An Easy No
As Sunday approaches, I want to return to last week’s church. Instead, I refer to our list. The second closest church to our house is another from traditional denominational church, a short 1.4 miles away.
I attended a church in this denomination for the first decade of my life. Later, early in our marriage, Candy and I were members of one for three years.
Based on my experiences, too many churches in this denomination are dying because of aging congregations and few young attendees. The Outlier Congregation was a notable exception.
Perhaps this traditional denominational church will also be different. To my shock, Candy doesn’t balk when I suggest this church. I voice hope. “Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
We don’t leave as soon as we should. As a result, we’re both frustrated when we get into our car.
Praying for Church
Only a few seconds into the drive our simmering emotions erupt with raised voices and unkind words. Having mutually expressed our respective angst over some trivial slight, we drive in silence.
In another minute we’ll be at this traditional denominational church, but we haven’t yet prayed for the experience. The sad thing is, right now I don’t care.
“Do you want to pray for the service?” Candy asks.
No, I don’t; I’m mad. I hope she will. After all, she suggested it. “Will you pray?”
“No, I want you to.”
I just yelled at my wife. I don’t want to talk to anyone, especially not God. Letting out a deep breath, I sigh.
“Lord, calm our emotions and prepare us to experience church today. May we receive what you would have us to receive and give what you would have us to give. Open our minds to see what you want to show us. May you be honored by our actions today.”
During my short prayer, God soothes my raw emotions and transforms my attitude. I feel better. I’m ready for church. That’s good because we’re here.
I count six cars in the parking lot. We’re number seven. Great! I tense a bit, braced for another too-small gathering.
Only after we get out of our car do I see many vehicles parked on the side, too many to count. That’s better. I relax a little.
Though I suspect we should walk around the building to where most of the cars are and seek an entrance there, the biting wind of the winter cold assaults me.
It’s not as unseasonably cold as last Sunday, but today the wind pushes the feeling of cold much lower. I want to get inside as fast as I can. I follow a few footprints in the snow to the closest door.
It’s at a lower level than the main entrance in the front, and I wonder where it might lead.
It’s not a welcoming approach. I brace myself to tug on a locked door. To my relief the door yields to my gentle pull, depositing us on a landing midpoint on a stairway. We walk up several steps and find ourselves in the narthex, a pleasant and warm space.
A lady heading to the stairs welcomes us with a smile. But she has no time to talk, she explains, because she’s headed to work in the nursery. I’m encouraged. Despite seeing only senior citizens milling about, the need for a nursery suggests younger families attend too.
We saunter in. Already I know I won’t like this church or our experience here. This isn’t a snap determination made with premature rashness but a reasoned judgment resulting from the scores of churches we’ve visited over the past few years.
Based on what I’ve seen so far, I can predict with high accuracy what the people and service will be like.
Why are we here? Why did we bother?
I want to leave.
Meandering toward the sanctuary, we look for someone to talk to or someone looking to talk to us. No one notices. We’re invisible—again. I look for coatracks but don’t see any.
Although slightly irked, I’m okay keeping my coat on. Despite only a brief exposure to the winter chill, it will take time for my body to warm.
While I’m looking for a coatrack, Candy seeks a bulletin. This is definitely a bulletin-type church, but she can’t find one. Now she’s irked too. The pews have padded seats but aren’t nearly as nice as last week’s. I squirm, trying to get comfortable.
The character of the building reminds me of 1960-style construction, but it’s nicely maintained and doesn’t feel that old. Though there are few windows, the space is well lit, giving an open, inviting ambiance.
The stage, however, has the strangest array of decorations, giving off an almost spooky vibe. It’s surreal, and I try to ignore it. I know someone put a lot of effort into this, but the results are bizarre.
Candy still looks for bulletins, finally spotting a rack of them by one of the side aisles. After she leaves to retrieve one, an older lady approaches me from the other side. With a smile, she hands me a bulletin. “Here, you might want one of these.”
I thank her, and she nods. That’s the end of our exchange, but I’m pleased she made the effort.
Candy returns, with bulletin in hand, and a man—the first person we’ve seen younger than ourselves—walks up to us. He introduces himself and we have an extended conversation.
Our exchange, however, is uncomfortable because he’s standing and we’re sitting. Why didn’t I stand too? Nevertheless, his outreach honors me.
We’ve now had three interactions with people at this traditional denominational church. Each one felt awkward, yet I prefer uneasy conversation to no conversation. No one wants to be ignored.
(I must admit I could have contributed to the discomfort of each situation.)
I estimate the church seats about 350 and is less than half full. Though all age groups are present, the crowd skews toward the senior citizen demographic.
