Categories
Visiting Churches

Mother’s Day, Ascension Sunday, & Baby Dedications

This nontypical, nondenominational church enjoys a good amount of positive local buzz. Today is Mother’s Day. I’m apprehensive because visiting a church on a holiday never provides a typical experience.

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church 64.

Two young women at the entrance to the parking lot smile and wave as we pull in. What a nice greeting. What can we do at our church to help make a great first impression on others as they arrive?

Inside the facility I spot a lady wearing a T-shirt that suggests she’s a greeter. Her broad smile beckons me. I ask for directions, and she’s most helpful. When people look at us, do we appear approachable or repelling? 

With in-the-round seating, the worship team faces each other to get cues from their leader. Those closest have their backs to us. Though disconcerting, it’s less like a performance and more worshipful. How can we remember church isn’t a concert?

Today’s also Ascension Sunday. With the focus on mothers, singing about Jesus’s resurrection is the closest we’ll get to acknowledging his ascension. What does Jesus’s return to heaven mean? How can we better celebrate his ascension?

They conduct several baby dedications, striking a nice balance between the ceremony and celebrating the child, without dragging it into a too-long ritual. While parents take the lead in raising their kids, how can we better support their efforts? 

The minister wraps up with an altar call of sorts, but he drones on, and I soon tune him out. How can we keep our worship fresh and avoid the rut of repetition in our church services?

A big church, they offer excellent teaching and music, with many programs and service opportunities, but they struggle providing community and connection. I leave spiritually full and emotionally hungry. How can we help people leave church spiritually and emotionally filled?

This large church held baby dedications on this Mother’s Day and Ascension Sunday. They offered much, except for connection.

[Read about Church 64 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 #64: Is Bigger Always Better?

It’s been three months since visiting the last church. We’ve slipped back into the routine of our own church, yet my unrest over going there remains strong.

A Last Minute Change

“Do you want to go to a different church today?” My bride’s words surprise me. She just crawled out of bed and, though awake, she seldom talks to me for the first hour or so each morning. Her unusual behavior grabs my attention.

“Where?”

She tells me the name. I’m familiar with it: a nontypical, nondenominational church with a good amount of positive local buzz. It’s a couple of towns away but not that far of a drive. I’m not interested in going, but I don’t say so. “Why?”

“I’m curious. I drive by it all the time. Also, we know three couples who go there.” She lists them.

I’ve been up for a few hours, moving through my Sunday morning routine of writing, exercise, and Bible study. Well, that’s my routine for every morning, but on Sunday I write next week’s blog posts about the Bible and spirituality, a fitting pre-church focus.

I’m open for a break, any break. Yet I hesitate. Already I feel a pang over not seeing my friends at church. I’m also miffed at her springing this on me at the last minute, or what seems the last minute.

Had I known last night, I would have adjusted my morning schedule so I could better accommodate visiting this church.

“Yes,” I say after a too-long pause, “but how about some other Sunday?” 

Her silence tells me “No.”

“Do you know what time their services are?”

“Nine and eleven.” 

Ah, she’d been thinking about this for a while. “I wish you would have told me sooner. You know I struggle with spur-of-the-moment changes.” If I drop everything and shower, we could barely make the 9:00 a.m. service. The 11:00 a.m. service, however, will give me an extra thirty minutes. “Nine is out. We can do eleven.”

She nods her agreement.

“How long will it take to get there?”

“Thirty minutes will give us enough time.”

Then I remember. “Today is Mother’s Day.

Let’s not go on a special Sunday.” We recount the last two Mother’s Days, both visiting churches (Church #5, Catholics are Christians Too and Church #56, The Reboot).

Those experiences weren’t bad, but their special focus of the day was distracting.

Then Candy reminds me of the church we visited on Father’s Day (Church #10, A Special Father’s Day Message). Agonizing best describes that experience. I shudder at the recollection. But I suspect any Sunday would have been a rough time to visit that church.

She dismisses my concern, and I acquiesce to her suggestion.

Listening Online

Several years ago, a friend who attends church there encouraged me to listen to podcasts of their sermons. Excited for the opportunity, I downloaded the most recent message and listened to it on my iPod a few days later. 

The minister was an engaging teacher, but his topic was most difficult: child pornography. I struggled as I listened, glad for the privacy my earbuds offered. As I recall, he talked about a documentary on this despicable evil.

What I remember too vividly was his description of child pornographers shooting one scene. His details were not explicit, but the situation he depicted vexed me so much that I became ill. The memory of what he described torments me to this day.

That was the only podcast I listened to from this church.

I don’t know the name of that minister or if he’s still there, but the image of this deplorable scene is seared into my mind and firmly associated with this church. Hence, I’m apprehensive about going there.

A 30-Minute Drive

We chat on the drive there, forgetting to pray until we spot their building, “God, be with us at church,” I say in haste. “Amen.”

Two young women, stationed at the entrance to the parking lot, smile and wave as we drive past. What a nice greeting. We pull into the lot, but there is no one to direct traffic.

Some people are still leaving from the first service. I see no open spots. I make a quick turn away from the building and head for what I hope will be available parking spaces.

We park with ease and follow the flow of people to entrance #2. Greeters hold the doors open, giving us inviting smiles and a brochure as we walk into the facility.

A large open area, reminiscent of Church #51 (The Megachurch: A Grand and Welcoming Experience), steals my breath. People move in all directions toward a myriad of options, with no clear flow pointing us to the sanctuary.

