Based solely on their name, I assume this church is of the same denomination as Church #19. I enjoyed my time at that church, but I also recall their pastor saying the denomination’s member churches vary widely in their beliefs, with most holding a liberal theology.
I wonder what I’ll encounter at today’s destination.
It turns out my speculation is needless.
Their website says they are nondenominational. I’m at the same time disappointed and pleased. I’m disappointed for not being able to broaden my understanding of this denomination, but I am pleased to be able to enjoy a nondenominational experience, which is my preference.
My false assumption about their affiliation reminds me to avoid making wrong conclusions about a church or forming misguided expectations.
While this tendency to categorize—that is, to label things—is a natural leaning that aids our understanding, it can cloud our perspective as much as enhance it. The problem is that “nondenominational” is also a label, which can carry false expectations and produce needless assumptions.
Furthermore, in reviewing the “Our Beliefs” section of their website, I add the label of evangelical and note that it sounds Baptist. I’ve removed one wrong label and replaced it with three new ones: nondenominational, evangelical, and Baptist.
I’m no closer to a reasonable understanding of what to expect.
I do know a few other things about them, however, which are more tangible. First, they have two services. I’ve driven by on many Sunday mornings, noting a parking lot that was three-quarters full for their first service and a packed lot for their second.
I also know they are planning on a building project to add space. While the size of a church doesn’t impress me and growth can be a misleading indicator, both can signal spiritual vitality. I’m intrigued.
A Solo Visit
Candy is gone this weekend, so I will be on my own. I’m okay visiting a church by myself, but that also gives me the freedom to vacillate. Staying home is a tempting option, one which I consider and reject multiple times.
To end my uncertainty, I decide to visit the first service. This is, in part, to give me less time to change my mind but also because I have a lot planned for the rest of the day.
As a result of my volunteer work at a budget program that meets at this church facility during the week, I know where the church is and how long it will take to drive there. I time my departure to arrive ten minutes early. I don’t need to.
The parking lot has plenty of space when I arrive. I’m underwhelmed. Where are all the people? I walk in with a woman whose husband drops her off by the door. I know her from my volunteer work, but she doesn’t recognize me. We talk a bit anyway.
Across the narthex I spot another familiar face from the budget program. I consider going over to talk to her, but I don’t.
She is by herself and so am I. I’m mindful that confusion or discomfort could result if I approach her alone. Aside from saying “hi” or giving an acknowledging nod, I’ve never communicated with either of these ladies before.
Other people occupy the narthex, a few in private conversation and others moving about but with no discernable pattern. Without my partner by my side, I feel more exposed and am more uncomfortable than usual when just standing around.
I look for someone to talk to—not that I expect to find anyone. The few people I see are all preoccupied. Once again no one notices me.
I turn to the sanctuary, where there are even fewer folks. I stand in the doorway, looking about, giving ample time for someone to approach. No one does. Two guys in the sound booth focus on preparations. Another man stands on the stage. I assume he’s part of the worship team.
Two people are already sitting, while a third flits about. I smile, looking as approachable as possible. No one sees me.
The hexagon-shaped space is newer construction, open and inviting, though not well-lit and possessing few windows. The six walls give way to six roof sections, which reach up and converge in the center. There are three sections of comfortable looking chairs, angled to face the front.
On stage sits a drum kit and several guitars, hinting at a contemporary sound. If there’s an organ, I don’t see it. Along the back wall sit the readied accessories for communion.
Having held my position and my smile for as long as I can stand to, I meander in to select my seat. Of the two hundred or so options, I head to the second aisle, go up a third of the way and scoot in two spaces.
After sitting, I lay my Bible on the chair to my left and put my coat on my right. I’m not saving seats, but with plenty of room, why not spread out? When I realize I could be signaling people to not sit near me, I consolidate my coat and Bible on one chair.
After a few minutes a man comes up and introduces himself. He welcomes me and gives me a bulletin. Then, with a smile, he turns and leaves, just as I open my mouth to speak. I read the entire bulletin—twice.
A couple sits directly behind me. Given over 190 other places they could have sat, I take this as an encouraging sign. Twice I turn to interact with them, but they’re not interested, offering only the most basic responses and scowling when they do.
