Visiting Churches

The Fundamental Church

Life Groups versus Sunday School

Early this morning we make our annual switch to Daylight Saving Time, a transition full of folly and one I wish we’d skip. I wake up tired. I don’t want to roll out of bed and so want to skip church, but I know Candy won’t stand for it.

“What church are we going to,” she asks, “and when does it start?”

“Next on the list is the church just north of us . . . 9:30.”

“When should we leave, 9:15?”

The drive will only take two minutes, and I don’t care if we arrive early or not. Even leaving at 9:25 will be fine, but it’s good to pad our schedule because one of us is bound to be late, so I nod my agreement.

“We better get moving.”

Preparing for Church

I wonder aloud if today we should pick a different church, one that starts later. Even 10:00 will help, but Candy shakes off my suggestion.

Considering my morning routine, I should pare back my activities so I don’t have to rush to make church.

But that would mean cutting out my morning prayer time and Bible study. It seems foolish to skip personal intimacy with God just to make it to church on time.

Another idea is omitting my shower, but I need its warm comfort to feel awake and act civilized. Bypassing breakfast is another thought, but I know I should limit fasting to when I’m not around other people because sometimes an empty stomach makes me less patient.

Of all my considerations, church is the least significant. I could skip it. I’ve now come full circle in my deliberations. In the end, I try to squeeze in everything.

Diligent, I push forward: prayer, Bible reading, breakfast, and a shower. I emerge from the bathroom breathless, ready for church and thinking I’m on schedule. I’m not. My wife stands by the back door with her coat on.

It’s 9:25.

We can do this.

Two days ago, I began my weekend construction project by hitting my thumb with a hammer. Hard. Since then, it’s hampered everything I’ve done.

Even the slightest touch to my tender digit shoots pain through my body. Unfortunately, many common motions qualify. These include holding my car keys, reaching into my pocket, turning on my cell phone, buttoning buttons, and tying shoes.

Anxious to get out the door, I pull on my boots with haste, jamming my thumb into the stiff leather. I yelp.

On a scale of one to ten, the pain is at eleven. I curse. Always inappropriate, my words seem even more unholy given that in a few minutes I’ll be at church to worship God.

Tears well up in my eyes as my thumb throbs, perhaps even worse now than when I first injured it. Gingerly, I lace my boots and tie them with care.

Reaching into my pocket for my keys, I jam my thumb again. The tenderness is excruciating. I set my jaw to prevent another errant outburst, but my glare says it anyway.

The drive to church is tense. Knowing that I’m in no mood to pray, my wise bride intercedes for our time at church.

A Just-In-Time Arrival

We pull into the lot from a side entrance and park in the back of an elongated facility sporting multiple additions. The clock in the car tells me it’s 8:28. Mentally adjusting for Daylight Saving Time, we have two minutes before church starts.

Ahead of us, one couple scurries in a back door, but we don’t follow them. Another family heads toward the front of the building. We trail behind, entering through a side door that deposits us into the narthex.

The service has begun. I scan for a coatrack but don’t see one. I head to the sanctuary with Candy following. With people everywhere, we stand in a daze.

There are no seats available in the back for us to slide into. A smiling usher hands Candy a bulletin and offers to help us find a place for two. Seeing plenty of spaces further in, I push forward. Halfway up, I slide into the center section and move in a few spaces.

Sitting, I take a deep breath, which serves as a wordless prayer that Papa hears and graciously answers. I forget our late arrival, my throbbing thumb, and the unholy drama that surrounded it.

I am ready for church.

The building is large, with comfortable padded chairs for over four hundred. It’s half full, mostly seniors, with some young adults but hardly any kids. Many of the older men wear suits, with some ladies in dresses, but the rest of the crowd dresses more casually.

A Greeting Experiment

After the opening remarks, which occurred as we walked in, there’s the official greeting time. I shake hands and exchange hellos with the young man next to me, surprising him when I ask, “How are you?”

Stunned, he does a double take and gives a socially acceptable response but then quickly turns away as if uncomfortable with my unexpected question. As an experiment, I try this with everyone I greet. None of them are ready for anything beyond “Hello.”

Worship Time

Next, we sing an opening three-song set.

In addition to a suit-clad worship leader are three vocalists and a bass guitar, all on stage. On the sides are the organist, pianist, keyboardist, and drummer.

