Visiting Churches

Tips for Improvement After Visiting 52 Churches

Discover How to Attract Visitors and Keep Them Coming Back

On our year-long journey of visiting churches, we witnessed more than a few oversights, errors, and blunders that could turn off visitors. Sadly, many occurred more than once.

Here are some tips for improvement to consider to not scare away guests.

The Church Facility

Realtors stress curb appeal. So should churches. Make the outside of your building inviting for visitors, and make sure the inside continues the positive experience.

  • Clearly mark the entrances. For big facilities, make the path to the sanctuary clear.
  • Unlock the doors. And if there’s a reason you want a particular entrance locked, make it apparent before people reach it.
  • The facility needs to be clean, open, and well-lit—unless you’re going for a subdued mood. At one church the pews were so dirty I didn’t want to sit, even though I wore jeans.
  • Address building problems and consider the décor. After a while, members overlook a building’s flaws, but those are the first things visitors notice.
  • Some buildings, especially older ones, have an odor. Eliminate them. And don’t use one scent to cover up another.

Online Presence

In today’s culture, an online presence is critical to attract visitors. Short of a personal invitation, today’s younger generation won’t visit a church that lacks an inviting online presence.

Here are some tips for improvement to your internet presence.

  • Keep websites and social media pages up to date. Though closed for two years, one church’s website was still up and looked current. Avoid “coming soon” website pages, especially on sections relevant to visitors.
  • Ensure a consistent message. We witnessed many glaring differences between churches’ websites and Facebook pages (and bulletins).
  • A visitor wants to know service times and location. Provide a street address, as many will use a GPS. Also provide both a map and a written description, as some will prefer one over the other.
  • Let visitors know how to dress and what to expect.
  • Have outsiders review websites. Two churches had sites that were off-putting and downright spooky. We thought one might be a cult. Seriously.
  • Posting personal prayer requests online, in an unsecured section, is foolish and completely disregards privacy. Think through privacy laws carefully.

The Church Service (Ideas for Leaders)

People attend a church for the service. Make it easy for visitors to participate.

  • If you don’t provide Bibles, display the words overhead, as the Bible visitors bring—if they even bother—will not likely match yours. Visitors may also use a Bible reading app, but they’ll need to know which version of the Bible you use.
  • Make sure visitors know you don’t expect them to participate in the offering. You don’t, right?
  • Clearly state communion expectations and traditions since practices vary greatly.
  • Don’t continually address “visitors” as a special category. It’s okay to welcome visitors and inform them they’re exempt from certain expectations, but don’t single them out or preach just to them—especially when it’s obvious there’s only one visitor.
  • To attract new people, be accessible and user-friendly.
  • Remove—or thoroughly explain—any practice or procedure that could confuse a visitor or keep them from engaging in the service and meeting God.
  • Appoint friendly and outgoing people to seek out and engage visitors.

Have a Visitor-friendly Focus (Ideas for Laity)

To remain viable for the long term, a church needs to look outside themselves. This includes having a visitor-friendly focus.

Here are some ideas:

  • Invite a visitor to sit with you.
  • Once you know a visitor’s name, introduce them to others.
  • Keep visitors informed. If you offer coffee and donuts, make sure they know where to find them.
  • Ask if a visitor has any questions or concerns.
  • Show, don’t tell. If a visitor needs to find a certain room or asks about the restroom, don’t point, gesture, or offer vague directions. Whenever possible, take them to their destination.
  • Just because the church has appointed greeters, that doesn’t relieve everyone else from also welcoming guests. Offer a smile and a friendly face to those you don’t recognize. You may be the only one to greet them.
  • Protect visitors from members who lack boundaries or don’t comprehend social norms.

Also check out the post about greeting well.

Implement these tips for improvement to make your church more attractive to visitors and keep them coming back.

[Check out the discussion questions for this post.]

My wife and I visited a different Christian Church every Sunday for a year. This is our story. Get your copy of 52 Churches today, available in ebook, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook.

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.

Visiting Churches

Getting Started Visiting 52 Churches

Apprehension about Visiting Our First Congregation

It’s Sunday morning, and we’ve yet to visit our first church. Even though it’s only been a week, I already miss my friends at our church. I already miss what I know and expect, even though I know to expect the unexpected.

At least the unexpected happens in a familiar place and with friends.

As an introvert who excels at social awkwardness, I relish familiar surroundings. Going somewhere new produces a deep fear I yearn to avoid. I have driven into a parking lot at a new place, panicked, and driven away.

Instead of fighting fear, I prefer to flee it. I understand panic attacks. It takes prayer and God’s help to subdue them.

I get up around 6 a.m., as usual, but Church #1 doesn’t start for five hours. That’s far too much time for me to wait. I wonder, and I worry. Doubt creeps in. My fear grows.

If only the service started earlier. Then there wouldn’t be as much time for the enemy to whisper his lies: “This is a stupid idea.” “You will fail.” “No one will read your book.”

52 Churches: A Yearlong Journey Encountering God, His Church, and Our Common Faith

I must resist the devil, so he will flee from me (see James 4:7).

Or at least I can distract myself by working on this chapter. My insides churn with equal parts excitement and fear—or perhaps it’s just the sausage pizza from last night.

It doesn’t help that my bed provided more restlessness than rest. I add “tired” to my growing list of reasons not to go.

I now understand why the non-regular church attender can so easily stay home despite their best intentions. The living room recliner and television remote are much more inviting and much less threatening.

Yet I press on. This isn’t due to my character but to avoid embarrassment. Too many people know about this project for me to abort my mission on day one.

The first of fifty-two churches is a small one in an old building. I know nothing about them, even though they’re a scant one mile from home.

For years, we’ve driven past their tiny church, yet I’ve never met anyone who went there. How strange. We’ve lived in this community for nearly a quarter of a century, and my connection to it goes back even further.

I know people from the other local churches, why not here?

Does anyone actually go to this one?

Learning about them online isn’t an option. They don’t have a website or even a Facebook page.

Candy and I discuss when we should leave but don’t agree.

We don’t want to breeze in at the last minute, removing any opportunity for pre-service interaction. Yet, arriving too early opens us to awkwardness if there’s no one to talk to, leaving us with nothing to do but squirm.

We pray before heading out. I ask God to bless our time at church and teach us what he wants us to learn. I request his favor, so we can have a positive impact on this church and the people there. We say “amen,” and then we leave.

Candy shows no apprehension, and I doubt she’s aware of mine. She keeps our conversation light. In the two-minute drive, there’s no time for my angst to grow. Before I know it, we’re there.

My palms grow sweaty and my heart pounds. Nausea overtakes me.

What have I gotten us into?

Takeaway for Everyone: Make it as easy for visitors as possible. Providing helpful information online is critical: what to expect, how to dress, a theological overview, and any distinctive characteristics.

[Check out the discussion questions for church #1.]

Learn what happens next when we visit our first church.

My wife and I visited a different Christian Church every Sunday for a year. This is our story. Get your copy of 52 Churches today, available in ebook, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook.

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.

