Visiting Churches

Reflections on 52 Churches

Wrapping Up Our Year of Visiting Churches

Our journey of visiting fifty-two churches is over, though the memories will last forever. With much to consider, this wrap-up pulls together key elements of our adventure.

I hope this helps you and your church better interact with and respond to visitors, as well as find new ways to connect with and serve God.

Here are some of my thoughts and reflections on 52 Churches.

Format and Size Matters

In our pilgrimage we found smaller churches (those under fifty people) generally offered more opportunity to make connections, with meaningful community apparent. But I grew weary of the ultra-small gatherings (those under twenty).

Their miniscule size made Sunday worship a struggle, and there’s little hope for their future. Without God’s supernatural intervention, they’ll plod along until their minister can no longer serve or until most of the remaining members die.

Surely, they won’t last the decade.

We also discovered that most liturgical churches—sometimes called high churches—weren’t friendly.

Though there were exceptions, the norm at these gatherings was no interaction with other attendees, not before, during, or after the service. And if anyone made contact it was often a rote effort with a disingenuous air.

This isn’t to imply non-liturgical churches—sometimes called low churches—were friendly. Though many were, some also kept visitors at a stoic distance.

Friendliness is a partner to community. At larger churches (those over a couple hundred), community presents a challenge, while anonymity unfolds with ease.

Without concerted effort we would remain a part of the unnoticed masses at these larger gatherings. Though some people prefer to slip in and slip out of church unseen, interacting with no one, what’s the point of going?

The same outcome—perhaps a better one—could result by sitting at home in front of the TV.

At smaller churches, anonymity is impossible. Although experiencing community is much more likely, there’s no guarantee, either. Arriving and leaving stealthily can’t happen, but what’s key is how they handle their visitors.

Some churches do this gracefully, bordering on celebration, while others have an awkwardness that produces squirming and embarrassment.

Granted, I’m an introvert—as is 51 to 74 percent of the population, depending on who you ask—so my extroverted counterparts may think differently.

For medium-sized churches (fifty to two hundred), some acted with large church anonymity, while others retained small church connection.


As already mentioned, we found liturgical churches less friendly and not as interested in fostering community, with charismatic congregations being the most embracing—even though their theology was often the most exclusive.

Likewise, larger churches struggled to personally welcome us as visitors, whereas this was less of a problem at smaller churches.

Churches with a more traditional service tended to have older congregations, whereas churches with a contemporary service skewed younger, being either completely youthful or having a good cross-section of ages.

At many churches we were among the youngest present, while at a few, we were among the oldest. When the entire congregation is over sixty-five, their future as a viable church seems bleak.

After only a few weeks of visiting, I developed a knack for predicting the type of service based solely on the appearance of the sanctuary: its condition and trappings.

Likewise, the age of the congregation and how they dressed were also sufficient to gauge the type of service we would see. At only two churches did I judge incorrectly (Church #19 and Church #45).

One observation was particularly disconcerting: Churches with older congregations and traditional services tended to be friendlier than at contemporary services with younger people.

This held true even within churches that offered both styles of service. What I’m not sure of is if the primary factor was the age of the congregation or the style of the service, because the two seem interconnected.

Last, based on a prior bad stint at an ultra-conservative Baptist church, I expected the Baptist churches we visited would be dogmatic, closed-minded, and exclusive.

I’m pleased to say that, with one exception, this didn’t prove true, although I’m dismayed that we did witness dogmatic, closed-minded, exclusive attitudes at some of the charismatic churches we visited.

This shocked me because I understood this was an old-school mindset, with the current charismatic perspective being more theologically inclusive and open-minded.

[Check out the discussion questions for this post for our overall reflections and .thoughts about church size and format.]

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

Visiting 52 Churches, Part Three

A Recap of Churches 27 through 44

The churches are starting to blur. Every week seems the same, offering only slight variations on a theme. I’m growing weary of our journey. I’ve realized this for a few weeks but didn’t want to admit it.

Yes, I still notice kindnesses offered and innovations presented at the various branches of Jesus’s church. But I worry that I notice more the actions that discourage me and disparage the reputation of my savior.

Have I become cynical? Am I truly able to see what God wants me to see?

My prayers before we leave for church lack freshness. Have they become vain repetition? Matthew 6:7 in the KJV says, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”

My anticipation for the service is no longer as expectant, yet God prevails and teaches me anyway.

For the first half of our journey, I picked our destinations solely by the driving distance from our home.

But heading in different directions each Sunday became disconcerting, making it challenging to synthesize an understanding of congregations within communities.

In retrospect, I should have divided our fifty-two churches into four groups: those within our local school district, those in the village to our west, those in the village to the southwest of us, and those on the western edge of the city to our east.

For the third part of our adventure we focused on the first three of these geographic areas, while remaining within ten miles of our house. This allowed us to better comprehend the churches within their local context.

The village to our west has twenty-one churches. We visited twelve in the first half of our journey, calling on the remaining nine for this phase (Churches #27–36). Together they comprise a wide-ranging group, offering an array of options.

Next, we turned our attention to the village to our southwest, with its five churches (#37–41). Although one was struggling, the other four weren’t.

They were vibrant and growing, each with its unique appeal and offering a different approach to worshiping God.

To conclude this phase of our sojourn, we visited the remaining three churches in our local school district (Churches #42–44).

Along with Churches 1 through 7, these ten churches are noteworthy because our local food pantry serves people living in the school district. Sometimes pantry clients ask me about area churches.

Now that I’ve visited all ten, I can share firsthand information, directing people to the one that best meets their needs and preferences.

Some of our clients attend church outside of the area, and I’ve seen them at several of the gatherings we’ve visited. I have mixed feelings about this.

Part of me wishes each congregation would care for the needs of their own, while the other part of me would decry each church replicating the same program.

Having an area food pantry is not only practical, but it’s also a great community service, with five of the district’s ten churches involved in a truly ecumenical outreach.

Greeting and Community

At the halfway point in our journey, I noted the importance of community, with some churches excelling at it, a few failing, and most falling somewhere in between.