The front five rows are completely empty in each of the four sections, with most people packed into the back of the sanctuary. Though we’re only a fourth of the way in, as many people sit behind us as in front.
We keep our coats on. I squirm trying to find a comfortable position in the uncomfortable pew.
Out of Place Drums
“Look, there’s a drum set.” Candy points with a subtle tip of her head. “It’s hidden behind the piano.” Drums seem so out of place in this traditional setting. I wonder if they will be part of today’s service. I don’t need to wonder long.
With a pleasant smile, a man approaches the piano. An accomplished pianist, he plays the prelude and then invites the worship team forward. Four vocalists pick up mics as they fan out along the front of the stage.
A woman sits at a keyboard behind the piano, and a twenty-something guy goes to the sequestered drum kit, housed in a Plexiglas enclosure.
They open with a contemporary song, followed by an obligatory greeting time. Though we shake hands or wave at everyone around us, the most anyone says is “Hi” or “Welcome.”
The intention is good, but the results are superficial. I feel like a poser, a fraud. I smile and pretend to be happy, just like everyone else, but we’re acting as if we’re all friends, when in reality we’re strangers—except for the one man we talked to when we first sat.
We sing two more songs, one contemporary and the other a hymn. The congregational prayer follows. As a kid I learned to ignore these lengthy recitations of congregational needs, and I never broke that habit. The prayer drones on.
Afterward he dismisses the kids. It’s too late. They should have been released before the boring prayer, lest they, too, learn to ignore it as I did.
Then the ushers take two offerings in rapid succession. Though many people sit in front of us, the first bucket goes by with only a few bills in the bottom. The second one is empty.
Either this is a stingy church, or they give their offerings in other ways. Singing during the collections, we stand for the final verse once the ushers have completed their task. At last, I’m warm enough to take off my coat.
The Book of James
The sermon is part of a series from the book of James. The pastor is a contract minister; they just extended his agreement six months while they seek a permanent replacement. He reads James 5:7–20.
He’s a polished presenter who communicates with ease. The title of his message is “The Quest for Christian Maturity: In Patience and Prayer.”
We are impatient, he says. Consider Moses, Abraham and Sarah, and Peter. “Patience produces fruit, gives testimony, and reveals God’s care.”
With three points for part one, I wonder if this was once a sermon by itself. “Without trials,” he concludes, “there would be no perseverance; without battle, no victory.”
For the second half on prayer, there are likewise three points. We pray “in difficult circumstances, in sickness, and in spiritual struggle.”
What about prayers of confession, thanksgiving, and praise? We need those types of prayers too. Surely God must tire of us only asking for things.
“Prayer is getting God’s will done on earth,” he says in conclusion. This sounds nice, but I wonder if it has biblical support.
He says a closing prayer and dismisses us.
We move slowly and are the last to leave the sanctuary. Some people give us a passing nod, others thank us for visiting, and a few invite us back. But no one shares their names or asks ours. No one attempts conversation. I wonder if they expect their paid clergy to do that.
The minister stands dutifully at the sanctuary’s main exit. With no one behind us, we tarry. I tell him we are new to the area and visiting local churches, but I think he assumes we’ve already selected this one.
He tells us about their evening service and where the church is in their process of finding a new minister. He’s a nice man, and I like him, but we don’t plan to come back, so I doubt we’ll ever see him again.
Candy asks if I want to hang out in the narthex to see if there’s anyone we can talk to. I see no point in trying and am okay to leave. I think she’s relieved. As we head toward the door, though, we have one final interaction. It’s the best of the whole morning.
Two ladies take time to learn about us and share about themselves. One woman is the mother of the man we talked to before the service, and the other is the fill-in pastor’s wife. Both are nice ladies, and I appreciate them reaching out to us.
As we say our goodbyes, they both invite us back.
Candy and I don’t talk about the experience on our short drive home. Later I ask what she thought, but she has little to share. I already know and didn’t need to ask.
She didn’t like it and doesn’t want to return to this traditional denominational church. I agree.
Last week’s sermon elevated the Holy Spirit to an equal level with the other parts of the Trinity; this week’s message ignored him.
Last week I enjoyed our church experience; this week, I didn’t. I wonder if there’s a connection.
Look for ways to welcome visitors and give them a reason to come back.
Read the full story in Peter DeHaan’s new book Shopping for Church.
This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, their year-long sabbatical of visiting churches.
Here’s what happens:
My wife and I move. Now we need to find a new church. It’s not as easy as it sounds. She wants two things; I seek three others.
But this time the stakes are higher. I’ll write about the churches we visit, and my wife will pick which one we’ll call home. It sounds simple. What could possibly go wrong?