Christian Living

Are You Reluctant to Invite Friends to Church?

The Service that Members Want Isn’t What Unchurched People Need

Over the years I’ve wanted to invite friends to church. Too often I don’t. This isn’t due to a lack of courage on my part but a fear that the church service would drive them from Jesus instead of drawing them closer.

And for those times I took the risk and invited friends to church, I can’t ever remember once when the outcome was positive. They came once and never returned. When I asked why, they often cited an aspect of the service that confused them, turned them off, or offended them.

I may have been more successful at pointing them to Jesus if I hadn’t invited them to go to church with me.

Dogmatic Preaching

At one fundamental church I attended, the teaching pastor delighted in decrying sinful behavior. He was legalistic to the extreme. He had a lengthy list of things we should not do as followers of Jesus. And the list of things we could do was short and dreary.

He had the zeal of a Pharisee. And he seldom mentioned God’s grace or mercy. Given this, why would anyone want to follow Jesus?

When we invite friends to church, they need to hear a compelling message, not a repelling one.

Miserable Music

The worship music at many churches struggles to speak to unchurched people. Sometimes it’s a dated style that’s irrelevant in today’s world. It’s out of touch and inaccessible, sending the wrong signal about Jesus and his church.

Other times it’s a quality issue. True, from a worship standpoint, it’s what’s in the musicians’ hearts that matters to God, not the sound of their voice or the skill of their playing. Yet to someone on the outside, unprofessional music is a huge turnoff.

When we invite friends to church, they deserve, and expect, to experience professional music that connects with them and draws them to God—not makes them cringe.

Unfriendly People

What happens before and after the service, of course, is critical too. Some churches are friendly toward visitors and welcome them well. But most people at most churches don’t talk with those they don’t know. This means they ignore visitors.

When we invite friends to church, we shouldn’t be the only ones to talk to them. But too often we are.

A Seeker Sensitive Solution

This problem of inviting people to church is not a new issue, but one that’s been around for a while. It’s just that it’s become more pronounced in recent years. There is now a bigger comprehension and expectation gap between people who go to church and people who don’t.

If you decades ago, the pronounced solution was to have a seeker sensitive service. The goal was to recast what happened on Sunday morning to appeal to the unchurched who showed up.

The vision was that members would invite friends to church, and the church would give them a service that connected with them and drew them in.

Though this was an insightful vision, it neglected to address the spiritual growth of members, directing everything that happened on Sunday morning to those on the outside. A seeker sensitive service addressed one problem and created another one.

The Purpose of Church

As we grapple with this problem, we should consider the purpose of church. Let’s look at the early church as recorded in the New Testament of the Bible. The churches were a gathering of believers.

Their goal wasn’t to invite friends to church to encounter Jesus. Instead, they first invited their friends to follow Jesus. Then they would go to church to receive encouragement from other believers and grow in their faith.

The purpose of church wasn’t to bring about their salvation but to help them grow in it.

Therefore, our goal shouldn’t be to invite friends to church, but to invite them to follow Jesus first. Church comes later.

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.

Bogged Down Reading the Bible?

10 Essential Bible Reading Tips, from Peter DeHaan

Get the Bible Reading Tip Sheet: “10 Tips to Turn Bible Reading from Drudgery to Delight.”

​Enter your info and receive the free Bible Reading Tip Sheet and be added to Peter’s email list.

Visiting Churches

The Closest Church

Warm Inside

Despite my encouragement, Candy has provided little input on the churches we visit. Though she recommended The Church with the Fundamental Vibe and The Nonconventional Church, I compiled the rest of the list. Today we’ll visit the closest church.

Originally containing thirty-five names, I’ve now cut my list in half. While it might be interesting to spend nine months visiting area churches, I lack the patience.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

As we move forward, I wonder if we’ll add other congregations to our lists of contenders or if visiting more churches will merely delay her selection.

I promised that she could pick our next church. I wonder if she already has and is keeping it from me.

The Importance of Christian Community

Not being part of a specific Christian community gnaws at my soul. Though I maintain my personal spiritual practices of Bible reading and study, prayer, fasting, and writing, my faith flounders.

I need, desperately so, to be part of a faith community to provide support and encouragement. I need to receive it, and I long to give it. Without this vital element of spiritual camaraderie, I’m less of a follower of Jesus.

“No man is an island,” said John Donne. Now I understand. This realization, however, takes too long for me to recognize, but when I finally do, the need is imperative.

While I don’t expect church to fill this void, I expect it to stop my downward slide into religious dejection.

Having at last moved into our house, we decide to visit nearby churches. First up is a church a scant six tenths of a mile away.

For years I’ve longed to attend a church in my community where we can gather with our neighbors. Though this church is the closest to us, ideally meeting my first desire, I’m not aware of any neighbors who go there.

Cold Outside

Today is unseasonably cold, the coldest day of the winter so far, at -6 °F (-21 °C). The biting wind makes it feel even worse. Though some churches canceled because of the cold, this one did not.

It’s the closest church to our home. In the two minutes it takes to drive there, I forget to pray. Feeling guilty, I mumble a quick petition after I park the car.

The parking lot is vast. With every inch plowed, massive snowbanks line its perimeter. With 90 percent of the lot empty, I chuckle at the futility of clearing the entire space when they need only a small section.

Of course, with today’s cold weather, some folks will surely stay home. This will make attendance even more sparse.

With the frigid temperature and a much lower wind chill of up to -30 °F (-34 °C), we walk briskly and take shallow breaths so we don’t freeze our lungs.

The cloudless sky treats us to a bright sunshine, trying to trick us into thinking the day is more pleasant than it is.

A Warm Welcome

Two men greet us just inside the door. Though I don’t think they’re greeters per se, I do think they’re intentional about meeting new people. “Are you new to the area or visiting?”

“We are new to the area, and we are visiting,” I say.

They welcome us to the neighborhood and to their church. I don’t offer my name because I’m waiting to see if they offer theirs. They don’t. We make small talk. It’s an affable conversation, but they share no information about their church.

Pleasant but superficial best describes our encounter. When the conversation wanes, I excuse myself and move further inside the building.

I scan the large narthex. Most everyone appears younger than us, with many thirtysomething couples and their kids. I’m encouraged.

People mill about but no one else seems interested in talking to us. A few folks, however, do smile and give us a welcoming nod. With nothing else to do, we head toward the sanctuary.

At the auditorium entrance, a man hands us a bulletin and an information brochure. I thank him with a smile and a downward tip of my head.

With few people sitting, we have our choice of seats. I walk halfway down the center aisle, turn left, and slide midway down the padded pew in the first section.

The area is essentially cube-shaped, with white walls. It reminds us of some of the United Methodist churches we’ve visited in the past.

Here, offsetting the plain white walls, is too much stained wood trim and some gold-colored embellishments, which strike me as pretentious.

Windows abound, letting in much natural light and taking full advantage of today’s glorious sunshine. The high cathedral ceiling accentuates the open feel.

A few of the windows in the upper front are stained glass, not of the traditional variety, but a more subtle contemporary design. However, a large screen, ready to display elements of the service, blocks our full view of them.

