Visiting Churches

A Messianic Jewish Congregation: Church #71

Before 52 Churches, we visited a Messianic Jewish church: Jews who believe in Jesus as their Jewish savior, mixing Jewish tradition with Christian faith. 

They met on Saturday nights. The service involved a time of worship and a time of teaching. They concluded with a shared meal.

Most of the service was in English, but a few parts of worship were in Hebrew. I mumbled the words the best I could, but I had no idea if my fellow worshipers pronounced their Hebrew words correctly or not. 

Their hymnals were in both Hebrew and English. As I recall, page one was at the back. For their meal, shared potluck style, they provided food with a Jewish flair. I don’t know how authentic or Americanized these dishes were, but they were tasty.

The friendly people there embraced us. They welcomed us. We felt like family from the beginning.

Worshiping God in an unfamiliar way brought a freshness, an authenticity to our efforts. Their unfamiliar traditions occasionally confused me, but I also felt strangely invigorated by what we did.

They didn’t have their own building, but they did have their own worship space. It was in the basement of a Protestant church. This was ideal, since neither group used the facility at the same time.

There were two interesting things about this congregation. First, everyone there was Gentile. That is, they weren’t Jewish. It seems strange to me that a Messianic Jewish church wouldn’t have some Jewish people attending it.

When I asked about this, someone explained that sometimes a Jewish family did drive from another city to meet with them, but this didn’t occur every week.

The other interesting thing is most of the people present at this Saturday evening Messianic Jewish gathering also attend a Protestant service on Sunday morning. This perplexed me. This is, however, exactly what Candy and I did.

That was many years ago, but the experience stayed with me, and I want to encounter it again. When we embarked upon our 52 Churches journey, I desired to include this church and make a repeat visit. Unfortunately, they no longer met at the same place.

Instead their location rotated between the homes of their regular attendees. Revisiting them wasn’t going to work for 52 Churches. And though I would’ve liked to have returned later, we never got around to it.

There’s another Messianic Jewish congregation near where we live. It’s a thirty-five-minute drive, not close but not insurmountable either. I want to visit them and compare their practices with my recollection of the first Messianic Jewish congregation.

I want to go. We could go. But we don’t.

I guess I’m tired of visiting churches.

[See the discussion questions for Church 71, read about Church 70 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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.

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

Christian Living

Realign our Church Practices of Music and Message

We Must Rethink What Happens at Our Church Services

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

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

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

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

Put Music or Message in Its Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Read more about this in Peter’s new book, Jesus’s Broken Church, available in e-book, audiobook, paperback, and hardcover.

Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.

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

Visiting Churches

Quakers: Unplanned and Spontaneous, Church #70

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a group of Young Quakers online. Their faith, their passion for community, and their desire to make a difference in their world drew me in. They even invited me to their annual gathering, halfway across the country.

Though I had never met one of them in person, for a time I considered going. That’s how desperate I was to be part of a vibrant faith community—even for a weekend.

They were all about half my age, which may explain their zest and their appeal to me. After serious consideration, however, I opted not to go.

Local Opportunities

Being ever practical, I looked for a gathering closer to home. Some of their group met on the other side of the state, but that was still too far away.

Casting a wider net for Quakers in general, I found a gathering some forty minutes from my house. They don’t meet every week, but instead get together the first, third, and fifth Sundays of each month.

According to their website, their meetings are unplanned and spontaneous. They use different wording, but my take is they spend a lot of time listening to the Holy Spirit, responding as appropriate.

Sometimes this means sharing insights and other times it entails keeping it to themselves. With no minister, everyone can participate in an egalitarian manner.

This is quite different from my normal Sunday practices, yet I have often experienced this, albeit without my bride, in other settings. There we would quiet ourselves and wait for the Holy Spirit to speak to us.

If his words were for the group, we would share them. Otherwise, we would keep his insight to ourselves. I wrote what I heard in my journal.

I know Candy would go to this church without complaint, but I also worry that their format would make her uncomfortable. I never resolved this dilemma, so the Quakers also kept moving down the list as we visited other churches. 