The prelude to community is greeting. Churches that greet well embrace visitors and foster connections.

Liturgical churches, I observed, struggle with greeting and fail at community.

Fortunately, this isn’t an absolute principle, merely a tendency. Church #43 (A Welcoming Church with Much to Offer) and Church #32 (Commitment Sunday and Celebration) proved liturgical churches can greet well and foster meaningful community.

Church #43 excelled at this, perhaps even more so than the non-liturgical Church #22 (A Caring Community). Two other non-liturgical churches that greeted well were Church #38 (A Refreshing Time) and Church #41 (People Make the Difference).

I’d like to revisit them all, simply because of the amazing way they greeted, welcoming us into their community. We made connections. We had relevant conversations. We shared a spiritual camaraderie.

There are three opportunities to greet visitors: before, during, and after the service. Churches need to master all three. Few do, but Church #43 did.

Two churches ignored us beforehand and had no greeting time during the service, but they did embrace us afterward: Church #28 (Intriguing and Liturgical) and Church #35 (A Well-Kept Secret).

But it’s hard to overcome a bad first impression. While Church #28 did, enough so that I want to return, Church #35 didn’t.

The opposite error is not ending well. Church #27 (A Charismatic Experience) ignored us afterward. With no one who approached us and no one available for us to approach, we had two choices: stand there and look pathetic or leave. We left.

Then, one church, a non-liturgical one, failed at all three opportunities: they ignored us. This was Church #31 (A Day of Contrasts). It was as if we were invisible.

Though their service was most impressive, their cold demeanor isolated us, effectively pushing us out the door as soon as the service ended.

Yes, they did have two assigned greeters at the front door, but the personable pair couldn’t overcome the 150 indifferent people inside.

Yes, greeting well is important. Without it, visitors cannot hope to find community. So why would they want to come back?

Highs and Lows of Our Journey

Overall, our time at charismatic gatherings continues to disappoint.

While Church #27 (A Charismatic Experience) came close to providing a true charismatic encounter—or at least my perception of one—they also had some disconcerting shortcomings, including a rambling message and not being friendly.

The narrow doctrine at Church #34 (Acts Chapter Two) and Church #36 (The Surprise) especially dismayed me.

Like Church #14 (The Pentecostal Perspective), they placed an unbiblical emphasis on speaking in tongues, viewing it as a requirement to signify true salvation.

Church #42 (High Expectations and Great Disappointment) went to the opposite extreme, dismissing charismatic followers of Jesus as heretics and doing so with a most dogmatic fervor.

The way these otherwise well-meaning clergy divide Jesus’s church grieves me.

This error, of rejecting other Christians because they fail to meet some personally held opinion, is perhaps the biggest shortcoming we’ve seen at any of the churches.

I wonder if they’ve lost their first love. (Consider John’s stinging rebuke in Revelation 2:4–5 against the church in Ephesus). Do they truly comprehend what it means to follow Jesus? I seriously doubt it.

Conversely, Church #29 (Led by Laity) greatly encouraged me; they conducted their entire service without any clergy. I wish more churches would follow their example.

I beg churches to do so. Through Jesus we are all priests. We shouldn’t need ministers to do for us what we’re supposed to do ourselves. (See 1 Peter 2:5, 9 as a starting point.)

In considering Church #37 (Another Small Church), sometimes a church just needs to close. This church has more people on the outside trying to save it, than there are local people who attend.

Yes, God can do the impossible, but without a clear instruction from him to persevere, the wise action, the prudent option, is to simply shut down and stop wasting resources on an unpromising situation.

Interestingly, there was once local interest for this church to merge with another, but their respective denominations wouldn’t permit it. Their decision was self-serving and not kingdom-focused.

Lastly, some churches, despite many good traits and positive elements, showed us some bizarre practices:

  • Greeting strangers with a holy kiss was creepy, Church #28 (Intriguing and Liturgical).
  • Church #30 (Misdirected and Frustrated) duped us into attending Sunday school and angered me.
  • Avoiding all forms of promotion made them hard to find, Church #35 (A Well-Kept Secret). We stumbled upon them by accident.
  • Cancelling services because the minister was called away disappointed us, Church #36 (The Surprise). Hold services anyway. Church #29 (Led by Laity) did.
  • Having a dirty sanctuary made me reluctant to sit down, Church #37 (Another Small Church). The overall neglected condition of their facility didn’t help.
  • Heading to a restaurant after the service was interesting but unusual. Arming us all with coupons may not have left the best impression on the restaurant staff, Church #39 (A Great Way to End the Year).

Takeaway for Everyone: Set divisive theology aside and celebrate commonality in Jesus. Seek ways to work with other churches, not oppose them.

[Check out the discussion questions for this post about our journey of visiting 52 churches, along with two more questions that precede it.]

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

52 Churches: The Second Quarter

Preparing to Visit Our Next 13 Churches

Going forward in our journey of visiting 52 Churches, we may bypass more churches on our list to vary the scope of our adventure.

So far, we’ve skipped one that wasn’t a Christian gathering and another because they were in limbo, pending a turnaround.

The next thirteen churches on our list promise a wider variation of experience. This excites me. I also see some churches we’ll exclude because they don’t hold much promise for additional variation.

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

Our journey is about growth and discovery, not about thoroughly covering every option in a precise order.

Though we have a plan, the plan is flexible.

Takeaway for Everyone: Plan, but be flexible. Fixating on the plan, as well as having no plan, will miss opportunities that arise.

[Check out the discussion questions for this post.]

Part Two Perspective: Churches 14 through 26

We’re now half done with our journey. For the past twenty-six weeks we’ve sought to expand our understanding of how others worship God. I blog about our visit each Monday morning, but friends frequently ask for more.

“What are you learning?”

“That God’s church is more diverse and varied than I ever imagined.”

“Is your journey changing?”

“No. We’re still planning to return to our home church when we’re done.”

“Do you want to revisit any of the churches?”

