A Country Fresh Church
Last Sunday we went to church with our daughter and son-in-law. This week we go with our son and his wife. However, we aren’t going to their regular church. Instead, we’ll visit one a couple miles from where they plan to move.
Part of an old denomination, the church recently changed their name, removing any hint of their affiliation, though the “About Us” section of their website still confirms their denominational connection.
Focus on Jesus
Their “Core Values and Beliefs” gives six descriptors and twenty-one articles of faith, taking 3,800 words to explain.
As I scan the list, my mind goes numb. Can’t Jesus be enough?
Though this page is stodgy, the rest of the site has a warm, inviting feel that gives off an appealing vibe. On their home page, they ask, “Tired of boring faith and dull religion? What would it look like to live out a faith where you ‘put it all on the line’?”
When they talk about a faith of adventure and risk, they draw me in. Who are they, a progressive church with a traditional heritage or a traditional church trying to appear more relevant? We’ll soon find out.
On the drive there we’re soon talking about what we might do the rest of the day, as if church is a prerequisite for what will follow. We’re losing focus. “Who wants to pray for church?” Our son begins and I finish. My words aren’t much different from what I typically ask, but the “Amen” possesses enhanced expectation. I share what I learned from their website, interspersed with speculation. We discuss the church for a while. We’re primed for the experience by the time we arrive.
A Country Fresh Church
Right off a main street, they’re easy to find. We pull into their parking lot to a bustle of activity. With two services, we arrive ten minutes early for the second one. We pick a space in a small parking lot in the front as we spot the drive to a larger one in back.
With multiple buildings, this is a church facility and not what I expected for a rural— country fresh church—in a small community.
We amble toward the door, and my normal pre-church visitor anxiety barely registers. Might I finally be used to visiting churches or is there confidence in numbers?
I spot an open door on the side that reveals rows of chairs in what is likely the sanctuary, but we head to the main entrance.
Holding the door open with his back, a young towhead jiggles with antsy enthusiasm. He gives us a fervent greeting. “Welcome, y’all.” Southern accents are rare in these parts, so I assume he’s messing around but later realize his drawl is real.
He hands out bulletins as our son and daughter-in-law walk by, dismayed when he realizes he only has one left for my wife, Candy, and me.
“We’ll share,” Candy says. He directs the paper to me and then withdraws, again offering it to my wife. Apparently, his instructions are to give each person a bulletin, so that’s what he intends to do. But Candy doesn’t take it.
“I don’t need one,” I assure him as I walk past. He’s still clinging to his last bulletin, perplexed that neither of us has taken it, when a man slips him another stack. Relieved that his dilemma is resolved, his eagerness returns, and we each take one.
Inside, no one else greets us. The crush of people causes us to weave our way between them as we move forward. An odor assaults me.
“Is it incense?” our daughter-in-law asks.
Candy thinks it might be, but I think it’s just too much bad air freshener, attempting to cover up something even more offensive.
Our daughter-in-law leads the way but gives me a what-do-we-do glance.
I’ve done this enough that I have a ready answer. “If no one talks to us, we go in and find a place to sit.”
Assured, she nods and presses toward the sanctuary. A young man, sporting an unobtrusive microphone, eyes us as we walk by. I consider introducing myself, but his silent demeanor tells me he’s not interested.
I avert my gaze and follow the rest of my family. We veer right and go up six rows.
Based on the building style, I suspect this part is about fifty years old. The cement block walls frame windows with rectangular panels of stained glass. They boast a rainbow of vibrant color on each side. Overhead, an understated cathedral ceiling provides an open feel.
The sanctuary is narrower and longer than most. It reminds me of many of the high churches we’ve visited. Though I don’t know their denomination’s tradition, I don’t expect a high church experience.
Despite the constraints of the building, its contents are updated. First, there are no pews, but comfortable padded chairs. I estimate two hundred.
There are no hymnals or Bibles, so I expect them to display everything we need on the monitors positioned around the room. One is centered in the front with four more flanking it, two per side.
