Categories
Visiting Churches

Church #60: A Missed Opportunity 

I meet a woman at a writers conference. In addition to being an author, she is also a pastor. She’s launching a new church in an underserved downtown urban area.

The Vision

Her dream is a church for people of all ages, races, and backgrounds—a colorful mosaic of folks who seek to grow together in Jesus under the power of the Holy Spirit. She shares more. Her passion draws me in. Her vision inspires me. I want to be part of this great adventure. 

I occasionally see her online, reminding me of this church. Being part of this church is not inconceivable, even though the downtown area is about thirty minutes away. I share my excitement over the possibility with Candy.

She doesn’t see the opportunity I see. Urban church experiences in a rundown area aren’t what she wants, but she does agree to visit once. 

I go online to find the details. Their website casts a vision for a downtown church, but it also talks about their meetings in a suburb. Details appear for a suburban church service, but not for a downtown one. 

In frustration, I fill out the contact form on their website to seek clarity. A couple of weeks later I receive a response, not from my friend, but from her associate. They have not yet started meeting downtown and are presently only gathering in the suburban location.

We are welcome to join them.

The problem is the suburb is northeast of downtown, while we are southwest. It would take an additional fifteen or so minutes to get there. Forty-five minutes is too far of a drive, even to visit a church one time. For us, it’s a missed opportunity to experience their gathering.

The Result

Several months later, I think about this church again. I wonder if their downtown meetings have started. I revisit their website. A picture of the downtown remains, but they have no mention of their downtown vision or meeting there.

I’m disappointed. It’s a missed opportunity.

I understand that dreams can change, and vision can shift. I assume they’ve given up on reaching the downtown urban area, just like many other well-intentioned folks. They are now content in the suburbs. Most people are.

[Read about Church 59 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook 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

Advent Service: Discussion Questions for Church #59

One of the area’s megachurches has intrigued me for years. I once wanted to be part of it. Now I’m not sure. Our first visit came several years ago, long before the original 52 Churches project. Now we return for a fresh look. It’s Advent and they have an Advent service.

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church 59.

As we drive to their facility, I pray for our time there, what we will learn, and what God wants to teach us. Do we remember to pray before church? What is the focus of our prayers?

An usher hands me a bulletin. This isn’t an usher-and-bulletin church. The paper states “Advent Liturgy.” This certainly isn’t a liturgical congregation. How can we engage in a service if it’s different than what we expect?

The subdued playing lacks the excitement I anticipated. They teach us a song in Latin. The timing befuddles me. The words perplex me. When the music doesn’t click, how can we push through and worship God anyway?

I assume the liturgy, restrained playing, and song are something different they’re doing for Advent: changing the familiar into something with a mystical aura. What can we do to breathe freshness into our adoration of Jesus?

During the greeting time we have brief interactions with those sitting around us. But, unable to move, we then stand writhing in awkward isolation while conversations abound around us. How can we best greet those who need it most?

I suspect this Sunday’s teaching is typical and the rest of the service is not. Somber music pulls me down, while liturgy pushes me away. I must work to embrace all forms of worship. How can we help people overcome barriers to encountering God?

“I loved the teaching,” I tell Candy, “but I don’t have the energy to try to plug into a large church.” How can we help people plug into our church without making them work too hard?

[Read about Church 59 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook 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

Church #59: Big, Yet Compelling 

One of the area’s megachurches has intrigued me for years. At one time I was a regular podcast consumer of their weekly messages, which usually featured their founding pastor. A gifted communicator, he conveyed truth with a fresh voice and looked at spirituality from new vantage points.

His perspectives moved me toward the spiritual more that I sought and helped satiate the angst in my soul. At the same time, he opened the door to more questions, good questions. Questions that pointed me to a more holistic pursuit of the God revealed in the Bible.

I longed to attend this church and experience him in person. Our first opportunity to visit came several years ago—long before the original 52 Churches project.

Arriving For Our First Visit

We were out of town and planned our return trip to put us in the right place, at the right time for their second Sunday service. We got up early, grabbed a fast food breakfast, and hopped on the highway.

The balmy spring day, coupled with expectation for what awaited, bolstered my anticipation as the miles ticked off. As we neared our destination, my exuberance, however, yielded to worry.

The drive was taking too long. We’re going to be late! Unexpected Sunday morning traffic didn’t help.

After pushing the speed limit for the last forty-five minutes, we pulled into their parking lot five minutes early. I sighed, relieved it would all work out. But the packed parking lot didn’t have a single open slot.

Frustration mounted as I drove around, praying to find a spot as precious seconds ticked away. At last I saw someone head to their car, departing late from the first service. I drove to their spot, slipping into it as they left.

Relief replaced frustration.

Still, we had a long walk to the building. We strode with purpose to the nearest entrance. The parking lot overwhelmed me, but inside the building my understanding of overwhelmed was redefined. The throng of people pulsated in all directions, providing a maze I could barely navigate.

The church occupied an old mall, with our entrance far from our intended destination. I pushed onward—with my bride in tow—weaving my way between the press of people. Some flowed with me, but most had other intents. 

