Visiting Churches

An Organizational Metamorphosis

We’ll Bypass Visiting This Church (For Now)

So far, we’ve visited twelve churches.

With one exception—a spiritual community that wasn’t exclusively Christian—we’ve faithfully attended every church on our list, according to their distance from home.

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

As our journey continues, we’ll skip some to maximize the breadth of our experience.

The first church we’re skipping is a mainstream denomination church. There are two reasons: We’ve visited this church several times before with a family member.

Second, the church has been struggling of late and is embarking on an organizational metamorphosis. They are in a time of transition from which a new church will hopefully emerge.

This new gathering will have a fresh perspective, a different pastor, and a new name. They will be reborn. Since this is all in the planning stage, we’ll set this church aside.

If their transformation progresses, we’ll visit later. And if this strategy doesn’t work, there will be nothing left to see.

It’s a tough time for the faithful few who remain. I pray for a successful organizational metamorphosis.

Takeaway for Everyone: Every church will at some time struggle. Make sure that season doesn’t turn away visitors.

[Update: though it took a while, we do eventually visit this church. I call it a reboot. I think it was worth the wait. Read about that experience.]

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 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?

Visiting Churches

The Traditional Denominational Church

An Easy No

As Sunday approaches, I want to return to last week’s church. Instead, I refer to our list. The second closest church to our house is another from traditional denominational church, a short 1.4 miles away.

I attended a church in this denomination for the first decade of my life. Later, early in our marriage, Candy and I were members of one for three years.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Based on my experiences, too many churches in this denomination are dying because of aging congregations and few young attendees. The Outlier Congregation was a notable exception.

Perhaps this traditional denominational church will also be different. To my shock, Candy doesn’t balk when I suggest this church. I voice hope. “Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

We don’t leave as soon as we should. As a result, we’re both frustrated when we get into our car.

Praying for Church

Only a few seconds into the drive our simmering emotions erupt with raised voices and unkind words. Having mutually expressed our respective angst over some trivial slight, we drive in silence.

In another minute we’ll be at this traditional denominational church, but we haven’t yet prayed for the experience. The sad thing is, right now I don’t care.

“Do you want to pray for the service?” Candy asks.

No, I don’t; I’m mad. I hope she will. After all, she suggested it. “Will you pray?”

“No, I want you to.”

I just yelled at my wife. I don’t want to talk to anyone, especially not God. Letting out a deep breath, I sigh.

“Lord, calm our emotions and prepare us to experience church today. May we receive what you would have us to receive and give what you would have us to give. Open our minds to see what you want to show us. May you be honored by our actions today.”

During my short prayer, God soothes my raw emotions and transforms my attitude. I feel better. I’m ready for church. That’s good because we’re here.

First Impressions

I count six cars in the parking lot. We’re number seven. Great! I tense a bit, braced for another too-small gathering.

Only after we get out of our car do I see many vehicles parked on the side, too many to count. That’s better. I relax a little.

Though I suspect we should walk around the building to where most of the cars are and seek an entrance there, the biting wind of the winter cold assaults me.

It’s not as unseasonably cold as last Sunday, but today the wind pushes the feeling of cold much lower. I want to get inside as fast as I can. I follow a few footprints in the snow to the closest door.

It’s at a lower level than the main entrance in the front, and I wonder where it might lead.

It’s not a welcoming approach. I brace myself to tug on a locked door. To my relief the door yields to my gentle pull, depositing us on a landing midpoint on a stairway.

We walk up several steps and find ourselves in the narthex, a pleasant and warm space.

A lady heading to the stairs welcomes us with a smile. But she has no time to talk, she explains, because she’s headed to work in the nursery.

I’m encouraged. Despite seeing only senior citizens milling about, the need for a nursery suggests younger families attend too.

We saunter in. Already I know I won’t like this church or our experience here.

This isn’t a snap determination made with premature rashness but a reasoned judgment resulting from the scores of churches we’ve visited over the past few years.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, I can predict with high accuracy what the people and service will be like.

Why are we here? Why did we bother?

I want to leave.

Pressing Forward

Meandering toward the sanctuary, we look for someone to talk to or someone looking to talk to us. No one notices. We’re invisible—again. I look for coatracks but don’t see any.

Although slightly irked, I’m okay keeping my coat on. Despite only a brief exposure to the winter chill, it will take time for my body to warm.

While I’m looking for a coatrack, Candy seeks a bulletin. This is definitely a bulletin-type church, but she can’t find one. Now she’s irked too. The pews have padded seats but aren’t nearly as nice as last week’s. I squirm, trying to get comfortable.

The character of the building reminds me of 1960-style construction, but it’s nicely maintained and doesn’t feel that old. Though there are few windows, the space is well lit, giving an open, inviting ambiance.

The stage, however, has the strangest array of decorations, giving off an almost spooky vibe. It’s surreal, and I try to ignore it. I know someone put a lot of effort into this, but the results are bizarre.

Candy still looks for bulletins, finally spotting a rack of them by one of the side aisles. After she leaves to retrieve one, an older lady approaches me from the other side.

With a smile, she hands me a bulletin. “Here, you might want one of these.”

I thank her, and she nods. That’s the end of our exchange, but I’m pleased she made the effort.

Candy returns, with bulletin in hand, and a man—the first person we’ve seen younger than ourselves—walks up to us. He introduces himself and we have an extended conversation.

Our exchange, however, is uncomfortable because he’s standing and we’re sitting. Why didn’t I stand too? Nevertheless, his outreach honors me.

We’ve now had three interactions with people at this traditional denominational church. Each one felt awkward, yet I prefer uneasy conversation to no conversation. No one wants to be ignored.

(I must admit I could have contributed to the discomfort of each situation.)