They start the first song before the bass guitarist is ready, but it doesn’t matter because I can’t hear him when he does start to play.

The piano and organ carry the music, with an out-of-place percussionist tapping a rhythm that doesn’t seem to fit with what everyone else does.

The group’s light pop sound from a bygone era feels out of place with their hymns and older choruses. Without hymnals, we follow along with the words displayed overhead. Only about half the crowd sings, and they do it with little enthusiasm.

For the second song, the worship leader straps on a guitar. A man wearing a suit while playing a guitar looks strange. Though he acts comfortable with this dichotomy, it strikes me as odd.

The third song, “Amazing Grace,” garners full participation from the crowd, the only number to do so.

An offertory prayer precedes the collection, which coincides with a special music number. The soloist sings as ushers pass the plates. But few people add anything to the offering.

When the man finishes his song, applause erupts. Since this is the only clapping all morning, I assume the praise is for him and not for God.

Teaching Time

Next week starts their two-week missions festival. Today serves as the warm-up, with a message titled, “What Is a Call?”

Though his delivery is good, the preacher is hard for me to watch. When he’s not looking down, he fixes his gaze over us, as though he’s watching something behind us and ignoring us. I desperately want to turn around to see what he sees, but I resist the urge.

For the bulk of his message, he reels through a list of biblical characters and what God called them to do. He emphasizes, “God calls people in turn,” but I’m not sure what he means.

It’s not until he nears the end of his message that he mentions the text for today, Ephesians 2:8–10.

He wraps up with three practical, self-help style tips to discern our calling.

Though disappointed he didn’t mention hearing our call from the Holy Spirit, I’m not surprised. We’re at a quintessential fundamentalist church and not a charismatic gathering.

Sadly, I’m quite used to churches ignoring one third of the Trinity.

Life Groups

He closes the service with prayer and invites us to stay for “life groups.” I’m surprised at his mention of the more modern life group phenomenon. I’m perplexed at them taking place when most traditional churches hold Sunday school.

As we slowly gather our things to leave, a suit-wearing man of our age introduces himself. He, too, invites us to stay for life groups.

“In fact, I teach one of them.” He beams, expecting we’ll jump at the chance. His smile disappears when I decline.

His assertion that life groups have an instructor confuses me. Life groups, as I know them, don’t have a teacher. Though some groups might have a leader or facilitator, many are egalitarian and there’s seldom a lesson.

I wonder if their label of “life groups” is a ruse, merely attempting to put a new spin on the old practice of Sunday school.

I don’t need to wonder long. An older woman walks by us as she defiantly declares, “I’m going to Sunday school!”

I smile at her honesty.

All the people sitting around us have scattered. None of those I greeted—those I dared to ask, “How are you?”—tarry to say “Goodbye” or invite us back.

One Person to Talk To

One elderly man approaches us as we’re about to leave. We actually talk, sharing information and learning about each other. This one person attempts to connect with us. He warms my heart.

As we say our goodbyes, he invites us back and hopes we’ll return. His sincerity touches me.

In the short drive home, we discuss our experience. I’m critical over some sloppy details in the preacher’s message. Candy is more generous. We both agree, however, that we connected with his main premise about knowing our call.

I’m not interested in returning to this church and don’t want to give them further consideration. However, I’m unsure of Candy’s perspective. This church is like the one we met at and the churches she attended growing up. I’m relieved when she shakes her head.

We pull into the garage. There’s only one thing left to do: reset the clock in the car to Daylight Saving Time. Lunch and a nap await us inside.


Don’t put a new label on something old and think you’ve made a meaningful change. Instead, make changes that matter.

[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.

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 Church with a Fundamental Vibe

People Make the Difference

All day Saturday I fight the threat of a cold, applying equal parts prayer and pills to conquer it. What I need is sleep—desperately. By Sunday morning, my wife, Candy, is not surprised when I tell her I’m staying home.

“Fine, I’ll go myself.” She’s not defiant, just decisive. She’s an independent spirit. I appreciate her confidence to go alone and without complaint.

Relieved at her acceptance of my decision to stay home, I nod in agreement as I close my eyes. Sleep overtakes me.

The church she picked is an independent congregation with an evangelical past and fundamental vibe.

She knows two couples who attend there, former coworkers whose company she enjoys and whose faith walk she respects. I’ve met them briefly over the years. They’re good folks.