My head bobbles, trying in vain to determine the correct direction to head.

A Helpful Greeter

I spot a lady sporting a name tag and wearing a T-shirt that suggests she’s a greeter. Her broad smile beckons me. There’s no point in pretending we know what we’re doing.

“This is overwhelming,” I tell her. “Which way do we go?” 

“That depends what you’re looking for,” she says with a playful jab.

“For the service,” I clarify, trying to smile and not look like an ogre.

She points to her right, and I nod.

“Coffee?” Candy asks.

“Sure,” she smiles and points in the opposite direction. “And the bathrooms are back there,” she gestures to the vast space behind her.

“That’s everything we need to know.” I thank her for her assistance and turn toward the sanctuary, but Candy is already heading for the coffee. I fall in behind her.

There are no baristas to make a custom concoction, but there is an array of air pots with a nice range of self-serve options. She makes her selection and stirs in the desired additives. Now we can go sit down.

In the Round Seating

The worship space is square, with the stage in the center of the room, reminding us of Church #59 (Big, Yet Compelling), though not as huge. It seats a thousand or so. It’s hard to estimate, having just walked in. I could easily be off by 50 percent.

With seating in the round, I try to make a split-second decision of the optimum place to sit. It’s pointless, so we head to some empty chairs. While my goal is to sit quickly and not call attention to myself, Candy usually takes a more deliberate approach to seat selection.

The sound booth is opposite us and a digital clock, I assume to keep the minister on schedule, reveals it’s 11:00. It’s time to start, yet nothing happens.

The Worship Team

The worship team gathers. We spot one of our friends on bass. I count eight on the team: two lead vocalists also on guitars, two backup vocalists, a keyboardist, a drummer, a third guitarist, and our friend on bass guitar.

About five minutes late, with the place now packed, the music swells. With a pleasing rock vibe, they launch into the first song. The worship team faces each other, which means those closest have their backs to us.

They need to do this to get their cues from their leader. It’s disconcerting, but it makes their playing less of a performance and more like the worship service it’s supposed to be.

The words to this unfamiliar song appear on four screens, connected to form a box suspended over the stage.

The angle is too sharp to work well with my bifocals, and I eventually give up trying to sing along, which for me is more akin to mouthing the words, since I don’t know the tune and the timing is irregular.

The second song is unfamiliar too. I fight an uncomfortable self-consciousness for standing there mute while most others are engaged in spirited worship, swaying to the rhythm and raising their hands in praise.

I try to focus on the words as they’re sung, so I can at least worship God in my mind and spirit. I think I’ve heard the third song before, yet not enough that I can sing along.

Eventually I pick up the chorus: “The Resurrected King is resurrecting me.” Thank you, Jesus. (I later discover online that we were singing “Resurrecting” by Elevation Worship.)

Mother’s Day and Ascension Sunday

Not only is today Mother’s Day, it’s also Ascension Sunday. I expect a focus on moms and wonder if Jesus’s ascension into Heaven will receive any mention at all.

Since Jesus returned to Heaven forty days after he resurrected from the dead, that makes the actual day last Thursday, known as Ascension Thursday. For convenience sake, the church calendar moves the acknowledgement to the Sunday after, Ascension Sunday.

Most churches I’ve attended skip this completely, yet some mention it in passing. Today, singing about Jesus’s resurrection is the closest we will get to acknowledging his ascension.

The opening song set concludes and moves into a video about a local homeless outreach, but I miss the explanation as to why they play it. Announcements follow the video and then a prayer for moms.

With a focus on celebrating motherhood, the prayer also admits this day is difficult for some, covering those who want to be moms and can’t, as well as those who were moms and no longer are. The concluding “Amen” wraps up our salute to moms. 

Next they do eight baby dedications, striking the right balance between the dedication and celebrating the child, without dragging it into a too-long ceremony.

The parents make their pledge to take the lead in raising their kids, then the families and friends add their support, and finally the entire congregation stands to acknowledge their role. 

Now we return to their regular schedule. 

Greeting Time and Questions

Since we’re already standing, the greeting time follows. Most people engage with one another. However, only one person gives us any attention, and no one near us seems approachable.

Candy asks me the icebreaker questions posited on the screens, then I reciprocate. We work through all the suggested questions, yet the time grinds on. After visiting so many churches we’re used to the awkwardness of most mid-service greetings, yet they remain agonizing. 

Heroes

In the middle of a series titled “Heroes,” this church is examining the heroes of faith as summarized in Hebrews 11. Today we address Abel, who gave a better offering to God than his brother, Cain, Genesis 4:1–7

“How are we handling our resources?” the pastor asks. Cain gave some of his produce to God—not the first, not the best, and not extravagantly—just some. Abel gave the best of what he had. And he received God’s favor. 

“What does it mean to have God’s favor?” Our leader guides us to 2 Corinthians 9:6–10 about sowing generously and being a cheerful giver. The Mother’s Day message on Abel morphs into a sermon about giving. “Joyful generosity,” says the minister, “produces generous blessing.”

Then he clarifies that the blessing may not be financial. He shares two recent examples from their church family, in which a commitment to give to God, despite hardship, resulted in financial blessing. Apparently he didn’t have any examples of non-financial blessings to share.

“Cain gives because he is religious. It’s a transaction.” Instead, God wants relationship and isn’t so interested in us “doing stuff,” he explains. 

Alter Call of Sorts

At this point he slides into an altar call of sorts, but instead of coming forward, people should make a note of their decision on the connection card or go to the “Getting Started” area after the service.