“Yes.” I start to reel off a list along with my reasons, but they don’t seem interested in the details. Why do they ask if they don’t care about the answers?

Aside from these questions, a sobering realization is that church is not about the teaching or the music. It’s about community.

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

We’ve heard messages from gifted speakers and those not-so-talented, the formally trained and the self-taught.

We’ve heard deep thoughts and entertaining fluff. But in all cases, we received a worthwhile word from God. I suspect if we pray expectantly and are open to hear, we will.

Similarly, we’ve sung traditional hymns, modern songs, and contemporary praise choruses. Accomplished vocalists, struggling crooners, and everything in between have led us in worship.

There have been worship bands, pipe organs and pianos, accompaniment tracks, recorded songs, and even a cappella. If we focus on the words, we praise God regardless of musical style.

Nonetheless, message and music, I’m sad to report, aren’t important—not really. The big variable is community. Aside from that often-awkward official greeting time during the service, community is a meaningful time of spiritual interaction with others.

When we make connections with others, we share Jesus. God is more present in these informal exchanges before and after the service than during the planned and prepped moments of the service.

A few churches have no community. People come, people sit, and people leave, without saying a word. This is not church as God intended.

Church #18 (Revisiting Roman Catholicism) had no community. Church #17 (A Doubleheader) and Church #16 (Something’s Missing) had minimal community. They gave us no reason to return.

Fortunately, most churches allow community to some degree and a few excel at it. I want to revisit these churches. Community is church at its best.

4 Standout Churches

Four churches stood out in their embrace of us. Though our visit could have been an anomaly, I suspect all visitors would receive a similar welcome.

Many churches have an official greeter or two and most have a couple of outgoing people who reach out to visitors, but at Church #22 (A Caring Community) it seemed everyone reached out to us.

We met so many people who were genuinely interested in getting to know us. They were sincere, accepting, and engaging.

At Church #25 (Embarking on a Metamorphosis, Part 2), we enjoyed many friendly conversations beforehand, had people invite us to sit with them, and enjoyed significant interaction afterward.

The after-church community at Church #19 (A Near Miss) was also great. We talked with many people, made connections, and learned about their church, ministry philosophy, and vision. It felt as if we were at a family reunion with extended relatives.

At Church #14 (The Pentecostal Perspective) many members of the congregation were friendly. We felt welcomed before and during the service, enjoying spiritually-significant conversations.

Unfortunately, their narrow theology placed us on the outside. They would never fully accept us into their community.

Receiving honorable mention are the two minority congregations: Church #26 (An Unknown Situation) and Church #20 (Different Language, Same God). Both were extremely friendly, but we failed to make deep connections with anyone at either church.

For the first, this was due to language differences and for the second, cultural differences, though I should note, we weren’t in the target demographic at either church.

Avoid a Consumerism Mentality

A second observation also stems from the preaching and singing. Consumerism is rampant in the modern church. The mantra of many churches, especially the larger ones, is “excellence in everything.”

Doing whatever God calls us to do to the best of our abilities is God-honoring. He deserves nothing less. Unfortunately, pursuing excellence can feed into a consumer mentality.

Many people seek a church with the most engaging speaker and professional musicians.

When they find it, they join that church—and stay there until a better preacher or music comes along. They are church consumers, looking for the best value. They forget about community and never ask what they can give to a church.

I’m not being overly critical. How many times have you heard someone leave a church because “I’m just not being fed anymore”? I’ve heard it, and I’ve even said it. Its cousin is “it’s just not meeting my needs.”

Although both complaints sound sincerely spiritual, they reveal a consumer mindset: “What will church do for me?” If this church can’t meet my needs, I’ll find one that does.

The result is church shopping and church hopping. This isn’t God-honoring, and we should be ashamed.

A third item is church size. Size does matter and bigger isn’t better.

There’s a progression: Excellence in preaching and music triggers a consumer reaction, so churches that excel in these areas attract bigger crowds. They grow and may even become a megachurch.

Connection and Community

From the perspective of structure, resources, programs, staff, and efficiency, bigger churches have a huge advantage. This plays well in today’s society, but it isn’t the purpose of church.

Church is to connect people with God and with each other.

This is hard, if not impossible, to do with any degree of intimacy and integrity at a large church. That’s why they form small groups, promoting smallness within the structure of largeness.

I’m using small groups in a generic sense. The actual labels vary: small groups, life groups, Bible studies, pods, service teams, and fellowship groups.

At the churches with, say, more than two hundred people, no one knows if you’re a visitor and few care. If you want to get lost in a crowd, go to a big church. If you want community, seek a smaller one.

These are the three key insights God showed me in the past six months. Our church visits confirm it. I’m not down on church, but I wonder if today’s church has lost its way.

Contemplating this, I blogged, asking “What Is Church?“:

“Church isn’t about message or music. Those are often distractions or settling for less than the best. True church is about community, where we are all priests, with each one giving and receiving, mutually edifying and encouraging one another on our faith journey.”

I’m sure we’ll learn more on the second half of our journey. I can’t wait for what else God has planned for us.

Takeaway for Everyone: True church is about community. The message and music are secondary—and may even distract from what really matters.

[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

The Postcard Church

The Allure of Something Fresh

After a year or so of attending The Nonconventional Church, we receive a series of captivating postcards about a new church that will soon launch in our community. I soon call them the Postcard Church.

I’m intrigued and want to learn more. My wife doesn’t.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Though they’re part of a denomination, I’m willing to overlook that fact if they deliver what they promise. But their denominational affiliation is a sticking point for Candy. I get that.

So, we continue to attend The Nonconventional Church. I like everything about it and what they do—except for their music and their message. Neither draws me. Yet the allure of post-service community calls me.

I especially like the monthly potluck. I most anticipate sharing a meal with other believers and sharing life with them around the table. It’s the highlight of my month. Seriously.

Yet the food prep falls to my bride, and she wearies of it, which I comprehend. When she complains, I offer to handle it, but we both know that’s a bad idea. It’s her kitchen, and I need to stay out of it when she’s around.