Eventually the passageway opened, providing three options, with none more obvious than the others. The service should be starting now. My heart thumped. Which direction should we head? I spotted an information booth and knew my answer was nearby.

“Where’s the sanctuary?” Panting and in a rush, I surely wasn’t the friendliest of people.

The woman smiled and gave me a calm, reassuring look. “Is this your first time here?” She wanted to engage me in conversation, something I’d have welcomed if there had been more time.

I nodded, gasping for air. “Where’s the sanctuary?” I knew I was being rude and that the young lady had valuable information to share, but right then I had a different goal.

I think she now understood my time crunch. “That way.” She pointed to her right.

Still trying to catch my breath, I nodded again, able to squeeze out a whispery “thank you” as I spun around and hurried off.

“Feel free to stop by after the service.” Her words chased me as I sped off. I nodded again, fully intending to, but I never did.

The Service

The sanctuary, occupying the former space of the mall’s anchor store, opened before us. I gasped at the enormity of the room, overwhelmed for the third time since our arrival.

I remember no details about the service, only that the music and message were even more than I hoped they would be.

The History

Since that time, the founding pastor left. From what I can piece together, his departure was a combination of controversy, dissention, burnout, and disillusionment.

Thankfully, there was no misconduct or impropriety on his part. It was just people being the flawed vessels that we are, which caused him to leave.

I persisted in listening to the weekly podcasts, learning to embrace the teaching pastor who replaced him. The new pastor was good, too, but in a different way. I enjoyed his messages and learned directly applicable insight.

This, however, was a short-term arrangement, for the new pastor resigned after the board revised his job description. Unwilling to follow this church through another transition, I stopped listening to the podcasts, even though the newest guy was quite good.

Now we have a chance to visit again. This time, we plan to arrive extra early.

The allure this church once had on me is now gone, but I’m still excited to make a return trip. Contrary to what I once thought, however, I now doubt this could become our church home. The pull is gone, the congregation is too large, and it’s not that close to our house.

The rumor is that attendance dropped significantly since our last visit, while other sources claim that’s an exaggeration. Soon we’ll find out.

Our Second Visit

As we drive, I pray for our time there, what we will learn, and what God wants to teach us. I know where they’re located and drive to the spot. Even so, alarm surges through me when I don’t see their sign. My impulse is to flee, but Candy would never stand for that. I must press on. 

There is plenty of room in the parking lot, supporting the claim of lost members. However, this time we approached the building from the other direction. The other side of the parking lot could be fuller. From what I can see, it is.

The building boasts signs for the other tenants but not one for the church. Which entrance do we try? Then I spot their logo over one set of doors—no name, just a logo. People flow in that direction. We join them.

Last time I picked the farthest entrance and worst place to park. This time I found the best entrance and a convenient place to park. This time our approach is quite different. My anticipation builds. 

Inside, people from the first service mingle, some sharing coffee and bagels, others enjoying prolonged conversations. This corridor is wide and easy to navigate. Ahead unfolds the sanctuary, and I don’t even need to look for the information booth.

What overwhelmed me last time, now unfolds with ease. Am I that different now or has the church changed that much? I suspect the answer lies within me. My perception has changed the most.

At the doors to the sanctuary, a man hands me a paper. I don’t remember anyone passing out bulletins last time. This doesn’t seem like an usher-and-bulletin type of church. “You’ll need this for the service,” the guy says with a smile. I wonder why and glance at it.

It’s labeled “Advent Liturgy.” Now I’m really confused. This certainly doesn’t seem like a liturgical church that follows a printed liturgy.

We move into the sanctuary, a large square room. With in-the-round seating, chairs aligned in sections, 360 degrees around the center stage, there is no apparent front. The few times I’ve experienced this configuration, the result was satisfying, though not ideal.

Sometimes the speaker faces you and other times you see their back. I look around for cameras, suspecting to be able to watch a front-on view on screens. I see no cameras, but there are four screens, configured as a box and suspended over the stage.

The room capacity is too massive to even try to estimate, so I’ll simply say it seats thousands. Attendance is sparse when we arrive early. It’s about 95 percent full when the service starts.

Sixteen pillars support the beams that in turn support the roof. Each of the pillars is wrapped in evergreen-like garland and strings of white Christmas lights. It gives a festive feel in a smartly understated way. The only other holiday accessory is a display with the five Christmas candles.

There is no gaudy glitz or overproduced Christmas display here to assault us. This conforms nicely to the minimalist feel of the entire room: open ceiling painted black, block walls painted beige, and the sixteen pillars. A stained-glass display on one wall is the only artwork.

The tables and stations around the stage suggest we’ll have Communion. The peace of God fills me.

A worship team of seven gathers on the stage, hinting that the service is about to start. As they scatter to their positions, I’m dismayed that most will have their backs to me, though I will have a side view of the worship leader. He also plays guitar.

Rounding out the ensemble is another guitarist, a bass guitarist, a drummer (who’s sequestered out of view on the opposite side of the stage), a keyboardist (who breaks out an accordion for one song), and two backup vocalists.