He drones on, and I soon tune him out, conditioned to do so a long time ago during a five-year stint at an ultraconservative Baptist church. I shudder at the memory. 

Next they take the offering, a traditional passing of the plates in this otherwise not-so-traditional setting. Guests are exempt from giving. A closing song concludes the service.

We chat briefly with our bass-playing friend, and then he heads off to spend time with his mom. Not spotting any of our other friends and with no one approaching us or appearing approachable, we head out.

The Debrief

On the way home we debrief. “It was a nice break,” I tell Candy. “The music was definitely better than we’re used to.” The sermon also gives me something to think about.

In addition to the teaching about the Bible (which we normally have), I also received encouragement and application (which we normally don’t have).

Candy agrees about the music. “But I wouldn’t want a steady diet of it.” That ends our discussion.

Aside from the people assigned to welcome our arrival and our friend we talked to afterward, we only had the briefest interaction with one other person, which happened during the obligatory greeting time. 

As a big church, they offer excellence in their teaching and music, with an array of programs and service opportunities. However, they struggle to offer community and connection. Such is the case in most large churches. I still wonder if bigger is always better.

I leave spiritually filled and emotionally hungry. 

[See the discussion questions for Church 64, read about Church 63, 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

Faith Promise Sunday: Church #63

When my wife started a new job, she learned one of her coworkers goes to a church near the one we normally attend. With a non-church sounding name, I’m intrigued. We decide to visit.

As we drive to this church, I’m so glad for a reprieve from ours and the pointless messages I endure for the sake of community. Even so, I’ll miss seeing the people there. Should the focus of church be on the message or on community?

Once inside the building we weave our way through people, all engaged in conversation with friends—and too busy to notice us. How do we respond when we see someone we don’t know? How should we react?

In the sanctuary, Candy spots her coworker and waves. His face beams. He beckons us. “I’m so glad you’re here.” He is truly overjoyed to see us. How happy are we when a friend shows up unexpectedly at church?

This man and his wife make us feel so welcomed. Though everyone in a church can greet visitors, some people have a real gift for hospitality. How can we best do our part to embrace people at church? 

We learn that this is “Faith Promise Sunday,” so they won’t have a sermon. The lack of a lecture overjoys me. Do we feel we need to hear a message for church to take place?

Instead of a message, they explain the six ministries they support. Then members from the missions committee pray for these organizations and people. When they announce the pledge total, the congregation celebrates. How does our church celebrate missions?

Hearing about the work of God’s people to share his love fed my soul. I’m encouraged by a church that treats missions seriously and not as a minor add-on to a normally cash-strapped budget. Do we make missions a priority?

This church didn’t have a sermon when we visited. Instead, they talked about the missions they supported on this Faith Promise Sunday.

Read more about Church #63 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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

We Don’t Need No Sermon: Visiting Church #63

A few months ago, my wife started a new job. One of her coworkers goes to a church near the one we normally attend. “I’d like to visit it sometime,” she says, catching me off guard. With a non-church sounding name, I’m intrigued. 

Her openness to go there surprises me. “Are you looking to change churches?”

Taking a Break

“I just want to visit once,” she says with a decided tone. “Besides, you need a break from our church.”

She is right. I so need a break. I long for a respite from their too-long, too-pointless sermons. Once again, I find myself enduring the church service so I can enjoy church camaraderie afterward.

The music at our current church is okay. I persist in it as an act of worship. I sing and occasionally lift my hands to honor God, but not because I necessarily like the selections or the playing.

I believe I honor God with my physical act of worship, even though my mind is seldom engaged. I do it for him, not because I feel like it.

Their hour-long sermons, however, seem pointless. Our teaching elder is a gifted scholar with an occasional quirk in his delivery when he diverges from his notes. My beef is that he only teaches.

He gives no application. It’s an info dump, sans meaningful spiritual relevance. At best it’s an entertaining lecture. I leave each Sunday no closer to God than when I arrived. I head home with no challenge to live differently or conviction to change or correct anything. 

His messages tell me about the Bible, but his words don’t draw me to God. “Knowledge puffs up,” Paul writes to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8:1). I fear we are a puffy church, self-satisfied over the depth of our Bible knowledge. 

Mostly he reminds me of what I already know. More pointedly, his ultra-conservative theology often chafes at my soul. Too often I anticipate where he is headed and whisper emphatically, “No, no, no!” 

Despite my silent warning, he goes there anyway. He ends up where I think he shouldn’t, espousing a view of God I don’t see much support for in the Bible as much as emanating from blindly following accepted fundamental principles. I fear I will one day protest too loudly.

“You’ve had a bad attitude for the past two weeks,” my wife reminds me.

She’s right, of course. On our drive to church the past few weeks I sigh and sometimes murmur that I can’t bear the thought of sitting through another sermon. Then we pray. And later I do what I don’t want to do: listen to another download of Bible knowledge without a greater purpose.

A break from this will be good.

As we drive to visit the church Candy’s coworker attends, I’m so glad for a reprieve from ours and the pointless lecture. Even so, I will miss seeing the people there.

A pang of guilt stabs my heart. It’s like I’m cheating on my church by seeing another one. I feel unfaithful. I am unworthy of their friendship.

First Impressions

We could drive past our church to get to this one, but I choose a different route. We pull into the parking lot to see a typical-looking church building, despite their nonconventional name. I expected something different.

The parking lot appears mostly full, and I pull into an open spot next to the dumpster. As we walk to the building, I see two and then four spots reserved for visitors. All are empty.