Though I ably make meals when she isn’t present, the outcome is never good if she’s there to watch what I do. And the only time I could prepare for our Sunday potluck is when she’s home.

So, she continues to handle it, but it becomes a growing point of contention. The part I like best about our church is the part she likes the least.

Change in Plans

One week our daughter-in-law says she wants to visit The Postcard Church. She invites us to go with them. I know how hard it is to visit a new church, and I sense she’s looking for some support on their first visit.

With the pressures of work, life, and a growing family, their church attendance has become sporadic. Though they call The Rural Church their church home, they seldom go anymore. I think it’s been months.

The Postcard Church is in our community, meeting in the local middle school. Based entirely on their marketing materials, I’m excited to see what we’ll encounter.

Our daughter-in-law’s invitation is an excuse to visit this church and an opportunity for us to encourage our kids to plug back into a faith community.

We gladly take a one-week break from our church to help our kids find a spiritual place where they can belong.

Interestingly, The Postcard Church is a site plant of the parent church behind The Multisite Church. This is another location.

This is also the church that approached The Traditional Denominational Church seeking to work with them to expand their outreach to the community. In the end, that church turned them down, opting to continue pursuing their own path.

The Postcard Church is three-quarters of a mile from our home. Though we could walk, we opt to drive. We’ll meet our children and grandchildren there.

The church is a satellite location of an established church in the area. Unlike most satellite churches, they offer the music and message live. Their parent church provides centralized governance and financial oversight.

They meet at the local middle school, an arrangement I applaud.

Instead of investing money in a building that’s only fully used a few hours each week and only fractionally used during business hours, they free up money to invest in outreach and ministry.

Though they pay a rental fee, that’s much less than the cost to own and maintain a building. Besides the cost element, this arrangement provides flexibility if they outgrow the space.

As we drive up, the church’s trailer sits alongside the driveway, smartly doubling as a sign for the church and signaling the proper entrance. Renting space from a school means they need to set up and tear down each Sunday.

The large trailer doubles as a transportation unit on Sunday and storage space throughout the week for their equipment and supplies.

We drive past the trailer. A large vertical welcome banner shows us where to park and which entrance to use, staffed with two smiling greeters.

We talk a bit. Once inside there’s no question about where to go.

A portable sign tells us to turn right for the service, though the nursery and some children’s programs are to the left. We veer right and find ourselves in a large open space, with people mingling about.

As we move forward, two men interrupt their conversation to talk to us, something I seldom witness at the churches we visit.

They share their names, and we give ours, connecting with them as we do. After a while we thank them for their time and move into the worship space, a typical middle school gym.

In the middle are folding chairs set in three sections, with one hundred chairs per section. We sit as we wait for the rest of our family to arrive, which they soon do.

With the overhead lights off, we rely on indirect lighting. The subdued ambiance pleases but makes it hard to read the literature they gave us.

People and excitement fill the space. All age groups show up, but most are younger than us. It’s likely many of the tweens and younger teenagers also attend this school during the week, while their younger siblings will in a few years.

As we wait, soft music plays in the background. People talk with friends. The atmosphere strikes a pleasing balance between churches whose members sit in stoic silence waiting for the service to start and those where frenzied activity overwhelms.

A worship team of five gathers in front. There is a drummer, two on guitars, one on keys, and one backup vocalist. They have no one for bass. The keyboardist doubles as the worship leader.

Four-fifths of their ensemble fit within the millennial generation, with a lone baby boomer.

After the first song, the teaching pastor welcomes us and gives announcements. One is a chance to get to know others in the church.

The idea is simple: three individuals or families get together three times over three months around a shared meal, dessert, or coffee.

This helps people get to know others and form connections. It’s a short-term commitment with a long-term benefit.

The pastor moves us into the greeting time. I interact with four people, but no one else makes any effort. I fidget, longing for this time to end. As church greetings go, this one is neither memorable nor haunting.

Our space is now over half full, which is good for a holiday weekend. We sing some more. I don’t know any of the songs, but I pick up the chorus on most and the verses on a few.

Next is the offering. There’s an information card to fill out and drop in the offering basket, but Candy’s still working on it when the offering gets to us. We’ll turn it in later.

After the collection they slide smoothly into a final song before the sermon.

Despite some empty spaces in the front, they’ve stealthily added more chairs in the back, which are now mostly full. I suspect the attendance pushes three hundred, with a hundred or more kids and their leaders elsewhere in the facility.

Belong, Believe, Become

It’s week three of a three-part series: “Belong, Believe, Become.” Today is about becoming. As I contemplate his teaching, I jot down a profound phrase: “Know your community.”

This makes sense. If we’re going to reach our neighbors, we need to better understand them.

He gives us a simple three-point process to engage people: Step one is to talk to them. Step two is to ask them a question. Step three is to invite them for a meal, an outing, or a service opportunity. Most people are open to an invitation to do something.

He concludes with an encouragement to build church where we are.

The service ends. Many people pick up their chair, collapse it, and stow it on a nearby rack. Others come up to us to talk. We enjoy these conversations, which are friendly and engaging.

 After doing my part to pick up our family’s chairs, we move back into the lobby. There we turn in our information cards to the visitor center and enjoy an extended time of conversation with a most engaging woman.

She tells us about the church. I ask how next Sunday’s service will compare to this holiday weekend experience. The woman says the service will be the same format, but there will be many more people. I wonder how many more.

We could return next week to find out. In two weeks, they’ll have an after-church event for people who want to learn more about their gathering.

This church has much to offer, but we’ll miss it since we’ll be back at The Nonconventional Church.

I long to go to church in my community and attend with my neighbors. This church meets the first criteria, but I don’t spot any neighbors.

The four of us debrief at lunch. We all had a positive experience at the Postcard Church.

Our grandson, however, struggled in nursery, with the director of children’s programming holding him the entire time. The two of them bonded, which so touched his mother’s heart.

“We’re coming back next week,” she announces. “Do you want to come with us?”

We agree.