I estimate the church seats about 350 and is less than half full. Though all age groups are present, the crowd skews toward the senior citizen demographic.

The front five rows are completely empty in each of the four sections, with most people packed into the back of the sanctuary. Though we’re only a fourth of the way in, as many people sit behind us as in front.

We keep our coats on. I squirm trying to find a comfortable position in the uncomfortable pew.

Out of Place Drums

“Look, there’s a drum set.” Candy points with a subtle tip of her head. “It’s hidden behind the piano.” Drums seem so out of place in this traditional setting. I wonder if they will be part of today’s service. I don’t need to wonder long.

With a pleasant smile, a man approaches the piano. An accomplished pianist, he plays the prelude and then invites the worship team forward. Four vocalists pick up mics as they fan out along the front of the stage.

A woman sits at a keyboard behind the piano, and a twenty-something guy goes to the sequestered drum kit, housed in a Plexiglas enclosure.

They open with a contemporary song, followed by an obligatory greeting time. Though we shake hands or wave at everyone around us, the most anyone says is “Hi” or “Welcome.”

The intention is good, but the results are superficial. I feel like a poser, a fraud.

I smile and pretend to be happy, just like everyone else, but we’re acting as if we’re all friends, when in reality we’re strangers—except for the one man we talked to when we first sat.

We sing two more songs, one contemporary and the other a hymn. The congregational prayer follows. As a kid I learned to ignore these lengthy recitations of congregational needs, and I never broke that habit. The prayer drones on.

Afterward he dismisses the kids. It’s too late. They should have been released before the boring prayer, lest they, too, learn to ignore it as I did.

Then the ushers take two offerings in rapid succession. Though many people sit in front of us, the first bucket goes by with only a few bills in the bottom. The second one is empty.

Either this is a stingy church, or they give their offerings in other ways. Singing during the collections, we stand for the final verse once the ushers have completed their task. At last, I’m warm enough to take off my coat.

The Book of James

The sermon is part of a series from the book of James. The pastor is a contract minister; they just extended his agreement six months while they seek a permanent replacement. He reads James 5:7–20.

He’s a polished presenter who communicates with ease. The title of his message is “The Quest for Christian Maturity: In Patience and Prayer.”

We are impatient, he says. Consider Moses, Abraham and Sarah, and Peter. “Patience produces fruit, gives testimony, and reveals God’s care.”

With three points for part one, I wonder if this was once a sermon by itself. “Without trials,” he concludes, “there would be no perseverance; without battle, no victory.”

For the second half on prayer, there are likewise three points. We pray “in difficult circumstances, in sickness, and in spiritual struggle.”

What about prayers of confession, thanksgiving, and praise? We need those types of prayers too. Surely God must tire of us only asking for things.

“Prayer is getting God’s will done on earth,” he says in conclusion. This sounds nice, but I wonder if it has biblical support.

He says a closing prayer and dismisses us.

We move slowly and are the last to leave the sanctuary.

Some people give us a passing nod, others thank us for visiting, and a few invite us back. But no one shares their names or asks ours. No one attempts conversation. I wonder if they expect their paid clergy to do that.

The Exit

The minister stands dutifully at the sanctuary’s main exit. With no one behind us, we tarry. I tell him we are new to the area and visiting local churches, but I think he assumes we’ve already selected this one.

He tells us about their evening service and where the church is in their process of finding a new minister. He’s a nice man, and I like him, but we don’t plan to come back, so I doubt we’ll ever see him again.

Candy asks if I want to hang out in the narthex to see if there’s anyone we can talk to. I see no point in trying and am okay to leave. I think she’s relieved.

As we head toward the door, though, we have one final interaction. It’s the best of the whole morning.

Two ladies take time to learn about us and share about themselves. One woman is the mother of the man we talked to before the service, and the other is the fill-in pastor’s wife.

Both are nice ladies, and I appreciate them reaching out to us.

As we say our goodbyes, they both invite us back.

Candy and I don’t talk about the experience on our short drive home. Later I ask what she thought, but she has little to share. I already know and didn’t need to ask.

She didn’t like it and doesn’t want to return to this traditional denominational church. I agree.

Last week’s sermon elevated the Holy Spirit to an equal level with the other parts of the Trinity; this week’s message ignored him.

Last week I enjoyed our church experience; this week, I didn’t. I wonder if there’s a connection.


Look for ways to welcome visitors and give them a reason to come back.

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

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

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

This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, their year-long sabbatical of visiting churches.

Here’s what happens:

My wife and I move. Now we need to find a new church. It’s not as easy as it sounds. She wants two things; I seek three others.

But this time the stakes are higher. I’ll write about the churches we visit, and my wife will pick which one we’ll call home. It sounds simple. What could possibly go wrong?

Visiting Churches

The Closest Church

Warm Inside

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

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

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

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

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

The Importance of Christian Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold Outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Warm Welcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worship Time and More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Points

There are two keys to this understanding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connection Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” I ask.

He shrugs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, their year-long sabbatical of visiting churches.

Here’s what happens:

My wife and I move. Now we need to find a new church. It’s not as easy as it sounds. She wants two things; I seek three others.

But this time the stakes are higher. I’ll write about the churches we visit, and my wife will pick which one we’ll call home. It sounds simple. What could possibly go wrong?

Visiting Churches

The Rural Congregation

A Country Fresh Church

Last Sunday we went to church with our daughter and son-in-law. This week we go with our son and his wife. However, we aren’t going to their regular church. Instead, we’ll visit one a couple miles from where they plan to move.

Part of an old denomination, the church recently changed their name, removing any hint of their affiliation, though the “About Us” section of their website still confirms their denominational connection.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Focus on Jesus

Their “Core Values and Beliefs” gives six descriptors and twenty-one articles of faith, taking 3,800 words to explain.