The floor slopes toward the front, with the pews arranged in four sections, allowing room for several hundred people. At about 25 percent full, I wonder how much the weather affected attendance.

Overall, this is a cautiously modern setting, with traditional elements mixed in. I’m not sure how to react to this dichotomy, which is exacerbated by the nontraditional musical instruments on stage.

Worship Time and More

With a nod to the winter weather, the worship leader welcomes us to start the service. The worship team plays three or four numbers in the opening set. As they move from song to song, the worship leader alternates between guitar and piano.

When he moves, the pianist switches over to a keyboard. There’s also a drummer and a backup guitarist, who plays various stringed instruments.

A trio of background vocalists round out their light pop sound as we sing contemporary songs and choruses.

Next is the children’s message. I’m surprised at the number of kids who flood forward, perhaps twenty-five or thirty.

In a church service, the kids are never easy to spot when scanning the crowd, but when they get up for a children’s message or to leave for their own activities, their numbers become apparent, often surprising me. Today is such a day.

The minister addresses the kids at their level, while also providing value to the rest of the congregation. He verbally interacts with them, physically involves them, and provides a demonstration for us all.

This is not a brief, obligatory activity to check off and move on. It’s packed with intention. By the time he dismisses them, we already know the theme of his message and his main point.

The Message

The minister has a slight accent, Dutch I assume. At first, I need to focus to catch what he says, but after a few minutes, I no longer notice.

This is because of the easy flow of his words, his engaging nature, and the value in what he shares. I immediately like him.

Following the children’s message, he promotes a new sermon series for Lent, which he’ll start next week, after wrapping up his abbreviated five-week series on the Apostles’ Creed today.

Next Sunday will feature Holy Communion. He reads a preparatory text to focus our thoughts on that event and the meaning behind it.

Then we have a responsive reading of the Ten Commandments, followed by reciting the Apostles’ Creed in unison.

From his brief introduction, I assume on week one of the series he summarized the creed, followed by a week for each part of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For a denomination that has historically glossed over the work of the Holy Spirit, I’m pleasantly surprised at his inclusion today, being mentioned from the pulpit and in our singing. I wonder if this is normal for them. I hope it is.

Today’s message addresses a line in the creed that is often misunderstood and a cause of concern for many: “I believe in the holy catholic Church.”

This is not a specific nod to the Roman Catholic Church, but instead an acknowledgment to the universal Christian church (which includes Roman Catholicism, along with all of Protestantism).

The key to this delineation is big C Catholic versus small c catholic. The distinction is huge, but it requires explanation for most all who hear this statement of belief from the creed for the first time.

Church, he says, is not a building, a congregation, or a denomination. From the Greek word Ekklesia, which is translated church, we comprehend it to mean “an assembly of people called out of the world to become part of God’s family.”

Key Points

There are two keys to this understanding.

First, we must be united (Matthew 16:18). Second, we must be holy (1 Peter 2:9), The minister defines holy as “set apart” and “associated with God”.

I appreciate this definition of holy, as it helps me perceive it as something I can grasp as opposed to something unattainable.

To realize being a universal church, we must be united; we must be one. He hearkens back to his key text for today, Ephesians 4:1–6, which highlights this with the use of one seven times.

His message is brilliant and resonates with me, yet, out of necessity, he stops too soon. If we are to truly be a universal church, to be united, to be one, then there is no room for the division caused by our thousands of denominations.

Yet he and this church are part of a denomination. The ultimate conclusion in a push for unity is removing denominational distinctions. He doesn’t make that statement.

In fact, he even attempts to justify denominations. But I don’t grasp his explanation. Despite this, he gave a powerful message that I appreciate.

He concludes the service with a short congregational prayer and a lengthy list of announcements. Then he excuses the children for Sunday school. The service ends by taking the offering.

Connection Time

Afterward, coffee and cookies wait for the adults and in fifteen minutes there will be a discussion about the sermon. The opportunity for discussion beckons, but I decide not to.

I fear I might blurt out something inappropriate, such as “denominations are the antithesis of church unity.” I am their guest, and it’s best to keep that thought to myself.

Though the greeting time during the service was one of obligatory routine, afterward people welcome us and talk. They share their names, and we reciprocate. They ask about us and tell us about their church.

I’m pleasantly surprised to spot a neighbor and we talk at length. For years they attended another church, one quite different from this one, but have been coming here for the past few months.

He also points out another one of our neighbors I haven’t yet met.

As we continue to talk, he makes a vague reference to a likely future change for this church, assuming that is why we are here today. When I shake my head, he explains.

The gist is them joining with another large area church to form something new at this location. The result will be hundreds more people and multiple services, two things that turn me off.

“Why?” I ask.

He shrugs.

Our time together is great, really great. His wife comes up, and we talk as well. Though I want our interaction to continue, their kids grow antsy.

I suspect Mom and Dad are ready to leave. I thank them for our conversation and wish them a great rest of the day.

We talk to a few more folks as we head to our car. My expectations for this church were low, but I’m pleased with what I see.

For years I’ve longed to attend church in my neighborhood with my neighbors, to share Christian community in my community. This church, our closest church, offers that.

Coupled with a great sermon, I add this congregation to my list of contenders.

My wife, however, isn’t as enamored. I don’t think she’s willing to consider them further.

I wonder why she agrees to visit the churches I suggest if she’s not interested. Why did we go here today?

I fear she’s just patiently waiting for me to work through our list of churches, so that once it’s completed she can announce the church she’s already picked. Am I merely delaying her decision?

Midweek, the pastor emails us, offering to talk or meet if we have questions or would like to learn more. I want to take him up on his offer but don’t. Though I’d enjoy getting together, I fear it would raise false expectations on his part.


Seek ways to reach out to visitors: talk with them, form connections, even invite them to meet. And this doesn’t just apply to paid staff. It applies to everyone.

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

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

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

This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, 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?

Visiting Churches

The Kind-of-Traditional Church

A Failure to Connect

It’s time to leave for church, but our son isn’t feeling well, and his wife will stay home with him. So, Candy, my wife, and I make another last-minute change.

It’s 9:50 a.m., with not enough time to make it to any of the area’s many 10 a.m. services. I scan my list of options and only five have later services. I pick a church that one of our future neighbors attends.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

A Recommendation (of Sorts)

She’s the first person we met in the neighborhood. We had an extended conversation about family and life, which led to talking about God and faith.

When I asked what church her family attends, she rattled off the name, and I made a mental note to investigate. “But I’m not sure why we go there,” she added with reservation. “I don’t really like it; it’s kind of traditional.”

“How long have you gone there?”

“About fifteen years.”

“That’s a long time to go to a church you don’t like.”

“We have friends there,” she explained. “It’s comfortable.”

“Yeah, community and connections are important, but still . . .”

“I guess it’s easier to keep going than to change.”

“Do your kids like it?”

She shrugged. “It’s all they’ve ever known.”

I want to probe some more, but I’ve already said too much to a person I just met. I remain silent and let her steer the conversation. She changes the subject.