Giving first-time visitors a positive experience is key to having them come back.

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.

Christian Living

Only God Is Awesome

Discover Why God Should Inspire Our Awe

The word awesome is overused today, so much so that it’s almost cliché. When most people say awesome, what they mean is outstanding or really good. Yet slang aside, the primary definition of awesome is to inspire awe. Given this, in the strictest sense, only God is awesome.

Only God inspires us to be in awe of him. Only he is worthy of our awe. When we think of God—of who he is and what he does—only God is truly awesome.

Here are some of the awesome things about God that should inspire us to be in awe of him.

Our Awesome God Created Us

God’s awesomeness starts with his creation. Us, the world we live in, and the cosmos around us are unbelievably incredible. But we too often view his marvelousness as common, as a given.

God created us. He made our world, down to the most intricate detail. And he placed us in the vastness of space, which we struggle to comprehend.

Only an all-powerful God could do this. This should inspire our awe. In this way, only God is awesome.

Our Awesome God Saved Us

God is perfect, and we are not. We mess up. We make mistakes. Our imperfectness—our sin—separates us from God. Jesus came to earth as a human sacrifice to make right our many wrongs. He died so we won’t have to. Jesus, as the Son of God, saves us.

Only an all-loving God could do this for us. Only God would. Only God is awesome.

Our Awesome God Guides Us

When Jesus rose from the dead and returned to heaven, he and Papa sent us the Holy Spirit. When we follow Jesus, the Holy Spirit lives in us. The Holy Spirit reveals supernatural truth to us. The Holy Spirit offers us direction. All we need to do is listen and obey.

Through the Holy Spirit, God lives in us. Only our all-knowing God could do this for us. Only God is awesome.

Our Awesome God Wants a Relationship with Us

The God who created us, saved us, and guides us, wants to connect with us. He wants to be in community with us. He doesn’t want to observe us from a distance or watch us as we go about our daily lives. He wants to be in a relationship with us.

This is for both now, while we live here on earth, as well as after we die. And this will last for the rest of eternity.

Imagine that, the God who lives outside of time and space wants to spend time with us. And given all he’s done for us, we should want to spend time with him.

Thank you, awesome God, for who you are, what you’ve done, and what you are doing for us. We love you. Though we don’t deserve it, we approach you in awe, with expectation and thankful hearts.

Only you are truly awesome. May we never forget that.

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 Church with Good Music

Waiting for the Service to Start

I volunteer at a budget program where I teach classes and encourage people to manage their finances, unlearn bad money-handling habits, and dig out of debt.

It’s a biblically based program, and it meets at a local church, which is also today’s destination.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

In the brief time I’ve been involved, the budgeting program has grown significantly. I have mixed feelings about this. Part of me is glad we’re meeting the needs of more people in the community, but I’m also dismayed at the demand.

I wish I could work myself out of a job, but according to Jesus that will never happen. He said there will always be poor people who need help (Mark 14:7).

I’m pleased this church provides space for the program. I’m sure this comes from a desire to make a difference in their community, something all churches should do but that too few pursue with any degree of effort or success.

It’s also an example of good stewardship.

Nearly all church buildings sit idle most of the week, so anything that increases occupancy expands the reach of the church and honors the donations of the people who made the facility possible. I’m sure this pleases God too.

The pastor of this church teaches a Bible class as part of the budgeting program, so I’ve met him a few times, and we’ve had some brief conversations. However, I’ve not told him I plan to visit this church.


I think our daughter and son-in-law might like it, so I invite them to meet us.

Though I’m open to this being our future church home, I’m doubtful. It’s not as close to our house as I’d like, and I don’t think any neighbors go here. I wonder if it will appeal to Candy.

Regardless, I expect to better understand the church and their services.

This will allow me to tell clients at the budgeting classes about it if they have questions. Though most clients already have a church connection, some don’t.

I want to help those folks find a church home, and this one would be an obvious choice since they already come here during the week for budgeting classes.

I know it takes exactly fifteen minutes to drive there, and we depart ten minutes before that, allowing time for possible pre-church interaction. We leave on schedule, and I pray for our time at this church.

My wife is grumbling a bit, however. She didn’t have time to brew a cup of coffee before we left, so she gave up her morning routine to keep us on schedule. Her decision pleases me.

On other occasions she’s persisted in making her hot beverage when we should have been leaving. In those instances, I’ve not been patient, with us invariably arriving at church late and with me frustrated. This won’t happen today.

With our pre-church prayer going before us, the drive is pleasant. It’s a nice spring day, with warm sunshine, increasing temperatures, and a gentle breeze.

Extra Time to Wait

We pull into the lot ten minutes early. There aren’t many cars. My expectations sink. Though more park in the side lot, this isn’t the bustling church I expected.

The rest of our family isn’t here yet, so we move with deliberate slowness. We head inside, standing in the narthex as we scope things out. To our left is the sanctuary.

Though an usher stands at the door, the room is empty except for the sound guys in back and the worship team up front. To our right are classrooms, along with most of the activity.

Candy spies some coffee and heads toward it. As she prepares her concoction, I stand alone. People scurry past. I try to make eye contact, but no one notices. No one stops to chat or even wave a hello.

Once again, I’m alone in a room full of people. I expected better.

With coffee now in my bride’s hand, we have nothing else to do, so we head toward the sanctuary.

With every chair empty, the usher encourages us to wait. “Most people don’t come in until after the service starts,” he says with a smile.

This bothers me—a lot. This practice suggests other things are more important to these folks than preparing to worship God. Even though he should be their focus, they place other activities first, and he comes second.

If people would talk to me, I’d gladly wait. Maybe the usher will, since he has nothing else to do at the moment. I extend my hand to shake his and introduce myself. He reciprocates and hands me a bulletin. So much for conversation.

After we sit, the minister spots us and comes over to greet us. I’m so excited for some interaction that I forget to introduce Candy.

“There will only be about fifteen people here when the service starts,” he says with a smile, “but by the end of the second song, there will be about forty.” I nod. “There are about one hundred at our second service.”