Range of Quaker Practices

Of note: In my online research about Quakers, I gather there is a wide range of Quaker practices. On one side are those gatherings that focus on the leading of the Holy Spirit, as this church seems to follow. In contrast, other Quaker meetings are quite different.

[See the discussion questions for Church 70, read about Church 69, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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.

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

Visiting Churches

An Urban Church with a Mission: Discussion Questions

The website of this urban church says they’re a multi-racial, multi-socio-economic relational community, where the homeless worship and support one another. I anticipate meeting people of other races and expect a service relevant to its inner-city neighborhood.

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church 68.

1. As we approach the building, others carry crockpots. Looks like a potluck. A shared meal is a powerful way to connect with others and build community.

What can we do to get to know others and create a sense of community?

2. Two people welcome us before we enter the building and more greet us inside. They tell us two key pieces of information: the location of the sanctuary and directions to the restrooms.

What key information do visitors need to know?

3. The crowd of white faces isn’t the amalgamation of races promised. I don’t spot anyone who looks homeless. Aside from location, it doesn’t look like an urban church.

What can we do to make our churches more diverse and inclusive?

4. As the minister concludes his message, he reminds us to pray for one person to lead to Jesus.

How can we do better at being expectant and ready to tell people about Jesus?

5. In true potluck style, I take a bit of most everything. Good food, good fellowship, and good times. I like the way they do church.

What do we think church should be? What must we change to do church better?

6. Throughout the day we suffer no awkward moments. These people welcome well. They’re an engaging group, intentional about their faith and their life.

How can we live with greater kingdom intention?

7. I’m glad we stayed to eat with them and enjoy community instead of scooting out right away.

Do people at our church leave when the service concludes or tarry to talk and hang out?

[Read about Church 68 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

If you feel it’s time to move from the sidelines and get into the game, The More Than 52 Churches Workbook provides the plan to get you there.

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

10 More New Testament Practices, Part 1

Consider the Example of the Early Church and Then Follow It

We’ve already talked about the three main ways Jesus changed our perspectives for following him when he fulfilled the Old Testament prophets. The early church applied this by meeting in homes, serving as priests, and helping those in need.

As Jesus’s priests they minister to those in the church, tell others about Jesus, and worship him.

That’s a great foundation for how our church today should function, but there’s more. Consider these New Testament practices that we will do well to follow today.

1. Holy Spirit Power and Direction

The Old Testament focuses on God the Father and looks forward to the coming Messiah, Jesus. In the New Testament, Jesus shows up as a central figure in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

Then the Holy Spirit takes over for the rest of the New Testament, amplifying what Jesus set in motion.

Even so, Jesus is the central figure of the Bible—with God the Father pointing to him and God the Holy Spirit building on what he accomplished. Aside from being the key figure in the Bible, many say Jesus is the most important person in all of history. I agree.

Jesus does all his work on earth in about three years. He spends that time teaching his disciples and preparing them to take over when he returns to heaven.

Despite this, however, they aren’t fully ready to assume their critical role when he is ready to leave Earth. Instead, Jesus tells them to wait, wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Holy Spirit power is the missing element they need before they move forward and advance the kingdom of God. In this, the Holy Spirit plays a leading role. He’s prominent in the book of Acts, guiding the early church and empowering its members.

The book of Acts mentions the Holy Spirit fifty-five times, with close to a hundred references. It’s clear that the Holy Spirit acts in Jesus’s place to lead his church.

In one instance, Jesus’s followers debate a theological issue about circumcision for new converts. After they reach a consensus, they write that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

Listing the Holy Spirit first suggests he took a lead role and the people aligned with his perspective. I wonder how often we do just the opposite, where we decide and then try to manufacture Holy Spirit support.

Another time, as the church worships and fasts, the Holy Spirit tells them to send out Barnabas and Saul on a missionary journey (Acts 13:2). The Holy Spirit also speaks to Philip (Acts 8:29), Peter (Acts 10:19), Agabus (Acts 11:28), and Paul (Acts 20:22).

But the Holy Spirit isn’t just in the book of Acts. He appears in nearly every book of the New Testament, including Revelation.