So, we head to her church today, but I’m not sure why. Partly, I suppose, is out of respect for my new friend. I hope to see her and her family.

Perhaps we can sit with them. But we should have planned for this, and with two morning services, our chances of seeing them are cut in half.

Another reason for going is to see if I agree with her assessment. Already I’ve decided I won’t like the church, while at the same time I strive to remain open-minded. What a conundrum.

A Raining Day

With an 11 a.m. service, we have plenty of time to arrive early—and we planned to—but by the time we get in the car, we don’t have much of a cushion. I drive as Candy enters the address in our GPS.

I pray for the service and our time there.

The fall day is cool and the skies, gray. Windy, with intermittent rain, the gloomy weather matches my melancholy mood.

As we drive, the sun tries to break through the clouds to brighten my perspective. Unsuccessful, the clouds win, unleashing their torrent as we pull into the parking lot.

With no open spots by the door, I keep driving. That’s when we spot another door on a newer part of their facility. This must be the main entrance, but there are no spots near it either.

I keep driving. Though I expect to find spaces recently vacated by the first service crowd, I don’t. Will I ever find a place to park? Eventually I do.

We brace ourselves against the wind and wet as we press toward the door. The facility is larger than I expected. The outside screams traditional. Inside, people mill about.

First Impressions

I immediately notice two things: I’m decidedly underdressed, which doesn’t surprise me, and we are in a throng of senior citizens, which does surprise me.

I mentally recoil, overwhelmed by the glut of suits and gray hair, paired with dresses and blue-hued perms.

Everyone looks a couple decades older than us. I feel out of place and am self-conscious. Why are we here?

People avoid making eye contact and may not even see us. Perhaps my blue jeans and tennis shoes are an affront to them, or maybe they’re preoccupied with their own pre-service agenda.

One man is the exception, not only making eye contact but smiling too. He extends his hand and welcomes me. I reciprocate and am about to share my name when I realize he’s not ready for further interaction.

We press toward the sanctuary.

The traditional vibe escalates as we weave our way, invisible, among the mass of people. “Aren’t there any bulletins?” asks my wife. “You’d think a church like this would have bulletins.” I agree but don’t see any either.

Finally, she spots a man holding a stack of papers. She approaches him and asks. He hands her one. Pleased, she rejoins me, and we sit in the second of four sections, about a third of the way forward.

The bulletin says they have a conference this weekend, with a guest speaker today. Inwardly I sigh. We came to experience their normal service, not an atypical one.

The bulletin also reports last week’s statistics. The attendance was 507, evenly split between the two services. Sixty percent of those folks also went to Sunday school between the morning services. For their evening service, 217 people showed up.

Their general fund, comprising 63 percent of their budget, is lagging their year-to-date target by a few percentage points. They also have a building fund, at 19 percent of their goal, which is slightly ahead of where they hoped to be.

Most encouraging, however, is their missions fund. I’m impressed they have one and that it’s 17 percent of their total budget.

Even more remarkable, their year-to-date missions contributions are 27 percent ahead of their goal. This is a giving church, and I applaud their desire to support outreach efforts.

They also have off-budget items for benevolence and debt-retirement.

I suspect the sanctuary seats about four or five hundred. It will end up being about 75 percent full.

Though I see a handful of younger families and a few mid-lifers, most are in their senior citizen years. I question the wisdom of expanding their facility when their numbers will decrease through attrition over the next ten years.

A man comes up and introduces himself. “Are you visiting today?” He’s wearing a wireless ear mic, so I assume he’s the pastor.

“Yes, we are.” He’s only the second person to talk to me and the first who said more than “Hi.” I want to make the most of our interaction.

“Is this your first time here?” he asks, even though he knows the answer.

Candy and I both smile, nodding our enthusiasm. “Yes, it is!”

“Great! I’m glad you’re here today. Did you receive our welcome gift when you came in?”

I want to tell him no one even talked to us. Instead, I shake my head.

“Well, be sure to get it on the way out.” But he doesn’t tell us where.

If I’m to do as he says, I need more details. “Okay,” I say with a lack of conviction. The obvious solution, the visitor-friendly approach, would be for him to go get a welcome gift and give it to us.

Satisfied with my response, he smiles broadly. “You’re in for a real treat today! We have a special guest speaker.”

“So we won’t get to hear you, then?”

A Guest Pastor

“Oh, no. I’m not the teaching pastor. I’m the visitation pastor. You’ll see me up front a little today but not much. Our teaching pastor is really good. Our guest speaker is even better. It will be a great service.”

As we talk, he’s also distracted by someone vying for his attention. Finally, he excuses himself to address this pressing need. I expect he’ll return to finish our conversation, but he moves on to other people, so I return to checking out the sanctuary.

Even with a baby grand piano and an area for a large choir, the huge stage provides ample space.

Their motto, projected overhead, reads “Living His Truth, Loving His People, Sharing His Message.” Arrayed in a circle, I’m not sure which element comes first. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Later I check their website for clarity, but it gives a different motto: “Changing Lives for Eternity.”

The service opens with a welcome and announcements. Then there’s time for “personal, private prayer.” But by the time I note those words in my journal, the personal, private prayer time is over, and the leader gives the opening prayer.

Though there was an organ prelude, we sing with piano accompaniment. After two hymns, there’s a congregational prayer, which morphs into the offertory prayer.

With the “Amen,” the ushers pass the offering plates while the organ plays “Take My Life and Let It Be.” Then we sing a third song.


Our guest speaker is an apologetics preacher. I groan to myself. Apologetics, which I’ve always thought was a strange name, is a reasoned, systematic defense of a theological position.

Though the older crowd will delight in his teaching, I will not.

I’ve experienced apologetics as close-minded, lacking in grace and abounding with critical conviction. Speakers leave no room for disagreement, presenting their opinions as fact and expecting everyone to agree with them.

Dissenters are surely heretics.

Though apologetics predates the modern era, I perceive it, and its cousin, systematic theology, primarily as constructs of the modern era, which fueled their popularity.

However, if God deemed a holistic, theological treatise as important, he’d have surely detailed it in the Bible—and Paul would have been the person to write it. He did not—or at least I’ve not found it yet.

Ironically, the speaker says he’s focused on today’s youth. Does he know they’re primarily postmodern thinkers?

I doubt apologetics holds much interest for them and may even reinforce their disillusionment with Christianity and the institutional church.

This doesn’t matter too much since few youth are present. Instead, their modern-thinking grandparents are here, and they will enjoy his teaching and clamor for more.

The title of his message is “Becoming Bold.” After some introductory remarks, he shares a surprising statistic: “There are 400,000 churches in the US and only 6,000 first-run movie theaters.”

He pauses for effect and repeats it a second time. Then he adds, “But we’ve lost our influence. We’re hardly even noticeable.”

Though this may not be a fair comparison, it’s a sobering one. It’s also the most interesting thing he says his entire message and the last thing I write. Eventually I close my notebook.

The conference’s intent is to give us a reason for hope, but by the end of the message, I feel only despair. I heard nothing of hope. I felt no love. But I do feel alienated.