We can easily tell where to enter the building, but once inside we don’t know where to go. A few people cautiously greet us. They know we aren’t regulars, but at the same time they aren’t sure if we’ve visited before or if this might be our first time.

I ask one of them where the sanctuary is. She uses her head to point us in the right direction, which is opposite of what I assumed. We weave our way through the people, all engaged in conversation with friends—and too busy to notice us. 

Instead of standing around and looking pathetic, we open the closed doors of the sanctuary. It’s an octagon-shaped space with a high sloped ceiling converging in the center. Block walls and impressive wooden beams give an open feel.

Oscillating fans mounted on the walls tell me they lack air conditioning. Today that doesn’t matter. Despite warm weather for this time of year, we’re still within winter’s final grasp.

With padded pews arranged in four sections, the room accommodates three to four hundred. “Pick any place you want,” I whisper to Candy, “but please not too far toward the front.”

A Grand Welcome

Instead of moving, she stops to scan the room. Off to the side, she spots her coworker and waves. He beckons us. His face beams.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” he smiles. He is truly overjoyed to see us. He introduces us to some friends and invites us to sit with his family in their usual spot, even though they aren’t yet here. “Sharon will be so surprised to see you.”

A gracious man, we feel most welcomed. Then he excuses himself and joins the worship team gathering on the stage.

As predicted, his wife is indeed surprised to see us. She is as excited as he. They both make us feel so welcomed, so embraced, so loved.

It’s an ability I don’t have, and I’ve seldom seen people who wield this skill of hospitality so adeptly as this couple. Though everyone in a church can, and should, greet visitors, some people have a real gift for it. 

Raising Money for Missions

We learn that this is “Faith Promise Sunday,” so they won’t have a sermon. The lack of a sermon overjoys me, yet I wonder, what will fill the time? Is this their annual budget drive?

We once visited a church when they did this (Church #32, “Commitment Sunday and Celebration”), securing pledges for the upcoming year. They even brought in a heavy hitter to lead the fund drive and maximize the pledges.

Though it lacked an emotion-laden plea, I still squirmed a time or two. Will today be like that? I’ll need to wait to find out because we have an opening song set first.

A contemporary team leads us in song: the song leader on guitar, two female backup vocals, bass guitar, keys, drums, and Candy’s coworker on percussion. They have a light rock sound, though it’s obvious the lead guitarist is holding back—way back.

Some of the songs are new to us, but even the familiar ones move at a slower pace than I like, so I struggle to sing along.

The backup vocalists occasionally raise their hands in praise, but no one else does in the congregation of about one hundred. (I see only adults, so the kids must be in their own program.)

Not wanting to confront their practices, I clasp my hands behind my back to prevent any spontaneous wayward movement. Besides, I don’t want to call attention to myself.

Then one of their three pastors explains Faith Promise Sunday, an event they’ve been moving toward for the past couple of weeks. This is for missions, not their general fund.

Distinguishing it from a tithe, this is an above-and-beyond commitment to support missions work. Alluding ever so briefly to 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, he gives biblical precedence for setting aside money each week to support those who do missionary work.

By asking for a faith pledge they will be able to let each of the six groups they support know how much money they plan to give them for the year. Ushers pass offering plates to collect the pledges.

Supported Ministries

With this as a backdrop, they spend the next forty-five minutes or so explaining each of these ministries. They start with three local ones.

The first is an after-school program with a structured time for homework, tutoring, literacy, recreation, and spiritual expression. It recently relocated to this facility. For the first time, its two staff members can receive a paycheck.

The second local ministry is an urban church, which also just relocated. They now have more space, at a lower cost, for their growing ministry.

The third is a husband-wife team with Youth for Christ. Not having local connections, they struggle to raise support.

For the three non-local missions, the first is in the US, a couple of states away. It’s a Christian youth home, which struggled for a while when they refused to capitulate to their state’s insistence that they do not mention faith or God. Having found a workaround solution, their program is again full. The church also sends mission teams there to help.

Next is a program in the UK, part of a global organization that works with schools, community projects, businesses, and churches to repurpose churches with a focus on mission, discipleship, and study.

Rounding out the six is a missionary couple covertly working in a Muslim country, one closed to missionaries. Theirs is a solitary effort, with no local community support or Christian connections. They struggle emotionally.

Lay members of the missions committee come up to pray for these organizations and people. Then they announce the pledge total: $44,900. The congregation celebrates this generous commitment. We close with another song set, this one much shorter.

The associate pastor dismisses us with little fanfare.

No Sermon

“We’re sorry you didn’t get to hear a sermon,” we hear more than once. 

I’m not sorry at all. I heard what I needed.

The work of God’s people to share his love, both locally and around the world, fed my soul. I find encouragement from a church that treats missions seriously and not as a minor add-on to a normally cash-strapped budget.

As far as church services go, this was one of the best I’ve experienced in months.

As a bonus, our friends invite us to their house for a Sunday meal. It is so good—and so right—to spend time with other followers of Jesus in intentional community.

[See the discussion questions for Church 63, read about Church 62, Church 64, 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

A Church on Every Corner: Discussing Church #62

It’s a nondenominational church plant, with the sending congregation residing several states away. It’s curious that an out-of-state church would launch a ministry in an area noted for its religious reputation, with “a church on every corner.” 

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church #62, in an area that seems to have a church on every corner.

They meet in a school building, providing a more approachable, less intimidating environment for unchurched people. What is our perspective for having church in a traditional space? How open are we for a more visitor-friendly alternative?