During the week we talked about visiting this church. While I had a different destination in mind—another megachurch—Candy lobbied for this one. By the time Saturday rolled around, I didn’t much care, giving my assent because it was too hard to discuss.

I don’t hear her leave, and the next thing I know she’s back.

Though still needing rest, my two-hour nap offered some improvement.

“What was it like?”

She responds, but I struggle to focus and don’t remember what she said.

Later, I ask again. She liked the church but mostly talks about seeing her friends. I wish I’d felt good enough to go, but I know that would’ve been a mistake. Today I needed rest much more than I needed community.

A third time, I question her further. It reminds her of a church we attended twenty years ago. She means this in a favorable way, but what I hear is this church is at least a decade out of date.

“I’d like you to go with me sometime,” she says, “but I don’t think you’ll like it.”

My expectation sinks. I want to groan, but that would take too much effort. Confused, I nod to show I heard. Then I fall asleep again.

I’m sure she’ll take me there sometime. Unfortunately, she did little to sell me on it.


If you’re enthusiastic about your church or your faith, be sure to communicate it and not leave people wondering.

Experiencing The Church with the Fundamental Vibe

Today Candy makes a return trip to The Church with the Fundamental Vibe, this time with me in tow. The first time she went, I stayed home sick. She didn’t tell me much about the service, but she enjoyed reconnecting with friends.

She also predicted I wouldn’t like it, so I’m not sure why we’re going back. I pray for a good attitude and an open mind.

It’s the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s. The weather is unseasonably warm, with no snow on the ground and no clouds in the sky. The drive is pleasant and quick. Flanking the large facility is ample parking. I expected something smaller.

A Most Helpful Welcome

As we hang up our coats, a woman talks with Candy. I assume they know each other. Wanting to be supportive, I join in. However, they don’t know each other.

Despite that, our new acquaintance concisely shares a lot of helpful information.

“Normally we have a Bible study hour after the church service but not today because of the holidays.” She pauses and then smiles over what she’s about to share next. “And normally we have a Sunday evening service but not today because of the holidays.”

I smile. “Taking a break?”

“We want to focus on family time. Some people are traveling, and others have family visiting.”

They’re between senior pastors and their interim pastor will speak today. “He’s really good.” Then she adds, “We’d like him to become our regular pastor, but he’s not interested.”

Not having anything to add, I nod to show I’m listening and encourage her to share more.

“It’s been about a year so far and we expect it to take another year,” she adds. “But while we wait, we’re in good hands.” She beams.

“I really appreciate knowing all this. Thanks so much for telling us.”

She points us to the sanctuary and then excuses herself. Never has someone shared so much helpful information about their church before the service. I feel informed and not so apprehensive over what awaits me.

Finding a Seat

Candy guides me into the sanctuary, a huge square room of newer construction. It boasts a minimalist vibe but with smatterings of elegant furnishings scattered about.

She heads to the section on the far left. Last time her friends sat in this area, and she expects to find them here again.

Along the way, she surprises another person as she walks by. “Candy? Candy, is that you?”

I stop and nod to the stranger. “Yes, that’s Candy.” I wait for my wife to realize I’m no longer following her and to come back. She does and reconnects with yet another former coworker.

This friend, we learn, lives a couple miles from us. Today she is running sound and excuses herself to make last-minute preparations.

Candy does indeed find two of her friends, sitting right where she expected. They make room for us to sit with them.

Settling in, I glance at the bulletin, a trifold affair, more attractive than most and packed with useful information. However, it’s not until we get home that I spot the part about stopping by the visitor center and staying afterward for the Visitor’s Coffee.

Distracting Staging

I miss reading this in the bulletin because the stage distracts me. At first glance it gives a pleasant vibe, but it’s an overdone arrangement that visually assaults me. Do we really need faux trees on the platform?

Interspersed among the staging, the worship team prepares for the service.

The worship leader plays a baby grand piano, and then there’s a violin, with a conga drum next to it but pushed into the background. Also part of this eclectic group is a guitar, harp, and keyboard, with the lead vocalist front and center.

I suspect they think the service is contemporary—and thirty years ago it was—but today it’s merely safe, skewing toward traditional.

What captures my attention is the girl on the conga. Accomplished, I’m sure she’s holding back to match the rest of the group.

