. It changed my life."
The art of invitation
Scharfstein became a regular at Munsey, and he started to invite people to join him. He used the offer of casual clothing, coffee or contemporary music as one way to put newcomers at ease.
"Church can be very intimidating," he says. "I think Christ invited people where they were, and that's what we've got to do."
When chatting with friends or strangers in the business he owns or elsewhere, Scharfstein started looking for entry points to talk about church. One man, who was trying to get Scharfstein to buy a boat, mentioned that his wife was pregnant.
"He was going to sell me a boat, but I was going to sell him something better," he says with a grin. Scharfstein simply asked, "Where are you and your wife going to church?" The conversation led to an invitation, and the young family now attends Munsey.
Church members were amazed at Scharfstein's sudden devotion to the church, and his efficacy at bringing in new faces.
"Ben brought his store manager to church, and she became a member by profession of faith. Then she brought her mother," Cantler says. "One time he even traded someone his lunch if they would visit church with him someday."
"Just be open," Scharfstein says, explaining how he makes it look so easy. "When you see someone in your everyday life, you will have an opportunity. You will recognize it when it happens, and you will have a choice about whether or not you will open your mouth to say, 'Hi.'"
Talk about anything, Scharfstein says: Kids, hobbies, jobs. And then look for the opportunity to talk about your church or spiritual life.
"If you have enjoyed a spirit-filled life, and if you really care about the people around you, then why can't you talk about it?" he asks. "Why can't you say, 'By the way, have you found a church yet?'"
Stepping up the pace
On Labor Day 2006, Scharfstein had difficulty breathing. He learned that the cancer had returned, which explained his 50-pound weight loss. His only option was chemotherapy.
It was a low point for the normally cheerful "inviting guy," who says he came face to face with mortality for the first time. He beat the odds again, however, and became well enough to greet his guests in the Munsey entry hall once again.
He doesn't let chemotherapy or his new sidekick, an oxygen tank, slow him down. In fact, he's stepped up the pace, sometimes using the tank to give his invitations more impact. He'll say, "If I can get up and go to church, carrying this thing around, then you ought to be able to get up and go, too."
At a party in December, one woman who knew of his illness stopped to ask, "How do you get up in the morning?"
Scharfstein replied, "Let me show you how I get up in the morning." And he promptly invited her to church.
He estimates that he has invited 50 people to Munsey, and 20 have accepted. But he's got several more people in mind, and several people to issue second, third or fourth invitations. (He keeps records.)
Last Christmas, Scharfstein was surprised to learn that he had helped bring in a new member, but not with his usual approach. Over the years, he understood why his wife wanted to attend her own Baptist church. But on this one Sunday, Caroline joined him at Munsey, and the Rev. Brian Taylor invited them both to the front of the church.
Scharfstein says he was moved when he heard his wife announce, "I have seen what Munsey has done in Ben's life. I would like to transfer my membership to Munsey and become an active member here."
The inviting guy smiles his inviting smile. "This last year has been the greatest year of my life," he says.
*Spence is the editor of The Call, the newspaper of the United Methodist Holston Annual Conference.
News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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