For Jesus’s church, the Holy Spirit is in charge. He leads their meetings and directs all that they do. This is the first of our New Testament practices to follow.

2. Worship

We’ve already talked a lot about worship. The appropriate worship of God is a central tenet of our faith. The Old Testament mentions worship in 179 verses. The New Testament continues this theme with seventy-five more.

Many come from the Gospels as well as Acts. The book of Revelation mentions worship more than any New Testament book and comes in second overall, just behind Deuteronomy.

This makes it clear that worshiping God is in our history, our present, and our eternal future. Worship is the second of our New Testament practices,

In the most profound verse about worship, John reminds us that God is spirit. Therefore, those who worship him must worship him in the Spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

But what exactly is this verse telling us? There are two elements: Spirit and truth.

First, we have the Spirit, with a capital S. This means Holy Spirit. To fully worship, we must worship through the Holy Spirit. He will direct our worship and guide us. We must follow his lead and do what he says.

Though we often think of our worship as a physical act, there must also be a spiritual element to it. And the spiritual aspect is the more important one.

Second, we must worship God in truth. This means our worship must be honest, pure. To worship God in truth suggests integrity.

This means that we don’t make a show of our worship to impress others or gain their attention. That makes for disingenuous worship and doesn’t honor God. It doesn’t matter what others think of our worship, it only matters what God thinks.

The opposite of not making our worship a display for other people is holding back our worship for fear of what others may think or say. We must feel free to worship God as the Holy Spirit leads us.

This is how we worship God in Spirit and truth.

3. Prayer

In addition to worship occurring throughout the Bible, we also have prayer. Half of the books in the Old Testament talk about prayer, and most of the books in the New Testament address the subject. Prayer is the third of our New Testament practices.

James writes that the prayers from a righteous person are powerful and effective (James 5:16). Paul tells us to pray in all situations (Ephesians 6:18) and confirms that everyone should pray (1 Timothy 2:1).

The book of Revelation gives us some insight into our prayers. Three times John connects prayers with incense, which God receives from his people. First, we see golden bowls of incense which represent our prayers (Revelation 5:8).

Then we have an angel who offers the incense and our prayers before God’s throne (Revelation 8:3). And last, we see the smoke of the incense mingling with our prayers, rising to God (Revelation 8:4).

Whether we use incense or not in our spiritual practices, these passages in Revelation gives us a powerful image of how God receives the prayers of his people.

When it comes to praying, however, many people think of the Lord’s Prayer. Though a better label might be the Disciple’s Prayer. This is because Jesus gives the prayer to his disciples as an example of how the pray. It is their prayer, not his.

The Lord’s Prayer—sometimes called the Our Father, after its opening line—occurs twice in the Bible. People are familiar with Matthew’s version, with many having memorized it and with some churches reciting it as part of their worship practices (Matthew 6:19-13).

The version in Luke is far less familiar. It’s shorter and more concise (Luke 11:1-4).

Neither of these prayers are for us to memorize or recite as much as a model to follow. Here’s an interpretation of how we can apply it to inform our prayers.

  • We open the prayer by reverencing God.
  • Then we ask that his kingdom will come—implicitly with us helping to advance it—and that we will accomplish God’s will here on earth.
  • In the one personal, tangible request, we ask for our daily bread. That is, we ask God to provide for us each day what we need to live. It may be food or something else that’s essential.
  • Then we pray that God will forgive us, just as we forgive others. And if we withhold our forgiveness this implicitly allows God to withhold it from us. Hopefully neither will happen.
  • We end with a request that God will steer us away from temptation and give us victory over Satan’s attacks.
  • And some versions of the Bible tack on one more phrase. In this we celebrate his kingdom, his power, and his eternal glory.

But this is just one example of how the pray. The key is that prayer is an essential part of our faith journey and another of our New Testament practices.

4. Fasting

Another concept that occurs throughout the Bible is fasting. To fast is to go without food for a time. This isn’t an act of mortification to abase ourselves before God or try to gain his attention.

Instead it’s to focus our thoughts on God, seeking to better connect with him and align our thinking with his. When fasting, one recommendation is to take the time normally spent eating and use it to pray and listen to the Holy Spirit.