As I scan the list, my mind goes numb. Can’t Jesus be enough?

Though this page is stodgy, the rest of the site has a warm, inviting feel that gives off an appealing vibe. On their home page, they ask, “Tired of boring faith and dull religion? What would it look like to live out a faith where you ‘put it all on the line’?”

When they talk about a faith of adventure and risk, they draw me in. Who are they, a progressive church with a traditional heritage or a traditional church trying to appear more relevant? We’ll soon find out.

On the drive there we’re soon talking about what we might do the rest of the day, as if church is a prerequisite for what will follow. We’re losing focus. “Who wants to pray for church?” Our son begins and I finish.

My words aren’t much different from what I typically ask, but the “Amen” possesses enhanced expectation. I share what I learned from their website, interspersed with speculation.

We discuss the church for a while. We’re primed for the experience by the time we arrive.

A Country Fresh Church

Right off a main street, they’re easy to find. We pull into their parking lot to a bustle of activity.

With two services, we arrive ten minutes early for the second one. We pick a space in a small parking lot in the front as we spot the drive to a larger one in back.

With multiple buildings, this is a church facility and not what I expected for a rural— country fresh church—in a small community.

We amble toward the door, and my normal pre-church visitor anxiety barely registers. Might I finally be used to visiting churches or is there confidence in numbers?

I spot an open door on the side that reveals rows of chairs in what is likely the sanctuary, but we head to the main entrance.

Holding the door open with his back, a young towhead jiggles with antsy enthusiasm. He gives us a fervent greeting. “Welcome, y’all.” Southern accents are rare in these parts, so I assume he’s messing around but later realize his drawl is real.

He hands out bulletins as our son and daughter-in-law walk by, dismayed when he realizes he only has one left for my wife, Candy, and me.

“We’ll share,” Candy says. He directs the paper to me and then withdraws, again offering it to my wife. Apparently, his instructions are to give each person a bulletin, so that’s what he intends to do. But Candy doesn’t take it.

“I don’t need one,” I assure him as I walk past. He’s still clinging to his last bulletin, perplexed that neither of us has taken it, when a man slips him another stack. Relieved that his dilemma is resolved, his eagerness returns, and we each take one.

First Impressions

Inside, no one else greets us. The crush of people causes us to weave our way between them as we move forward. An odor assaults me.

“Is it incense?” our daughter-in-law asks.

Candy thinks it might be, but I think it’s just too much bad air freshener, attempting to cover up something even more offensive.

Our daughter-in-law leads the way but gives me a what-do-we-do glance.

I’ve done this enough that I have a ready answer. “If no one talks to us, we go in and find a place to sit.”

Assured, she nods and presses toward the sanctuary. A young man, sporting an unobtrusive microphone, eyes us as we walk by. I consider introducing myself, but his silent demeanor tells me he’s not interested.

I avert my gaze and follow the rest of my family. We veer right and go up six rows.

Based on the building style, I suspect this part is about fifty years old. The cement block walls frame windows with rectangular panels of stained glass.

They boast a rainbow of vibrant color on each side. Overhead, an understated cathedral ceiling provides an open feel.

The sanctuary is narrower and longer than most. It reminds me of many of the high churches we’ve visited. Though I don’t know their denomination’s tradition, I don’t expect a high church experience.

Despite the constraints of the building, its contents are updated. First, there are no pews, but comfortable padded chairs. I estimate two hundred.

There are no hymnals or Bibles, so I expect them to display everything we need on the monitors positioned around the room. One is centered in the front with four more flanking it, two per side.

Subdued lighting gives a peaceful feel but doesn’t produce enough light to read the bulletin comfortably.

As my eyes adjust, I’m relieved that my nose is now being spared, having left the odor in the narthex. Behind us a woman talks to her seatmate. She also has a southern accent, more pronounced than the boy at the door.

Making a Connection

I’ve heard only two people talk since we’ve arrived, and both had southern affectations. I wonder if we’ve stumbled into a refuge of southern expatriates. For many, this would conjure pleasant thoughts of charm and hospitality.

For me—right or wrong—I associate southern accents at church with dogmatic evangelicalism. I brace myself to be assaulted by close-minded theology.

I have little time to contemplate this, however, as a man soon comes up to greet us. He’s not sure if he’s met us before and wonders if he should know our names. He’s relieved when we tell him we’re visiting.

He’s one of the pastors here, and is an outgoing, friendly guy, a sharp contrast to the youth pastor who ignored us in the narthex. (In his defense, none of us fit his target demographic.)

With introductions made, we share about ourselves, and he tells us about the church. By the time we wrap up our conversation, we feel embraced and informed.

Once again, I’m reminded how one person can make a difference in how a visitor perceives a church. I so appreciate him reaching out to us.

While our daughter-in-law is amazed at his welcome, I’m dismayed that scores of people milling around left it up to their paid staff to welcome the newcomers.

Worship Time

Still, having one person celebrate us is far better than everyone ignoring us, something Candy and I experienced too often at other churches.

By now, the worship team has gathered. Standing in a circle behind the monitor, they hold hands to pray. Their public example reminds me to do the same and hints that the service is about to start.

I check the clock as they begin to play. We’re right on time, something I appreciate even though I suspect God is not as concerned with punctuality as I am. Our promptness is not important. Our worship is.

There are seven on the worship team: two guitars, bass guitar, keyboardist, and three vocalists. The keyboardist is also miked. There is no drummer or drum set. The pastor we met is the worship leader today.

After the opening song, we have a greeting time. The people do well at greeting, but they don’t excel at it—few churches do. Smiles and handshakes abound, but we don’t connect.

There’s not enough time to talk. Perhaps the people know this and therefore don’t try.