When we arrive, a man standing at the parking lot’s edge greets us with enthusiasm. What a wonderful welcome. How aware are we that creating a good first impression occurs before people walk inside?

Another man greets us, opening the door with a gracious flourish. The friendly reception of these two men is infectious. I can’t wait to experience church here. What can we do to build anticipation for our church services?

To start the service they welcome everyone, asking first-time visitors to raise their hands. Many do. Normally I hate this practice, but with many visitors, I don’t feel singled out. How can we celebrate visitors without making them squirm? 

When the associate pastor announces the offering, he stresses it’s only for regulars, not visitors. This helps counter the common criticism that churches only want our money. Which example does our church follow? 

“We need to attack the lie that you can have it all,” the teaching pastor says. “It’s not possible. Something needs to give.” How can we find God-honoring contentment? How can we encourage others to do the same?

Despite the many churches in the area, the evident excitement and impressive attendance at this church suggests there’s room for one more. Should we associate church attendance and growth rates with God’s approval? Or might size be our perspective?

[Read about Church #62 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 #62: Off to a Great Start

I notice a church sign in front of a school. It’s not been there before. I’m quite sure. I’m partial to churches that meet in nontraditional spaces. They are more likely to be nontraditional in their approach to God, being spiritually invigorating and providing a breath of freshness.

As a bonus, they don’t have the hassle of a building to distract them or the expense of a monthly mortgage payment to weigh down their budget. I have high expectations. Church is at 10 a.m.

It’s a new church, a nondenominational church plant, with the congregation that sent them residing several states away. It’s curious that an out-of-state church would plant one in an area noted for its religious reputation, with “a church on every corner.” Even so, they did just that.

First Impressions

The day is mild and sunny. A light breeze presents the perfect combination of weather, belying the norm for an August day in southwest Michigan. We arrive ten minutes early. The parking lot is about half full.

A man stands along the walk at the parking lot’s edge. He doesn’t need to direct us to the entrance because there is only one set of doors. A most gregarious fellow, he is there to greet us.

What a wonderful welcome to church. With his broad smile and easy banter, we immediately feel at ease. His laidback embrace lets me know our experience here will be a good one.

At the door stands another man. He sports a red T-shirt, asking the question: “How can I serve you?” With an engaging smile, he welcomes us, opening the door with a gracious flourish. The friendly reception of these two men is infectious. I can’t wait to experience church here.

Our greeting isn’t over. Just inside stand a couple, also wearing red T-shirts. They further welcome us. We exchange names and they repeat ours, making a pointed effort to remember them.

Excited to see us, we talk a bit. Among other things, they tell us about the coffee and snacks that await us inside. Having never received such a grand welcome when visiting a church, we move into the meeting space.

Meeting Space

The room is curious, more resembling a church than a school. It is a modern space, about square, with a permanent stage in one corner. The flat floor hints that this is an all-purpose room, albeit now nicely carpeted and smartly finished.

An out-of-place scoreboard hangs high on one wall, but there’s no hint that the space would work for a sporting event.

Chairs, arrayed in three sections, face the stage, offering enough room for about two hundred. A music video plays, providing background sound and a nice visual on the screen overhead. After a couple of minutes, the video stops and a countdown timer appears, starting at five minutes.

My excitement mounts. With only seconds remaining in the countdown, the worship team scrambles to the stage.

The guitar player barely makes it in time, but to their credit, they launch into song when the timer hits zero. The worship leader plays keyboard, flanked by a guitarist and backup vocalist. The drummer sits behind them, along with a bass guitarist.

With a rock sound, we sing two songs in the opening set.

The associate pastor comes up and welcomes us. He asks first-time visitors to raise their hands. Quite a few do, including the couple sitting next to us.

With few empty seats, attendance must approach two hundred, quite remarkable for a new church during the month of August. I suspect a huge jump in the fall.

He tells us to greet those around us. This period of welcome is neither stellar nor lame, but it is pleasant, despite a lack of time for meaningful connection.

Then he announces the offering, stressing that it’s only for regular attendees, not visitors. They don’t use offering plates but velvet bags with wooden handles. They are awkward for me to pass. As the offering bags work their way down the rows and across the aisles, the associate pastor gives some announcements. 

The church is only four months old, having launched on Easter. In a few weeks they will have a “gathering with the pastors” for new people who want to learn more about the church.

He also plugs small groups, “E-3 Groups,” which stands for Encounter, Embrace, and Engage. Taking August off, the groups will resume in September. After a few other announcements, he reads selected passages from Psalms.

After this respite, the worship team leads us in four more songs. All are contemporary, but none are familiar. The senior pastor, who is taking a break from teaching in the month of August, dismisses the children for their own activities. Then he introduces today’s guest speaker. 

Guest Speaker

He is the founding pastor from the church that sent this team to plant a church. He opens by giving some background. When they decided to plant a church, they considered several possibilities across the United States but kept coming back to this region, even though there didn’t seem to be a need. 

Despite the many churches in the vicinity, this area is “over-Bibled and under-Jesused.” Given this church’s rapid numeric growth and the excitement surrounding their gathering, I think they’re right in their assessment of a need to plant a church in this locale.

Today he will speak from Philippians chapter three. Ushers pass out Bibles to anyone who doesn’t have one and would like one. I’m not sure if this is just for the service or to keep. The Bibles are English Standard Version (ESV).