Subdued lighting gives a peaceful feel but doesn’t produce enough light to read the bulletin comfortably.
As my eyes adjust, I’m relieved that my nose is now being spared, having left the odor in the narthex. Behind us a woman talks to her seatmate. She also has a southern accent, more pronounced than the boy at the door.
Making a Connection
I’ve heard only two people talk since we’ve arrived, and both had southern affectations. I wonder if we’ve stumbled into a refuge of southern expatriates. For many, this would conjure pleasant thoughts of charm and hospitality.
For me—right or wrong—I associate southern accents at church with dogmatic evangelicalism. I brace myself to be assaulted by close-minded theology.
I have little time to contemplate this, however, as a man soon comes up to greet us. He’s not sure if he’s met us before and wonders if he should know our names. He’s relieved when we tell him we’re visiting.
He’s one of the pastors here, and is an outgoing, friendly guy, a sharp contrast to the youth pastor who ignored us in the narthex. (In his defense, none of us fit his target demographic.)
With introductions made, we share about ourselves, and he tells us about the church. By the time we wrap up our conversation, we feel embraced and informed.
Once again, I’m reminded how one person can make a difference in how a visitor perceives a church. I so appreciate him reaching out to us.
While our daughter-in-law is amazed at his welcome, I’m dismayed that scores of people milling around left it up to their paid staff to welcome the newcomers.
Still, having one person celebrate us is far better than everyone ignoring us, something Candy and I experienced too often at other churches.
By now, the worship team has gathered. Standing in a circle behind the monitor, they hold hands to pray. Their public example reminds me to do the same and hints that the service is about to start.
I check the clock as they begin to play. We’re right on time, something I appreciate even though I suspect God is not as concerned with punctuality as I am. Our promptness is not important. Our worship is.
There are seven on the worship team: two guitars, bass guitar, keyboardist, and three vocalists. The keyboardist is also miked. There is no drummer or drum set. The pastor we met is the worship leader today.
After the opening song, we have a greeting time. The people do well at greeting, but they don’t excel at it—few churches do. Smiles and handshakes abound, but we don’t connect. There’s not enough time to talk. Perhaps the people know this and therefore don’t try.
A video announcement plays, something we’ve only seen a few times at the largest of churches. A lengthy string of verbal announcements follows, ending with another video promoting the upcoming sermon series.
Before singing resumes, we pray for the mission team heading off to Ecuador. After three more contemporary praise songs, the kids leave for their own activities.
Before they go, I estimated seventy-five people present. Now that they’re gone, I still estimate about seventy-five. Perhaps our initial number was closer to one hundred.
Let It Go
The lead pastor stands for the first time. Wearing jeans and a polo shirt, he holds an iPad for his sermon notes. There’s no pulpit or lectern. This provides a casual feel, suggesting he’ll teach us, not preach.
Though his speech may retain the slightest trace of an accent, there’s no hint of the narrow-minded dogma I feared.
He’s nearing the end of a sermon series, “All In,” about the life of Abraham. Today’s message is “Let It Go,” covering parts of Genesis 20 and 21. After sharing a personal story, he asks, “What’s your number one obsession?”
He talks about sin and how to get rid of it, tying each of his three points back to Abraham’s story, while weaving in other passages of Scripture. For persistent sin, we need to believe things can change.
He reminds us of Genesis 18:14, “Is anything too hard for God?” (TLB and MSG). This is my key takeaway of his message.
Later, he contrasts Abraham’s two sons: Ishmael represents our old self, the old way—man’s way. Isaac represents our new self, the new way—God’s way. I wonder if he’s stretching the text to make his point, but he cites Galatians 4:22–23 to support his assertion.
An unassuming man, he’s not a charismatic orator, yet he’s a most effective teacher. I have a page full of notes and much to contemplate. It’s been too long since either one has happened.
Winding Down and Wrapping Up
He gives the closing prayer, complete with a time of commitment, but no altar call. Then we sing a closing song.
To end the service, the worship leader says, “Spend three minutes getting to know someone you don’t know before talking with friends.” I appreciate his directness about connecting with others.