A video announcement plays, something we’ve only seen a few times at the largest of churches. A lengthy string of verbal announcements follows, ending with another video promoting the upcoming sermon series.

Before singing resumes, we pray for the mission team heading off to Ecuador. After three more contemporary praise songs, the kids leave for their own activities.

Before they go, I estimated seventy-five people present. Now that they’re gone, I still estimate about seventy-five. Perhaps our initial number was closer to one hundred.

Let It Go

The lead pastor stands for the first time. Wearing jeans and a polo shirt, he holds an iPad for his sermon notes. There’s no pulpit or lectern. This provides a casual feel, suggesting he’ll teach us, not preach.

Though his speech may retain the slightest trace of an accent, there’s no hint of the narrow-minded dogma I feared.

He’s nearing the end of a sermon series, “All In,” about the life of Abraham. Today’s message is “Let It Go,” covering parts of Genesis 20 and 21. After sharing a personal story, he asks, “What’s your number one obsession?”

He talks about sin and how to get rid of it, tying each of his three points back to Abraham’s story, while weaving in other passages of Scripture. For persistent sin, we need to believe things can change.

He reminds us of Genesis 18:14, “Is anything too hard for God?” (TLB and MSG). This is my key takeaway of his message.

Later, he contrasts Abraham’s two sons: Ishmael represents our old self, the old way—man’s way. Isaac represents our new self, the new way—God’s way. I wonder if he’s stretching the text to make his point, but he cites Galatians 4:22–23 to support his assertion.

An unassuming man, he’s not a charismatic orator, yet he’s a most effective teacher. I have a page full of notes and much to contemplate. It’s been too long since either one has happened.

Winding Down and Wrapping Up

He gives the closing prayer, complete with a time of commitment, but no altar call. Then we sing a closing song.

To end the service, the worship leader says, “Spend three minutes getting to know someone you don’t know before talking with friends.” I appreciate his directness about connecting with others.

This should be standard at every church, but it seldom is. And I’ve never heard it explicitly stated. I wonder if the congregation will comply.

I need only ponder this for a moment when the couple in front of us turns around to talk. They invest much more time with us than three minutes, sharing life as we get to know each other. We form a connection. Others come up as well to introduce themselves.

By the time we leave, we’ve made many connections and perhaps started friendships. I don’t know how long the service was and how long we spent talking afterward, but we were there two hours, though it didn’t seem that long.

At lunch, we discuss this church, sharing what we liked and didn’t like. Eventually I ask, “Do you see yourself going back?”

Three people say “Yes!” The fourth one isn’t sure.

“Do you see yourself getting connected there?”

Again, three people say “Yes!” The fourth one doesn’t answer.

The dissenter is my wife, the person who will pick which church she and I will attend. This means we have more churches to visit.


Look for visitors to talk to at your church. Seek your friends later.

Returning to The Rural Church

At this point we’ve considered nineteen churches. We could have easily gone to scores more—stretching our search out for several more months—but it’s time to decide. Some options will remain unexplored.

Part of me senses this is unfair. I’ve summarily dismissed some potentially viable options based entirely on their name. I didn’t even bother to make an in-person visit before rejecting them.

In most cases I didn’t even take the time to look at their website. The ones I’ve excluded all have one thing in common: their stodgy name clearly communicates they’re part of a denomination.

Down on Denominations

Yes, I’m down on denominations. As I say often: “Denominations are the antithesis of the Christian unity Jesus prayed for.” And I’m a huge proponent of Christians and their churches getting along. Denominations do the opposite.

They divide us and wall us off from other Christians for no good reason. It’s unbiblical, opposing the desire of Jesus that we would live as one (John 17:20–23).

While denominations provide some benefit, such as local church oversight, a pooling of resources, and group buying power, the price to do so is too high.

There are additional layers of bureaucracy, which leads to inaction, perpetuating the status quo, and maintaining the denomination as an institution.

Many people work for denominations full time, dedicated to these tasks, when they could better serve at the local level, to grow Jesus’s church by sharing the Word and making disciples.

Too often, the denominational focus is on self-preservation more than changing lives.

Another concern is that the cost to support the denominational structure siphons off money from local congregations and local needs to support a machine that seeks to control what happens at the local level.

For what it costs, they add little to the cause of Jesus.

Yes, denominations send missionaries, plant churches, and respond to crises. But local churches can do this too. While denominations may react more quickly to crises, local churches can be more effective.

Yes, we visited denomination churches. Some of the nineteen have denominational connections. But now I wonder why we considered them.

Five Requirements

Personally, I seek community at church. True, meaningful, deep, spiritual community. Music and message are secondary. Beyond that, I want to go to a church in my community, where at least some of my neighbors attend.

Now I add to my list that I want them to be independent, not part of a denomination.

Candy said she wanted a church with excellent music and isn’t afraid to speak biblical truth—even if it puts their tax-exempt status at risk.

In considering my requirements, The Rural Church meets only one. When we were there, we experienced great community and made several connections.

However, they aren’t in our community, no neighbors attend there, and they’re part of a denomination. As a bonus, our son and daughter-in-law plan to switch to this church. This would allow the four of us to be part of the same church community.

Though the locations of some churches would be central for us and all four of our kids, this one is too far away for our daughter and son-in-law.

I look forward to reconnecting with the people we met before and spending time in this friendly environment. I also know that with two services, our chance of seeing the folks we met last fall is less likely.

We plan to meet our son and daughter-in-law there. It’s a nice spring day, warm with plenty of sunshine. It’s hard to believe it’s been nine months since our first visit. Interestingly, the weather is about the same now as it was then.

Full of expectation, perhaps too much, we hop in our car and head off, saying a prayer as we go. The trip, at 6.2 miles, is quick.