Occasionally the hint of a smile threatens to overtake her already pleasant face. I sense she’s itching to cut loose and play her heart out. Though I’m sure that would please God, the rest of the congregation might not be so appreciative.

I estimate the sanctuary seats 1,200, and it’s mostly full by the time the service starts. I try to sing along, but my efforts fall flat. The words elude their formation on my lips.

I’d rather watch the conga girl and her mesmerizing playing. Her demeanor exudes peace as her inviting rhythm draws me to God.

Is it possible to worship God vicariously through the musical skill of another? I think I can. I hope I am. If not, God will be disappointed today with my worship of him.

Failing to engage in anything other than the drum player, everything else blurs. There’s more singing, a prayer or two, some announcements, and a greeting time, but the details escape me.

I want to connect, both with God and with others, but I’m mired in the routine of church boredom. Though Candy’s prediction of my reaction is proving correct, I really hoped she would’ve been wrong.

A Christmas Message

We segue into the sermon. Part four of a four-part series on “Christmas Names for Jesus,” today the focus is on the “Prince of Peace,” courtesy of Isaiah 9:6.

I once memorized this passage for a church Christmas play when I was in middle school. Though the minister isn’t reading from the King James Version, that’s the version I learned for the program and those are the words that resound in my head now.

Memories of that performance resurface: My parents’ pleasure over my flawless recitation—after weeks of practice:

  • My pride in turning an ordinary bath towel into a reasonable representation of shepherd head garb, inspired by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
  • Fun hanging out with my church friends.
  • And a random classmate who unexpectedly showed up and mocked my involvement in something so hokey. Fortunately, he forgot about it by the time we returned to school, so I was spared further embarrassment.

Oh yeah, Prince of Peace. I push aside these memories and try to focus on the words of the preacher. He unpacks the word peace as I scribble key phrases in my notebook. Jumping to Luke 2:14, “. . . and on earth peace . . . .” He then follows with a dozen or more New Testament verses about peace.

Easy to listen to, he moves effortlessly from one verse to the next, from one thought to another. After his resurrection, Jesus gives his disciples peace (John 20:19, 21, and 26).

The end of his message doubles as the benediction: “Peace be with you through Jesus.”

Post Service Interaction

The daughter of Candy’s friends, whom we sat with, wasn’t feeling well and left midway through the message. By the end of the service, the entire family is gone so we can’t talk with them.

The others sitting near us are also unavailable, though we do talk with her friend who ran sound, which is good.

Later, as I wait for Candy outside the women’s restroom, a lady comes up who recognizes me. What a surprise. In this area, my bride often runs into people who know her, but this is only the second time it’s happened to me.

The woman is on staff at the church, and she knows me from a writers’ conference where I spoke. We have a warm conversation. It’s nice to be known and welcomed.

On the drive home, I process my thoughts aloud about the preacher and his message. “He’s a gifted speaker: polished, articulate, and accomplished.”

Candy nods in agreement.

“He’s comfortable in front of a group and most knowledgeable about the Bible. He’s easy to listen to . . . and I was completely bored.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think you’d like it.”

She was right.


If your church is still doing what you did thirty years ago, what should change?

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

Gifts of the Spirit: Visiting Church #66, Part 1

Valued friends invite us to visit a church they’ve been going to for about six months. This surprises me: not the invitation part but that they’re going to an organized church and not the house church they’ve been involved with for several years.

They now attend both, interweaving their participation as their schedule permits.

Gifts of the Spirit

“They operate in the gifts of the Spirit,” my friend says. The chance to see our friends—who we don’t see often enough because we live an hour apart—is all the incentive I need. The fact that this day promises to start with a Holy Spirit experience shines as a bonus.

My background is not charismatic, but I relish the opportunity to experience Holy Spirit power and bask in his presence. Our own church portends to embrace the Holy Spirit, but how they conduct their services leaves little room for him to act.

Our worship experiences focus on Jesus and his Father. They mention the Holy Spirit but keep him at a safe distance. This, incidentally, was how I experienced church most of my life. And frankly, it wearies me. I want a Trinitarian experience, the whole package, not two out of three.

The Holy Spirit isn’t much of a factor in my typical worship experience at our church, but he is a daily factor in my life—though not as much as I’d like. It’s harder to embrace him when I’m not surrounded by a community of like-minded faith seekers.