Liturgy

We open with part one of the liturgy, “Gathering God’s People,” followed by the opening song. Their subdued playing lacks the excitement I anticipated. Then they teach us a song, complete with Latin words. Candy knows it, having learned it in Elementary School.

It’s a simple song, but the timing befuddles me, and the words perplex me. This reminds me of criticism once levied against the Catholic Church for conducting Mass in Latin. The people learned to participate but had no idea what they were saying. So it is with me and this irritating little ditty. 

I assume the song, along with the restrained playing and liturgy, is something different they’re doing for Advent: changing what is familiar into something with a mystical aura to highlight the significance of the season.

I appreciate the intent of the liturgy, but for me it falls short of what I expected and leaves me wanting.

Next is part two of the liturgy, “Responding to God’s Presence,” with a canticle (responsive reading), lighting the next Advent candle, more singing, and a liturgical prayer, which employs much repetition, apparently for emphasis.

Then we recite the Lord’s Prayer in unison, followed by a time of greeting. We have brief interactions with those sitting around us and then, unable to move from our seats, we stand there writhing in awkward isolation.

Following this is “Encountering God’s Word,” part three of the liturgy. I suspect that for each Sunday in Advent they examine a different gospel account of Jesus’s birth. Today we read part of Matthew 1. After reciting a prayer for understanding, we listen to the message.

Sermon

The teaching is a real treat. The speaker communicates like few others. With an easy-to-listen-to style, he offers a fresh perspective in a most engaging manner. Enthralling is the best word to describe the experience.

Though I occasionally hear ministers whose message I really appreciate, this one takes things to a higher level. He artfully draws parallels between the birth of Jesus and the birth of Moses. I’m engaged, inspired, and encouraged.

As he expounds on the text and details the striking parallels between Moses and Jesus, he also throws in some notable one-liners:

  • “Religious people like rules. Jesus was most critical with religious people,”
  • “The Bible is more like a family album than a rule book,” and
  • “Denominations are involved in verse wars.” For a final parallel between Moses and Jesus, he connects the Passover celebration with Communion:
  • “Come to the table, and eat what is free.”

Communion

People flow forward to partake in communion, using the intinction method: dipping the bread into the juice.

With multiple stations to choose from, which present options, some gather in groups around self-serve tables and others approach solitary stands for a private encounter, while the rest go to pairs of people who offer the elements in a more personal manner. 

Without intent or discussion, Candy and I veer toward a couple who reverently hold the elements. “The body of Christ, broken for you,” smiles the lady as I take the unleavened cracker.

“And for you,” I nod.

Moving to her partner, he says, “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.” I nod in silence as I wait for Candy to join me. 

We dip our crackers together. “Jesus died for you,” I tell her. Then we eat the symbolic meal as we gaze into each other’s eyes, mindful of Jesus’s awesome love for us. As we do this, music plays and people sing along, with the words displayed overhead.

The music is soft and calm, with a holy reverence permeating the place. 

More Liturgy

The liturgy calls for lighting candles as we sing, but they’ll skip this step today. The minister quips something about fire codes and problems last Sunday. People laugh with understanding. I wish I’d been there to witness what happened.

The final part of the liturgy is “Sending God’s People.” We recite a written prayer and the minister dismisses us.

Heading Out

Candy and I gather our things slowly, hoping for a chance to interact with someone, anyone. To my dismay, all those around us focus on other things. I can’t catch anyone’s attention. We are invisible. We put on our coats with deliberate slowness and drift toward an exit.

Then the woman who served us communion approaches Candy. She introduces herself. Now Candy recognizes her. Their paths occasionally crossed years ago in the city where we used to live and where she still does.

She gladly makes an hour-plus drive every Sunday to attend this church. She’s done so for years because of the sermons. If today’s message is any indication, I understand.

Concluding Discussion

I suspect this Sunday’s teaching was typical and the rest of the service—full of liturgy—was not.

While appreciative for the words I heard, I’m dismayed that we didn’t experience one of their normal services. Somber music pulls me down, while liturgy pushes me away, both things I need to work on overcoming. It took the message to fully engage me.

On the drive home we share our thoughts. “I loved the teaching,” I tell Candy, “but I don’t have the energy to try to plug into a large church.”

“That’s what small groups are for,” she says, reminding me what we’ve discussed before.

“I don’t think I even have the energy for that.” I pause as I try to process the disconnect of my emotions. “But the message was really, really great.”

[See the discussion questions for Church 59, read about Church 58, Church 60, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook 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

Not Welcoming: Discussion Question on Church #58

The website of this large church boasts that we’ll find “a warm and friendly group of people.” If you must claim you’re friendly, you might not be; they might be not welcoming.

Experience tells me they may try but will fall short. 

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church 58.

Always anxious before visiting a church, my gut churns even more. A sharp pain jolts me. My heart thumps. I later learn I had an anxiety attack. How can we best help people who struggle to enter a church building?

Inside, preoccupied people mill about. We walk slowly, giving someone time to approach us. No one does. And we see no one for us to approach. How can we be more aware of people longing for interaction?