Once we leave our subdivision, we head straight south, encountering minimal traffic, just two stop signs, and making no turns. It takes eight minutes.

We pull into their lot about ten minutes before the second service should begin. The small lot in front is mostly full, and we take one of the few remaining spots.

We don’t see our son’s car. Though they could have parked in the other lot, we assume they aren’t here yet. I want to get inside to look for them.

In the parking lot I spot a man we met during our first visit. He and his wife spent a lot of time with us after the service. I instantly connected with him and his family. Since then, I’ve seen him one other time, yesterday at our garage sale.

It was our daughter-in-law who first recognized his wife, but soon we all remembered each other and our time together some nine months ago. We re-exchanged names. Interestingly, his brother lives near our house but goes to a different church.

It’s wonderful to see someone we know before we even get inside. We talk for a few minutes and then head for the entrance.

We encounter the same mass of people as last time, though this time a few of them say “Hi” or nod a greeting. I don’t see our son and daughter-in-law.

Candy and I sit toward the back of the sanctuary, one of the few spots left for four people. The stage is distant, and the space doesn’t feel as open as I remember. We’re too far back for my liking.

The senior pastor’s wife comes up to welcome us, not sure if she should know us or not. We have a brief exchange. Soon our kids arrive. The service is about to start.

Music and More

The worship team gathers on the stage, forming a circle to pray first. I so like this, with the example they set and the priority they portray. The opening song is a familiar one, which normally is upbeat and uplifting.

Though the instrumentation is good, the vocals fall short. What should draw us in pushes us away as the words plod along like a funeral dirge.

My wife criticized the music on our first visit. Though I knew it wasn’t the best, it didn’t detract from my worship then. Today it does. By the time they make it to the chorus, the song leader mostly finds his place, easing into a somewhat accessible tone.

Still, he falls far short of how powerful this song normally sounds.

After the opening number, the youth pastor gets up and implores everyone to fill out the yellow cards in our bulletins. “We need these to report numbers to our bosses,” he says.

I groan at the reminder they’re part of a denomination, one that tracks their church’s attendance.

He shares two announcements, the first about their Annual Church Conference, another reminder of their denomination’s practices and their formal governance.

The early church didn’t vote on overtures or elect leaders. Though this is the democratic way, it lacks biblical support. Over the years, I’ve had my fill of church committees, meetings, and elections.

Set politics aside. Put God first.

The other announcement is about an upcoming children’s dedication. Interested parents must attend a class first. This church practices believer’s baptism for adults and children’s dedication for kids.

Then we sing some more. After a bit, the pastor invites people to come forward to the altar to pray, while the rest of us sing. I don’t see an altar, and I’m not sure what he means, but people come forward, some in expectation while others plod.

They kneel on the steps of the stage to pray. When the song ends, they retreat to their seats.

Dealing with Fear

An opening video introduces their new series, “Dealing with Fear.” Again, I’m impressed that a church this size (last Sunday’s attendance was 342) produces videos for their services. Last time they showed two.

The sermon title is “Fear of Failure.” The senior pastor teaches today. “We fear God,” he says, “or we fear everything else.” A related reoccurring theme is risk. “Not taking risks will ultimately lead to failure.”

The pastor shares, at length, his own journey of failures, of risks taken and risks avoided. Last time he also used personal anecdotes to introduce the message.

I still remember what he shared then. I wonder if self-disclosure is his normal practice.

Like last time, I fill my journal with a page of notes, right down to the last line. Today, God has a message for me. I’ve become risk averse for what matters most.

In recent months, the Holy Spirit has nudged me to act at various times. But I didn’t. Though I don’t know the outcome, I must take the risk anyway.

“Failure is part of our success,” he says to conclude his message. To wrap up, the pastor leads the congregation in a prayer of commitment. It’s not a prayer of rededication and certainly not one of salvation. I miss the intended purpose.

Maybe it is for us to confront our fears and take risks.

He says the closing prayer, they take the offering, and we sing a final song, a mash-up of an old hymn and modern choruses.

Despite the song leader, the overall result is pleasing. All the songs were great. I expect they’ll reverberate in my mind for the next several days.

The instrumentation added to the experience, but the vocals were the weak link. Hopefully, he just had an off day.

Afterward I look for the people we met before but don’t see any of them, not even the couple we reconnected with when we were both visiting a different church. I try to make eye contact with others as they file out, but I’m unsuccessful.

The After Party

Resigned for no after church interaction, the four of us discuss lunch. Before we leave, I use the restroom.

When I return, the senior pastor is talking with the rest of my family. He greets me by name. I assume someone prompted him, but they didn’t.

He also remembers Candy’s name and where our son and daughter-in-law are building their house, noting it’s near completion.

He has an amazing memory, and we enjoy a meaningful conversation. We leave feeling content.

We debrief at lunch.

All agree the worship leader struggled today with his opening song. It was painful and hard to overlook. Next month they’ll have a newcomers’ lunch. We discuss going, though we stop short of committing.

They also have a Wednesday midweek meeting that starts at 6 p.m. with food, followed by classes for all ages. I’d like to go to share a meal and meet people, but the class options don’t interest me.

The thing that most endears me to this church is their after-church interaction at our first visit. Then, the pastor told the congregation to spend their first three minutes after the service getting to know someone new.

They did, and we benefited. I assumed this was their norm.

Today he didn’t make any such announcement, and no one bothered. I had lofty expectations for community and was disappointed, despite them being friendlier than most churches.

Our daughter-in-law grew up in this denomination and feels quite at home there. Her enthusiasm remains. As for our son and me, our interest has waned.

Discouraged, I move this church down my list to the third spot. For Candy it was already there. We’ll need to return a few more times to be sure, but right now, I suspect this is not our next church home.

