Categories
Visiting Churches

The Outlier Congregation

New Approaches for an Old Denomination

It’s a holiday weekend. Our son and daughter-in-law are out of town, so we’re free agents. A return trip to the Megachurch is in order, but our daughter invites us to go to a church she and her husband have visited the past couple of weeks. A friend from college invited her.

The Megachurch can wait.

This church, part of an old traditional denomination, has two services: 9:15 and 11:00. We’ll go to the first one. I check their website and am encouraged to read the bold proclamation: “Making passionate followers of Jesus.” This must be their vision.

Their mission statement likewise impresses me, using the phrases “community of faith,” “renewed by the Holy Spirit,” “transformation of lives and community,” and “for God’s glory.”

Besides typical church components such as student ministries and community service opportunities, they also offer Alpha classes and small groups.

What’s unusual is they have a recovery program for people struggling with life issues. From what I see online, this is a big emphasis of this church.

I learn that the church is 7.2 miles away and the drive will take eleven minutes. We plan to leave twenty-five minutes early, but it ends up being more like fifteen. As I drive, my wife, Candy, prays for our time there.

Along the way, we pass several churches. As we wonder about them, the names become jumbled, and we forget the name of where we’re headed. I should have written it down, along with the address.

All I remember is the cross streets it’s near. I hope there’s only one church at that intersection.

But we find the church easily enough.

Larger Than Expected

The facility is much larger than I expect. As we head toward the entrance, our daughter texts us they’re running late.

A young couple notices us, and the wife greets us. It’s our daughter’s friend from college. I’ve only seen her twice, with the last time being about three years ago, but she recognizes us right away.

We chat as we stroll into the building. They invite us to sit with them—if we’d like. We appreciate this friendly gesture and gladly accept, as they find seats for us and two more for the rest of our family.

I estimate the sanctuary—which is a newer building with a trendy minimalist church design—seats four to five hundred. It’s over half full, which isn’t bad for a Labor Day weekend.

The service starts a few minutes late, but not before our kids arrive and slide in next to Candy. Soon the worship team—consisting of guitars, drums, and keyboard—plays an instrumental piece to signal that the service is about to begin.

Their style is smartly contemporary, without being edgy. I assume Candy will appreciate their professional sound, while I’d prefer a bit more edge. We stand to sing for the opening set.

Afterward is a series of announcements, previewing the fall kickoff of various programs and reviewing the upcoming schedule.

With all age groups present, we learn the average age at the church is twenty-seven. However, this isn’t a church dominated by millennials, but more so one with a slew of kids and their Gen X parents.

They have a typical time for greeting. Though the people are nice as we shake hands, it’s cursory, consisting of pleasant smiles and lacking connection. Aside from our family and hosts, this is the only time all morning we interact with anyone else.

A clipboard moves down the row for us to leave our contact information. Candy enters our data, and I pass it to our friends.

An Outlier Church for Their Denomination

For this denomination, this one is quite progressive, an outlier congregation. But based on my overall church experiences it’s more middle-of-the-road. It’s certainly not traditional, but it still retains hints of traditional elements.

Today is the final message of the sermon series, “Letters to the Angels,” taken from Revelation 2 and 3. But before that, we’re treated to a skit, a takeoff on Jimmy Fallon’s thank-you notes routine, performed by their worship leader.

It’s done well, with relevant church humor, such as “Thank you, small group leaders, for doing work the staff doesn’t want to do” and “Thank you, church volunteers, for essentially being unpaid employees.”

In handing the service to the minister, the worship leader jokes that he’s thankful for only working one day a week.

The Church in Laodicea

The seventh letter, written to the angel of the church in Laodicea, is in Revelation 3:14–22. Whenever I’ve studied this passage, I’ve focused on the church being lukewarm and God’s rejection of them as a result.

Though the minister addresses this, his focus is on their smug self-complacency, which is also a pervasive issue in society today. We, like the church in Laodicea, need to “repent of being in control.”

Their problem—as with today’s culture, says the pastor—is their greed. “It’s not all about me,” he quips, decrying their self-focus. To their shame, they act as they do, relying on God’s grace to get them into heaven.

“He who has ears,” concludes the pastor, as he quotes from the text, “let him hear.”

When the service ends, most people head out, but we linger to talk with our family and friends. Though I thought the service was well attended, they say it was far below normal. I wonder about attendance at the second service.

I notice a Celtic cross on the side of the sanctuary and ask about its significance, but no one knows. As I recall, the circle that surrounds the intersection of the cross’s two arms represents unity or eternity, two concepts I embrace: unity while on earth, followed by eternity in heaven.

Different Perspectives

Later, I talk with my son-in-law about the church. He likes it but wants something more contemporary, more like the church we went to before we moved. I agree with him and then wonder aloud if this might be the closest we’ll find in this more traditional area.

Based on my experiences with this denomination, they’re contemporary compared to others in their denomination, an outlier. But they fall short of that compared to other churches.

The next day we talk about our experience when our son and daughter-in-law return home. They visited this church once and liked it but aren’t sure why they never went back.

When I say, “No one else talked to us,” they recall the same experience.

I tell Candy I could see myself going back.

She doesn’t. “I have no interest in returning.”

“We’ll see,” I say. “This may be the closest match we’ll find in the area.”

She snorts. “I sure hope not.”

Takeaway

Invite visitors to sit with you. And if you see someone you don’t know, reach out to them. You might be the only person to talk to them.


Read the full story in Peter DeHaan’s new book Shopping for Church.

Travel along with Peter and his wife as they search for a new Christian community in his latest book, Shopping for Church, part of the Visiting Churches Series.

This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, our 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?

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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

The Megachurch

Navigating Big

Our son and daughter-in-law’s Sunday plans change abruptly one Sunday morning. We scramble to find a church to visit. Not just any church—that would be easy—but a church fitting our search criteria.

However, we’ve not yet given it much thought. With little time to plan and most services already in progress, we need one that starts later.

A nearby megachurch has a second service at 11:30 a.m. We’ll go there. One of our future neighbors attends this church, but the chances of spotting them in a crowd of thousands in the service we attend seems slim.

Though big is not what I claim to want, the one church out of 52 Churches that I felt the most affinity with, the one I sensed was the best match, was also the biggest. I hope this megachurch will evoke a similar connection.

We don’t leave as soon as we should have. It will take a miracle to arrive on time, let alone ten minutes early, which is my goal when visiting churches.

I pray aloud as we head their way. “God, slow my racing heart. May our focus be on you. May we worship you in spirit and in truth. Show us what you would have us to see. Teach us what you would have us to learn. May we give to others what you would have us to give. Amen.”

“The speed limit is forty-five,” my wife, Candy, says. My heart still races, and our car’s speed reveals it. I wonder how much of my prayer she heard and how much I meant. I sigh.