Looking around, I suspect the place seats about 150. “It would be crowded if you just had one service.” This time he’s the one to nod.

“We encourage people to serve during one service and attend the other.” I wonder how many do. He again thanks us for visiting and excuses himself.

Music Prelude and Worship

I spot our family in the narthex and go to meet them. Someone is explaining the nursery options, but they decide to keep their son with them. I hold out my hands, and he comes to me.

As I carry him into the sanctuary, the music plays. His body responds to the beat. “Do you like the music?”


“There are guitars,” Candy says. “Do you like guitars?”

“Yeah!” He nods and then starts bobbing his little head.

By the time his mother joins us, he’s ready to go back to her. After a few minutes he reaches for his dad. Then back to her. It’s a game for him, but they don’t want to play. They take him to the nursery.

The music is upbeat, possibly the most engaging of all the churches so far.

The worship leader plays guitar, with two more on guitars and one on bass. A drummer and keyboardist round out the ensemble, with a young woman singing backup. Some instrumentalists are also miked for vocals.

Their voices blend nicely, with the sound superbly balanced. Though the newness of the situation distracts me, I’m drawn into worshiping God. Musical excellence is one of Candy’s requirements for our next church. I wonder if this qualifies.

After two contemporary songs come announcements and a time to greet those around us. As predicted, our numbers have now swelled to about forty or more.

Greeting Awkwardness

Though we sit in the second row from the back in the front section, no one sits in front of us. Most people pick the middle section. With the only people to greet sitting behind us, I turn to the young couple behind me.

Though they aren’t prepared for it, I try to draw them into conversation. We just start to connect when the music resumes and halts our interaction.

We sing an old hymn, updated to work with their modern instruments, followed by another contemporary song. I enjoy the singing.

Communion Clarity

Communion is next. The bulletin notes, “All believers may take part,” addressing my most pressing question.

Then, perhaps for our benefit, the minister thoroughly explains their process. He succinctly addresses every other question anyone could have about how they practice the Lord’s Supper.

Never have I had Communion at a church I visited when I fully knew what to expect, how I fit in, what to do, and when I should do it.

Without uncertainty getting in my way, I’m able to contemplate Jesus’s amazing gift to us as I partake in this ritual he started two thousand years ago.

Two Offerings

The offering follows. The pastor excuses visitors from participating and then implores members to give and to give generously. His entreaty borders on pleading.

First, they take a collection for their general fund, and then they take a second one, but I don’t catch the designated cause.

I’m irked at how often churches in this area take two collections during their services. As I’ve already mentioned, this further reinforces the claims of the unchurched that “churches are always asking for money.”

Getting to Know God

The sermon is part of a series, “Breaking Free,” from the book of Exodus. Today’s topic is “Getting to Know God,” with Exodus 3:13–15 as our text. The pastor is easy to listen to, but his style confounds me.

He doesn’t provide us with three points or give a message that allows for easy note taking. Instead, his talk takes us on a meandering journey with interconnected thoughts that loop and intersect and repeat.

I enjoy listening to him but cannot corral his words into a succinct summary. Even with the fill-in-the-blank sheet in the bulletin, I’m not able to subject his words to an order that satisfies my logical-thinking mind.

“We are each known by different names . . . and by different attributes,” I write. So is God. When Moses asks God, “Who should I say sent me?” God merely says, “I am.”

The minister voices what has always exasperated me. “This explains nothing; it doesn’t help at all.”

Yahweh, he adds, is represented as Lord in the Bible. I never knew that—or I forgot. I’m glad for the insight.

“We are not the center, the focus, or in control,” he says. “God is.” He wants us to know him. Moses knew God and radiated his glory. “Our job,” the minister later adds, “is to reflect God’s glory.”

This one line is my key takeaway, his main point for the message. By the time he ends, I feel satiated but can’t explain why.

He concludes with the subtlest of invitations, a ritual I learned to ignore after five years at an evangelical church. After a closing prayer, the worship team treats us to a resonating reprise of their opening number.

The powerful music draws me to God as the words resound in my mind.

After Church Connection

After the worship leader dismisses us, we talk some more with the couple who sat behind us and another couple who joined them after the greeting time. As we file out, the minister stands by the exit, smiling and shaking hands.

This isn’t a rote exercise. He’s bonding with people, caring for his flock. I want to communicate my sincere appreciation for the way he explained their Communion practice, but my words refuse to form when the time comes.

I could honestly tell him I enjoyed his message but am not sure how to do so without it sounding like an obligatory compliment. Instead, I just smile, and he thanks me for being here today.

I nod. “It was good to be here.” And it was.

In the narthex, one of their worship team members introduces himself. He works with our son-in-law.

We talk at length, connecting, meeting his family, and learning about his journey. Our conversation is even better than the church service.

This is why I go to church: to connect with other followers of Jesus, to enjoy meaningful spiritual conversations, and to experience true fellowship—without coffee and cookies to detract from forming real relationships.

The extended conversation lasts until music signals the start of the second service. Our new acquaintance scurries off to join the rest of the worship team.

We walk outside. The sun is shining, but the wind now has a bite. I long to bask in the warm rays while simultaneously desiring to escape the bitter gusts.

Our Debrief: the Music Was Good

We decide to have an early lunch and head to a quick-serve restaurant. As we enjoy our burgers and fries, my mind is still on church. “I think that was the best music of the churches we’ve visited.”

Candy agrees, both surprising and pleasing me, but that’s all she has to say. Our daughter and son-in-law remain noncommittal about the experience, neither gushing with praise nor criticizing the service. Maybe they need time to process it.

The next day our daughter shares more: the music was good, but not as good as our former church. I

’m resigned to not being able to find music that matches that church; perhaps our former church doesn’t even align with our memories of our time there.

Besides, picking a church based on music, while understandable, is shortsighted. When the music wanes, will you leave?

“If you decide to go there,” she concludes, “we may go with you once in a while.”