Return Visits

We make our third visit the following week, again with our kids. It’s great for us to be in church together. What we experience this time is an average of our two prior visits: not as good as the first but better than the second.

I sign Candy and I up to go to their newcomers’ picnic. I’d like to check out their Wednesday evening meeting, too, but it’s wrapping up for the summer.

By the time it resumes in the fall, as well as their life groups, we’ll have made our church selection. But we’ll need to do so without experiencing these two options.

A month later we make our fourth visit to this church. On our quick drive, we pray for our time there. I have mixed feelings. Though we enjoy engaging conversations each Sunday, we seldom reconnect with those folks on subsequent visits.

The church is big enough to make forming recurring community a challenge, and having two services hinders that even more.

I bypass the closest drive and head to the bigger parking lot on the other side of their facility. We’ve never gone in these doors before, but they are the main entrance and open right into the sanctuary.

This sure beats the roundabout path we’ve taken on prior weeks.

Some people, a few who look familiar, nod a greeting or say “Hello,” but their outreach is nothing more than an acknowledgment. But at least they notice us.

Reconnecting at Last

As we move forward into the sanctuary, one woman approaches us with intention. We met her and her husband on our first visit and we enjoyed getting to know them.

They were also the couple we were surprised to see at our visit to another church.

I’m glad to see her but can’t remember her name. Realizing I won’t recall it until too late, I apologize and ask her to remind me.

“Janet,” she says.

“We were here a couple weeks ago and looked for you, but we didn’t see you.” My intention is to communicate interest, but I may have sounded accusatory. She doesn’t, however, take offense.

“We usually go to the first service and hang out until the second one starts.”

“And we’ve always gone to the second one. I’m glad we could see you today.” Her husband stands nearby but talks with another group. She and I struggle over what to say.

Even though Candy joins us, our words remain awkward as we grapple with conversation.

“It was really great to see you,” I say with all sincerity, despite our uncomfortable exchange. “I think we’re going to find our seats now . . . I hope you have a great afternoon.”

Moving into Worship

The countdown timer says 4:12, but I doubt they’ll start then. But with a minute remaining the worship team gathers on stage to pray, and when the time hits zero, the music begins.

The associate pastor, flanked by eight others—musicians and vocalists—leads us in song.

Though under-amplified, his confident voice and engaging stage persona is ideal to lead us. He ably led the worship music on our first visit, drawing us into the service.

The bulletin says he’s the “Pastor of Worship and Youth,” but the website gives his title as “Pastor of Volunteer Services, Operations and Events.”

On our second and third visit they had another worship leader who struggled. One Sunday, his leading was especially difficult to follow. Though the website lists him as the “Sunday Worship Leader,” the bulletin doesn’t mention him.

The service proceeds as usual, and soon it’s time for the sermon. Though the bulletin lists another person as the “Teaching Pastor,” we’ve only heard the lead pastor speak. He’s a good teacher, and I always end up with a page of notes.

Though I rarely learn much that’s new, the Holy Spirit uses his words to provoke other insights. Some of his teaching today gives me ideas for a book I’m writing.

We wrap up with Communion, our first time at this church. The pastor clearly communicates that nonmembers who have a relationship with Jesus may participate. I appreciate knowing their policy on this.

We file up to receive the bread and the juice, taking them back to our seats to eat them in unison. Though consuming them as a congregation is what I experienced most of my life, it has been several years since I’ve done it this way.

There’s a comfortable rhythm of taking the communion elements together, as though we’re demonstrating harmony and proclaiming agreement.

The service lasts longer than we expect, and we need to scoot out to meet friends for lunch. We’ll be late. But we’ll also return in a few hours for the newcomers’ picnic.

The Newcomer Picnic

With threatening skies and rain looming, our picnic in the park relocates to the Kids Center at the church. There are many more people than I expected. As I scan the crowd, I wonder who are regulars and who are newcomers.

We mingle awkwardly for a few minutes. Then the pastor begins. He welcomes us and prays for the meal: grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, chips, veggies, lemonade, and desserts.

Candy and I sit, and our son and daughter-in-law join us. For a while we are alone, but eventually another couple come up. They’re members, and we met them on our first visit.

As the meal wraps up, the lead pastor again stands, telling us about the church: there’s no pressure to become members, but they do want us to become involved.

Their programs are finished for the summer and will resume in the fall. They’ll also add a third Sunday service in a few months but haven’t worked out the details.

He stresses how they want to make a difference in their community. But we aren’t part of their community. I want to make a difference in my community, not someone else’s. I want to go to church in my neighborhood, with my neighbors.

Though there’s excitement in attending a growing church, the idea of three services is disconcerting. Even with two, it’s easy to miss folks. Three will make it even harder.

An Uncomfortable Request

Though he asserts he doesn’t want to make us uncomfortable, he asks us to stand and introduce ourselves to the group, one representative from each family.

I groan as I mentally prepare to answer his four questions: our names, what we like about the church, how long we’ve been attending, and how we heard about them.

Our table goes first, so my agony is soon over. As the introductions move from table to table, I realize members have strategically interspersed themselves with newcomers at each table.

Though the “what we like about the church” part feels a bit too self-serving, it’s encouraging to learn the story of how each family ended up here.

To wrap up, they pass out cards to collect our contact information, along with what our next steps are and where we’d like to serve. Though the pastor stresses there’s no obligation or expectation, I feel pressure.

I fill out the top part, but they collect the cards before I figure out what to put on the rest. Candy later tells me she followed my example. I wonder if they’ll contact us.

On the drive home, we discuss this church. On the plus side, they don’t push membership, they are friendly, and community exists. The messages are thought-provoking, and the music was engaging at two of our four visits.

They are a growing church, with lots of kids. Their future is bright. Our son and daughter-in-law plan to go there.