When the countdown timer reaches zero the worship team begins to lead us in song. Most of the people, however, aren’t ready to worship. They aren’t even sitting down. How can we better prepare ourselves to worship God?

As I settle into the chorus of an unfamiliar tune, a reunion between two people hijacks my focus. Their loud conversation distracts me well into the third song. How can we balance a desire for community with the goal of worship?

We end up with about three hundred people, half of whom wander in several minutes after the service starts. How can we make sure we arrive on time and not distract others from experiencing God?

The minister leads us in Communion. “Everyone is invited to the table to encounter Jesus in their own way.” This is most inclusive. How can we better include people and help them encounter Jesus?

The insightful message was worth the hour-and-forty-five-minute service, but the rest disappointed me. I didn’t worship God today or experience community. I walk out feeling lonely. This church was not welcoming at all. What can we do to make sure people don’t leave church disappointed or ignored?

[Read about Church 58, Church 59, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook 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

Church #58: Not So Friendly

Today, we head to one of the area’s larger churches. In the past, they had a visible presence, but I’ve not heard much about them recently. Their website boasts that we’ll find “a warm and friendly group of people.”

I bristle. It’s like telling someone you’re humble or you’re honest: if you have to say it, you probably aren’t. Experience tells me they’ll try to be friendly but will fall short. 

Their “First Impressions Team,” sporting blue name badges, will be located “throughout the building” and available to answer questions. I suspect I should dress up, but their website says to “come as you are.” What a relief.

Charismatic Church

I can’t tell it from their website, but I know they’re a charismatic church, part of the Assemblies of God denomination. Even their name obscures that fact. Their website has only one mention of their affiliation, which is in small type at the bottom of one page. 

So many of the charismatic churches we’ve visited have left me disappointed. I wonder what today will bring. I see a photo of their lead pastor.

He’s a thirty-something hipster and not at all what I expect for a church with reputed conservative leanings. With this enigma confronting my mind, my anticipation for their service heightens.

The church facility enjoys a visible presence with easy access from the Interstate. We follow the arrows for visitor parking, but we don’t find it. So we park where everyone else does, glad for a spot under a shade tree, which will keep our car cool on this warm July day.

An Urge to Flee

Always anxious before visiting a new church, today my gut churns even more, and then a sharp pain surprises me. My heart thumps. In near panic, I fight the impulse to flee.

Unaware of my anxiety, Candy presses forward, and I fall in step alongside her. It’s going to be okay. I begin to pray. By the time we reach the door, my breathing is back to normal, and my pulse has slowed. I’ll be all right. Thank God!

Two greeters stand at the nearest entrance. The pair smiles broadly and holds open the doors. “Welcome youngsters!” The man is twenty years or so my elder.

I wonder if this is his attempt at flattery or if we represent youth to this congregation. While we have been the youngest people present at too many churches, I don’t expect that to happen today.

“I don’t know you,” says the woman. Affable, her directness carries an edge.

We admit to being first timers and exchange names. I don’t catch theirs, and I doubt they remember ours. We soldier on in. Despite people milling about, all act preoccupied. Once again, we’re invisible.

First Impressions

We walk slowly, giving people time to approach us, but no one does. And we see no one for us to approach, either. Where are those blue-name-tagged “First Impressions” folks mentioned on their website? We have yet to see one.

Based on the facility and decor, I expect an usher handing out bulletins, but there isn’t one. With nothing else to do, we stroll in and sit down. 

The large sanctuary seats about eight hundred on the main level. The sloped floor and auditorium seating, although contemporary in intent, gives a stoic vibe. There’s also a balcony, but, unlit, it must be closed. With only a smattering of people sitting down, they’re not even close to needing it. 

A countdown timer on dual screens tells us the service will begin in a few minutes. At some churches the counter signals the launch of the service, while at others it serves as a mere guideline, an anticlimactic tease. Today it is both.

Trying to Worship

The worship team of nine begins leading us in song when the display hits zero. Most of the people, however, aren’t ready to worship. Many aren’t even sitting down. Conversations continue as the band plays.

Just as I’m settling into the chorus of an unfamiliar tune, a reunion between two people occurs to my left, with their loud conversation distracting me well into the third song. I want to worship God. I must focus on the words I’m trying to sing. Even so, focus evades me. I can’t worship.

The band boasts three on guitar, with an electric bass, keyboard, and drums. Three vocalists round out the group. The vocals balance nicely with the instruments, though they’ve cranked the overall volume too high.

Most disconcerting, however, is the subwoofer that sends out sound waves to press against my chest with each beat. It causes me discomfort, but Candy can’t feel it.

Eventually we end up with about three hundred people, half of whom wander in well after the service starts. They’re mostly older than us, with few families and no children that I can see.

By the end of the fourth song, the flow reduces to a trickle. Is worshiping God in song not important to them or was this just a prolonged prelude?

After ten minutes, with most everyone finally seated, the lead pastor welcomes us. He’s everything I expected. I can’t wait to hear his message.

Welcome

His open, casual demeanor is geared toward visitors, yet his occasional use of church jargon would leave the unchurched confused. I wonder how much of my speech is likewise salted, despite my efforts to purge my words of Christianese. 