Taking my foot off the accelerator, I add something to my prayer. “Please don’t let the service start until we get there.” It’s a selfish thing to ask, to assume God will make a couple thousand people wait because we didn’t leave soon enough.

Yet I don’t know what else to pray. I need to slow down, both mentally and physically. Drawing in a deep breath as our car slows, I sigh again.

Now traveling at the posted speed, I accept the fact that we’ll be late. For 52 Churches we were never late once. But for this round, we’ll be late on the first Sunday. It’s not a good start.

We’ve been to their sprawling facility before, but it was for concerts in their youth center. We’re not even sure where their sanctuary is. I follow the stream of cars. Parking attendants direct us to a general area. I follow the car in front of us and park next to it.

There’s no clear path to the building and no obvious flow of people to follow. Some go right and others go left, while a few meander. We’re already five minutes late and still must hike to the building. We’re panting by the time we reach the doors.

Inside, activity bustles. Sounds come from all directions, with the loudest emanating from the right, but to the left is music and a doorway hinting that a sanctuary might be behind it.

Though twenty feet away, I make eye contact with a woman at the information center. I point to my left and, with raised eyebrows, mouth the question, “That way?”

Confused, she asks, “For what?”

“Is the sanctuary that way?”

She nods, and I veer left. Candy follows. I push forward.

Sensory Overload

Inside, the service is in full swing. My senses overload. I could aim for a seat in the back, but there’s plenty of room closer to the front. I turn and head for the next aisle.

Moving forward, we walk past twenty or more rows. Still well back from the stage, I slide into a seat near the aisle. Candy slips in beside me.

Astonished, I try to take it all in. I count fourteen on the worship team: guitars, drums, keys, and a slew of vocalists. Behind them sways a praise choir of twenty or thirty, smiling broadly, worshiping God with their singing and the gentle rhythm of their bodies.

Overhead, three large screens, perhaps twenty or even thirty feet across, present the service in super-sized reality. Images of the worship team fill the giant displays with the song lyrics underneath. Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be singing.

I don’t know the song but pick it up easily enough. However, as I look about, I soon stop singing. There are two boom cameras, whose constant motion distracts me, along with two handheld cameras roaming the stage in their operators’ skilled hands.

Two more stationary cameras round out the count to six. But from the various shots I see on the screens, there are even more cameras that I can’t locate.

They continue to sing, but with too many distractions, I can’t focus. After several songs, the worship leader asks the prayer teams to come forward. People seeking prayer follow them. As the prayer teams minister to those in need, the rest of us resume singing.

Eventually, a man I assume is the minister appears on stage. The worship team withdraws into the shadows. He reads Genesis 12:2–3. The words appear on the screens beneath his jumbo-sized image.

I like this passage and often ask God to bless me so I can be a blessing to others. As I take notes, I assume this is the message, but he is simply introducing the offering.

As we resume our singing, ushers come down the center aisle, balancing stacks of buckets in their arms. They give one to each row as they work their way toward the back. As the buckets move across their rows, they accumulate offerings.

In the adjacent aisles, more ushers pass the buckets across the chasm to the outside sections. On the end aisles, a final set of ushers receives the proceeds, struggling even more with their balancing act. Once completed, we stand again while we sing.

By now the main floor is mostly full, while the balcony is mostly empty. I wonder if there were more people at the first service. It’s mid-August, so I suspect attendance is low. How full will it be in another month?

I calculate the main level seats about 2,000, and surely the balcony holds at least 1,000 more, but both estimates could be off.

When the music ends, the worship leader tells us to greet four or five people around us. Though smiles abound as we shake hands, there’s little connection as the people move through this ritual with mechanical precision.

I’ve only greeted three people when most others begin to sit. I turn to the two people behind me, not because I’m complying with the instruction to greet five people, but to push back at the brevity of the greeting time and its insignificance.

What Is the Purpose of Church?

The minister returns. “What is the purpose of church?” He bounces through a series of Bible verses.

I try to note them as I jot down some intriguing phrases: “The kingdom is here, within you,” “Jesus wants disciples,” and “All religions are men reaching out to God. Christianity is God reaching out to man.”

An unassuming individual, the pastor doesn’t look the part of a megachurch leader. Though confident, he lacks the polish I expect and the dynamic delivery I anticipate. Either his message lacks significance or I lack focus.

Yet I can’t shake the persistent feeling that our late arrival has seriously skewed my perceptions. We’ll need to make a return visit for a proper experience. I’ve wasted our time today, failing to worship God or serve his people.

I scan the crowd periodically, searching for our neighbors. I don’t spot them.

“We focus on the receiving aspect of faith,” says the minister as he wraps up his message, “but we also have a faith that sacrifices, a faith that gives.”

We watch a video about their TV ministry. The recording shows several people in India who are now following Jesus because of watching this church’s services online each Sunday.

The video ends, and the congregation shows their affirmation with applause. Now they take a second offering, this one to support their TV ministry, which was the apparent underlying intent of the message.

As the ushers return with their buckets to repeat their earlier performance, a series of video announcements play. The presenters are not mere talking heads, but polished announcers, comfortable in front of a camera, with an affable presence and the practiced cadence of a professional newscaster.

I’m so impressed with the quality of their delivery that I miss their messages—all except one.

When we pulled into the facility, we had joked about a sign that simply read “Kids Sale” and gave dates. “How many kids do you want to buy?” I asked my wife.

“I wonder if you can sell kids too?” she quipped.

Now a video plug for this event repeats the same information but gives no clarification. It’s still funny to me. “Do you want to buy one kid or two?”

“I think we have enough.”

I want to give her a snappy comeback, but the service ends before I can. Everyone stands and files out. None of the people we greeted have any parting words to share, and I can’t make eye contact with them. No one lingers to talk.

Everyone exits the sanctuary, flowing as a mass of people intent on leaving.

The Mass Exodus

The parking lot will be a mess, and we’re in no hurry to be part of it. After using the restroom, Candy wonders aloud if there’s a bulletin. I scoff. “This doesn’t seem like a bulletin kind of church.”

But she heads over to the welcome center, now unstaffed, and proudly returns with a bulletin of sorts. In it we later learn that “Kids Sale” is a consignment sale of kids’ games, clothes, and paraphernalia.

I consider heading over to a pavilion for “first-time visitors,” something I spotted on the way in but skipped because of our tardiness. There’s not much going on there, and I lack the motivation.

Instead, we turn the other way and head outside, with our newly acquired bulletin in hand.

Walking just ahead of us is Vanessa, who sat in front of us at church, the only person whose name we know, learning it during our greeting time. I consider calling to her and wishing her a good afternoon. But she seems intent on leaving.

Besides, we’ll never see her again. I remain silent, even though I shouldn’t. Frustrated, I just want to go home.