There are two key teachings in the Bible about fasting.

When Jesus instructs the people in his epic message that we call the Sermon on the Mount, he talks about this practice. He says “When you fast . . .” Not “If you fast . . . ” (Matthew 6:16-17).

From Jesus’s perspective, fasting is not an optional activity but an expectation.

Second, Jesus fasted (Matthew 4:2). He serves as an example to us all. Since he fasted, is there any reason why we shouldn’t?

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t require that his disciples fast, but this is a short-term reprieve because he is with them. He adds that once he leaves, it’s time to resume fasting (Luke 5:33-35). Since he has returned to heaven and is no longer here on earth, it’s again a time for us to fast.

Fasting is the fourth of our New Testament practices. Jesus wants us to fast, and so we should.

5. Community

The early church also spends a lot of time with each other. This isn’t a once-a-week meeting for an hour or two. It may be an everyday occurrence (Acts 2:46, Acts 6:1, and Hebrews 3:13).

They don’t live their faith in isolation. They need each other. They thrive on community.

Just as the godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit function as one, so too do Jesus’s followers (John 17:20-21, 2 Corinthians 13:14, and 1 John 1:3). Through mutual support they edify one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

This is how they grow in faith, with iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17). It’s two—or more—people traveling down the road together, keeping each other on the right path and headed in the right direction. It’s picking up another when they stumble (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

Living in community is the fifth of our New Testament practices. It is central to who they are and what they do. Without the encouragement and support of each other, they’ll certainly falter in their faith. Together they are better.

Together they can remain focused on Jesus and all he calls them to become. Community is key in making this happen. Think of this as true biblical fellowship (Acts 2:42 and 1 John 1:3-7).

What do they do when they hang out? They spend time in prayer (Acts 1:14, Ephesians 6:18, Colossians 4:2, and James 5:16). They worship (Acts 13:2 and Romans 12:1). They also sing (Ephesians 5:18-20, Colossians 3:16, and James 5:13).

The more established disciples of Jesus teach the newer followers about the basics of faith. Think of this as a new members class (Acts 2:42). And we’ve already covered how they share their material blessings with each other and listen to the Holy Spirit’s prompting.

Come back next week to learn five more things the early church did, five more New Testament practices.

Read more about this in Peter’s new book, Jesus’s Broken Church, available in e-book, audiobook, paperback, and hardcover.

Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.

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

Visiting Churches

Urban on a Mission: Church #68

Candy and I live in a homogenous area of mostly white, middle-class families residing in a suburban setting, sitting on the edge of rural. Our community has minimal diversity and our area churches, even less.

Most of my life I’ve lived in settings with people like me. Our current home is like our others. The neighborhood, both comfortable and stable, stands as a safe place sheltered from the world around it.

We chose this general location to be near family and this setting for its amenities and ambiance. We didn’t intentionally set out to segregate ourselves. It just happened. However, we weren’t deliberate about seeking a more diverse environment, either.

Even though we couldn’t have achieved this goal along with our other objectives, it still pains me. What hurts me more is to know that if we visit an area church, it will be a mostly white experience. 

A Nearby Urban Church

When a friend mentions an urban church in a nearby city, I’m excited. I can’t experience much diversity where I live without moving, but I can experience it through my church selection.

Based on this church’s location and its desire to serve the inner city, I anticipate meeting people of other races and expect a service style relevant to its neighborhood.

It takes some effort, but I eventually find their website. They’re an evangelical community of Christians committed to “intentional discipleship.”

I have no idea why they put intentional discipleship in quotes, but it calls attention to the phrase, though in a curious way. The phrase appears multiple times on their home page. It must be important.

I also know to expect “verse-by-verse Bible teaching.” Next I learn they’re “a multi-racial and multi-socio-economic relational community,” a “true urban church,” where “the homeless worship side-by-side and support one another in Christ.” 

Their website also talks about community outreach, including serving at the community kitchen, inner city street events, and downtown student fellowship—the campus of a Christian college is only a couple of blocks away.

Surely their urban setting allows for these things to happen. I’m excited for what we’ll encounter when we visit. 