He refers to the bulletin, and I’m irked no one gave me one. I can’t look at the section he mentions or read the additional information. Then he sits down as a series of video announcements play. 

Communion

When he returns to the stage, he leads us in communion. “Everyone is invited to the table,” he says, “to encounter Jesus in their own way.” He explains the process, so we know what to expect. They serve both elements on one platter.

The “bread” is small oyster crackers. As for the clear liquid, I wonder if it’s white wine or clear grape juice. This is the most inclusive communion service I’ve ever experienced.

As a teetotaler, communion wine unsettles me, and I brace myself for its assault. It turns out to be grape juice, but my preoccupation over it fully distracts me from celebrating communion as I want.

Guest Speakers

We sing some more, and then the senior pastor introduces the guest speakers. I groan, hopefully to myself, at this news. I really wanted to hear their pastor, not some missionaries. But theirs isn’t a typical missionary message.

Instead, they share their story of how God prepared their future restoration even when they were in the middle of deep turmoil. 

They are effective communicators. God’s work in their lives is compelling. I jot down three one-liners: “Storms in life are inevitable,” “God is present in the storms,” and “May we see God’s hand in the center of our storms.”

Though the message doesn’t apply to me now, it one day might. I’m glad to know their story of hope.

Wrapping Up the Service

Afterward, the senior pastor returns to the stage and introduces the offering. The ushers pass the offering plates with quick efficiency, yet they somehow miss a few rows. Miffed because they skipped him, one man chases down an usher so he can present his gift.

Having completed his mission, the man returns to his seat while the pastor asks the prayer teams to come forward after the service to be available for prayer. As for himself and the rest of the staff, they will scoot out for their monthly visitor reception. The service ends, and most people scatter.

Post-Service Interaction

Candy thinks she sees someone she knows and goes over to investigate. I tarry, waiting to meet the man at the other end of my row, but he’s already talking to someone else, and it seems it will be a long conversation.

I scan the auditorium but see no one I can approach, and no one comes up to me. Soon I’m standing alone, with a gulf of emptiness around me. Not wanting to look too pathetic, I meander over to Candy. As I do, I look for the prayer teams up front but see no one.

After my wife wraps up her conversation, we head toward the door. 

“We could check out the visitor thing,” says my bride, “but why bother? We’ll never be back.”

I’m relieved. “Good point.”

Service Overview

We didn’t hear their lead pastor speak, but we did hear a worthy message, one that will stay with me. I’m glad to know this couple’s story of God’s provision and restoration.

From that standpoint, the hour-and-forty-five-minute service was worth it, but the rest of our time here left me disappointed. I didn’t worship God today or experience Christian community.

I walk out feeling lonely.

At the door stand two people with blue nametags, the first ones I noticed all morning. At least now I know what the tags look like. Pleasant folks, we say our goodbyes and step out into the warm sunshine.

[Read about Church 57 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook 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

The Worship Team: Discussion Questions for Church #57

During our 52 Churches journey, many people suggested we visit today’s destination, but it was too far away. When the building’s former occupants became too few to carry on, another church took over the building and launched a new gathering.

Consider these six discussion questions about Church 57.

A sign in the drive, too small to easily read, directs traffic in two directions. Unable to read it without stopping, I guess. Do we need to rework our church signs so that they actually help?

After we enter, the worship team begins playing to start the service. This church has a reputation for its many talented musicians, and we’re seeing the results. What is our church’s reputation? What do we need to improve?

A leader asks us to break into groups and discuss the purpose of church. We’re nicely started when she tells everyone to wrap things up. What is the purpose of church? How should it function to meet this intent?

With their minister gone, the intern fills in. He shares a string of Bible verses and intriguing soundbites, but I fail to grasp their connection with the purpose of church. What should we do when the message falls short?

The worship team plays softly to end the service, while the prayer team comes forward to pray for those who seek prayer. How open are we to pray for others at church? And away from church?

When the music starts for the second service, we hustle out of the sanctuary and leave. How can we allow more time for people to experience community after the service and not shoo them away?

Both before and after the service we had rich interaction with people we knew. But I wonder about our reception had no one known us. How can we make our pre-church and post-church interaction more inclusive of people we don’t know?

[Read about Church 57 , Church 58, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook 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

Church #57: the Purpose of Church

Another New Church

During our 52 Churches journey, many people suggested we visit today’s destination, but with their location falling outside our self-imposed ten-mile limit, we skipped them—all the while feeling we were missing something.

When the building’s former occupants became too few to carry on, one of the area’s largest churches (Church #52, “Playing it Safe”) took over the building with the intent of it becoming a second location.

The people they sent there, however, eventually decided to start a new church. Today, we’ll see the results.

First Impressions

The building is visible from the Interstate but not so accessible. It’s hard to get to, with no direct route available, but we finally make it. Once we arrive, there’s a circular drive around the building.

Even though a sign, albeit too small to easily read, directs some traffic left and others right, my instinct is to drive counterclockwise. I think the main entrance is to the left, but I can’t overcome my compulsion to go right. Fortunately, it works out. 