A Low Turnout
Now time for the service to start, it doesn’t. Eventually the worship team of seven congregates on stage. The worship leader plays guitar. Helping him is another guitarist, bass guitarist, drummer, and keyboardist. Two ladies round out the ensemble, ready to add backup vocals.
There are as many people onstage and in the sound booth as there are sitting down. This low attendance is not at all what I expected.
I anticipate a light pop sound for the music. Instead I’m treated to rock with the hint of an edge. How exciting. The opening strains of their prelude call people into the sanctuary. Our numbers grow to about twenty-five and another ten or so eventually join us.
Most of the people are couples in their twenties and thirties, though a few are older. Aside from a baby in the back with her parents, there are no kids or teens. I know there are classes for the kids, but I wonder about the teens. Where are they? Do they go to the second service?
The assistant pastor welcomes us and says the senior pastor is out of town. Filling in for him is one of their members, a second-year seminarian.
This is not what I hoped for, nor what I want to experience. Maybe I should have stayed home after all. I wonder if their pastor being gone and a student filling in might account for the low attendance, or at least lower than what their parking lot typically suggests.
After an opening prayer, we sing some contemporary songs. With no songbooks, the words project on an overhead screen. It’s offset slightly from the stage, but not so much as to be uncomfortable.
The first song is a familiar tune but with slightly altered words, which trip me up every time we get to the chorus. Fortunately, I doubt I’m singing loud enough for anyone but God to hear.
The second song is likewise familiar, but our rendition lacks the punch and power that I’m used to when David Crowder sings it.
Following these two songs are announcements and an instruction to “greet everyone around you.” As I shake hands with the guy in front of me, I surprise him when I ask, “How are you?”
With his attention already shifting to the next person to greet, he does a double take. He looks back at me and smiles. “Fine, how are you?”
Before I can respond further, I’ve lost him again. There will be no conversation, no chance for a connection. I turn to the couple behind me. Although brief, this is our best interaction all morning.
I manage to shake hands with a few more people, but fail to make eye contact with those just out of reach. They are not available to see my wave or receive a nod of acknowledgment.
I’m weary of these trivial attempts at greeting, which confront me at too many churches. I want real connection, not people going through the motions: faking friendly when instructed and withdrawing the rest of the time.
I’m quite sure this is not what “meeting together” means in Hebrews 10:24–25.
Then we sing two more contemporary songs. Both are familiar—and quite comfortable. We sit down for communion. It is “open to all who believe in Jesus.” I’m glad to know this. Too often churches fail to share this important information, leaving me in a quandary about what to do.
They skip the bread. Curious.
Instead they offer the juice in tiny plastic cups presented on a glistening chrome platter passed up and down the rows. As I reach for mine, I notice the cup is double stacked. I consider taking just the top one with the juice and leaving the bottom one, but it’s easier to grab both, so I do.
I now know I may participate, but I don’t know when. Do they drink the cup together, as each person feels led, or do they have some unexplained ritual? I agonize over what to do, so focused on the when, that I fail to celebrate the why.
Then the lady to my right quickly drinks the juice. Seconds later a man a couple of rows up does the same. Relieved to know their process, I’m anxious to follow, lest I call attention to myself should I tarry too long.
I fail to corral my racing mind to focus on God. I can’t quiet my heart to consider what Jesus did for us. The harder I try, the tighter anxiety grips me. God, I am so sorry I can’t focus. Time slips by. As more people partake, my chance to join them grows short.
Convinced that God knows my heart and will not hold it against me for not taking time to appropriately acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice of his Son, my Savior, I throw out a desperate prayer. Thank you, Jesus, and I drink the juice.
Feeling a bit guilty, yet also relieved, my next question is what to do with the empty container? I glance at it, noticing something trapped between the two cups. Lifting the first one, the mystery item comes into focus. It’s a little square communion cracker, the tiniest I’ve ever seen.
Now so much makes sense. They didn’t skip the bread. They passed the elements together. That’s why one person seemed to drink twice. First they ate the cracker and then they drank the juice. Their motions, especially for the cracker, reminded me of people I’ve seen in movies doing shots.