Can’t Wait to Leave

This is not because I disagreed with the speaker’s message, but because his narrow interpretation left no room for divergent views.

He single-handedly became the poster child of everything I see wrong with narrow-minded, modern-thinking preachers. I can’t wait to leave.

Even though my spirit is seething, I still hope for some post-service interaction, to experience a bit of Christian community.

Though we linger, no one approaches us, and I can’t catch anyone’s eye, despite sometimes holding my gaze long enough to border on staring.

We walk slowly. I wonder if someone will offer us the promised welcome gift, while not caring if they do. No one does.

By now we’re out of the sanctuary and halfway to the exit. My pulse quickens as my soul’s angst, a spiritual indignation, threatens to overflow.

A primal instinct to flee bubbles up inside me. “I’ve got to get out of here,” I hiss out of the corner of my mouth.

I don’t know if my wife hears me, but as the pressure on my chest builds, I stride toward the door with intention.

Even so, I make one last, futile attempt at eye contact with an older man as I push through the double doors to make my escape. He doesn’t even glance at me. Perhaps it’s for the best.

Now free, I gulp fresh air. Though the hard rain has stopped, it’s still misting. I’m glad for this moisture hitting my face, for it will mask my tears that threaten to erupt.

I plaster on a false smile as I stride toward the car. Once inside I finally feel safe. Now I can breathe again. I take a deep, cleansing breath.

I want to vent, but know that’s a bad idea, because I could lose the last bit of control I have over the pent-up emotion amassing inside me. With a calm, even voice, I finally seek my bride’s opinion. “So, what did you think?”

My modern-thinking wife really liked the message, as I knew she would. Eventually she answers my underlying but unasked question. “But I don’t want to go back.”

I’m so relieved.


If you want to cater to your members, give them what they want. If you want to attract new people, give them what they need—even if it makes some members upset.

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

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

This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, 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.

Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.

Visiting Churches

The Outlier Congregation

New Approaches for an Old Denomination

It’s a holiday weekend. Our son and daughter-in-law are out of town, so we’re free agents.

A return trip to the Megachurch is in order, but our daughter invites us to go to a church she and her husband have visited the past couple of weeks. A friend from college invited her.

The Megachurch can wait.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

This church, part of an old traditional denomination, has two services: 9:15 and 11:00. We’ll go to the first one.

I check their website and am encouraged to read the bold proclamation: “Making passionate followers of Jesus.” This must be their vision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we find the church easily enough.

Larger Than Expected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They have a typical time for greeting. Though the people are nice as we shake hands, it’s cursory, consisting of pleasant smiles and lacking connection.

Aside from our family and hosts, this is the only time all morning we interact with anyone else.

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

An Outlier Church for Their Denomination

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

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

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

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

The Church in Laodicea

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

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

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

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

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

I notice a Celtic cross on the side of the sanctuary and ask about its significance, but no one knows.

As I recall, the circle that surrounds the intersection of the cross’s two arms represents unity or eternity, two concepts I embrace: unity while on earth, followed by eternity in heaven.

Different Perspectives

Later, I talk with my son-in-law about the church. He likes it but wants something more contemporary, more like the church we went to before we moved.

I agree with him and then wonder aloud if this might be the closest we’ll find in this more traditional area.

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

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

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

I tell Candy I could see myself going back.

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

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

She snorts. “I sure hope not.”


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

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

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

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

This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, 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.

Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.

Bible Insights

How Do We React to the Glory of the Lord?

We Should Fall on Our Faces in the Presence of God’s Glory

A man brings Ezekiel to the temple. The glory of the Lord fills the place. Overwhelmed, Ezekiel falls facedown, worshiping the Almighty.

How often do we encounter the glory of the Lord? How often do we fall facedown in reverent worship of our all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present creator? Not often enough, I fear.

Though some people may encounter the glory of the Lord at church on Sunday, it’s been sadly lacking from my church experiences. And I’ve visited a lot of churches: 52 Churches, More Than 52 Churches, and counting.

Yes, I’ve experienced this awe-inspiring spiritual reality at times, but it’s never happened at a Sunday service. Why?

Most of today’s scripted and timed church services leave no room for the glory of the Lord to reveal itself. We have a schedule to keep. We have expectations to leave on time so we can have time for what happens next.

Too often church attendance is something we squeeze into an already packed day. We check it off our list and go on to the next thing. In doing so, we miss the glory of the Lord. In doing so, we miss the opportunity to fall on our face in holy reverent worship.

Experience the Presence of the Glory of the Lord

Seldom have I encountered the presence of the glory of the Lord at a church service. Yet I can’t say never. I do remember one time. It was an unusual service in an atypical setting. Hardly anyone showed up.

The minister launched into her prepared message, but a few minutes later the Holy Spirit sent her in a different direction.

She talked for near on an hour about a different topic—one she hadn’t expected to give, but was fully prepared to do so—engaging us in the process and teaching us what God wanted us to hear.

Thank you, Papa.

She wrapped up her message, gave the benediction, and we stood. I expected the service was over and prepared to leave. Not so fast. “Do you want to stay and worship God?” Most certainly.

Moving to a different space, we sang two songs, lasting forty-five minutes. The glory of the Lord filled the place. We basked in his presence.

Overwhelmed by this supernatural encounter with Almighty God, my only response was to drop to my knees and bow down in worship of him.

It’s a church experience I will never forget.

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Ezekiel 43-45, and today’s post is on Ezekiel 44:4.

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.

Bogged Down Reading the Bible?

10 Essential Bible Reading Tips, from Peter DeHaan

Get the Bible Reading Tip Sheet: “10 Tips to Turn Bible Reading from Drudgery to Delight.”

​Enter your info and receive the free Bible Reading Tip Sheet and be added to Peter’s email list.

Christian Living

Church Distractions

What Do You Focus on When You Should Be Focusing on God?

This is a post I’m hesitant to share. Yet I’ve always been forthright when I talk about my spiritual journey. So there’s no point in holding back now.

The disconcerting truth is I often struggle with church distractions during the service. I wrestle to keep my focus solely on God.

Though not often, sometimes my thoughts go elsewhere. I may fixate on something that occurred before church or be preoccupied with what will happen afterward. Though my body is present, my mind isn’t always there.

Yet these types of church distractions don’t happen to me too much—anymore. My pre-church prayer usually removes these mental interruptions.

My struggle with church distractions usually relates to what happens at church during my time there. This can occur throughout the entire service.

Church Distractions during the Music

Here’s a list of some things that threatened to take my attention away from God in the first part of the church service:

Edit song lyrics: As a writer, I fixate on words. Whenever I see something written—and even sometimes when I hear words—I’m mentally edit them. This happens often with song lyrics at church.

Irritated by false rhymes: Though I don’t often write rhyming poetry, I appreciate a smart rhyme. But whenever I encounter a false rhyme in a song—or a contrived twist to force a rhyme—I’m taken out of the text.