We walk at a leisurely pace back to our car, much slower than when we arrived. A warm sun and gentle breeze make it an enjoyable saunter. This should relax me but not quite. A line of cars still awaits their turn to leave. “I think there’s a back way,” Candy says.

“Let’s try.” I follow a couple of cars headed in the opposite direction. We wind our way through a maze of buildings, trees, and drives. “I don’t know where we’re going, but at least we’re making good time.”

Candy either ignores my quip or doesn’t catch my humor. Eventually we find ourselves at a major road. It wasn’t the one I expected, but it will work out even better.

Reviewing the Experience

Reviewing what happened, I’m discouraged: we arrived late, were distracted by most of the service, struggled to worship God, couldn’t follow the sermon, failed to experience community, and didn’t give anything to anyone.

Vanessa was my one possibility, but I didn’t even try.

I am empty, all the while knowing we’ll need to make a return visit to consider this church. Next time we’ll plan better. “Today was a complete waste.”

My bride says nothing.

The Megachurch Takeaway

How you approach church influences your experience. If you leave empty, you likely failed to arrive prepared.

* * *

Returning to The Megachurch

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Big

We arrived late the first time we visited The Megachurch. Our tardy arrival seriously skewed my experience that day. I knew we’d need to make a return visit. Today we do.

We plan to leave early, but it doesn’t work out. Even so, we leave early enough to arrive fifteen minutes before the service starts. We park in about the same area as last time, and this time we know which direction to head.

Our first visit was on a pleasant fall day, with a gentle sun and warm breeze. Today is the middle of winter. Though it’s not snowing, the temperatures hover in the mid-twenties, and the biting wind attacks us with fervor.

My winter coat fails to protect me. I stride toward the door with purpose.

First-Time Visitors

Glad to be inside, I head straight to the “first-time visitors” pavilion. Several people stand ready to welcome us. I flash my best smile. “Hi!”

“Is this your first time here?”

Oh no, busted! “We visited once before,” I try to explain, “but got here late and . . .” I shake my head at the memory and try to stifle a shudder. I search for more words to justify our audacity at approaching the “first-time visitors” table even though we aren’t first timers.

The lady smiles and offers reassurance. “Who would like to fill out the visitors’ card?”

“The person whose handwriting we can read,” I say, gesturing to Candy. She always fills out the information card.

The woman hands me a coffee mug and offers a second so “you can both have one.”

I shake my head. “I don’t drink coffee.” I suspect I sound rude, but we don’t need any more church coffee cups. The woman accepts this and doesn’t show she took offense.

I realize that if a person ever needed coffee cups, they could start visiting churches and would quickly amass a cupboard full, albeit mismatched.

Get Connected

Then she hands me a “Get Connected” pamphlet, a 40-page booklet with the subtitle “Grow, Connect, Impact.” Many churches use these words or others like them. Theologically I embrace the idea, but execution is the key.

“This explains all about our church,” she gushes. “We’re a big church, so small groups are important to us. We encourage everyone to be in one. That’s the best way to get connected.”

I nod, confirming the importance of a small group and the community it can offer.

“I really encourage you to visit the small group table.” She points to an area behind me. “They can find a group in your area that’s a good match for you.”

I nod again, wanting to tell her how much I agree and how badly I want to be in an intentional spiritual community, one focused on mutual support and encouragement, one where we can help each other on our faith journeys. But before I can marshal the words, she continues.

“You can go there now or visit them after the service.”

“Okay.” I’m tempted to. Yet I also know that if the group is all I hope it to be, I’d see no need to attend church on Sunday. Could I be in one of their small groups and not go to their church? Not that anyone would know, with their two services and thousands of people. Yet it wouldn’t feel right.

She hands me another packet, this one bearing a CD to explain the history of their church. Interested in learning more, I’m happy to accept it.

Seeking a Different Perspective

By this time Candy has completed the information card. She cradles her new coffee cup, and we head to the sanctuary.

This time we enter a different door. We also sit in a different section, mindful of how the continuous movement of the boom cameras throughout the entire service distracted me.

By the time we select our seats, the countdown timer is at 5:00. I’m surprised at how few people there are. Actually, there are hundreds, but with more empty seats than occupied ones, the space looks empty.

With one minute left, the lights dim to hint that the service is about to begin. The crowd is still sparse.

When the counter hits zero, the band starts. Some people join in, but not many. The song isn’t familiar to us. I wonder if it’s new to everyone. I’m reminded again about how much there is to distract me.

The large screens overhead, the boom cameras, the camera operators roving the stage with their handhelds, the praise choir swaying with the music, the dozen or more musicians and singers on the worship team—and the steady stream of people flowing into the sanctuary.

I don’t know the second song or the third, but I mouth some of the words, which is easier on the choruses. Some lyrics hit me as significant, but I can’t focus on them, since I’m trying to move my lips while trying to ignore all the surrounding distractions.

Even though we are sitting halfway toward the front, we’re still too far back to see much detail of the people on stage. It feels more like a concert than a church service. I wonder if a concert vibe is their intent.

The order unfolds the same as before. The prayer team comes forward and people wanting prayer follow. There’s the briefest of greeting times. By now, the main floor is mostly full, but from what I can see, the balcony is mostly empty.

The attendance appears the same as at our first visit. Then the pastor gives a brief teaching on giving, from Matthew 6:20, before they take the offering.

Small Groups

We sing another song and watch a video about small groups. Sometimes they say “small groups” and other times they use “life groups.” (Their literature uses life groups, but their website uses both terms.)

The phrases mean different things to me, with small groups being more transient and life groups being long term.

The announcement ends with “sign up today; groups start next week.”

This suggests they run small groups in terms, with periodic reshuffling. That way if you end up in a group you don’t like, it won’t last long. However, there may not be enough time for a group to really gel and become all it can.

With these concerns, the pull of being in one of their small groups diminishes.

Guest Speaker

Today they have a guest speaker, a missionary from the other side of the world. His English is perfect and his diction, flawless, yet it seems his words are colored by the culture he ministers to. Though his intent is clear, his occasionally odd phrasing disrupts my concentration.

Reading from the KJV (last time the minister used the NKJV), he teaches from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He promises we’ll “learn something from the Bible we’ve never heard before.” It’s an audacious claim. I’m skeptical.

Though he unveils historical context that’s new to me, he doesn’t teach me anything new about the contents of the Bible itself—or maybe I missed it.

Then midway through the message, he switches to a lengthy illustration about evolving technology, obsolescence, and the need to adapt to changing conditions. Then, just as abruptly, he takes us back to Philippians.

I see no connection between his illustration and the lesson on joy from Philippians. This reminds me of Luke 19:12–26, which seems to be a mash-up of two unrelated parables, with one shoved inside the other.