As we walk to the building, I enjoy the warm sun and gentle breeze, a nice counterpoint to our cold, wet weather of the past few days. I spot friends, and we talk a bit before they head off to their small group meeting.

Then we see another acquaintance and chat some more. Once we sit down, a friend of Candy’s comes up and talks at length.

The sanctuary is nearly a cube. Its vaulted ceilings, supported by massive arched wooden beams, provide an impressive, open feel. Up front is a spacious stage, not grand but most functional.

Behind us is a balcony. The main floor has about 250 padded chairs, with about one hundred people using them. 

Five musicians begin to play: two guitars, a bass guitar, drums, and baby grand piano. This signals the service is about to start. Candy and her friend continue talking. I try to listen to their conversation, but I want to take in the music too.

The band’s driving sound draws me. Reminiscent of grunge, an unexpected harmonica provides even more intrigue. This church has a reputation for its many talented musicians, and I’m witnessing the results.

What Is the Purpose of Church?

As the prelude winds down, we start the service in surprising fashion. One of the members gives us an assignment: break into groups and answer the question, “What is the purpose of church?”

I look at the stranger to my left, the only one close enough for a group. I extend my hand. “Hi, I’m Peter.”

“I’m Lisa, and this is my son, Jordan.”

“Hi Lisa. Hi Jordan.” When Jordan ignores me, I turn back to Lisa. 

“How long have you been coming here?” she asks.

“One week!” I flash a crooked grin, something I do well. “We’re visiting.”

She laughs and then becomes serious. “So, what is the purpose of church?”

“This is something I’ve given a lot of thought to.” Despite extensive contemplation, I don’t have a pithy one-liner to share. However, that doesn’t stop me from trying.

I think out loud. “The purpose of church is to form spiritual community.” That’s a good start, but there’s much more: serving, outreach, giving, worshiping God, and mutual edification. The list goes on in my head. 

Then my mind races to what church shouldn’t be. It’s not a place that entertains, serves me, meets my needs, or feeds me spiritually—that’s my job. It’s not a one-hour-a-week meeting or an obligation to fulfill.

I want to say something snarky about sermons, too, but decorum prevails. This is good because I later learn her husband attends seminary.

Our discussion has just started when the leader tells everyone to wrap things up. I tune out the lengthy set of announcements that follow. I’m still thinking about what else I should have said.

Church needs to have an outward focus, but we can’t ignore an inward component either. What I am quite sure of is that true church seldom happens Sunday morning. I’m convinced it’s a mere distraction to what God desires for us to experience. 

Calm down, Peter. Don’t get yourself worked up.

Worship Conundrum

The musicians return to the stage, along with three backup vocalists. The lead vocalist plays piano. Curiously, she has her back to us. Her voice is strong, but I have trouble following since I can’t see her face. Her seven compatriots face the congregation. Why doesn’t she?

If the intent is to remove them as the focus and let God receive our attention—a goal I heartily support—then why are they even on the stage? This so unsettles me that I struggle to sing, failing in my worship of God.

The Big ‘C’ Church

They’re in week two of a series: “The Big ‘C’ Church.” Today’s installment is “The Purpose of Church.” Their minister is gone, with the intern filling in.

He’s comfortable in front of a group, speaking more as a teacher than a preacher. He also attends seminary, and what he shares seems plucked from the classroom. 

He imparts a string of Bible verses and theologically intriguing soundbites, but I fail to grasp their connection with each other or how they relate to the purpose of church. I learned more during our thirty-second group discussion than from him.

The fault could lie with me. Or did he try to cram too much into his talk or do his presentation skills need work? Regardless, I leave still pondering the purpose of church. 

Post Service Interaction

The worship team plays softly to end the service, while the prayer team comes forward to pray for those who seek prayer. I talk more with Lisa. Her husband joins us. He attends the same seminary as today’s speaker. 

“What do you plan to do when you graduate?” I ask.

“I’m willing to go wherever God sends me and do whatever he asks.” Then he grows somber. “So far, I don’t know.”

“What would you like to do?”

“Well, I don’t want to preach. I’m leaning toward small groups or discipleship ministry. Or ministry that involves one-on-one interaction. I’m waiting for God’s direction.”

I nod. “Usually, he only tells us one step at a time.”

He smiles in agreement. 

Before he heads out, I bless him and his studies.

I find another friend. I sense I’m supposed to pray for him. He wants prayer, but not in the area I assumed. He receives my prayers for his future and for wisdom.

The second service is about to begin. Candy’s waiting for me. When the music starts, we hustle out of the sanctuary.

Reflections

We had rich interaction with people before and after the service. Yet they were people we knew. I wonder about our reception had we not known anyone.

Our only other conversation was with Lisa and her husband, something that may not have happened if not for the assignment at the beginning of the service. 

I think we need to return to better understand this church. I suspect they have much to offer, but I don’t feel any compelling reason to come back and find out.

[See the discussion questions for Church 57, read about Church 56, Church 58, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook 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 for Church 56: A New Approach to Church

During 52 Churches, two churches planned to simultaneously shut down for a few months and then reopen as a new, merged entity. But it took much longer. At last we can visit. I call this process a reboot. Others might call it a church launch. Regardless, it’s new approach to church.