Add punctuation: Another occupational hazard of being a writer is that I edit too. This means I often mentally insert commas, periods, and ellipses into the song lyrics displayed overhead. This would make them easier to sing, especially for songs with odd timing.

Consider biblical support: The purpose of the songs we sing at church (at least I think so) is to draw our attention to God.

It’s not altogether bad if our focus shifts to the Bible, but too often a lyric captivates my attention as I mentally seek biblical support for it. I can easily miss the rest of the song when I go down this path.

Critique the audio: Early in my life I was an audio engineer at a TV station. I ran the sound board and mixed the audio feeds for broadcast. I sometimes slip back into this mindset with the sound and sound system at church.

Consider cameras: In my work in TV, I sat next to the director. This allowed me to hear his instructions to the camera operators and technical crew, as well as to watch him switch between video feeds.

Because of this, I sometimes slip back into focusing on the technical aspects of producing the service.

Watch the worship team: Another early job of mine was working as an electronics technician at a music store. Though not musically inclined, everyone I worked with was.

Their job at the music store was merely to pay the bills so they could pursue their passion to play music.

They mesmerized me with accounts of their concerts and performances. As such, I watch musicians from a perspective different than most people.

Church Distractions during the Message

My list of distractions is shorter for the second part of the service, but it exists nonetheless.

Technical aspects: During the sermon I’m less likely for the audio, video, and camera work to divert my attention, but it still happens.

Biblical support: I’m more likely, however, to be sidetracked in considering the scriptural support for the minister’s words. Though this is a laudable effort (Acts 17:11), I may sometimes go too far.

Delivery: I consume many hours listening to podcasts each week, normally at twice the normal speed, at 2x. This requires me to focus if I am to catch every word.

The downside is when I hear a minister speak live, the slower, real-time delivery (effectively at 1x) provides much opportunity for my mind to go elsewhere. Taking notes helps keep my focus on the message.

Writing and research ideas: During the sermon—as well as the rest of the service—ideas pop into my mind.

Often these turn into blog posts. Occasionally it’s a book title or concept. Sometimes it’s a topic to research in the Bible or contemplate more fully under Holy Spirit direction.

I jot these items in my notebook so I can shove them out of my mind at the time and return to what’s happening in front of me.

How to Stay Focused at Church

My lengthy list of church distractions may have some elements that resonate with you. Or perhaps you’ve come up with your own list. Everyone struggles in this area, although some much more than others.

The issue in all this, however, is to combat it. Though we may make some progress on our own volition, as an effort of self-control, the real solution comes from God.

When I remember to seek him in prayer—both before the service and when distraction threatens—this is the best way to remove the disruption and return my focus to where it belongs: on God and my relationship with him.

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.

Bogged Down Reading the Bible?

10 Essential Bible Reading Tips, from Peter DeHaan

Get the Bible Reading Tip Sheet: “10 Tips to Turn Bible Reading from Drudgery to Delight.”

​Enter your info and receive the free Bible Reading Tip Sheet and be added to Peter’s email list.

Christian Living

Realign our Church Practices of Music and Message

We Must Rethink What Happens at Our Church Services

A friend once said in his Sunday morning message that some people go to church for the music and put up with the sermon. Others go for the sermon and put up with the music.

The minister’s statement suggests that people feel a church service has two primary elements. One is the worship music, and the other is the sermon: music and message.

I get this. At one point in my life I endured the singing as I waited for the teaching. Then my perspective flopped as I pursued worship and endured the sermon. Now neither matters too much to me.

In recent years I’ve not gone to church for the music nor the message. I show up for the chance of experiencing meaningful community before or after the service.

Put Music or Message in Its Place

Though the New Testament talks about both music and message, neither seems central to their meetings, especially not the way we pursue these two items today.

Music: Though music is a part of Jesus’s church, it emerges more as a secondary pursuit. Paul doesn’t ascribe music to a worship leader but to each person gathered. The purpose of this is to build up Jesus’s church (1 Corinthians 14:26).

Music is part of the one another commands as a way of ministering to each other (Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18–19).

An interesting side note is that the New Testament never mentions using musical instruments in their worship of God, as happened throughout the Old Testament. This doesn’t imply that our church singing today should be a cappella, but this is something we might want to contemplate.

Sometimes New Testament singing to God happens apart from a church gathering, such as when Paul and Silas are sitting in jail (Acts 16:25). Let’s consider how we can apply their example to our reality today.

Sometimes the music set at one of today’s church services is worshipful, drawing us into closer fellowship with God. But too often it’s more of a performance for attendees then a tribute to our creator.

This makes the music portion at some churches more akin to a concert, even to the point of including a light show, smoke machines, and accompanying video projection behind the performers.

And if you claim our church worship time isn’t a performance, then why are the singers and musicians positioned in front of everyone and elevated on a stage? If the music is truly a tribute to God and not a performance for us, then why not station the musicians behind the congregation or out of sight so their presence won’t distract us from God?

Message: Another friend calls the church sermon a lecture. I’m not sure if he’s joking or serious, but I get his point. I’ve heard sermons that so sidestepped the Bible, faith, and the good news of Jesus that the resulting words were no different than a lecture from a secular speaker.

There are, however, three instances where New Testament writers describe activity that we might equate to a sermon. These are in specific situations.

The first is educating people about their faith (Acts 2:42). This implicitly is for new believers, giving them spiritual milk as we would feed a baby (1 Corinthians 3:1–3). This basic training grows them in their salvation (1 Peter 2:1–3).

It prepares them to teach others (Hebrews 5:11–14). It’s not something to persist in Sunday after Sunday. Instead it’s a temporary situation we should grow out of.

The second is missionaries who tell those outside the church about Jesus. This can’t happen at a church meeting because those who need to hear the good news of Jesus aren’t there.

Spreading the gospel message requires going out to encounter people where they are, not expecting them to come to us and our church services (Acts 8:4, Acts 8:40, Romans 10:14–15, and 2 Corinthians 10:16).

And the third is traveling missionaries who give updates at the local churches (Acts 14:27, Acts 15:4, and Acts 20:7).

Everyone Participates: Regarding these two elements of music and message—that we place so much emphasis on in our churches today—Paul gives instructions to the church in Corinth. It’s not the job of a worship leader to lead us in song.

Nor is it the role of a minister to preach a sermon. We—the people in attendance—are to do these things, and more, for each other. It’s an egalitarian gathering where we all take part for our common good to build up Jesus’s church (1 Corinthians 14:26).

Remember, through Jesus, we are all priests. It’s time we start acting like it.


What does show up as a reoccurring theme throughout the New Testament is community. But this goes way beyond the time of personal interaction that I seek before or after a Sunday service.

The church, as a group of people, should major in community, on getting along and experiencing life together. Community should happen before, during, and after all our gatherings—both those on Sunday, as well as throughout the week. In all that we do, community must be our focus.

We should enjoy spending time with each other, just hanging out.

If we don’t like spending time with the people we see for an hour each Sunday morning, then something’s wrong: not with them, but with us. Yes, community can get messy.