To conclude, he launches into an altar call of sorts, leading the entire congregation in a prayer of salvation. I always bristle at this technique and don’t take part.

For me, when a follower of Jesus prays the sinner’s prayer again, it’s disingenuous, either lying to God or casting doubt on the prior decision to follow Jesus. Maybe his theology requires we renew our salvation commitment every week.

Those who prayed the prayer “for the first time” are invited to go to a special place after the service to “get started.”

A Second Offering

Then someone announces a second collection, this one for the missionary who spoke. The first time we visited, they took two offerings, which I assumed was not typical. Now I wonder if two offerings are their norm.

I groan, realizing how right the unchurched are with their complaint that churches are always asking for money. We sing during the offering and stand for the final verse once all the buckets have been picked up.

We sit when the song ends. As a video announcement plays, many people shuffle out. I want to join them but also want to respect the service. The professional cadence and inviting smile of the announcer draws me in. After that, a long series of verbal announcements follow.

Mindful of the time and friends we’re meeting for lunch, I squirm as the speaker drones on, while more people file out. This is a church where many people arrive late and leave early.

At last, he gives us a blessing and ends the service. With intention, we head for the door, not looking for anyone to interact with, while noting that no one seeks to interact with us.

We head for the exit and push into the bitter cold. The biting wind of this winter day cuts through our coats and into our bodies, instantly chilling us.

I so wanted to click with this church, but I so didn’t.

Key Takeaway

For your sake and everyone else’s, strive to arrive at church early and leave late—not the opposite.

Read about the next church, or start at the beginning of Shopping for Church.]


Read the full story in Peter DeHaan’s new book Shopping for Church.

Travel along with Peter and his wife as they search for a new Christian community in his latest book, Shopping for Church, part of the Visiting Churches Series.

This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, our 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?

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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

The Portable Church

A Different Approach

As we transition between homes, we’re living with our son and daughter-in-law. We’ll go to Sunday services with them, holding off on our search for a new church home.

We’ve already gone with them a handful of times over the past few years, and for this season in our lives, it will be more regularly.

Now, each Sunday morning, we all hop in the car and head to church. It’s a nondenominational gathering, about ten years old. The congregation includes people of all ages, though it skews toward young families. Notably, the church doesn’t own a building.

Rented Space

It rents space for their Sunday service, meeting in a well-known banquet hall. I like that they aren’t spending money on a mortgage and building maintenance for a facility used only a few hours each week. This frees up funds to help people in need and reach out to the community.

This modern, well-maintained facility is easy to get to, with ample parking near the door. Though designed as a banquet hall and conference center, it adapts nicely for church, with a large meeting space for the service and other areas for children’s activities.

In their typical Sunday configuration, the meeting space seats about three hundred, with padded chairs arrayed in four sections. Attendance varies, between 70 percent occupied to near capacity.

Early each Sunday morning, a setup team prepares the place for church. They arrange chairs provided by the facility and lay out their service-related items, which they unpack and repack each week.

A trailer specifically designed for this purpose transports these items on Sunday and stores them between services. Though set up and tear down have many steps, transforming the space and then returning it to its default condition goes quickly with many volunteers.

A Friendly Church

There is sometimes a greeter by the main entrance and always a pair by the main door of the worship space. They pass out brochures that function as mini newsletters, sharing little about the service and more about activities going on throughout the week.

The people dress casually. I see no men in suits or even wearing ties. Though a few women wear dresses, there aren’t many. The common attire is jeans.

They’re also a friendly group. We’ve met many people but are still waiting to form connections because we seldom see the same people from one week to the next. This is partly because of the number of people attending.

However, a bigger factor, I suspect, is that most of the people are inconsistent with their attendance. They have competing options for Sunday morning, and church doesn’t always win out.

Easing into the Service

To start the service, the worship team sings an opening song. They never display the lyrics so we can’t sing or even follow along unless we know the words. Most of the regulars treat this first song with indifference, continuing their conversations.

For the second song, the words appear on a large overhead screen, and most people redirect their attention and sing along. There are, however, people who stand mute during the singing.

They don’t even bother to move their lips. I’m sure this happens at all churches, but it seems more common here.

The members of the worship team vary from week to week, but they usually have six: the worship leader on keyboard, two guitars, a bass guitar, drums, and a backup vocalist—the only female in the group.

With a light rock sound, they lead us in singing contemporary songs. Accomplished at what they do, the outcome is pleasing, but it’s just like most any other contemporary church service.

The Mid-Service Welcome

At some point, a staff person gives announcements, and then a greeting time follows. They do well at welcoming one another, certainly better than most churches. But most conversations are brief, as the number of people greeted takes precedence over the depth of conversation: quantity trumps quality.

About a half hour into the service, the minister stands for the first time, signaling a transition into the message. With a charismatic presence, this thirty-something pastor exudes confidence with an easygoing smile and approachable demeanor.

A peer of the congregation’s largest demographic, he greets attendees and then prays before teaching. Sometimes he starts his message with an anecdote, while other times he opens by reading the Scripture text after a brief introduction. Words appear on the large screen overhead as he reads the passage.

A pop culture aficionado, he often weaves modern-day references into his messages to make his points. He also frequently uses visual aids in the form of handheld props or graphics displayed overhead.

This church is far too trendy for a traditional altar call, but the pastor ends his message with a more serious time of personal application or reflection. The service ends with a closing song and offering.

The Wrap Up

Afterward, most people stay and mingle. Longer conversations happen, and connections can occur. Donuts and beverages are available to entice people to stay and talk. But there are no tables or places to sit, so interaction must occur while standing.

As conversations continue, the teardown crew gathers equipment and breaks down the stage. They reload the trailer, preparing it for next week when they’ll do it again.

This is an easy church to attend, but I don’t get a sense of spiritual depth or feel commitment from most of the people. I could easily amass acquaintances here, but friendships would require work. Though I’m open to attending this church, I don’t think it’s the one my wife will pick.

Takeaway

Seek to form genuine friendships and not merely make acquaintances.

[Read about the next church, or start at the beginning of Shopping for Church.]


Read the full story in Peter DeHaan’s new book Shopping for Church.

Travel along with Peter and his wife as they search for a new Christian community in his latest book, Shopping for Church, part of the Visiting Churches Series.

This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, our 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?

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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

Church Shopping

Looking to Find a New Church

My wife and I are looking to find a new church. I never thought we’d be in this situation. My assumption was we’d go to our church for the rest of our lives. So much for assumptions.

While writing my not-yet-published memoir, God, I Don’t Want to Go to Church, I realized I’d picked every church Candy and I have attended over the years. I’d have my favorite; she’d have hers.

Unable to agree, I’d effectively decide because I drove. She’d go along, grumbling a bit as we went, but eventually we’d settle into life at our new church.