This should be standard at every church, but it seldom is. And I’ve never heard it explicitly stated. I wonder if the congregation will comply.
I need only ponder this for a moment when the couple in front of us turns around to talk. They invest much more time with us than three minutes, sharing life as we get to know each other. We form a connection. Others come up as well to introduce themselves.
By the time we leave, we’ve made many connections and perhaps started friendships. I don’t know how long the service was and how long we spent talking afterward, but we were there two hours, though it didn’t seem that long.
At lunch, we discuss this church, sharing what we liked and didn’t like. Eventually I ask, “Do you see yourself going back?”
Three people say “Yes!” The fourth one isn’t sure.
“Do you see yourself getting connected there?”
Again, three people say “Yes!” The fourth one doesn’t answer.
The dissenter is my wife, the person who will pick which church she and I will attend. This means we have more churches to visit.
Look for visitors to talk to at your church. Seek your friends later.
Returning to The Rural Church
At this point we’ve considered nineteen churches. We could have easily gone to scores more—stretching our search out for several more months—but it’s time to decide. Some options will remain unexplored.
Part of me senses this is unfair. I’ve summarily dismissed some potentially viable options based entirely on their name. I didn’t even bother to make an in-person visit before rejecting them.
In most cases I didn’t even take the time to look at their website. The ones I’ve excluded all have one thing in common: their stodgy name clearly communicates they’re part of a denomination.
Down on Denominations
Yes, I’m down on denominations. As I say often: “Denominations are the antithesis of the Christian unity Jesus prayed for.” And I’m a huge proponent of Christians and their churches getting along. Denominations do the opposite.
They divide us and wall us off from other Christians for no good reason. It’s unbiblical, opposing the desire of Jesus that we would live as one (John 17:20–23).
While denominations provide some benefit, such as local church oversight, a pooling of resources, and group buying power, the price to do so is too high.
There are additional layers of bureaucracy, which leads to inaction, perpetuating the status quo, and maintaining the denomination as an institution.
Many people work for denominations full time, dedicated to these tasks, when they could better serve at the local level, to grow Jesus’s church by sharing the Word and making disciples.
Too often, the denominational focus is on self-preservation more than changing lives.
Another concern is that the cost to support the denominational structure siphons off money from local congregations and local needs to support a machine that seeks to control what happens at the local level. For what it costs, they add little to the cause of Jesus.
Yes, denominations send missionaries, plant churches, and respond to crises. But local churches can do this too. While denominations may react more quickly to crises, local churches can be more effective.
Yes, we visited denomination churches. Some of the nineteen have denominational connections. But now I wonder why we considered them.
Personally, I seek community at church. True, meaningful, deep, spiritual community. Music and message are secondary. Beyond that, I want to go to a church in my community, where at least some of my neighbors attend.
Now I add to my list that I want them to be independent, not part of a denomination.
Candy said she wanted a church with excellent music and isn’t afraid to speak biblical truth—even if it puts their tax-exempt status at risk.
In considering my requirements, The Rural Church meets only one. When we were there, we experienced great community and made several connections.
However, they aren’t in our community, no neighbors attend there, and they’re part of a denomination. As a bonus, our son and daughter-in-law plan to switch to this church. This would allow the four of us to be part of the same church community.
Though the locations of some churches would be central for us and all four of our kids, this one is too far away for our daughter and son-in-law.
I look forward to reconnecting with the people we met before and spending time in this friendly environment. I also know that with two services, our chance of seeing the folks we met last fall is less likely.
We plan to meet our son and daughter-in-law there. It’s a nice spring day, warm with plenty of sunshine. It’s hard to believe it’s been nine months since our first visit. Interestingly, the weather is about the same now as it was then.
Full of expectation, perhaps too much, we hop in our car and head off, saying a prayer as we go. The trip, at 6.2 miles, is quick. Once we leave our subdivision, we head straight south, encountering minimal traffic, just two stop signs, and making no turns. It takes eight minutes.
We pull into their lot about ten minutes before the second service should begin. The small lot in front is mostly full, and we take one of the few remaining spots.