On the negative side, their community is not our community, none of our neighbors go there, and they’re larger than I’d like.

Aside from the Sunday morning service, I’m not sure how I could plug in or where I could serve. Also, they’re part of a denomination and are too far away for our daughter and son-in-law to consider.

We have much to contemplate.


Have a plan to turn visitors into regular attendees and work your plan.

[Read 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 Outlier Congregation

New Approaches for an Old Denomination

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

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

The Megachurch can wait.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we find the church easily enough.

Larger Than Expected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Outlier Church for Their Denomination

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

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

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

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

The Church in Laodicea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different Perspectives

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

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

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

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

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

I tell Candy I could see myself going back.

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

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

She snorts. “I sure hope not.”


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

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

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

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

This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, their year-long sabbatical of visiting churches.

Here’s what happens:

My wife and I move. Now we need to find a new church. It’s not as easy as it sounds. She wants two things; I seek three others.

But this time the stakes are higher. I’ll write about the churches we visit, and my wife will pick which one we’ll call home. It sounds simple. What could possibly go wrong?

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

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

Christian Living

As Jesus’s Followers We Are to Live in Perfect Unity

We Glorify God and Serve as the Most Effective Witness When We Get Along

I write a lot about the importance of Christian unity. This is because Jesus prayed that we would be one, and I embrace his request and vision as imperative. If we profess to following Jesus, we need to all get along. We must live in unity, perfect unity.

I’m not just talking about unity within your congregation, though that’s important. I’m not alluding to unity within your denomination, though that’s important too. And I’m not even referring to unity with those churches that agree with yours.

True unity addresses the entire church of Jesus, that’s all who follow him. He wants us all to get along. Every one of us. This includes other Christians we disagree with—especially those we disagree with.

Jesus Prayed for Our Unity

In Jesus’s lengthy prayer before he died for us, he wrapped up by praying for all his future followers that we would get along and be one, just as he and his Father are one (John 17:23). Their example is one of perfect unity, and we must pursue it with all diligence.

Jesus Died for Our Unity

Jesus died as the ultimate sin sacrifice to redeem us—to make us right with Father God—and bring about unity to all things in heaven and on earth through him. All things include us—it especially includes us (Ephesians 1:7-10).

We Are to Live in Unity

Furthermore, Paul urges the Ephesians—and by extension us—to live a life worthy of our calling, to be humble, gentle, patient, and loving, to make every effort to live in unity. This is because we are one body, through one Spirit, called to one hope, through one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, from one God (Ephesians 4:1-6). We are to be one. This is what it means to live in perfect unity and why we should do so.

True Love Results in Unity

Paul also writes as God’s chosen people—as followers of Jesus—we are to live with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. We are to bear with one another and forgive one another, just as Jesus forgave us. These all fall under the umbrella of love, working together to produce perfect unity (Colossians 3:12-14).

Live in Perfect Unity

As followers of Jesus, we must get along. We must live in unity with one another. This is an answer to his prayer for us, glorifies Father God, and serves as our most effective witness to a watching world who needs Jesus to save them.

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 Portable Church

A Different Approach

As we transition between homes, we’re living with our son and daughter-in-law. We’ll go to Sunday services with them, holding off on our search for a new church home.

We’ve already gone with them a handful of times over the past few years, and for this season in our lives, it will be more regularly.

Now, each Sunday morning, we all hop in the car and head to church. It’s a nondenominational gathering, about ten years old.

The congregation includes people of all ages, though it skews toward young families. Notably, the church doesn’t own a building.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Rented Space

It rents space for their Sunday service, meeting in a well-known banquet hall. I like that they aren’t spending money on a mortgage and building maintenance for a facility used only a few hours each week.

This frees up funds to help people in need and reach out to the community.

This modern, well-maintained facility is easy to get to, with ample parking near the door.

Though designed as a banquet hall and conference center, it adapts nicely for church, with a large meeting space for the service and other areas for children’s activities.

In their typical Sunday configuration, the meeting space seats about three hundred, with padded chairs arrayed in four sections. Attendance varies, between 70 percent occupied to near capacity.

Early each Sunday morning, a setup team prepares the place for church. They arrange chairs provided by the facility and lay out their service-related items, which they unpack and repack each week.

A trailer specifically designed for this purpose transports these items on Sunday and stores them between services.

Though set up and tear down have many steps, transforming the space and then returning it to its default condition goes quickly with many volunteers.

A Friendly Church

There is sometimes a greeter by the main entrance and always a pair by the main door of the worship space. They pass out brochures that function as mini newsletters, sharing little about the service and more about activities going on throughout the week.

The people dress casually. I see no men in suits or even wearing ties. Though a few women wear dresses, there aren’t many. The common attire is jeans.

They’re also a friendly group. We’ve met many people but are still waiting to form connections because we seldom see the same people from one week to the next. This is partly because of the number of people attending.

However, a bigger factor, I suspect, is that most of the people are inconsistent with their attendance. They have competing options for Sunday morning, and church doesn’t always win out.

Easing into the Service

To start the service, the worship team sings an opening song. They never display the lyrics so we can’t sing or even follow along unless we know the words.

Most of the regulars treat this first song with indifference, continuing their conversations.

For the second song, the words appear on a large overhead screen, and most people redirect their attention and sing along. There are, however, people who stand mute during the singing.

They don’t even bother to move their lips. I’m sure this happens at all churches, but it seems more common here.

The members of the worship team vary from week to week, but they usually have six: the worship leader on keyboard, two guitars, a bass guitar, drums, and a backup vocalist—the only female in the group.

With a light rock sound, they lead us in singing contemporary songs. Accomplished at what they do, the outcome is pleasing, but it’s just like most any other contemporary church service.