Hungry for More

I want to be part of a community who operates in the gifts of the Spirit. I must be in such a community, but I’m not.

I’m hungry for God. I’m thirsty for more. I can hardly wait for Sunday, counting down the days, which is a good thing since this attitude of church anticipation is now mostly missing from my normal reality.

I check out the church’s website. It’s fresh. They just rebranded themselves with a new name to better reflect their Holy Spirit focus, but it looks like many websites for any one of today’s churches. It views and reads like most seeker-friendly fundamental churches.

One bullet point, however, in the “What we believe” section, hints at what we’ll experience. It mentions the baptism of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, the gifts of the spirit, and supernatural manifestations.

I’m terrified and excited at the same time. I expect God will stretch me, and I welcome what is to come, even though I will surely squirm.

A Guest Minister

With only a few days to wait, my friend emails me with bad news: Their pastor won’t be there on Sunday. My being deflates, but my resolve doesn’t. Surely this church, which operates in the gifts of the Spirit, can function just fine without a minister. At least, they should.

My friend gives me an out if I want it, but I don’t take it. “Let’s proceed as planned.” Crisis averted.

A Long, Winter Drive

I awake Sunday morning to the promise of unseasonably warm temperatures by midday. But, still in the winter season, it’s below freezing at daybreak. A bit of overnight snow and ice coat the roads. This should tell me to leave a bit earlier than planned, but I don’t heed the warning.

As we leave home a cheerful sun brightens our journey, an hour-long trek of mostly highway driving, but the roads to reach the highway still retain a bit of winter.

I skip taking the shortest route and opt for the more-traveled path. This will add about five minutes to our trip, but having padded it by fifteen, we should still arrive ten minutes early.

We ask God for safe travels and for his blessing on our time at church. We added this practice of a pre-church prayer a few years ago when we began 52 Churches.

I know it’s essential, but it’s hard to keep the words fresh week after week. So it is today. Does God at least appreciate that we tried?

Apprehension Sets In

You’d think I’d be used to visiting churches by now. I’m not. Apprehension over the unknown roils in my gut. A dozen worries assault my mind.

It would be easy to turn around and head for our church, the one that’s known, the one that talks Holy Spirit even though it does little to back up their claim. Instead, I push on.

Regardless of what happens at church, we’ll have the afternoon with friends—good friends—to look forward to. I focus on that.

The church meets in a public high school, a fact I appreciate. A temporary banner points us in the right direction, but once we reach the facility, I see no more signs.

Instead, I follow the car ahead of us, hoping we’re headed to the same place and they know where to go. As I do, the car behind me turns to follow. Is this confirmation or the blind leading the blind?

Figuring Where to Go

We end up in a parking lot with nine other cars. With no hint of which building entrance to head to, we wait in our car, hoping to follow someone else. One person scurries to an uninviting alcove and disappears. Should we follow?

Surely this is not the path to church. Eventually two people in the car that followed us into the parking lot exit their vehicle and head to the main doors. We follow.

Unfortunately, we’re not fast enough, for once we get inside, they’ve disappeared. I look for a sign but can’t find one. I’m about to turn right when Candy tugs me left. “I think they’re down there.”

A couple of tables adorn the hallway, and light beams from one of the rooms. That must be the place. As we trudge down the unlit hall, a few people emerge. We move toward them.

A man greets us, and we share names. I repeat his back to him, but with a question in my voice. I heard wrong, and he corrects me. After he confirms mine, he asks if we’ve been there before. He doesn’t think so, but he holds out the possibility we have.

“This is our first time.” I smile.

Not a Normal Service

He smiles back, but his glow dims. “We won’t have a normal service today.”

I play dumb. “Why not?”

“Our minister’s gone, and one of our members will be speaking. And the minister’s wife normally leads singing. She’s gone too—family vacation. Someone’s filling in for her too.”

“So you’ll have singing and a message. What do you normally do?”

“The same thing.”

“So you’ll still have a normal service?”

He nods at my logic, but he doesn’t seem convinced.

Candy shares that we’re meeting friends. He perks up at their name and quickly affirms them.

“Do you know where they usually sit?” she asks.

It seems like an unnecessary question. There are fifty chairs aligned in five neat rows and less than a dozen people present. 

He thinks for a moment and bobs his head. He points to the back row. “There.”