But we have Jesus’s example, the Holy Spirit’s insight, and the Bible’s wisdom to guide us in navigating the challenges that erupt when people spend time with each other in intentional interaction.

Here are some of the aspects of community that we see in the early church, and that we can follow in today’s church.

Share Meals: A lot of eating takes place in Jesus’s church. We must feed our bodies to sustain us physically, so why not do it in the company of other like-minded people?

In community, sharing food becomes a celebration of life and of faith. (Read more about breaking bread in “10 More New Testament Practices, Part 2”.)

Fast: Although Jesus’s followers do a lot of eating together, they also fast (Matthew 6:16–17 and Acts 14:23). Fasting is an intentional act of devotion that helps connect us with God and align our perspectives with his.

Remember that although Jesus’s disciples didn’t fast, once he left, it was time for his followers to resume fasting (Luke 5:33–35).

Prayer: Another reoccurring New Testament theme is prayer. This isn’t a minister-led oration on Sunday morning. This is more akin to a mid-week prayer meeting, with everyone gathered in community to seek God in prayer together (Acts 1:14 and Acts 12:5).

Listen to the Holy Spirit: As the people pray, sometimes associated with fasting, they listen to the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28). Then they obey what the Holy Spirit calls them to do (Acts 13:2–3).

Minister to One Another: In their community they follow the Bible’s one another commands, which teach us how to get along in a God-honoring way. (See treat one another.”)

Serve Others: We serve one another in our faith community (Galatians 5:13). We should also serve those outside our church, just as Jesus served others. And we shouldn’t serve with any motive other than with the pure intent to show them the love of Jesus.

Loving others through our actions may be the most powerful witness we can offer. We need to let our light shine so that the world can see (Matthew 5:14–16 and James 2:14–17). All of humanity is watching. May they see Jesus in what we do (1 Peter 2:12).

Tell Others about Jesus: The New Testament gives examples of people telling others about Jesus in their local community (Acts 3:11–26 and Acts 7:1–53). It also mentions sending people out into the world as missionaries (Acts 8:4–5 and Acts 13:2).

Witnessing, both local and abroad, springs from the foundation of community.


In our community we should pursue harmony. Jesus prayed that we would be one (John 17:20–21). The early church modeled unity (Acts 4:32). We also covered unity in the “The Acts 4 Example.”

When issues arise among Jesus’s followers that threaten their single-mindedness, they work through it to avoid division (Acts 11:1–18). This unity includes the agreement of their theology (Acts 15:1–21).


We need to rethink what happens at our church, deemphasizing the significance of music and message while elevating the importance of community, one that functions in unity for Jesus.

Read more about this in Peter’s thought-provoking book, Jesus’s Broken Church, available in e-book, audiobook, 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.

Christian Living

5 New Testament Ideas for Church

Discover What the Bible Teaches About Meeting Together

While considering a better New Testament approach to church, we talked about the three key perspectives that Jesus changed: meeting in homes, serving as priests, and helping those in need.

Then we looked at ten more New Testament practices: relying on the Holy Spirit, worship, prayer, fasting, community, eating together, caring for our people, valuing one another, helping others, and informal leadership.

Now we’ll look at five more tangible ideas of church and meeting together from the pages of the New Testament.

1. The Acts 2 Church

Just days after Pentecost, the people who follow Jesus are hanging out. This is the first church. What do they do?

Luke records their activities:

  • They learn about Jesus. Think of this as a new believer’s class. Remember, they’re mostly all new to their faith in Jesus. This is teaching.
  • They spend time with each other. This is fellowship.
  • They share meals. This is community.
  • They pray. This is connecting with God.
  • They meet every day at the temple were people outside their group are. This is outreach.
  • They also meet in homes. This is fellowship.
  • They share all their possessions. This is generosity.
  • They praise God. This is worship.

As a result, more people join them every day. This is what the early church does and how God blesses them (Acts 2:42–47).

What significant is what they don’t do. There’s no mention of weekly meetings, sermons, music, or offerings. If we’re serious about church in its purest form, the early church in Acts 2 gives us much to contemplate when we consider how our church should function today.

2. The Acts 4 Example

As the book of Acts unfolds with its historical narrative of the early church, Luke notes two more characteristics of that church: unity and sharing everything (Acts 4:32).

First, the church is of one heart and mind, just as Jesus prayed (John 17:21). Their actions are consistent with his prayer that they would be one then, just as we would be one today. Jesus prayed it, and the early church does it.

Unity describes what everyone of us should pursue and what every church should be. Jesus yearns for us to be united. Over the centuries Jesus’s followers in his church have done a poor job living in unity, as one.

Second, no one claims their possessions as their own. This isn’t a mine-versus-yours mentality. Everything is ours. They have a group perspective and act in the community’s best interest. They do it out of love for each other. They share everything they have. Not some, not half, but all.

This example is hard for many in our first-world churches to follow today, though not as much for congregations in developing countries. Regardless, while we might do well to hold our possessions loosely, this isn’t a command. Later Peter confirms that sharing resources is optional (Acts 5:4).

From Acts 4 we see an example of unity and generosity. This complete generosity, however, is a practice that happens at this snapshot of time for the early church. We will do well to consider how we can apply it today.

3. Paul’s Perspective

Now let’s look at a third passage. In it, Paul instructs the church in Corinth of how their meetings should proceed (1 Corinthians 14:26–31). While Paul writes to the Corinthian church, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t follow his directives as well today.

Paul opens by saying “each of you.” This means everyone should participate. The idea of all those present taking part suggests an egalitarian community gathering, where everyone contributes, and everyone ministers to each other.

This removes the divide between leader and follower, which happens in today’s church services. During a typical church service today a few people lead, while most people watch.

This means that only some are active during the service, while most sit as passive observers, as if going to a concert or attending a lecture.

Instead Paul wants everyone involved, where each person can minister to one another. He lists five activities that should take place.

Sing a Song

First, when we meet, we should sing a hymn or share a song. This could mean playing a musical instrument so that others can sing along. For those who can’t play an instrument or lead others in singing, a modern-day option might be to play a recording of a song.

Anyone can do that. Our singing could also mean—it probably means—launching into a song or chorus a cappella as the Holy Spirit leads.

Teach a Lesson

Second, the same approach applies for giving a word of instruction. We don’t need to preach a half-hour to an hour-long sermon. In this case less is more.

We can often communicate much by speaking little. Saying something concisely in thirty seconds may be more meaningful than droning on for thirty minutes. Again, no preparation required. Everyone who’s present can do this.

All we need is a willingness to share something God taught us or that we learned through studying Scripture. In addition, we can rely on the Holy Spirit to tell us what to share during our meeting. It can build off what someone else has already said, or it may be a new topic.

Share a Revelation

Third, the idea of having a revelation to share will seem normal to some and mystical to others. Think of a revelation as special knowledge that God has given to us. He can do this through what we read or things we see. And it can be through Holy Spirit insight.

Regardless of the source of our revelation, Paul wants us to share our insights with those gathered.