What About Parking?

I tell Candy it’s a thirty-minute drive and she accepts this, even though online resources put it at twenty-four. We add a ten-minute buffer and plan to leave forty minutes early, but I doubt we will. I wonder about parking.

In truth, I worry about parking. I know there’s limited street parking in the area, and I have no clue about parking lots in the vicinity. The church’s website doesn’t help, giving only a street number.

As we head out, thirty minutes early, we pray for God’s blessing during our time at this church, that we will be an encouragement to those we meet, and God will show us what he wants us to learn.

Silently, I add my request that we’ll find a place to park, one that is both close and safe.

After my prayer, I breathe a bit easier and my shoulders relax—just a little. Whatever happens will happen, and worrying about it won’t change a thing.

We once attended an urban church. Ironically, back then it was Candy who had concerns about safety when walking from our parked car to the church and then back again.

This church meets in an old warehouse, which they just started using. I like the idea of churches meeting in reclaimed spaces, as opposed to going to the expense of constructing a huge church building that they’ll only use a few hours a week.

For them to meet in a downtown area, using existing space is their only option.

I navigate the one-way streets, needing to overshoot our destination and approach it from the other side.

As we get closer, my pulse quickens with apprehension about the parking situation and for the unknown that awaits us inside. With one block to go, I wipe my sweaty hands on my jeans. My heart pounds. I strive to keep my fears to myself.

Ahead, I spot a sign for the church on the sidewalk, with a few people mingling around the entrance. To my left is a city parking lot. I thank God and pull in.

There are empty spots awaiting us and, as a bonus, we don’t need to pay because it’s the weekend. I worried for nothing, but then, most of the things we worry about never happen anyway. Still, I give credit to Papa for answered prayer and a place to park.

Anticipating a Potluck

The surrounding area is nice. It’s well-kept and clean. We feel safe. As we walk from the parking lot to the building, another family approaches from the opposite direction and others walk from across the street. Both groups wear smiles and carry crockpots. I groan. 

“Looks like there’s a potluck,” I whisper to Candy. A time around a shared meal is a great way to connect with others and build community, but I regret coming emptyhanded.

Once more on our adventure of visiting churches, we’ll be freeloaders. They’ll surely welcome us generously and invite us to stay, insisting there will be plenty of food. Nonetheless, I’ll feel a tad guilty for receiving what they’ll share, offering nothing in return.

I also know that instead of a two-hour church meeting, we’ll have a three-hour church community experience.

Since we have no other plans for this afternoon, this isn’t a problem, but I do need to mentally adjust my thinking for how long we will be here. I don’t do well with handling the unexpected, but God graciously enables me to accept this twist as an adventure. 

Navigating the Facility

Two people welcome us before we enter the building of this urban church and more folks greet us inside. They share two important pieces of information.

The first is the location of the sanctuary and the other is directions to the restrooms, which are on another floor and not close by. Good to know. 

The worship space is a large banquet hall, reclaimed from what was once a warehouse. Along one side of the rectangular space sits a slightly-raised stage, the focal point of the service, with musical instruments and gear for the worship team.

In front of it is a communion table, an altar of sorts. On the opposite wall, a row of tables lines the other side, already filling with the food we’ll enjoy in a couple of hours. In the space between stand fifteen round tables, with seven chairs each. That calculates to 105 seats.

So that we won’t need to contort our necks or pivot our chairs to participate in the service, I look for a table that has open seats facing the front. Few people are sitting, but others have claimed most of the forward-facing chairs, marked with Bibles, purses, and coffee mugs.

At the far end of the room, I spot one open table and scoot toward it, grabbing the two forward-facing spots. As we settle down, another couple joins us, and we spend time getting to know each other.

The Worship Team

They’re friendly, and we make a quick connection. Then the wife of this couple excuses herself to join the worship team as it assembles in the front.

Six people lead us in singing. The lead vocalist also plays keyboard. Our new friend plays violin. Joining them are a bass guitar player and a drummer, along with two backup vocalists.

For the next forty-five minutes we sing, mostly modern choruses and one updated hymn. 

