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Visiting Churches

Church #55: New and Small

One of our goals in 52 Churches was to visit all ten churches located in our local school district. After 52 Churches ended, that number increased to eleven.

The primary marketing for this new church is yard signs, spread throughout the area, suggesting a different kind of church. We make a mental note to visit.

With another last-minute opening in our schedule, we have an opportunity to go there, but we can’t remember their name—and the yard signs are gone.

Tracking Them Down

After some extensive online searching—investing much more time than any typical visitor would do—I stumble upon their name and find their Facebook page, but I can’t locate a website. 

Their Facebook page contains recent updates, but they don’t mention service times or a schedule beyond their first two meetings several months ago.

Now armed with their name, my wife, cyber sleuth Candy finds their website, which confirms their schedule and service time. They call themselves nondenominational, but their website describes a church that fits snugly within the evangelical stream of Christianity. 

As an aside, I suspect most nondenominational churches are evangelical in function, since I’ve never been to one that wasn’t. It’s possible, however, for a church to include all three streams of Christianity.

The service at Church #19 (“A Near Miss”) seemed to embrace equal parts of traditional, evangelical, and charismatic churches.

Even though they were part of a denomination (albeit a very loose one), their service felt the most nondenominational of any I’ve ever attended. They exemplified what I think nondenominational should be: open to anyone and everyone, without leaning toward a denomination or stream of Christianity. 

A Wintery Drive to Church

We head out early. A winter storm blankets everything with a layer of ice. Several churches cancelled services, but we don’t think to check if this one has.

I pick a route that will be more traveled and hopefully less treacherous. Even these roads are slippery, and we shouldn’t be out. Passing an accident confirms the folly of our adventure. The drive takes twice as long as normal. 

The church is in a small strip mall. With only a couple of cars in the parking lot, I wonder if they, too, cancelled services. Supporting my suspicion, I don’t see any lights or movement inside.

Our Welcome

The parking lot is even more icy than the roads. As we exit our car, a man calls out to be careful. With much concern, we inch our way toward him.

He introduces himself and doesn’t bother to ask if we’re visitors. He knows. With the weather, he expects low attendance and says they only have half of their worship team. Inwardly, I sigh. It seems that too often we show up when churches don’t have one of their typical services.

Encouraged by the engaging welcome, we head inside. A guy in the sound booth looks up and comes over to talk. He looks familiar and says the same to me. My bride notices he’s wearing a clip-on mic and asks if he’s the pastor. I wonder the same. He says, “Yes.”

We’ve been at a church service in this space before. A couple of years prior to 52 Churches, we visited Church #15 (“An Outlier Congregation”) here. They since moved and changed pastors, which resulted in a much different experience for our 52 Churches visit.

Today the room feels bigger than that visit several years ago. I suspect the prior church had one space in the mall, with the present configuration using two. They have 144 padded chairs, aligned in long rows.

With only twelve people present, the vastness of the space makes our numbers feel even less. We’re the oldest people there, with kids, teens, and younger adults all represented.

Even though we walked in two minutes late, we have time to talk with several people before the service. They finally start about fifteen minutes later. I’m not sure if beginning late is their norm or if they’re allowing more time for people to arrive.

As it turns out, it doesn’t matter. We are the last to show up.

The Service

Today’s worship leader normally plays drums, but today he fills in as worship leader for his older brother, who is working. He also plays guitar. Another guitarist and bassist join him. The drum kit sits idle. His leading is confident, though not polished.

I’ve been to services where the worship team is so rehearsed that I feel I’m at a concert and miss worshiping God. The opposite is well-intentioned people who shouldn’t be leading music. Their efforts unfold as a painful ordeal, repelling me from God.

Today, we hit that ideal place between the two extremes. At least it’s ideal for me. We sing several current worship songs, which draw me to God.

Then they have a time of sharing. When churches do this, I often wonder why. One of three patterns usually emerges: 

They call attention to the person sharing, as in “I just bought a new Lexis. Pray that my BMW sells so I can give money to the mission.”

Or it borders on gossip, as in “My brother-in-law didn’t come home again last night. My sister might file for divorce and seek full custody of the kids.”

Third is a wish list to God, as in “Pray for a new job, a good-paying job, one where the boss treats employees with respect, and a new car to get me to work, suitable work clothes, and money for . . . ” 

Yeah, I’m exaggerating a bit, but not too much. 

Not so at this church. They share well. My first hint of this is tissue boxes scattered throughout the room. Certainly, people shed tears here. My assumption proves correct. When the first two people share, both end up crying as they reveal the angst of their heart.

Their words are not just a lament but also a testimony, teaching and encouraging others. 

They remind me of Paul’s words to Jesus’s followers in Corinth, that each person should do their part in building up the church (1 Corinthians 14:26). Their time of sharing doesn’t fully match Paul’s instruction, but they come closer than I’ve ever seen before.

After several people share, the pastor asks for others to do the same. His words go beyond being polite. He’s almost imploring more people to participate.

I wonder if he’s leaving an opening for Candy or me to say something. At his second request, I squirm a bit, but he doesn’t prolong his plea. With no more takers, he moves on to his message.

The Message

It’s the Sunday before Christmas, and he reads about Jesus’s birth from Luke 2:8–14. The pastor has a gentle delivery, kind and accessible. Though it’s not his fault, I have trouble concentrating on his words.

I jot down a few verses and one sentence that strikes me: “God sent Jesus here so we could better understand his nature.” I ponder this, missing what comes next in the sermon. I don’t think of helping us understand his nature as one of Jesus’s goals, but I realize the pastor is correct.

How could I have missed this?

Fellowship Afterward

The service ends with more music, and then everyone hangs around to talk. Eventually, we interact with every adult present and several of the braver teens. We learn their leader is a tentmaker pastor, following Paul’s example of working his trade to provide for ministry (Acts 18:2–3). 

This, I feel, is how it should be, not expecting paid clergy to serve members but for members to minister to each other. If we rightly serve and minister to one another, as the Bible teaches, the role of pastors becomes much less demanding—almost unneeded.

With less demand on their time, pastors won’t need to work as much or receive compensation, with each paying their own way. We also learn many members have a charismatic background, but they’re careful to avoid excess, doing all things properly, as Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 14:27–28.

As we talk, the lead guitarist has a bit of a jam session. “I really enjoy your playing,” I tell him later, “but I suspect you were holding back!” 

He smiles. “I didn’t receive the set list until last night. Since I live in an apartment, I couldn’t practice.”

Having talked to everyone, we finally head out, the first to do so, glad for the experience. Most of the ice has melted, and the roads are now fine. Our church experience today was a good one.

This church does so many things right. I wish more people were part of it.

[See the discussion questions for Church 55, read about Church 54 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices. Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.