Waiting for the Service to Begin

As our attempt at small talk wanes, he drifts off. With no one else who seems available for conversation, we sit down in our friends’ row. The wall clock shows it’s time to start, but no one seems in a hurry to do so.

I can’t figure out the purpose of the space. It’s far too big to be a classroom, but not large enough for anything else.

The high ceiling suggests a gymnasium, but it’s too small. I count the ceiling tiles and do the math: 42’ by 72’. Some large matts, rolled up and against one wall, suggest this space might be for wrestling.

Since nothing’s happening, Candy and I decide to visit the restrooms—in expectation of needing to sit for a ninety-minute service. There seems to be no reason to hurry, so I take my time.

When I exit the restroom, I spot our friends as they arrive. We share hugs, and I attempt to interact with their kids. 

We stroll to the back row as we catch up. It’s been too long. Our reunion is sweet.

Beginning at Last

It seems the stated starting time is merely a guideline. Eventually the service begins, about fifteen minutes late. The man who met us when we arrived stands to greet those gathered, who now number sixteen. We and our friends make up half the group.

I think his purpose is to welcome us and give some opening remarks. From my perspective he drones on too long. His rambling comments veer political, but only vaguely so. I’m not sure of his point.

Worshiping God through Song

He introduces the fill-in worship leader. I don’t know if this twenty-something musician is part of their community or not. With skill he moves us into our worship time. Aided with the simple sound of his acoustic guitar, he ably leads us without calling attention to himself.

His focus remains rightly on God.

Some people raise their arms in praise, and I feel free to join them. Others sway gently with the melody, but my rhythmically-challenged body stands in stoic contrast. One woman edges off to the side and respectfully dances her worship.

I want to watch, but don’t want to intrude on her connection with the Almighty. My friend brought worship flags for her and her kids. They move behind us to praise God with the movement of their flowing banners. This must be why they sit in the back.

Though worshipful, my mind wanders at the repetition of the words and notes. With the chairs positioned in the middle of the room, open space abounds on all sides. Three banners in front proclaim “Kingdom,” “Grace,” and “Power.” I ponder their significance.

Do these words imply the Trinity? The Father’s kingdom, the grace of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit? Maybe. Maybe not. Am I trying to make these words fit where they don’t belong?

Song lyrics project on the wall. I think our worship leader plays as he feels led, but the right words always appear at the right time. After about twenty minutes, Candy groans. I think we’re still on the first song, but I’m not sure. The endless iterations weary her, whereas I just grow bored.

With a smile, I recall the cynical complaint of an old Baptist preacher about modern church music: “One word, two notes, three hours.”

Eventually our numbers swell to twenty. This is less than half their normal attendance. I guess the word got out that Pastor was gone, and half the congregation did the same.

Some people may feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. I don’t. For many, music acts as a conduit to God, but it seldom serves me in that way. I need quiet. Perhaps had I sat down and not tried to sing along, I would have heard from the Spirit of God.

After three or four songs, spanning forty minutes, we move into the message. An older woman stands to talk. She’s nervous—both her words and her demeanor say so—but after a prayer and a few minutes she settles down and ably teaches about the righteousness of God.

The Message

A former missionary, she begins with 1 Kings 8:11. “Righteousness,” she says, “is to be in a condition acceptable to God.” I’ve never heard it explained this way, but I like it. 

From there she bounces around the Bible, sharing more than a half dozen related verses, teaching about each one. I jot down the verses so I can look them up later, all the while knowing I never will. I also grab some intriguing one-liners.

One warrants contemplation: “Righteousness is a gift, not a goal.” 

After about thirty minutes she winds down. The worship leader strums his guitar as she wraps up her message. I’m not sure of the intent. She offers no altar call and gives no challenge. The service ends with a final song.


Overall, I’m disappointed. We followed their normal format, but I’m quite sure the results weren’t typical. I saw little evidence of the Holy Spirit. I witnessed no baptism of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, or the gifts of the spirit.

There were no supernatural manifestations as their website boasted. Yes, these would have made me uncomfortable, but I know God would have revealed his truth to me anyway.

The service differed little from a low-key evangelical service, and fell far short of the charismatic experience I had hoped to encounter. I guess we should have postponed our visit until the pastor and worship leader returned.