We don’t see our son’s car. Though they could have parked in the other lot, we assume they aren’t here yet. I want to get inside to look for them.
In the parking lot I spot a man we met during our first visit. He and his wife spent a lot of time with us after the service. I instantly connected with him and his family. Since then, I’ve seen him one other time, yesterday at our garage sale.
It was our daughter-in-law who first recognized his wife, but soon we all remembered each other and our time together some nine months ago. We re-exchanged names. Interestingly, his brother lives near our house but goes to a different church.
It’s wonderful to see someone we know before we even get inside. We talk for a few minutes and then head for the entrance. We encounter the same mass of people as last time, though this time a few of them say “Hi” or nod a greeting. I don’t see our son and daughter-in-law.
Candy and I sit toward the back of the sanctuary, one of the few spots left for four people. The stage is distant, and the space doesn’t feel as open as I remember. We’re too far back for my liking.
The senior pastor’s wife comes up to welcome us, not sure if she should know us or not. We have a brief exchange. Soon our kids arrive. The service is about to start.
Music and More
The worship team gathers on the stage, forming a circle to pray first. I so like this, with the example they set and the priority they portray. The opening song is a familiar one, which normally is upbeat and uplifting.
Though the instrumentation is good, the vocals fall short. What should draw us in pushes us away as the words plod along like a funeral dirge.
My wife criticized the music on our first visit. Though I knew it wasn’t the best, it didn’t detract from my worship then. Today it does. By the time they make it to the chorus, the song leader mostly finds his place, easing into a somewhat accessible tone.
Still, he falls far short of how powerful this song normally sounds.
After the opening number, the youth pastor gets up and implores everyone to fill out the yellow cards in our bulletins. “We need these to report numbers to our bosses,” he says.
I groan at the reminder they’re part of a denomination, one that tracks their church’s attendance.
He shares two announcements, the first about their Annual Church Conference, another reminder of their denomination’s practices and their formal governance.
The early church didn’t vote on overtures or elect leaders. Though this is the democratic way, it lacks biblical support. Over the years, I’ve had my fill of church committees, meetings, and elections.
Set politics aside. Put God first.
The other announcement is about an upcoming children’s dedication. Interested parents must attend a class first. This church practices believer’s baptism for adults and children’s dedication for kids.
Then we sing some more. After a bit, the pastor invites people to come forward to the altar to pray, while the rest of us sing. I don’t see an altar, and I’m not sure what he means, but people come forward, some in expectation while others plod.
They kneel on the steps of the stage to pray. When the song ends, they retreat to their seats.
Dealing with Fear
An opening video introduces their new series, “Dealing with Fear.” Again, I’m impressed that a church this size (last Sunday’s attendance was 342) produces videos for their services. Last time they showed two.
The sermon title is “Fear of Failure.” The senior pastor teaches today. “We fear God,” he says, “or we fear everything else.” A related reoccurring theme is risk. “Not taking risks will ultimately lead to failure.”
The pastor shares, at length, his own journey of failures, of risks taken and risks avoided. Last time he also used personal anecdotes to introduce the message. I still remember what he shared then. I wonder if self-disclosure is his normal practice.
Like last time, I fill my journal with a page of notes, right down to the last line. Today, God has a message for me. I’ve become risk averse for what matters most.
In recent months, the Holy Spirit has nudged me to act at various times. But I didn’t. Though I don’t know the outcome, I must take the risk anyway.
“Failure is part of our success,” he says to conclude his message. To wrap up, the pastor leads the congregation in a prayer of commitment. It’s not a prayer of rededication and certainly not one of salvation. I miss the intended purpose.
Maybe it is for us to confront our fears and take risks.
He says the closing prayer, they take the offering, and we sing a final song, a mash-up of an old hymn and modern choruses.
Despite the song leader, the overall result is pleasing. All the songs were great. I expect they’ll reverberate in my mind for the next several days. The instrumentation added to the experience, but the vocals were the weak link. Hopefully, he just had an off day.