The Mid-Service Welcome

At some point, a staff person gives announcements, and then a greeting time follows. They do well at welcoming one another, certainly better than most churches.

But most conversations are brief, as the number of people greeted takes precedence over the depth of conversation: quantity trumps quality.

About a half hour into the service, the minister stands for the first time, signaling a transition into the message.

With a charismatic presence, this thirty-something pastor exudes confidence with an easygoing smile and approachable demeanor.

A peer of the congregation’s largest demographic, he greets attendees and then prays before teaching.

Sometimes he starts his message with an anecdote, while other times he opens by reading the Scripture text after a brief introduction. Words appear on the large screen overhead as he reads the passage.

A pop culture aficionado, he often weaves modern-day references into his messages to make his points. He also frequently uses visual aids in the form of handheld props or graphics displayed overhead.

This church is far too trendy for a traditional altar call, but the pastor ends his message with a more serious time of personal application or reflection. The service ends with a closing song and offering.

The Wrap Up

Afterward, most people stay and mingle. Longer conversations happen, and connections can occur.

Donuts and beverages are available to entice people to stay and talk. But there are no tables or places to sit, so interaction must occur while standing.

As conversations continue, the teardown crew gathers equipment and breaks down the stage. They reload the trailer, preparing it for next week when they’ll do it again.

This is an easy church to attend, but I don’t get a sense of spiritual depth or feel commitment from most of the people. I could easily amass acquaintances here, but friendships would require work.

Though I’m open to attending this church, I don’t think it’s the one my wife will pick.


Seek to form genuine friendships and not merely make acquaintances.

[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.

Christian Living

Jesus’s Other Sheep

Our Good Shepherd Has More Sheep Than Just Those in Our Pen

Jesus talks about a sheep pen with a gate (John 10:1-21). The shepherd goes into the pen through the entrance. He calls his sheep, and they follow him into the pastures. Only a thief would sneak into the pen another way. Yet the sheep don’t know the robber’s voice and won’t follow him.

Jesus is the Gate and the Good Shephard

Jesus is the gate of the pen. He protects his sheep and keeps them safe. He won’t let someone with ill intent enter the sheep pen.

But Jesus isn’t only the gate. He’s also the good shepherd.

Jesus, as our good shepherd, is caring, protective, patient, brave, wise, and sacrificial. He knows our names. He cares for us, watches over us, and rescues us when we get into trouble, which we too often do.

As our good shepherd, Jesus is willing to die for his sheep. In fact, he does. He dies to make us right with Father God.

Yet there’s more. It’s easy to overlook, but it’s significant.

Jesus Has Other Sheep

Jesus doesn’t only have sheep in this one pen. He has other sheep too. They also listen to his voice and follow him where he takes them. He’ll get them and bring all his sheep together so there will be one flock, with one shepherd (John 10:16).

But where are these other sheep? We don’t know for sure, but here are some considerations:

Other People Groups

Jesus’s other sheep may mean other groups of people. The Jews during Jesus’s day, however, placed people into two groups. There were the Jews. And there was everyone else—the Gentiles.

Since his audience when he shared the story about the Good Shepherd, the sheep pen, and the sheep, were Jews, his other sheep might have been a forward-looking reference to the Gentiles who would later follow him.

This is a call for Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile followers of Jesus to get along. It’s a reminder that through Jesus there is no difference between Jew and Gentile (Romans 3:22).

Other Cities

Since this teaching is a forward-looking allusion, Jesus’s other sheep could refer to other cities in the area where his followers will go and establish local churches. Paul will travel to many of these cities and even write letters of instruction to several of them.

It could even be cities throughout the world. This aligns with Jesus’s commands to be his witness in Jerusalem, the surrounding area, and throughout the whole earth (Acts 1:8 ).

Other Denominations

Yet it wouldn’t be wrong to extend this teaching to us today. Jesus’s other sheep could refer to the different streams of Christianity and to the multitude of Protestant denominations.

Though many of these groups have an inward focus and act as though they’re sheep pen is the only one, Jesus wants to bring us together to be one flock, with one shepherd—him. In short, he wants us to get along and to exist in unity with each other.

Other Planets

Space is vast, with a mind-numbing number of solar systems and planets. Surely some of them are inhabited by Jesus’s creation. It would be arrogant to think that our planet is the only one with life.

Therefore, Jesus’s other sheep could exist on other planets. Though they could be people like us, they could also take on a different form. Regardless, we are all Jesus’s sheep. We all follow him.

We Are One Flock with One Shephard

When we follow Jesus as our Good Shepherd, we must take care to get along with all the other sheep in his flock. This includes both those sheep from our own pen and Jesus’s other sheep that are in other pens.

Through Jesus there is one flock and one shepherd. We are united in Christ. May we never lose sight of this. May we always strive to embrace all of Jesus’s sheep, regardless of where they’re from or who they are.

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

Anglican Catholic: Discussion Questions for Church #74

Another church is Anglican Catholic. They’re also on my mental list of churches to visit. I know nothing about them or their faith practices. I expect their service to be much like Roman Catholic, but I’m not sure. 

Consider these three discussion questions about Church 74.

1. I’m curious and intrigued. I’m sure I can gather much to contemplate about our common faith and our varied worship practices.

What steps can we take to expand our understanding of worshiping God and embrace the faith journey of others? 

2. Unlike other streams of Christianity and other Protestant denominations, I’ve never met anyone who was Anglican Catholic—at least not that I’m aware of.

What do our friends know about our faith and which church we go to?

3. Lacking information about their practices, this Anglican Catholic church emerges for me with a mystical aura, but I doubt that’s accurate.

What uninformed assumptions might we hold about others that we should seek to verify or correct?

[Read about Church 74 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.