Church practices that seem normal and self-explanatory to regular attendees—such as Communion—may confuse or confront visitors. Be sure to let them know what will happen and how they can take part.

[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.

Visiting Churches

The Church with a Fresh Spin

Breathing Life into Old Practices

The three churches nearest to us—The Closest Church, The Traditional Denominational Church, and The Church with the Fundamental Vibe—all have traditional-sounding names, meet in traditional-looking buildings, and have traditional-style services.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

I want a church with a fresh spin.

A Denominational Connection

This church, only 1.8 miles away and just past The Fundamental Church, boasts a nontraditional name. Though their building still looks like a church, it’s not as typical. I wonder if their service will likewise break from status quo religion.

They are from the same denomination as The Outlier Congregation and The Traditional Denominational Church. I wonder which one they’ll be more like. At last, we can find out.

On a corner, I’m not sure where their drive is. Candy points straight ahead, but I turn the corner. Only then do we see a drive off each street. A small church bus drops off riders under the awning that shelters the main entrance.

I wheel around and park in a nearby space, eager to get inside. Candy is in less of a hurry.

A Warm Welcome

Greeted at the door, the man knows we’re visitors and welcomes us warmly. Inside, many more acknowledge our presence with a nod, a wave, or a handshake.

No one asks if we’re visiting. They all know. What several ask is if we’re new to the area, while a few cautiously inquire if we’re looking for a church.

We move into the sanctuary, which is the shape of a gymnasium.

A high open ceiling, painted black, and dark walls provide a spartan feel, while the well-lit, laid-back atmosphere draws me in. Round tables, circled with chairs, fill the back and partway up the sides, while rows of folding chairs line the front.

The pastor, in casual attire and with an unassuming persona, welcomes us. He shares his first name but doesn’t reveal his title.

I’m so pleased to meet a minister who doesn’t need to tie his identity with what he does or his credentials. This is a fresh spin.

This man possesses both the confidence and the humility to be Gene, a person just like me, without any label to erect an unbiblical distinction between us. I immediately like him.

The tables are inviting, but I don’t want to sit on the periphery. I yearn to be closer to the action. We move toward the middle of the room, sliding into a center row.

As Candy reads the bulletin, I check out the space. It’s accessible and comfortable, feeling as much like a pleasant place to hang out as it does a church.

Unlike last week, with its predominance of seniors, there are few here today. What I see is a nice range of ages and many kids. Judging by their smiles and laughter, the congregation is excited to be here, eager for the service to begin.

Anticipation permeates the room.

Getting Started

The worship team gathers on stage, elevated by three short steps. Forming a tight circle, they bow their heads in a posture of intercession.

Their example reminds me of what I neglected to do. In anticipation of my visit, I forgot to pray on our way here. Candy didn’t suggest it either. I now bow my head.

The seven people on stage scatter to their positions. A tall man straps on a guitar and opens the service. Around him are a trumpet player, a keyboardist on an electric organ, a drummer, and three female vocalists.

Their sound is upbeat and inviting, something quite different from last week. They lead us in singing contemporary choruses and one updated hymn.

After the opening song set is the official greeting time. This is not the typical moment of rote interaction but an extended period that allows real connections to occur. Then we sing some more.

The Pastor’s Part

The pastor publicly appears for the first time, asking for people to come forward to pray for him and the service.

Two people do. I’m pleased to see the laity pray for the congregation and their minister as part of the service. What a fine example they set.

Behind the stage hangs some remarkable artwork, which guides their Lenten services. Reminiscent of the “Stations of the Cross,” an eight-panel mosaic shows Jesus’s journey toward his sacrificial death and ultimate resurrection.

Today is panel four, “Gethsemane.” Referring to Mark 14:32–42, a three-part sermon emerges about reaffirmation, restoration, and revelation.

The pastor, we learn, meets each Thursday morning with a group of guys. There he previews the text for Sunday’s service. He goes there as a participant, not a leader or teacher.

His goal is to listen to their discussion. Some of the men’s insights end up in his message. This is yet another fresh spin on how they do things at this church.

This is just one of the many small tweaks this church makes from the norm of status quo Sunday services. Collectively, these changes add up to provide a fresh experience for me.

Open Mic Time

He ends his message with a prayer and what I think is the closing song. Then they take an offering, during which is an “open mic” time. I cringe a bit, as I’ve often seen these go terribly wrong.

Invariably someone, either well-intentioned or with an agenda, hijacks the mic and subjects the congregation to a barely coherent story or a passionate rant about something few others care about.

Still, I like their bravery to try it, knowing that when this works, it works extremely well. It’s just one more for their efforts to put a fresh spin on their practices.

A young man comes forward, sharing what turns out to be a lengthy set of announcements about the youth group, which seems connected with Young Life. I like them tapping an available resource and not trying to reproduce what already exists.

Another man follows him to talk about a recent short-term mission trip he was on, but I think his real goal is to recruit more people for future trips. Then the pastor prays for things mentioned by both people.

But the service isn’t over.

The minister asks for “prayer servants” to come forward. This may have been the same term he used when soliciting prayer before his message. Two people stand.

Two others rove the audience with handheld mics as people share their needs and joys. After each person speaks, one of the prayer servants intercedes.

As the people reveal what’s on their hearts, I pray silently for them too. Eight people seek prayer. This is a caring, praying congregation that puts biblical faith into action. I so like that.

More Interaction

Now the service is officially over, but the interaction isn’t. Although people prepare to leave, few hurry off. Many tarry to talk, some interacting with us.

Most of these conversations are short, but a couple are more intentional, and one is in depth.

Though part of a traditional denomination, this congregation has made several intentional adjustments in their practices to put a fresh spin on old customs, departing from the status quo in enough areas to entice me.

Although I desire an experience that breaks completely with the routines of today’s church culture to reclaim the mindset of the early church, I realize I may not find such a group.

I want to come back.

My wife sees only this church’s connections with their stodgy denomination and can’t move past it. It could be her insight is more accurate than mine. Unlike me, she has no interest in returning. Once was enough.