Afterward I look for the people we met before but don’t see any of them, not even the couple we reconnected with when we were both visiting a different church. I try to make eye contact with others as they file out, but I’m unsuccessful.
The After Party
Resigned for no after church interaction, the four of us discuss lunch. Before we leave, I use the restroom.
When I return, the senior pastor is talking with the rest of my family. He greets me by name. I assume someone prompted him, but they didn’t. He also remembers Candy’s name and where our son and daughter-in-law are building their house, noting it’s near completion.
He has an amazing memory, and we enjoy a meaningful conversation. We leave feeling content.
We debrief at lunch.
All agree the worship leader struggled today with his opening song. It was painful and hard to overlook. Next month they’ll have a newcomers’ lunch. We discuss going, though we stop short of committing.
They also have a Wednesday midweek meeting that starts at 6 p.m. with food, followed by classes for all ages. I’d like to go to share a meal and meet people, but the class options don’t interest me.
The thing that most endears me to this church is their after-church interaction at our first visit. Then, the pastor told the congregation to spend their first three minutes after the service getting to know someone new. They did, and we benefited. I assumed this was their norm.
Today he didn’t make any such announcement, and no one bothered. I had lofty expectations for community and was disappointed, despite them being friendlier than most churches.
Our daughter-in-law grew up in this denomination and feels quite at home there. Her enthusiasm remains. As for our son and me, our interest has waned.
Discouraged, I move this church down my list to the third spot. For Candy it was already there. We’ll need to return a few more times to be sure, but right now, I suspect this is not our next church home.
We make our third visit the following week, again with our kids. It’s great for us to be in church together. What we experience this time is an average of our two prior visits: not as good as the first but better than the second.
I sign Candy and I up to go to their newcomers’ picnic. I’d like to check out their Wednesday evening meeting, too, but it’s wrapping up for the summer.
By the time it resumes in the fall, as well as their life groups, we’ll have made our church selection. But we’ll need to do so without experiencing these two options.
A month later we make our fourth visit to this church. On our quick drive, we pray for our time there. I have mixed feelings. Though we enjoy engaging conversations each Sunday, we seldom reconnect with those folks on subsequent visits.
The church is big enough to make forming recurring community a challenge, and having two services hinders that even more.
I bypass the closest drive and head to the bigger parking lot on the other side of their facility. We’ve never gone in these doors before, but they are the main entrance and open right into the sanctuary. This sure beats the roundabout path we’ve taken on prior weeks.
Some people, a few who look familiar, nod a greeting or say “Hello,” but their outreach is nothing more than an acknowledgment. But at least they notice us.
Reconnecting at Last
As we move forward into the sanctuary, one woman approaches us with intention. We met her and her husband on our first visit and we enjoyed getting to know them. They were also the couple we were surprised to see at our visit to another church.
I’m glad to see her but can’t remember her name. Realizing I won’t recall it until too late, I apologize and ask her to remind me.
“Janet,” she says.
“We were here a couple weeks ago and looked for you, but we didn’t see you.” My intention is to communicate interest, but I may have sounded accusatory. She doesn’t, however, take offense.
“We usually go to the first service and hang out until the second one starts.”
“And we’ve always gone to the second one. I’m glad we could see you today.” Her husband stands nearby but talks with another group. She and I struggle over what to say. Even though Candy joins us, our words remain awkward as we grapple with conversation.
“It was really great to see you,” I say with all sincerity, despite our uncomfortable exchange. “I think we’re going to find our seats now . . . I hope you have a great afternoon.”
Moving into Worship
The countdown timer says 4:12, but I doubt they’ll start then. But with a minute remaining the worship team gathers on stage to pray, and when the time hits zero, the music begins. The associate pastor, flanked by eight others—musicians and vocalists—leads us in song.
Though under-amplified, his confident voice and engaging stage persona is ideal to lead us. He ably led the worship music on our first visit, drawing us into the service.
The bulletin says he’s the “Pastor of Worship and Youth,” but the website gives his title as “Pastor of Volunteer Services, Operations and Events.”