For our last church, I committed us to be part of a church plant without consulting her. I assumed she’d be as excited as me. I was wrong.

Eventually she embraced my choice as we immersed ourselves with giddy excitement into the allure of creating a fresh faith expression, working with a like-minded community of spiritual mavericks and misfits, rejects of today’s church culture.

I later apologized to her for always picking our churches. I promised she could pick the next one—even though I assumed there never would be a next one.

A few years later, after our yearlong sabbatical of researching and writing 52 Churches, we returned to our home church. We picked up where we left off. Friends welcomed us back, excited about our return. A few, however, never knew we were gone.

This reminded me of how big and disconnected our church had become. Faithful regulars, even with a visible presence each Sunday, could slip away for a year and not be missed.

In his book The Barbarian Way, Erwin McManus wrote about being barbarians for Jesus, of not settling for a civilized acceptance of the religious status quo.

We started our church plant as passionate barbarians, but in eight short years we had settled into a civilized acquiescence. We had become like other churches, just with edgier music and more attendees from society’s fringe.

As we became organized (civilized), there was less room for my maverick soul to find solace. An all-too-familiar ache resurfaced, that spiritual yearning for more.

This unanswered pang in my spirit left me again asking questions about what it means to truly follow Jesus and how his church should function. Church is not to assure our comfort, but to insure his kingdom.

Our daughter and her family went to this church with us. We persisted in attending to be with them. But then our son-in-law switched jobs, and they moved near our son and his wife.

The pull of family caused us to ask an unexpected question: Should we move too? After consulting with our kids and receiving their blessing, we did just that.

Now we need to find a new church.

Key Considerations

I desire to worship with our neighbors in our new community, so we’ll look at churches nearby. Yet most of their buildings and names suggest they’re traditional congregations, with traditional views, and little patience for nontraditional me.

We’ll also consider the churches our neighbors attend. As far as we know, most of them drive outside our community each Sunday. If one of these churches clicks, at least we’ll be able to attend with some neighbors.

A third consideration is our kids’ churches. However, our daughter and son-in-law are still looking, while I’m not sure how long our son and daughter-in-law will continue where they’re going. What are the chances we could all end up at the same place?

We’ll know the right church when we see it, but it’s good to have an idea of what we’re looking for.

For me, true community is paramount. This implies a smaller congregation. I also want a church family that goes all out to follow Jesus, worships the Father in spirit and in truth, and embraces the power of the Holy Spirit.

I need a truly Trinitarian faith community. Traditional churches need not apply.

In addition, it’s important to find a church that gives me a place to plug in and help others. Over the years I’ve served in many areas at the churches we’ve attended, often in excess and to the detriment of my family.

At one time I was simultaneously involved in ten different areas at our church, going there two or three times throughout the week to meet all my commitments, in addition to being quite busy on Sundays.

Where to Serve?

Over the years I’ve served as elder, deacon, treasurer, assistant treasurer, and executive committee member. A few times I even gave the sermon. I also headed up one church’s small group ministry, a 20-hour-a-week commitment.

I’ve taught various Sunday school classes, from preschool to adult, with the junior high boys being my favorite. Along the way, I’ve led small groups. Then there is ushering, greeting, and taking the collection. And I’ve been on more committees than I care to remember.

Though I could do any of these things again, I don’t feel God calling me to any of them at this time. I also don’t think these are the best way for me to help advance his Kingdom.

After too many years of overcommitment, I established a guideline for my church involvement. It works well.

Quite simply, in addition to the Sunday service, I’m open to do one additional thing each week—and only one thing—at church. That’s it. I hope the church we pick offers me this one place to serve, one that will give me life.

Candy’s list is different. She seeks music that is worshipful and not a performance. They must speak the truth but in love. Last, she wants a church willing to address today’s issues, not worrying about being politically correct or afraid to declare biblical truth.

In visiting congregations for 52 Churches, I set each destination with only minimal input from my wife. It was my research. We weren’t looking for a new church, so the consequences were minimal.

A New Church Home

This time is different. We’re seeking a new church home. The stakes are high. This won’t be a methodical investigation to gather information. It’s an imperative journey to find a new church family, a place for us to belong.

This time we’ll make the list together. I expect we’ll skip traditional congregations, formal gatherings, and liturgical services. While these are ideal choices for some, they have no pull for us.

Though this journey is ours together, and I will write the book from my perspective, Candy will make the final decision. I promised her that. My hope is I’ll be able to accept her selection and then embrace it, just as she did with my past choices.

Our journey to find a new church home is about to begin.

Check back next Thursday to read about our first consideration.

Read about the first church in Shopping for Church.


Read the full story in Peter DeHaan’s new book Shopping for Church.

Travel along with Peter and his wife as they search for a new Christian community in his latest book, Shopping for Church, part of the Visiting Churches Series.

This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, our 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?

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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

The Next Steps

Another exploration of visiting churches has wrapped up, producing memories and insights. These can serve to move us forward in our spiritual journey, better prepared to worship God, serve others, and experience community. Where do we go from here? What are the next steps?

Consider these three discussion questions about the next steps.

1. Church means different things to different people, with our understanding of it evolving over time. The same applies to faith. Review your answers in this workbook.

How has your view of church grown? What changes should we make in how we put our faith into action?

2. I hope the questions in this book have spurred a lot of great ideas. But without action, great ideas amount to nothing.

What are the top three things we want to start doing differently?

3. When visiting churches, one person often made the difference between us feeling accepted and rejected.

In addition to changes we want to make in our own interactions with visitors, how can we encourage others to follow our example?

[Read about How to Go to Church or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

5 Discussion Questions about How to Go to Church

For both visitors and regular attendees, three keys exist to having a successful, meaningful, and Spirit-filled church experience: attitude, prayer, and expectation. Following these steps can make most any church experience—despite its shortcomings—a positive one. 

Consider these five discussion questions about How to Go to Church.

1. In going to church I’ve experienced both positive and negative outcomes, which often hinged on my attitude, prayer, and expectations—or the lack thereof.

Which of these three keys should we focus on to realize a more positive outcome at church?

Tip 1: Attitude is Everything

If we approach church with a bad attitude, we shouldn’t expect to enjoy our time there. It’s foolish to assume a positive outcome if we hold a surly disposition.

2. When we approach church positively, our optimism will direct our attention to celebrate the noteworthy and give us the grace to overlook the not-so-great.

What can we do to go to church with an eager attitude? How can we encourage others to do the same?

Tip 2: Prayer Is Essential

When Candy and I started visiting churches, we committed ourselves to a pre-church prayer each week. So significant were the benefits of these prayers that we continued the practice when we returned to our home church. 

3. After several weeks, however, our pre-church prayer slipped into a rut, with us repeating the same tired phrases each time.