In a bit of irony, however, the pastor uses the more popular NIV for his discourse. 

“We need to attack the lie that you can have it all,” he says. “It’s not possible. Something needs to give.” Although most engaging, I struggle to catch all the nuances in his rapid-fire delivery. 

The apostle Paul was willing to lose everything so he could gain Jesus. “What are you willing to lose?” He reminds us of the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl in Matthew 13:44–46, where a man and a merchant are both willing to give up everything for one great treasure.

Then he quotes Socrates: “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

He concludes his message with a prayer, followed by a time of introspection, reminiscent of an altar call, sans “with every head bowed” and an invitation to come forward. “Is Jesus the point in your life?” he asks.

The worship band comes up for a closing number and then the associate pastor dismisses us with a benediction. The staff is available up front for anyone who wants prayer.

After Church Interaction

Before I can talk to the visitors sitting next to me, they scoot out. During the greeting time, I learned the guy behind me shares my first name. I’d like to talk more to my namesake, but he is already engaged in another conversation, as are the folks who sat in front of us.

With no one to talk to, we make our way out.

In the lobby stand the couple who greeted us when we arrived. They remember our names and conversation. They wish us a good day and invite us back.

This church is off to a great start. They are already making a difference in the community and poised to make an even greater impact in the future. Their numeric growth is obvious and the potential for spiritual growth is present.

They are meeting an unmet need in what some would call an already over-churched area.

[See the discussion questions for Church 62, read about Church 61 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

Discussing Church #61: Visiting Church by Myself 

Many Sundays we’ve driven by this church, noting a three-quarters-full lot for their first service and a packed one for their second. While church size doesn’t impress me and growth may be misleading, both can signal spiritual vitality. I’m intrigued. Today, I’ll be visiting church by myself.

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church #61.

Candy is gone, so I’m on my own. I’m okay visiting a church by myself, but staying home is so tempting. How can we form a habit of regular church attendance? How can we stick with it?

The parking lot has plenty of space. I’m underwhelmed. What message does our parking lot send? How can we make parking be a positive and inviting introduction to our facility?

Being alone, I feel more exposed than usual. I pause, hoping someone will greet me. No one does. And no one’s available for me to approach. Visiting a church solo takes extra courage. How can we welcome a person squirming in silence?

Several minutes after it’s time to start, the worship team begins playing. Their opening strains call people into the sanctuary. These late arrivals distract me from worship. How can we make sure we don’t impede others from experiencing God?

Next is the greeting. Epic fail. I’m weary of these trivial attempts at connection: people faking friendly when ordered and then withdrawing. How can we be open and friendly all the time and not just when instructed?

The senior pastor is gone, with a second-year seminarian filling in. The guy is green. He should practice in seminary, not on a congregation. When a message falls short—which will inevitably happen—how should we respond?

I leave frustrated. I enjoyed the music, but the message caused consternation, and the lack of connection left me empty. Was it my fault or theirs? How can we help others leave church feeling better than when they arrived?

[Read about Church #61, Church #62, 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 #61: The Wrong Time to Visit 

Based solely on their name, I assume this church is of the same denomination as Church #19. I enjoyed my time at that church, but I also recall their pastor saying the denomination’s member churches vary widely in their beliefs, with most holding a liberal theology.

I wonder what I’ll encounter at today’s destination. 

It turns out my speculation is needless. 

Nondenominational

Their website says they are nondenominational. I’m at the same time disappointed and pleased. I’m disappointed for not being able to broaden my understanding of this denomination, but I am pleased to be able to enjoy a nondenominational experience, which is my preference. 

My false assumption about their affiliation reminds me to avoid making wrong conclusions about a church or forming misguided expectations.

While this tendency to categorize—that is, to label things—is a natural leaning that aids our understanding, it can cloud our perspective as much as enhance it. The problem is that “nondenominational” is also a label, which can carry false expectations and produce needless assumptions.

Furthermore, in reviewing the “Our Beliefs” section of their website, I add the label of evangelical and note that it sounds Baptist. I’ve removed one wrong label and replaced it with three new ones: nondenominational, evangelical, and Baptist.

I’m no closer to a reasonable understanding of what to expect.

I do know a few other things about them, however, which are more tangible. First, they have two services. I’ve driven by on many Sunday mornings, noting a parking lot that was three-quarters full for their first service and a packed lot for their second.

I also know they are planning on a building project to add space. While the size of a church doesn’t impress me and growth can be a misleading indicator, both can signal spiritual vitality. I’m intrigued. 

A Solo Visit

Candy is gone this weekend, so I will be on my own. I’m okay visiting a church by myself, but that also gives me the freedom to vacillate. Staying home is a tempting option, one which I consider and reject multiple times.

To end my uncertainty, I decide to visit the first service. This is, in part, to give me less time to change my mind but also because I have a lot planned for the rest of the day. 

As a result of my volunteer work at a budget program that meets at this church facility during the week, I know where the church is and how long it will take to drive there. I time my departure to arrive ten minutes early. I don’t need to.

The parking lot has plenty of space when I arrive. I’m underwhelmed. Where are all the people? I walk in with a woman whose husband drops her off by the door. I know her from my volunteer work, but she doesn’t recognize me. We talk a bit anyway.

Pre-Church Interaction

Across the narthex I spot another familiar face from the budget program. I consider going over to talk to her, but I don’t.

She is by herself and so am I. I’m mindful that confusion or discomfort could result if I approach her alone. Aside from saying “hi” or giving an acknowledging nod, I’ve never communicated with either of these ladies before.