We stand as we sing. Some of the seventy or so people present raise their hands in praise as they sing to God, while a few gently move their bodies in a subtle form of physical worship.

With plenty of space, I can freely raise my arms without bumping into people—a common occurrence given the tight seating at most churches.

The crowd is mostly older, fifty plus if I’m being generous, but over sixty is more likely. There are few kids, one set with their grandparents and another set who we later find out are visiting. The crowd is white and not the amalgamation of races I had anticipated. 

I don’t spot anyone who looks—or smells—homeless. Having been part of an urban church for eight years, one which attracted a large contingency of homeless, I’m used to being around them. Could the homeless in this area be a more upscale version than what I know?

Ones who enjoy regular access to showers and washing machines, who have clothes that match. Aside from the urban setting, this doesn’t look much like an urban church. We don’t ask, and no one explains the lack of diversity that their website promised.

We have a reading from Psalm 148, followed by a meditation. Next is the offertory prayer and the offering. After this we move into a time of prayer.

They share specific concerns—mostly health and work related—for the people present. Some people gather around those near them who need prayer and pray for them. Next is a ministry update and more prayer.

People in the congregation take an active part in all of this. At this point, we’ve only heard from the teaching pastor two brief times. This is more how a church gathering should function, with people ministering to one another.

An Intermission

Now at an hour into the service, we take a fifteen-minute break. This allows us time to meet more people. We don’t need to mingle to do this. They come up to us.

Most everyone asks where we live and are amazed at how far we traveled to visit them.

When I ask them the same question, I’m surprised to learn that not one of them lives in the downtown area. Everyone we talked to drove from suburbia or the country to reach this urban setting. Curious.

During this interlude, a prayer team is available to pray for people. A line never forms, but they keep busy as people approach them for prayer.

The Message

The sermon is “Let the Church be the Church” and the text is Philippians 1:1–2. The interior of the bulletin offers a two-page spread, packed with sermon notes, complete with over fifty blanks for us to fill in.

I skip this, knowing I’ll become so fixated on filling in every blank that I’ll miss the actual message. Candy, however, is up for the challenge and fills in most of them.

For forty-five minutes, the pastor tells us about elders and deacons, about God’s grace and peace. In doing so, he pulls in much related teaching from other passages in the Bible, adding much to the text.

This isn’t the verse-by-verse Bible teaching that the website promised, but a springboard text that serves as a preface for expanded instruction.

His informed teaching is interesting, but I don’t grasp a central point or purpose in what he shares. As he concludes, his message takes an evangelical turn, reminding us to pray for one person to lead to Jesus.

We then quickly move into the potluck, with a bounty of food—much of it left over from a wedding reception the day before. Many people invite us to stay, almost relieved when we say “yes.”

Plenty to Eat

With so many who reach out to us, we’re among the last to get in line to select our food. Even lining up late, there’s still plenty to eat, at least twice the amount needed.

In true potluck style, I take a little bit of most everything and end up with a plate heaped full of more than I should eat. It tastes so good. Good food, good fellowship, and good times. This is more of what church should be.

We interact with more people. All are friendly and engaging. Through it all, we suffer through no awkward moments that too often happen at churches where people don’t welcome well or don’t welcome at all.

This, however, is an engaging group. They’re intentional about their faith and their life. 

I’m glad we experienced community with this urban church. God, bless them and their work for your kingdom.

[See the discussion questions for Church 68, read about Church 67, Church 69, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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.

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

Visiting Churches

Discussion Questions for the Satellite Church: Church #67

We’re off to visit another church, this time with family, the first visit for everyone. When they opened two years ago, they conducted a smart direct-mail campaign to the community. They’re a portable church that meets at a nearby middle school.

Consider these discussion questions about Church 67.

1. The church is three-quarters of a mile away. We could walk but talk ourselves out of it.

Are we willing to attend a church near our home? Are we willing to walk there?

2. They are a satellite location of an established church. Each site has a teaching pastor and worship team, with centralized governance and financial control.

How willing are we to try new ways to reach more people for Jesus?