She makes her pronouncement with enough finality that I know we won’t return.


Look for ways to put a fresh spin on old customs to be more relevant for today’s visitors.

[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?

Christian Living

Learning from Jesus’s First Words

When Christ Speaks, We Should Be Ready to Listen

What Jesus says is important to us as his followers. The passages in the Bible that we need to pay the most attention to are the words of Jesus. Some Bibles even highlight Jesus’s words by putting them in red.

We call these red-letter editions. People often focus on the final words of Jesus. But what about Jesus’s first words?

Let’s look at what the Bible records as Jesus’s first words. This doesn’t occur when he first learns to talk, and it’s not the first words he speaks when he begins his ministry. Jesus’s first words recorded in the Bible happen between these two times.

Twelve-Year-Old Jesus

Jesus’s first recorded words occur when he’s twelve, and it’s the only story the Bible gives us about Jesus’s youth. In this account we see the balance between his divine side and his human side.

Jesus goes with his parents to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. When the festival ends, his parents head home, traveling with a group of others headed in that direction. They assume Jesus is with the caravan. He isn’t. He stays behind without their knowledge.

After traveling all day, Mary and Joseph discover that Jesus is missing. They’ve lost their son, one of a parent’s most dreaded nightmares. Yet for them it’s even worse. They also lost the Son of God.

Panicked they head back to Jerusalem. They search. And they search. After three days they finally find him.

He’s in the temple having a deep spiritual conversation with the religious teachers. He listens to what they say and asks insightful questions. The twelve-year-old amazes everyone with his depth of understanding.

His parents are astonished too. Yet they’re also irritated with him for causing them needless worry.

Jesus’s First Words

Young Jesus responds incredulously. “Why were you searching for me?” he asks. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49, NIV).

These are the first recorded words of Jesus.

From the perspective of tween Jesus, his parents shouldn’t have spent three days looking for him. The temple should have been their first stop. In his mind, it was a given. In their mind, it was the last place they expected to find their twelve-year-old son.

Jesus doesn’t address the fact that he didn’t head home with them and caused them untold worry for three days. Like many who aren’t yet fully mature, he knew he was safe, so there was nothing for anyone to worry about.

The human side of Jesus missed spending time with his Father, Father God. The temple may have been where he best felt he could make a spiritual connection with Papa.

It was also an ideal place to find other like-minded Jews who could teach him about Scripture and guide him forward on his spiritual journey.

But Jesus’s parents don’t understand what he means. Regardless Jesus obediently returns home with them. He grows in wisdom and stature, enjoying the favor of both God and men. This prepares him for ministry, which he’ll start in eighteen years, when he’s thirty years old.

Where do we go to best connect with God and spend time with other like-minded believers? When our friends look for us, where will they find us?

Celebrate Christmas in a fresh way with The Advent of Jesus. It’s a forty-day devotional that prepares our hearts to celebrate the arrival of Jesus in an engaging read. Begin your Advent journey now and gain a greater sense of wonder for the season.

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 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?

Bible Study

1 John Bible Study, Day 2: Fellowship

Today’s passage: 1 John 1:2–3

Focus verse: We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. (1 John 1:3)

Building on the phrase Word of life, John continues by saying that the life appeared—that is, Jesus appeared—whom John has seen and testifies about. He proclaims Jesus’s life (eternal life) to us.

Why does he do this? He doesn’t say it’s so we’ll go to heaven when we die, even though eternal life is a sweet outcome of following Jesus.

John’s goal is that we might enjoy fellowship with other followers of Jesus. And this fellowship is also with Father God and his Son. This means that as part of Jesus’s church, we can also fellowship with our Creator and our Savior.

But fellowship is a strange word to me. 

As a child, the only time I ever heard fellowship was when churches had “fellowship hour” or “a time of fellowship.”

This meant the adults would sit around drinking coffee, making small talk, and laughing at amusing anecdotes. Aside from taking place in a church building, God had little part in our fellowship time.

But fellowship bored us kids. For our part, we spent this time seeking creative ways to entertain ourselves, with the goal of avoiding getting into trouble. 

Though supplying some insight, the dictionary doesn’t offer much clarity into what John means with fellowship either. In defining fellowship, it talks about companionship, friendship, and comradeship.

This understanding may explain most churches’ fellowship time, but it falls short of what Christian fellowship could and should be.

The churches’ and the dictionary’s superficial views of fellowship aren’t what John writes about. The reality that God is part of our fellowship suggests it exists, at least in part, on a spiritual level where we enjoy a supernatural connection. 

Consider the pair of disciples walking to Emmaus after Jesus’s crucifixion. The resurrected Christ appears to them, but they don’t recognize him.

When they at last realize who he is, Jesus disappears. Reflecting on what happened, they say, “Weren’t our hearts burning when he talked to us and explained the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32).

Having our hearts burn within us is an example of fellowship. 

God-honoring fellowship should cause our hearts to burn when we talk about the things of God, explore the Bible together, and live in authentic Christian community.

And we can also experience this intense, personal fellowship with God. Through the Holy Spirit, we can connect with God the Father and God the Son in the spiritual realm.

This fellowship with other believers and with our Lord is why John proclaims Jesus. And when we follow Jesus, we can experience this sincere, profound, and deep connection on a spiritual level.


  1. Is our fellowship more than sitting around and drinking coffee? 
  2. How can our fellowship with other believers be more meaningful?
  3. How can we have fellowship with God?
  4. When is the last time your heart burned within you over spiritual matters?
  5. What role can the Holy Spirit play in our fellowship?

Discover more about fellowship in Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 1:9, and 2 Corinthians 13:14, as well as 1 John 1:6–7.

Tips: Check out our tips to use this online Bible study for your church, small group, Sunday school class, or family discussion. It’s also ideal for personal study. Come back each Monday for a new lesson.

Read the next lesson or start at the beginning of this study.

Discover practical, insightful, and encouraging truths in Love One Another, a devotional Bible study to foster a deeper appreciation for the two greatest commandments: To love God and to love others.

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.