On our second and third visit they had another worship leader who struggled. One Sunday, his leading was especially difficult to follow. Though the website lists him as the “Sunday Worship Leader,” the bulletin doesn’t mention him.
The service proceeds as usual, and soon it’s time for the sermon. Though the bulletin lists another person as the “Teaching Pastor,” we’ve only heard the lead pastor speak. He’s a good teacher, and I always end up with a page of notes.
Though I rarely learn much that’s new, the Holy Spirit uses his words to provoke other insights. Some of his teaching today gives me ideas for a book I’m writing.
We wrap up with Communion, our first time at this church. The pastor clearly communicates that nonmembers who have a relationship with Jesus may participate. I appreciate knowing their policy on this.
We file up to receive the bread and the juice, taking them back to our seats to eat them in unison. Though consuming them as a congregation is what I experienced most of my life, it has been several years since I’ve done it this way.
There’s a comfortable rhythm of taking the communion elements together, as though we’re demonstrating harmony and proclaiming agreement.
The service lasts longer than we expect, and we need to scoot out to meet friends for lunch. We’ll be late. But we’ll also return in a few hours for the newcomers’ picnic.
The Newcomer Picnic
With threatening skies and rain looming, our picnic in the park relocates to the Kids Center at the church. There are many more people than I expected. As I scan the crowd, I wonder who are regulars and who are newcomers.
We mingle awkwardly for a few minutes. Then the pastor begins. He welcomes us and prays for the meal: grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, chips, veggies, lemonade, and desserts.
Candy and I sit, and our son and daughter-in-law join us. For a while we are alone, but eventually another couple come up. They’re members, and we met them on our first visit.
As the meal wraps up, the lead pastor again stands, telling us about the church: there’s no pressure to become members, but they do want us to become involved.
Their programs are finished for the summer and will resume in the fall. They’ll also add a third Sunday service in a few months but haven’t worked out the details.
He stresses how they want to make a difference in their community. But we aren’t part of their community. I want to make a difference in my community, not someone else’s. I want to go to church in my neighborhood, with my neighbors.
Though there’s excitement in attending a growing church, the idea of three services is disconcerting. Even with two, it’s easy to miss folks. Three will make it even harder.
An Uncomfortable Request
Though he asserts he doesn’t want to make us uncomfortable, he asks us to stand and introduce ourselves to the group, one representative from each family.
I groan as I mentally prepare to answer his four questions: our names, what we like about the church, how long we’ve been attending, and how we heard about them.
Our table goes first, so my agony is soon over. As the introductions move from table to table, I realize members have strategically interspersed themselves with newcomers at each table.
Though the “what we like about the church” part feels a bit too self-serving, it’s encouraging to learn the story of how each family ended up here.
To wrap up, they pass out cards to collect our contact information, along with what our next steps are and where we’d like to serve. Though the pastor stresses there’s no obligation or expectation, I feel pressure.
I fill out the top part, but they collect the cards before I figure out what to put on the rest. Candy later tells me she followed my example. I wonder if they’ll contact us.
On the drive home, we discuss this church. On the plus side, they don’t push membership, they are friendly, and community exists. The messages are thought-provoking, and the music was engaging at two of our four visits.
They are a growing church, with lots of kids. Their future is bright. Our son and daughter-in-law plan to go there.
On the negative side, their community is not our community, none of our neighbors go there, and they’re larger than I’d like.
Aside from the Sunday morning service, I’m not sure how I could plug in or where I could serve. Also, they’re part of a denomination and are too far away for our daughter and son-in-law to consider.
We have much to contemplate.
Have a plan to turn visitors into regular attendees and work your plan.
Read the full story in Peter DeHaan’s new book Shopping for Church.
This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, their year-long sabbatical of visiting churches.
Here’s what happens:
My wife and I move. Now we need to find a new church. It’s not as easy as it sounds. She wants two things; I seek three others.
But this time the stakes are higher. I’ll write about the churches we visit, and my wife will pick which one we’ll call home. It sounds simple. What could possibly go wrong?
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.