3. As we move inside the facility, two men interrupt their conversation to welcome us.

Are we willing to stop talking with people we know to meet those we don’t?

4. People chat with friends before the service begins. Soft music plays in the background. The atmosphere strikes a pleasing balance between sitting in stoic silence and an overwhelming rush of activity.

How can we best prepare to worship God?

5. As we wait for the service, the interlude is pleasant. Though worshipful, the subdued ambience of the indirect lighting makes it hard to read the literature they gave us.

How can we best set the right mood for worship? 

6. The space fills. All age groups show up, but the demographics skew younger, with many families present.

What does the makeup of our church say about us? What does it foreshadow about our church’s future?

7. We learn about Breaking Bread, where three individuals or families meet three times in three months around a shared meal. This helps people get to know others and form connections.

What can we do to better connect with others?

8. During the message, I jot down a soundbite: “Know your community.” This makes sense. If we’re going to reach our neighbors, we must understand them.

How can we better know the people in our community?

9. The pastor provides a three-step process to engage people: 1) talk to them, 2) ask them a question, 3) invite them to do something (a meal, outing, or service opportunity).

What can we do to engage people?

10. The service ends, and two things happen. Most people pick up their chair, collapse it, and stow it on a nearby rack. Others come up to talk.

What happens at our church when the service ends?

11. I long to go to church in my community and attend with my neighbors, instead of driving several minutes to church in someone else’s neighborhood and worshiping with other commuters.

How important is making spiritual connections where we live?

[Read about Church 67 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

If you feel it’s time to move from the sidelines and get into the game, The More Than 52 Churches Workbook provides the plan to get you there.

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

Discussing Church #61: Visiting Church by Myself 

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

I’m intrigued. Today, I’ll be visiting church by myself.

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church #61.

1. Candy is gone, so I’m on my own. I’m okay visiting a church by myself, but staying home is so tempting.

How can we form a habit of regular church attendance? How can we stick with it?

2. The parking lot has plenty of space. I’m underwhelmed.

What message does our parking lot send? How can we make parking be a positive and inviting introduction to our facility?

3. Being alone, I feel more exposed than usual. I pause, hoping someone will greet me. No one does. And no one’s available for me to approach. Visiting a church solo takes extra courage.

How can we welcome a person squirming in silence?

4. Several minutes after it’s time to start, the worship team begins playing. Their opening strains call people into the sanctuary. These late arrivals distract me from worship.

How can we make sure we don’t impede others from experiencing God?

5. Next is the greeting. Epic fail. I’m weary of these trivial attempts at connection: people faking friendly when ordered and then withdrawing.

How can we be open and friendly all the time and not just when instructed?

6. The senior pastor is gone, with a second-year seminarian filling in. The guy is green. He should practice in seminary, not on a congregation.

When a message falls short—which will inevitably happen—how should we respond?

7. I leave frustrated. I enjoyed the music, but the message caused consternation, and the lack of connection left me empty. Was it my fault or theirs?

How can we help others leave church feeling better than when they arrived?

[Read about Church #61, Church #62, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

If you feel it’s time to move from the sidelines and get into the game, The More Than 52 Churches Workbook provides the plan to get you there.

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

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?

Discover more about celebrating Jesus and his birth in Peter’s book, The Advent of Jesus. It is book one in the Holiday Celebration Bible Study Series.

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

Key Questions from Churches 45 through 53

To wrap up our adventure, we picked churches to provide the most varied experiences. For this phase my thoughts center on church size, coupled with my desire for community with other believers.

The 52 Churches Workbook, by Peter DeHaan

We’ve completed the final phase of our adventure. Even though most of these churches in this group are medium to large in size, consider these two discussion questions that address smaller churches: 

1. Community is easier at smaller churches, yet I don’t go to one. Curious. 

Regardless of the size of your church, how can you better connect people in community?

2. Smaller churches are usually older congregations. They often have traditional services, don’t embrace newer methods, and are mostly composed of aging parishioners. I’m not against older people, but I am against complacency. 

How can you guard against complacency?

[See the prior set of questions, the prior post, or start at the beginning.]

Get your copy of 52 Churches and The 52 Churches Workbook today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.

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