Speak in Tongues

The last two items on the list may, or may not, be a comfortable activity. Speaking in tongues is the first of these two items. The Bible talks about speaking in tongues, and Paul instructs the people in Corinth how to do it. It’s biblical, and we should consider this for our church community.

But it may be optional, because Paul later says, if anyone speaks in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:27). This implies speaking in tongues is not a requirement. But he does give guidelines for when people do speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:27–30). We will do well to follow Paul’s words.

Interpret the Tongue

Fifth, after someone speaks in an unknown language, someone must interpret it. Implicitly, if no one can interpret the message, then the person shouldn’t share it (1 Corinthians 14:28). After all, how can words that no one understands build up the church? (1 Corinthians 14:8-9).

The Holy Spirit’s Role

These five items require no preparation, just a willingness to notice the direction of God’s Spirit. This means listening to the Holy Spirit and responding as he directs. Implicit in this, we will encounter times of silence as we wait and listen. Silence unnerves some people today. But listening to and obeying the Holy Spirit is central to the gatherings of the early church.

Paul says everything we do at our meetings must be for the purpose of building up the church, to strengthen the faith and community of those present. This means not doing or saying anything to elevate ourselves or draw attention to our abilities.

Instead we should humble ourselves and do things for the common good of Jesus’s church. This will best advance the kingdom of God and the good news of Jesus.

4. Don’t Forget Meeting Together

Note that Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church, says when you come together, not if you come together. This reminds us that gathering with other followers of Jesus should be a regular occurrence, not optional (1 Corinthians 14:26).

The book of Hebrews confirms this idea of regular interaction when it warns to not give up meeting together. We do this to encourage others to better love and help each other (Hebrews 10:24–25).

This idea of coming together, of meeting with others, can occur on Sunday morning, or it can happen at any other day or time. The Bible doesn’t tell us when to meet. Gathering Sunday morning is merely a practice that developed over time.

Though many people interpret this instruction to not give up meeting together as a command to attend church, it isn’t. Not really. While meeting together can include going to church on Sunday, it should encompass much more.

It’s a call for intentional interaction with other followers of Jesus. Jesus says anywhere two or three people gather in his name—that is, they get together and place their focus on him—he will join them (Matthew 18:20).

Here are some ideas of how and where we can meet in Jesus’s name.


Most people enjoy meals with others, and most Christians pray before they eat. Isn’t this gathering in Jesus’s name? While we may eat some meals alone, we potentially have three times each day to connect with others and include Jesus when we eat. But do we make the most of these opportunities?

Coffee Shop

People often meet at coffee shops to hang out. If we include God in our meeting, either explicitly or implicitly, we assemble in his name.


Do you invite people into your home or see others in theirs? If we both love Jesus, doesn’t this become a get together which includes him? It should.


What about going on a picnic, to the game, the gym, or shopping? With intentionality, each of these can be another opportunity to meet with others in his name.

Small Groups

Many churches provide opportunities for attendees to form intentional gatherings with a small number of people. This facilitates connection and draws us to God. But this doesn’t need to be the result of a formal small group program in our church.

We can make our own small group whenever we wish, meeting in the name of Jesus.


Yes, church is on this list of places where we can gather in the name of Jesus. I list it last because it might be the least important. This is because when we go to church, we usually do it wrong. Consider the rest of the verse to find out why.

People tend to skip that part. The reason we are to meet is so that we may encourage one another. The Bible says so, but how often do we do this at our church meetings?

If we leave church discouraged or fail to encourage others while we’re there, then we’ve missed the point of meeting together. While some people make a big deal out of going to church, they’re quick to miss that the reason is to provide encouragement. If we’re not doing that, then we might as well stay home.

5. What Jesus Says

Let’s return our discussion to Jesus.

Recall that after Jesus rises from the dead, he tells his followers to stay in Jerusalem, waiting for a surprise Father God has planned for them: the gift of the Holy Spirit to come upon them and give them supernatural power (Acts 1:4–5).

They wait, and the Holy Spirit shows up (Acts 2:1–4). Amazing things happen, and the number of Jesus’s followers explodes (Acts 2:41).

They wait in Jerusalem as instructed, and they receive the gift of Holy Spirit power as promised. But after all that, they remain in Jerusalem.

Instead they’re supposed to spread out and share Jesus’s good news around the world. He told them to do that too (Matthew 28:19–20). But they don’t. They stay put.

They don’t realize that God’s instructions to wait in Jerusalem doesn’t mean they’re supposed to stay there forever. Sometimes what God tells us to do is only for a season.

Then there’s something else for us to do. But if we don’t make that transition, we end up being in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing.

Instead of staying in Jerusalem—something they’re used to and comfortable with—their mission is to go into the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19–20).

How well are we doing at going into the world and making disciples today? Are we staying put in our church—what we’re used to doing and where we’re comfortable—or are we looking outside of our church to do what Jesus said to do?

I suspect you know the answer.

Make Disciples

Today’s church falls short of being witnesses and making disciples. To do so requires an outward perspective, yet most all churches have an inward focus. They care for their own to the peril of others. Many churches ignore outsiders completely, sometimes even shunning them.

Yes, God values community and wants us to meet (Hebrews 10:25). And the Bible is packed with commands and examples of worshiping God.

Most churches do the meeting together part, albeit with varying degrees of success. Many of those churches have a time of worship as they meet, though perhaps not always “in the Spirit” or “in truth” as Jesus said to do (John 4:23–24).

Yet few churches look outside their walls to go into their community—let alone the world—to witness and make disciples. Though Jesus said to wait for the Holy Spirit, he didn’t say to wait for people to come to us, to enter our churches so we could witness and disciple them.

No, we’re supposed to leave our Sunday sanctuary to take this Jesus-mandated work to them. We can’t do that in a church building on Sunday morning, safely snug behind closed doors.

If we want to make disciples, we need to go out and find them. This brings us to the second part.

Go into the World

There is a time to come together and a time to worship, but there is also a time to go. And we need to give more attention to the going part.

I know of two churches that sent their congregations out into their community on Sunday mornings, foregoing the church service so they can be a church that serves. One church did it a few times and stopped after they saw little results and received much grumbling.

The other church regularly plans this a few times each year and receives a positive reception from their community.

These were both service initiatives, not outright evangelism. But the best—and easiest—way to talk to people about Jesus is to first serve them in his name.

Every church should make a positive impact on their community. They do this best by entering it. Yet so few do. They’re too focused on meeting together and worshiping instead of going out into the world to make disciples.


We will do well to reform our church practices to conform to these five biblical concepts.

  1. Follow the early church’s example to learn about Jesus, pursue fellowship and community, pray and worship, meet daily in public and in homes, and practice kindness.
  2. Pursue unity and generosity.
  3. Be ready to rely on the Holy Spirit to sing, teach, share a revelation, speak in tongues, and interpret a tongue.
  4. Refresh our idea of what meeting together means.
  5. Balance our inward efforts on church meetings and worship with an outward focus on going into the world to make disciples.

Pick one change to make and then pursue it.

Read more about this in Peter’s thought-provoking book, Jesus’s Broken Church, available in e-book, audiobook, 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.