Are we willing to pray before church every Sunday? How can we avoid our prayers becoming routine?

Tip 3: Expectations Form Experience

The foundation formed by prayer prepares us for the church service. It serves to shape expectations, which drives experience. Most of the time, positive expectations result in positive outcomes, while negative thinking produces negative experiences.

4. We say our pre-church prayer in faith, and we prove it from the activities that spring forth from our expectations. This is how we put faith into action.

If we don’t like church, who’s to blame: church, God, or us?

Go to Church Summary

Whether visiting a new church or attending our home church, we should follow a wise strategy, remembering that attitude is everything, prayer is essential, and expectations form experience. Then we’ll be ready to worship God and serve others.

5. When we go to church properly prepared, we can receive God’s blessing and be a blessing to others.

What must we change to ensure we go to church with the right attitude, covered with prayer, and with godly expectations?

[Read about How to Go to Church or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

How to Go to Church

3 Tips to Have a Positive Experience

When going to church—whether as a visitor or a regular attendee—there are three keys to having a successful, meaningful, and spirit-filled experience. These are attitude, prayer, and expectation. 

Without addressing these critical elements, many church services will fall short of expectations. Following these three essential steps, however, can make most any church experience—despite its shortcomings—positive, even beneficial, and, dare I say, memorable.

Yes, it is true. In visiting all these churches, I’ve experienced both positive and negative outcomes. And most of these outcomes hinged on attitude, prayer, and expectation.

1. Attitude is Everything

If we go to church with a bad attitude, we shouldn’t expect to enjoy our time there. It’s foolish to assume a positive outcome from church if we go there with a surly disposition.

When we approach church with positive anticipation of what will occur, our attention will focus on the positive elements of the service and give us the ability to extend grace to the negative aspects.

Our attention will celebrate the noteworthy and give us the ability to overlook the not-so-great. 

And remember, every church, congregation, and service will possess both positive and negative elements. No church is perfect in every way, just as no church is completely flawed. Our attitude determines which of those two aspects we focus on.

I approached most all the churches we visited with a positive perspective. Most of the time this came naturally. A few times, however, I needed to work on adjusting my attitude. Seeking a positive attitude means my overall approach to the church was positive.

Even so, that doesn’t mean I noted only positive elements. In visiting churches, I sought to share both positive and negative, celebrating the good that I witnessed and attempting to learn from the not-so-good that I encountered.

This is the reason I opted not to visit Church #69 (“Suffering from a Bad Rap”). From what people told me about their experience with this church and how the people who went there treated them, I formed a highly negative impression.

Based completely on this secondhand information, I developed a bad attitude about this church and suspected my experience would confirm what I anticipated. 

Since I had such a bad perspective, I saw no point in visiting them until I could turn my mindset from negative to positive. I tried unsuccessfully for a couple of years to adjust my attitude, but I never could.

Therefore, I felt a visit would unfold as a futile encounter and produce no valuable insight or significant spiritual interaction.

I now realize—albeit too late—that I never prayed about this. I never sought the Holy Spirit’s intervention to correct my flagging attitude.

Through prayer, I’m quite confident God would have turned my attitude around. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to seek him in this.

This brings us to the next point: prayer.

2. Prayer Is Essential

When Candy and I embarked on our 52 Churches adventure, we committed ourselves to a pre-church prayer each week. Initially this was before we left our house, but later it occurred during our drive to church.

Our intent was to seek God’s blessing for our time with that church and to request a positive outcome. We only forgot to do this a couple of times, with our lack of prayer serving to diminish what we encountered at those churches.

So significant were the benefits of our pre-church prayer that we continued this practice when we weren’t visiting a new church but instead were attending our home church.

Most of the time I would pray, and Candy would add her addendum as she felt led. Other times I asked her to pray.

After a few weeks, I realized our pre-church prayer could easily slip into a rut, with us repeating the same phrases week after week.

To avoid falling into a vain repetition (see Matthew 6:7 in the KJV), I would seek Holy Spirit insight on what specific things to pray for during our drive to church each Sunday.

As a way of example, and not to imply something for you to copy, here are parts of some of our pre-church prayers:

  • “Thank you, God, for the opportunity to go to church today. Please teach us what you would have us learn.”
  • “Papa, at church today may we receive what you want us to receive and give to others what you want us to give.”
  • “May we worship you today in spirit and truth” (see John 4:23–24).
  • “Holy Spirit, direct us to divine encounters with the people at this church so that we may encourage them, and they may encourage us, as needed.”
  • “Please give us positive attitudes so that we may see what you want us to see.” (I prayed this prayer a few times, but Candy clarified that she already had a good attitude. It was mine that needed adjustment. She was right.)
  • “We thank you, Jesus, for who you are and what you’ve done for us. May we celebrate you today at church.”
  • “God, please speak to us through the sermon today.”

As we returned to our home church, these types of prayers continued, though some new ones were a bit more pointed, as in:

  • “Please direct us, Holy Spirit, to someone to minister to today at church.”
  • “May you give us opportunities to pray for others before and after the church service.”
  • “Father, today at church, may we see others through your eyes and encourage them in Jesus’s name.”

Use these examples to form your own pre-church prayers. But regardless of the words you say, know that prayer is essential when you head off to church. These prayers don’t need to be fancy, but they should be heartfelt and Holy Spirit driven.

Prayer establishes the groundwork for what happens next. 

3. Expectations Form Experience

The foundation formed by prayer prepares us for the church service. It serves to shape our expectations, which will drive our experience. Most of the time, positive expectations result in positive outcomes, while negative expectations prompt negative results.

With prayer establishing the basis to move forward, we should easily slide into a mindset of positive expectation. This is how we put our faith into action. We say our pre-church prayer in faith, and we prove it from the actions that spring forth from our expectations.

When we expect great things to happen at church, we will see the positive most every time. If we expect disappointment, we will surely encounter it.

As I said before, we will never experience a 100 percent perfect service, nor will we ever experience a 100 percent horrible one.

Church experiences exist on a continuum from good to bad, positive to negative. And yet, when we walk in with positive expectations, our experience will skew toward the positive.

For most Sundays, our pre-church prayer did exactly that. Yet, on a few occasions, I needed to breathe a booster prayer as we pulled into the church parking lot, walked through the doors, or encountered some initial disappointment.

These prayers sometimes came forth as little more than a groan, but God granted my plea every time.

Summary

Whether visiting a new church or attending our home church, we should follow a wise strategy, remembering that attitude is everything, prayer is essential, and expectations form experience.

May we receive God’s blessing when we go to church, and while we’re there, may we be a blessing to others.

May it be so.

[See the discussion questions for this post, the prior post about How to Be an Engaging Church, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

Discussion Questions on How to Be an Engaging Church

The experiences I share in this book are my experiences. Others may have different observations. I’m an introvert, as is a slight majority of people. Even so, I doubt my reactions are unique to me or even to other introverts. 