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church 56 and their new approach to church.

The large parking lot has ample room. People mill about outside, including two greeters, bantering with all who pass. One opens the door for us. What initial impression does our church make when people arrive?

I’ve been in this building before. Gone are the pews, organ, and formal elements. In their place are padded chairs and a contemporary altar. What once approached stodgy is now chic. Subdued lighting adds to the allure. What is our sanctuary’s ambience? What should change?

Communion is open to “anyone who acknowledges Jesus Christ as the risen Savior.” Children are welcome to take part, too, as determined by their parents or caregivers. How well does our church convey Communion expectations?

It’s Mother’s Day, and they distribute carnations to every female, “honoring all women.” This nicely avoids the risk of inadvertently disregarding those who desperately long to be moms but aren’t, can’t, or once were. What changes should our churches make to be more inclusive?

The children come forward for a blessing. The pastor says, “Let’s talk to Jesus.” I appreciate his simple, kid-appropriate reminder of what prayer is. What can we do to keep our faith practices fresh?

The minister says, “Giving is an act of worship.” As a teen I assumed this was a euphemism for “give us your money.” Now it clicks with me. How can we better connect our giving with our worship?

Despite updates to the sanctuary, the service unfolds like most others. They merely house typical expectations in a new package. Are our church’s attempts to be relevant mere show or significant?

Overall, I enjoyed their new approach to church and can learn much from it.

[Read about Church 56, Church 57, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook 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

Church #56: The Reboot

We planned to visit this congregation for 52 Churches but couldn’t—because they didn’t exist then.

Back then, two churches—one we skipped and one we visited (Church #25, “Embarking on a Metamorphosis”)—planned to simultaneously shut down for a few months and then reopen as a new, merged entity.

It took more than a few months, and they didn’t start their services until after the original 52 Churches project ended. 

As they moved forward, the process went by various names, but for simplicity I’m calling it a reboot. Along the way, two other churches joined in, sending people and support. Today, we’ll see the results, eight months after their launch.

The large parking lot has ample room, but it also looks full. It’s a nice sight. A warm day, people mill about outside, including two greeters by the entrance, bantering with all who pass. One opens the door for us. 

Inside is a bustle of activity, almost chaotic—at least to the uninitiated. As our eyes transition from outdoor glare to indoor normal, we pause to take in everything. There’s a nursery check-in station, a table for missions, and another for visitors, but we don’t make it that far.

Nametags

A woman greets us. We connect with each other, but, as our conversation wanes, I wonder what to do next.

“Oh, nametags,” she says. “Do you want a nametag?”

“That’d be great.” But I’m not sure she hears me. 

“We all wear nametags here.” She gestures to her own and guides us to the nametag table. By the time we finish, she’s disappeared, and a line has formed behind us.

With no room in the lobby to mingle, we have two choices. We can turn right to the fellowship hall and socialize, or head into the sanctuary and sit. We didn’t arrive as early as I wanted. The service should start in a couple of minutes, so we walk straight ahead and choose our seats.

Waiting to Begin

The floorplan of the facility remains the same. However, the lobby received a makeover, and the sanctuary underwent a complete transformation.

Gone are the pews, organ, and more formal elements. In their place are padded chairs for a couple hundred, a stage for the musicians, and a contemporary altar. What once approached stodgy is now chic. Subdued lighting adds to the allure. I’m quite sure something special awaits us.

A countdown clock, displayed on dual screens, implies the service will begin in two minutes and thirty-two seconds. While some churches employ this as an absolute trigger to launch the service, for others it’s a mere guide. Based on how organized they are, I expect the first, and I’m correct.

With twenty seconds remaining, the worship team starts playing softly. There are two on guitars, one who’s also the lead vocalist, another patting the congas, and a fourth who sings backup vocals. Their sound is light contemporary.

When the singing starts, a few people stand but most don’t. Slowly, others rise to join them and by the end of the first verse, most are standing, including Candy and me.

Changing the order today, communion—something they do every Sunday—follows.

Celebrating Communion

The program—they’re careful to not call it a bulletin—says communion is open to “anyone who acknowledges Jesus Christ as the risen Savior.” Children are welcome to take part, too, as determined by their parents or caregivers. 

In the pre-communion teaching, the minister, a thirty-something hipster, talks about mercy and grace. Mercy is not receiving the punishment we deserve, while grace is receiving the good that we don’t deserve.

I like these simple explanations and use them often, but I’ve never contemplated them during communion. As I do, I realize how perfectly they fit. Jesus exemplifies both mercy and grace. Communion celebrates this.

There are two communion stations, one up front and one in back, to serve the 160 or so present. The method is to dip the bread in the juice and eat, either at the communion station or later in our seats. As the worship team plays, we may go up whenever we want, but for most that means right away.

Candy and I sit, conspicuous by our inaction, as the throng surges forward. I try to concentrate on what I’m about to do, but as the only people still sitting, most of my effort focuses on not fidgeting. I sense my bride is anxious too.