Other people occupy the narthex, a few in private conversation and others moving about but with no discernable pattern. Without my partner by my side, I feel more exposed and am more uncomfortable than usual when just standing around.

I look for someone to talk to—not that I expect to find anyone. The few people I see are all preoccupied. Once again no one notices me.

I turn to the sanctuary, where there are even fewer folks. I stand in the doorway, looking about, giving ample time for someone to approach. No one does. Two guys in the sound booth focus on preparations. Another man stands on the stage. I assume he’s part of the worship team.

Two people are already sitting, while a third flits about. I smile, looking as approachable as possible. No one sees me.

The hexagon-shaped space is newer construction, open and inviting, though not well-lit and possessing few windows. The six walls give way to six roof sections, which reach up and converge in the center. There are three sections of comfortable looking chairs, angled to face the front.

On stage sits a drum kit and several guitars, hinting at a contemporary sound. If there’s an organ, I don’t see it. Along the back wall sit the readied accessories for communion.

Having held my position and my smile for as long as I can stand to, I meander in to select my seat. Of the two hundred or so options, I head to the second aisle, go up a third of the way and scoot in two spaces.

After sitting, I lay my Bible on the chair to my left and put my coat on my right. I’m not saving seats, but with plenty of room, why not spread out? When I realize I could be signaling people to not sit near me, I consolidate my coat and Bible on one chair.

After a few minutes a man comes up and introduces himself. He welcomes me and gives me a bulletin. Then, with a smile, he turns and leaves, just as I open my mouth to speak. I read the entire bulletin—twice.

A couple sits directly behind me. Given over 190 other places they could have sat, I take this as an encouraging sign. Twice I turn to interact with them, but they’re not interested, offering only the most basic responses and scowling when they do.

A Low Turnout

Now time for the service to start, it doesn’t. Eventually the worship team of seven congregates on stage. The worship leader plays guitar. Helping him is another guitarist, bass guitarist, drummer, and keyboardist. Two ladies round out the ensemble, ready to add backup vocals.

There are as many people onstage and in the sound booth as there are sitting down. This low attendance is not at all what I expected.

I anticipate a light pop sound for the music. Instead I’m treated to rock with the hint of an edge. How exciting. The opening strains of their prelude call people into the sanctuary. Our numbers grow to about twenty-five and another ten or so eventually join us.

Most of the people are couples in their twenties and thirties, though a few are older. Aside from a baby in the back with her parents, there are no kids or teens. I know there are classes for the kids, but I wonder about the teens. Where are they? Do they go to the second service?

The assistant pastor welcomes us and says the senior pastor is out of town. Filling in for him is one of their members, a second-year seminarian.

This is not what I hoped for, nor what I want to experience. Maybe I should have stayed home after all. I wonder if their pastor being gone and a student filling in might account for the low attendance, or at least lower than what their parking lot typically suggests.

After an opening prayer, we sing some contemporary songs. With no songbooks, the words project on an overhead screen. It’s offset slightly from the stage, but not so much as to be uncomfortable.

The first song is a familiar tune but with slightly altered words, which trip me up every time we get to the chorus. Fortunately, I doubt I’m singing loud enough for anyone but God to hear.

The second song is likewise familiar, but our rendition lacks the punch and power that I’m used to when David Crowder sings it.

Greeting Time

Following these two songs are announcements and an instruction to “greet everyone around you.” As I shake hands with the guy in front of me, I surprise him when I ask, “How are you?” 

With his attention already shifting to the next person to greet, he does a double take. He looks back at me and smiles. “Fine, how are you?”

“Great!” 

Before I can respond further, I’ve lost him again. There will be no conversation, no chance for a connection. I turn to the couple behind me. Although brief, this is our best interaction all morning.

I manage to shake hands with a few more people, but fail to make eye contact with those just out of reach. They are not available to see my wave or receive a nod of acknowledgment.

I’m weary of these trivial attempts at greeting, which confront me at too many churches. I want real connection, not people going through the motions: faking friendly when instructed and withdrawing the rest of the time.

I’m quite sure this is not what “meeting together” means in Hebrews 10:24–25.

Communion

Then we sing two more contemporary songs. Both are familiar—and quite comfortable. We sit down for communion. It is “open to all who believe in Jesus.” I’m glad to know this. Too often churches fail to share this important information, leaving me in a quandary about what to do. 

They skip the bread. Curious.

Instead they offer the juice in tiny plastic cups presented on a glistening chrome platter passed up and down the rows. As I reach for mine, I notice the cup is double stacked. I consider taking just the top one with the juice and leaving the bottom one, but it’s easier to grab both, so I do.

I now know I may participate, but I don’t know when. Do they drink the cup together, as each person feels led, or do they have some unexplained ritual? I agonize over what to do, so focused on the when, that I fail to celebrate the why.

Then the lady to my right quickly drinks the juice. Seconds later a man a couple of rows up does the same. Relieved to know their process, I’m anxious to follow, lest I call attention to myself should I tarry too long.

I fail to corral my racing mind to focus on God. I can’t quiet my heart to consider what Jesus did for us. The harder I try, the tighter anxiety grips me. God, I am so sorry I can’t focus. Time slips by. As more people partake, my chance to join them grows short.

Convinced that God knows my heart and will not hold it against me for not taking time to appropriately acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice of his Son, my Savior, I throw out a desperate prayer. Thank you, Jesus, and I drink the juice.