Consider these fifthteen discussion questions about How to Be an Engaging Church.

1. Whether introvert or extrovert, I’ve never talked with anyone who claimed they could visit a new church without some degree of anxiety.

How can the knowledge that visitors carry some unease better inform our interactions with them?

2. In visiting churches, I had a most supportive wife at my side. With her, I stood much braver than I would have on my own.

Who can we invite to go with us on our spiritual journeys?

3. Visiting a church alone is even harder than going with a friend. It’s easy to see why someone with even the best intentions of visiting will stay home.

Who can we invite to go to church with us?

4. People hold to the Sunday schedule they know—whether staying home or attending church. Maintaining our norm is easier than trying something new.

What do we need to change in our Sunday routine?

5. Churches that want to grow must do everything possible to make it less scary for a visitor to show up. Being welcoming is a start, but there’s more. Churches must be likeable, even irresistible.

How can we become irresistible people? 

Tip 1: Make it Easy for Visitors

Most people today go online to find information about a church they’re thinking of visiting. Therefore, having an attractive, up-to-date, and visitor-friendly website is essential. Don’t make them search. They don’t have much patience.

6. Some churches forego a website and try social media instead. But social media platforms can change their rules, restrict access, and even shut us down.

What impact would our church feel if we lost our social media presence?

7. Our website must be attractive, be easy to navigate, and follow best practices. It needs a makeover every few years to not look dated.

What can we do to improve our church’s website? 

8. Make it easy for prospective visitors to contact our church with questions. This means listing a phone number and email address. Respond quickly to both. Most churches don’t.

How can we help our church be more responsive to visitor questions?

Tip 2: Create a Great Impression

When a visitor arrives at church, create a great first impression, building on their perception that began with our website. A website may encourage a person to visit a church, but it takes a personal connection to turn one-time visitors into returnees. 

9. Some large churches have parking lot attendants to direct traffic and forward-thinking smaller churches have greeters in their parking lot to welcome visitors and answer questions.

What impression does our church make before people enter the building? 

10. Greet visitors at the building entrance with a smile, welcome them, and open the door. Greeters should focus on people they don’t recognize.

Whether we’re an official greeter or not, what can we do to better welcome visitors?

11. A positive welcome extends inside the building. Regardless of church size, seek ways to assist those who look confused.

What can we do to rescue a visitor who looks lonely or lost?

Tip 3: Greet Well

As mentioned in 52 Churches, there are three opportunities to greet visitors: before the service, during the service, and after the service. Few churches do all three well and too many fail at each one.

12. Pre-service greetings can occur in the parking lot, at the front door, and inside the facility. In addition to official greeters, everyone should take part.

Regardless of how outgoing we are, what can we do to interact with visitors?

13. If there’s a greeting during the service, we must be visitor-focused, not friend-focused. Make eye contact, smile, and offer a handshake. Share our name. Ask theirs. Now introduce them to someone else.

How can we better embrace visitors during the greeting time? 

14. The final greeting occurs after the service. Before visitors scoot out, talk to them. Just be friendly. Seek a connection. Invite them to stay for any after-church activity.

How can we better connect with visitors after the service?

Engaging Church Summary

To grow, a church should engage with visitors. This starts with online information, helping them to decide to visit. It continues by making multiple good impressions when they arrive.

It culminates with greeting them successfully before, during, and after the service.

15. Churches won’t succeed in each area every time, but we should work to succeed in as many as possible, as often as possible.

What can we do to be more engaging as a church? As individuals?

[Read How to Be an Engaging Church, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

If you feel it’s time to move from the sidelines and get into the game, The More Than 52 Churches Workbook provides the plan to get you there.

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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

How to Be an Engaging Church

The experiences I share in my book are just that: my experiences. Other people will have different observations when visiting a church. I am an introvert, as is a slight majority of the population, but my reactions are not unique to or representative of introverts.

Indeed, everyone, both introvert and extrovert, will share my perspective to varying degrees—some more profoundly and others less so. Regardless, know that I have never talked with anyone who claimed they could visit a new church without some degree of anxiety.

Also know that I had a most supportive wife accompanying me each week (except for the week she was out of town and I went solo: Church #61, “The Wrong Time to Visit”). With her at my side, I stood much braver than I would have on my own.

Even so, I had to fight the urge to make a U-turn in the parking lot at Church #54 (“Emergent Maybe”) and pray earnestly to stave off a bit of a panic attack while walking into Church #58 (“Not So Friendly”).

Visiting a church with a non-supportive spouse would be even harder, as well as showing up by yourself. Given all this, it’s easy to see why someone with even the best intentions of visiting a church will decide not to.

Instead, they’ll maintain their Sunday morning status quo—whether staying home or attending the church they know, even if it’s the wrong one. Sticking with what we’re used to is so much easier than confronting our fears and going someplace unknown.

That’s why it’s so critical for a church to do everything possible to make it less scary for a visitor to show up. Being a welcoming church is a great start, but it’s not enough.

Churches need to go beyond welcoming visitors. They need to engage with them. You must be a disarming church, likeable, even irresistible. 

There are many factors that make a church engaging. Three recurring themes emerged from our visits to other churches. These stand out as essential skills to master.

Make it Easy for Visitors

Most people today go online to find information. This includes someone thinking about visiting your church. Therefore, having an attractive, up-to-date, and visitor-friendly website is key. 

A few churches try to skip this step by establishing their online home base on various social media sites. This, however, is shortsighted.

Social media platforms can change their rules of engagement at any time, restrict who sees your information, and even summarily shut you down without notice.

Yes, a church can still have social media pages, but these should direct visitors to the church website, which the church owns and controls.

As mentioned, the website must be attractive. It should look current and be easy to navigate. It must follow best practices. This means your website needs a makeover every couple of years, or else it will look dated, which will cause visitors to dismiss your church as out of touch.

Next, your website needs current information. Remove obsolete content and add new info as soon as changes occur. Nothing will cause website visitors to bounce from your site faster—and dismiss your church quicker—than when it includes information that’s no longer relevant. 

A third key is accuracy. Some church websites are as misleading as dating profiles. (Not that I have any firsthand experience with dating websites, but I’ve heard that embellished claims abound).

Some church websites paint a picture of what the church once was but no longer is, while other sites present an image of what they want to become. Both are lies and seriously mislead visitors, which results in disappointment.

This causes first-time church visitors to become one-time visitors.

As far as the specific information a website should have, clear and easy to find service times are critical. Don’t make people search for this or wonder if what they find is accurate. 

Just as important is your street address. Unless your location is well known and highly visible, assume visitors will use their GPS to get there. Make it easy for them to do so.