After most of the people finish, we get in line. When it’s her turn, Candy breaks off some bread, while the man holding the cup says something appropriate. 

Candy dips her bread and pauses. Normally, we celebrate communion as a couple, eating it together as I declare Jesus’s gift to her while she agrees. When it’s my turn, the man says something different to me. Perplexed, I mumble a disconnected response.

I dip my bread and Candy waits for me to say something. Today no words come, and I eat the bread without her. She follows. She seems disappointed over my break from our practice. She should be. I know I am. 

Once again, I fail to fully embrace the wonder of what Jesus did. I went through the motions of communion, but failed to commune with God or my wife. We were the last to take communion, and now I just want to sit as quickly as possible.

Mother’s Day and Children

I shake off my failure at communion as a children’s choir sings. There are twelve girls and one boy. Today is Mother’s Day, though the song doesn’t follow that theme, but I’m not really listening. I’m more taken in by the animated antics of their leader.

Bubbling with expression, she leads them well—and entertains me. Afterward, they distribute carnations to all females, “honoring all women.” This nicely avoids the risk of having a celebration of mothers that inadvertently disregards those who desperately long to be moms but aren’t.

Candy doesn’t like carnations, but she accepts a red one. 

Then all the children come forward for a blessing. The pastor says, “Let’s talk to Jesus.” I appreciate his simple, kid-appropriate reminder of what prayer is. Then the congregation sings “Jesus Loves Me” as the kids head off for their classes.

Giving as Worship

For the offering, the minister reminds us, “Giving is an act of worship.” This again strikes me as profound, just as it did the first time I heard it at Church #13 (“A Dedicated Pastor Team”).

Even so, every Sunday during my teens, I heard the phrase “Let us worship God with our tithes and offerings.” It meant nothing to me then. I assumed it was merely a polite euphemism for “give us your money.”

I understood the offering as merely a way to fund the church, and I missed it as worship.

The Importance of Rest

The church is in the middle of a series about the importance of rest. Today’s message is “Abide, Grow, Fruit, Prune,” based on John 15:1–8. The goal is to produce fruit: the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22–23), good deeds, and transformation.

The minister asks, “Are you bearing fruit?” As the text reminds us, apart from God we can do nothing (John 15:5). Abiding will produce fruit. Rest will result in good works. We need to “find a place of rest,” says the pastor.

We will have “cycles of pruning and of growing.” He ends with the advice “to rest in Christ.”

The worship team plays softly as we exit the sanctuary. One man introduces us to some of his friends. He’s outgoing, with an engaging personality. We talk at length.

Connecting and Fellowship

He says sometimes he’s a greeter. Other times his role is to mingle and interact with visitors. Today he has the day off.

“You’re doing it anyway!”

He smiles. “Yes, I guess I am.” 

“When you’re serving where you should be, it comes naturally and gives life.”

He nods, and Candy adds, “But trying to serve in the wrong place is never good.” We acknowledge her wisdom.

Eventually our conversation wraps up. As I turn to leave, I spot the worship team at the communion table serving themselves communion. It’s beautiful.

Reflections

Despite the changes made in the facility’s appearance, the service unfolded like most others. They merely housed typical expectations in a new package, updating the form but not the format.

We exit the sanctuary and, once again in the lobby, we have two choices. Head to our car or veer into the fellowship hall for food and more conversation. We stay and enjoy both.

For an eight-month-old church, they have much to offer: many who are involved, several programs and areas to serve, and great community. May God continue to bless them on their reboot.

[See the discussion questions for Church 56, read about Church 55, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook 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 for Church #55: A Time of Sharing

After 52 Churches ended, a new church launched in our area. Their primary marketing was yard signs, which promoted a fresh approach to church. With a last-minute opening in our schedule, we have an opportunity to visit and experience a great time of sharing. 

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church 55.

Their Facebook page contains recent updates, but they don’t mention service times or a schedule beyond their first two meetings several months ago. What can we do to make sure we provide potential visitors with up-to-date information?

They call themselves nondenominational, but their website—which Candy eventually finds—describes a church that sounds most evangelical. Why not just say they’re evangelical? Do the labels we use for our church accurately reflect who we are?

We’re the oldest people present, with kids, teens, and younger adults all represented. After visiting many churches with older congregations, this is a pleasant change. What age groups does our church cater to? What does this say about our focus and future?

They start fifteen minutes late. I’m not sure if this is their norm or because of harsh weather. When does our church service actually begin? What does this communicate to visitors?

At many churches a time of sharing approaches gossip or bragging. Not so here. The pain they share is not just a lament but also a testimony, teaching and encouraging others. How can we publicly share our needs and still edify the church?

They tell us many members have a charismatic background, but they’re careful to avoid excess, following Paul’s teaching (1 Corinthians 14:27–28). How can we better ground our church in what the Bible teaches?

Their leader follows Paul’s example of working his trade to provide for ministry (Acts 18:2–3). I like not expecting paid clergy to serve members but for members to minister to each other. How well do we do at ministering to one another?

Overall, we have a great time of sharing at this church.

[Read about Church 55 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook 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.