Feeling a bit guilty, yet also relieved, my next question is what to do with the empty container? I glance at it, noticing something trapped between the two cups. Lifting the first one, the mystery item comes into focus. It’s a little square communion cracker, the tiniest I’ve ever seen.

Now so much makes sense. They didn’t skip the bread. They passed the elements together. That’s why one person seemed to drink twice. First they ate the cracker and then they drank the juice. Their motions, especially for the cracker, reminded me of people I’ve seen in movies doing shots.

I need to eat the cracker, but I’m not doing it like a shot. Smirking, I fish the miniature wafer out from the plastic container. As unobtrusively as possible I slide it into my mouth. With one chomp I demolish it. I swallow, wishing for a chaser of juice.

Today I did communion backward and failed to fully embrace this remembrance of God’s gift to me. Even though I merely went through the motions, somehow it seems all right, even good.

I envision Father God in Heaven, laughing with his Son over my consternation. Standing at their side, Holy Spirit remains silent but grins broadly. I smile, too, suspecting I gave them a bit of pleasure through my disquiet and my unfilled desire to do communion right.

A tear forms. God is so good.

Offering

I have little time to consider his goodness, however. The offering follows as soon as they finish passing the communion elements. I already filled out the visitor card and, as instructed, I place it in the offering plate when it passes.

The plate is small but able to accommodate cash and checks, but the oversized visitor card does not fit. It hangs a couple of inches over the edge. This will make it hard to contain the donations of those sitting behind me.

The Message

With the collection done, our guest preacher stands up. He begins with a prayer. His disjointed speaking—pausing too long midsentence or after each phrase—exposes his uneasiness. I understand. I ache for him. I also know it is the wrong time to visit.

His message is about Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector, as recorded by Doctor Luke in chapter nineteen, verses one through ten. He notes that whenever Jesus encounters a tax collector, the outcome is good. Whenever he encounters a rich man, the outcome is not.

With Zacchaeus being both a tax collector and rich, there is tension over what will happen. I question this distinction. Weren’t all tax collectors wealthy?

The guy is green. He should be practicing in seminary, not on a congregation. Yes, his introduction shows promise, but his presentation fails to deliver. His points are trivial and only loosely connected.

Despite the first three items coming from the text, his fourth does not. Instead it’s pulled from an unnamed song that I don’t know. He ends with an invitation of sorts, followed with another prayer.

With the Holy Spirit’s help, I gain one insight. Hinging on the word “today,” I see a parallel between Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross who hangs next to Jesus.

In both cases, they make a profession of some kind to Jesus and he pronounces an immediate reward for them of “today,” (Luke 19:8–9 and Luke 23:40–43). God’s idea of salvation seems so much different than what we’ve turned it into. 

Finished, the speaker sits, and the worship team gets up to play an old hymn, one tweaked to work well with guitars and drums. It’s familiar, but out of place with the rest of the service.

I wonder if they work an obligatory hymn into each service to keep the traditionalists among them happy.

The assistant pastor returns to give the closing prayer and then the worship team reprises their opening song—the one with different words—to conclude the service. Once again, I stumble over the changed lyrics. At its conclusion, the worship leader abruptly dismisses us.

Heading for Home

I stand slowly, trying my best to look friendly and appear approachable. Inside I am, but I wonder what my body language communicates. I often consider this and likely cause more harm than good when I attempt to contort myself into an open posture. 

Regardless, no one notices, and no one approaches. With nothing else to do, I amble toward the sanctuary doors, where the guest speaker stands, receiving handshakes and good wishes from the crowd.

I, however, don’t want to talk to him. I won’t lie and tell him he did a good job. And I fear any form of encouragement could come out as backhanded criticism. I can’t even share an element of his teaching that I liked, because I didn’t like any of it.

I shake his hand in silence. He looks at me with a question forming in his eyes. Then I realize he’s a member of this church and doesn’t know me. I share my name, and he thanks me for visiting. 

I nod and slide into the narthex. No one leaves, but I see no indication of any fellowship time or informal gathering. Not having my bride with me is even more isolating.

I feel awkward just standing there. To avoid any more discomfort, I give up. I turn right and hit the main doors. I’m the first to leave.

It Was the Wrong Time to Visit

Driving home, I carry frustration with the threat of tears. I enjoyed the music, and, in an odd way, communion worked for me, but the message caused consternation, and the lack of connection left me empty.

It was the wrong time to visit.

If only their senior pastor had been there, I’m sure my experience would have been different. Then I realize I forgot to pray before the service. That would have made an even bigger difference. Sorry, Papa. I messed up—big time.

[Read about Church #60, Church #62, 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 Church’s Vision Changes: Discussion Questions for Church #60

I meet a pastor launching a church in an underserved urban area. Her dream is a church for people of all ages, races, and backgrounds—a colorful mosaic of folks seeking to grow together in Jesus under Holy Spirit power

Consider these three discussion questions about Church 60.

Her vision draws me in. Being part of this church is not inconceivable, even though it’s thirty minutes away. How open are we to be part of God’s great adventure when it’s not convenient?

Months later their website still casts a vision for a downtown church, but details appear for a suburban service, without mentioning one downtown. Did their vision change? How can we keep our plans and vision aligned with God’s leading?

I assume they’ve given up on reaching the downtown urban area. Just like many other well-intentioned folks, they seem content in the suburbs. Most people are. Are we content to remain where we’re comfortable and with those we know?

[Read about 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

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.

[See the discussion questions for Church 60, read about Church 59 , Church 61, 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.

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