Next, people will wonder what they should wear to feel comfortable at your church. And even if you don’t care what they wear, they will. They’ll want to fit in, so let them know how most people dress. Is your church come-as-you-are, business casual, or Sunday best? Somewhere in between?

If you have multiple services, note the times. Highlight any differences, such as in format, music content, and sermon style. Also note any other Sunday programming you may offer.

Do you have Sunday school? Is it concurrent to the service or at a different time? Do you have something separate for teens? What about college students or young singles? These are two demographics that many churches overlook.

Let newcomers know what to expect. Beyond explaining a typical service, tell them what they can encounter before and after. Let them know how long the service typically lasts. And please, tell them the offering is just for members and regular attendees. 

You should also explain your communion practices, since these vary a lot from one church to another.

At most of the churches we visited that included communion, my desire to understand and fit in with their practices so distracted me that I failed to focus on the reason why I was taking communion. This was an epic fail for me—and for them.

Lastly, make it easy for prospective visitors to contact your church with questions. This includes listing your phone number and email address.

Just make sure you respond quickly to both. Most churches don’t, with a few delaying their response to visitor communication for days, weeks, and, in one case, even months. And some don’t respond at all.

What I’ve not included on this list of website information is a doctrinal statement. I don’t think most people care, and those who read it may seek one hot-button word or phrase, using it to eliminate your church from further consideration.

The reality is that at most churches, the people who go there don’t know what their church’s core beliefs are, and those who do know, often disagree with an element or two.

Create a Great Impression

Okay, so your website did a good enough job to entice someone to visit your church. Now you need to make a great impression when they arrive, knowing that their first perception of your church began with your website.

You’ve given them your street address, so their GPS will get them to your facility. If you only have one entrance to your parking lot, they’ll know where to go, but if you have multiple entrances, be sure to have signs, banners, or flags directing them to the right one.

Some large churches have parking lot attendants to direct traffic to open spaces, but even some forward-thinking mid-sized churches have greeters in their parking lot to welcome visitors and be available to answer questions.

You must have someone greet them at your building entrance to give them a smile, welcome them well, and open the door. This person should focus on people they don’t recognize and not their friends.

This greeter should look for signs of apprehension or confusion, doing whatever they can to ease a visitor’s concerns or fears.

A positive welcome, however, extends inside the building too. Larger churches have visible and attractive information centers, staffed by approachable and outgoing people to assist visitors in any way possible.

At smaller churches, or those lacking the space for a visitor center, station people inside to assist those who look lost or confused.

In all this, the goal is to make a great impression, welcoming visitors well and helping them enjoy their experience.

Greet Well

As I mentioned in 52 Churches, there are three opportunities to greet visitors: before the service, during the service, and after the service. Few churches do all three well. And too many fail at each one.

As already mentioned, the pre-service greeting occurs in the parking lot, at the front door, and inside your facility. But that’s not enough.

These people serve as official greeters because they’re outgoing, engaging, and have a knack at helping people feel comfortable. However, this doesn’t mean the other 99 percent of your church shouldn’t also greet visitors. 

The pre-church greeting extends into the sanctuary or worship space. This secondary form of greeting could be as simple as making eye contact, smiling, and waving or saying hello. Anyone should be able to do that.

Beyond that, everyone should look for people standing by themselves with no one to talk to or who look lost. Talking with friends should always take second place to interacting with visitors.

And remember, most visitors won’t care if someone’s approach may be a bit awkward. They’ll just be thrilled that someone cared enough to try.

For stoic churches, a nod of acknowledgment may be all you can do, while for more outgoing churches, the time before the service is a great opportunity to get to know someone.

You can even offer to sit with them during the service to help them feel more comfortable and better navigate the service. This is extremely important for churches with liturgical services, which are hard for most visitors to follow.

Next is the greeting during the service. From a visitor perspective, most churches do this so poorly they might be better off skipping it. Seriously. 

If you do have a greeting time during the service, train your people to be visitor-focused, not friend-focused. Give visitors the bulk of your attention.

Make eye contact, smile, and offer a handshake. Share your name. Ask theirs. Now introduce them to someone else. And whatever you do, don’t allow visitors to squirm in silence while everyone else is talking with others. 

Don’t call out visitors by having them raise their hand, or worse, stand up. This is most embarrassing. Instead, invite them to go to the back of the sanctuary or visitor center after the service.

The final greeting occurs after the service ends. It’s true that some visitors scoot out as quickly as possible—especially if they had a bad experience—but other visitors may be open to tarry. Reward them for their bravery by talking to them.

At the same time, don’t overwhelm or interrogate them, just be friendly. Seek to establish a connection. If there’s any after-church activity, invite them to stay for it.

This may be coffee and refreshments. Or it could be a potluck. Assure them there will be plenty of food and that they’re welcome to stay. Ask them if they have any questions. If you don’t know the answer, take them to someone else who will be able to help.

Though not as common as it once was, you can invite them to have lunch with you.

Even if your church failed at the pre-church greeting and the mid-service greeting, a good post-church greeting can still salvage the situation, serving as a final and positive impression for them to take home.

Good worship music and engaging preaching may draw visitors, but it’s the human connection that keeps them coming back. This starts with greeting visitors well.

Be an Engaging Church Summary

If you want your church to grow—and every church should—strive to engage with visitors.

This starts with the information you provide online, which should make it easy for them to decide to visit. It continues by making multiple good impressions when they arrive at your facility. Then it culminates with greeting them well before, during, and after the service.

You won’t succeed in each of these areas every time, but you should work to succeed in as many of them as possible, as often as possible.

[Read the prior post or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

Our New Church Home: Discussion Questions

For 52 Churches, we took a year off and visited a different Christian church every Sunday. Then we returned to our home church. For More Than 52 Churches we interspersed our visits with regular attendance at our home base. 

Consider these five discussion questions about Our New Church Home.

1. Staying connected to our home church kept us anchored in spiritual community as we visited others.

What provides our spiritual anchor? If we don’t have one, where can we look for it?

2. Attending our home church required a fifteen-minute trip, driving past many other options that were more accessible and more inviting.

Why do we go to the church we do? Is it to meet our preferences or to advance God’s kingdom? 

3. For years, I’ve longed to go to church in my community, worshiping and serving with my neighbors and family.

How important is it for us to worship in our community with our neighbors?

4. After our first visit to Church #67, we returned the next week. We came back a third time, staying for their after-church meeting to learn more about their community.

How can we encourage first-time visitors to become regular attendees?

5. Soon going to this new church turned into a habit. It was a good habit to form.

Not all habits are beneficial, so how can we discern the difference? Do we have a habit we should break?

[Read about our new church home or start at the beginning of our journey.]

If you feel it’s time to move from the sidelines and get into the game, The More Than 52 Churches Workbook provides the plan to get you there.

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.