I need to eat the cracker, but I’m not doing it like a shot. Smirking, I fish the miniature wafer out from the plastic container. As unobtrusively as possible I slide it into my mouth. With one chomp I demolish it. I swallow, wishing for a chaser of juice.
Today I did communion backward and failed to fully embrace this remembrance of God’s gift to me. Even though I merely went through the motions, somehow it seems all right, even good.
I envision Father God in Heaven, laughing with his Son over my consternation. Standing at their side, Holy Spirit remains silent but grins broadly. I smile, too, suspecting I gave them a bit of pleasure through my disquiet and my unfilled desire to do communion right.
A tear forms. God is so good.
I have little time to consider his goodness, however. The offering follows as soon as they finish passing the communion elements. I already filled out the visitor card and, as instructed, I place it in the offering plate when it passes.
The plate is small but able to accommodate cash and checks, but the oversized visitor card does not fit. It hangs a couple of inches over the edge. This will make it hard to contain the donations of those sitting behind me.
With the collection done, our guest preacher stands up. He begins with a prayer. His disjointed speaking—pausing too long midsentence or after each phrase—exposes his uneasiness. I understand. I ache for him. I also know it is the wrong time to visit.
His message is about Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector, as recorded by Doctor Luke in chapter nineteen, verses one through ten. He notes that whenever Jesus encounters a tax collector, the outcome is good. Whenever he encounters a rich man, the outcome is not.
With Zacchaeus being both a tax collector and rich, there is tension over what will happen. I question this distinction. Weren’t all tax collectors wealthy?
The guy is green. He should be practicing in seminary, not on a congregation. Yes, his introduction shows promise, but his presentation fails to deliver. His points are trivial and only loosely connected.
Despite the first three items coming from the text, his fourth does not. Instead it’s pulled from an unnamed song that I don’t know. He ends with an invitation of sorts, followed with another prayer.
With the Holy Spirit’s help, I gain one insight. Hinging on the word “today,” I see a parallel between Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross who hangs next to Jesus.
In both cases, they make a profession of some kind to Jesus and he pronounces an immediate reward for them of “today,” (Luke 19:8–9 and Luke 23:40–43). God’s idea of salvation seems so much different than what we’ve turned it into.
Finished, the speaker sits, and the worship team gets up to play an old hymn, one tweaked to work well with guitars and drums. It’s familiar, but out of place with the rest of the service.
I wonder if they work an obligatory hymn into each service to keep the traditionalists among them happy.
The assistant pastor returns to give the closing prayer and then the worship team reprises their opening song—the one with different words—to conclude the service. Once again, I stumble over the changed lyrics. At its conclusion, the worship leader abruptly dismisses us.
Heading for Home
I stand slowly, trying my best to look friendly and appear approachable. Inside I am, but I wonder what my body language communicates. I often consider this and likely cause more harm than good when I attempt to contort myself into an open posture.
Regardless, no one notices, and no one approaches. With nothing else to do, I amble toward the sanctuary doors, where the guest speaker stands, receiving handshakes and good wishes from the crowd.
I, however, don’t want to talk to him. I won’t lie and tell him he did a good job. And I fear any form of encouragement could come out as backhanded criticism. I can’t even share an element of his teaching that I liked, because I didn’t like any of it.
I shake his hand in silence. He looks at me with a question forming in his eyes. Then I realize he’s a member of this church and doesn’t know me. I share my name, and he thanks me for visiting.
I nod and slide into the narthex. No one leaves, but I see no indication of any fellowship time or informal gathering. Not having my bride with me is even more isolating.
I feel awkward just standing there. To avoid any more discomfort, I give up. I turn right and hit the main doors. I’m the first to leave.
It Was the Wrong Time to Visit
Driving home, I carry frustration with the threat of tears. I enjoyed the music, and, in an odd way, communion worked for me, but the message caused consternation, and the lack of connection left me empty.
It was the wrong time to visit.
If only their senior pastor had been there, I’m sure my experience would have been different. Then I realize I forgot to pray before the service. That would have made an even bigger difference. Sorry, Papa. I messed up—big time.
Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.