At least we’ll spend the afternoon with friends in significant spiritual community. That was the point all along and will be the highlight of our day. Church is just a prelude to the main event. 

And that gives me something else to contemplate.

[See the discussion questions for Church 66, Read about Church 65 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

We Don’t Need No Sermon: Visiting Church #63

A few months ago, my wife started a new job. One of her coworkers goes to a church near the one we normally attend. “I’d like to visit it sometime,” she says, catching me off guard. With a non-church sounding name, I’m intrigued. 

Her openness to go there surprises me. “Are you looking to change churches?”

Taking a Break

“I just want to visit once,” she says with a decided tone. “Besides, you need a break from our church.”

She is right. I so need a break. I long for a respite from their too-long, too-pointless sermons. Once again, I find myself enduring the church service so I can enjoy church camaraderie afterward.

The music at our current church is okay. I persist in it as an act of worship. I sing and occasionally lift my hands to honor God, but not because I necessarily like the selections or the playing.

I believe I honor God with my physical act of worship, even though my mind is seldom engaged. I do it for him, not because I feel like it.

Their hour-long sermons, however, seem pointless. Our teaching elder is a gifted scholar with an occasional quirk in his delivery when he diverges from his notes. My beef is that he only teaches.

He gives no application. It’s an info dump, sans meaningful spiritual relevance. At best it’s an entertaining lecture. I leave each Sunday no closer to God than when I arrived. I head home with no challenge to live differently or conviction to change or correct anything. 

His messages tell me about the Bible, but his words don’t draw me to God. “Knowledge puffs up,” Paul writes to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8:1). I fear we are a puffy church, self-satisfied over the depth of our Bible knowledge. 

Mostly he reminds me of what I already know. More pointedly, his ultra-conservative theology often chafes at my soul. Too often I anticipate where he is headed and whisper emphatically, “No, no, no!” 

Despite my silent warning, he goes there anyway. He ends up where I think he shouldn’t, espousing a view of God I don’t see much support for in the Bible as much as emanating from blindly following accepted fundamental principles. I fear I will one day protest too loudly.

“You’ve had a bad attitude for the past two weeks,” my wife reminds me.

She’s right, of course. On our drive to church the past few weeks I sigh and sometimes murmur that I can’t bear the thought of sitting through another sermon. Then we pray. And later I do what I don’t want to do: listen to another download of Bible knowledge without a greater purpose.

A break from this will be good.

As we drive to visit the church Candy’s coworker attends, I’m so glad for a reprieve from ours and the pointless lecture. Even so, I will miss seeing the people there.

A pang of guilt stabs my heart. It’s like I’m cheating on my church by seeing another one. I feel unfaithful. I am unworthy of their friendship.

First Impressions

We could drive past our church to get to this one, but I choose a different route. We pull into the parking lot to see a typical-looking church building, despite their nonconventional name. I expected something different.

The parking lot appears mostly full, and I pull into an open spot next to the dumpster. As we walk to the building, I see two and then four spots reserved for visitors. All are empty.

We can easily tell where to enter the building, but once inside we don’t know where to go. A few people cautiously greet us. They know we aren’t regulars, but at the same time they aren’t sure if we’ve visited before or if this might be our first time.

I ask one of them where the sanctuary is. She uses her head to point us in the right direction, which is opposite of what I assumed. We weave our way through the people, all engaged in conversation with friends—and too busy to notice us. 

Instead of standing around and looking pathetic, we open the closed doors of the sanctuary. It’s an octagon-shaped space with a high sloped ceiling converging in the center. Block walls and impressive wooden beams give an open feel.

Oscillating fans mounted on the walls tell me they lack air conditioning. Today that doesn’t matter. Despite warm weather for this time of year, we’re still within winter’s final grasp.

With padded pews arranged in four sections, the room accommodates three to four hundred. “Pick any place you want,” I whisper to Candy, “but please not too far toward the front.”

A Grand Welcome

Instead of moving, she stops to scan the room. Off to the side, she spots her coworker and waves. He beckons us. His face beams.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” he smiles. He is truly overjoyed to see us. He introduces us to some friends and invites us to sit with his family in their usual spot, even though they aren’t yet here. “Sharon will be so surprised to see you.”

A gracious man, we feel most welcomed. Then he excuses himself and joins the worship team gathering on the stage.

As predicted, his wife is indeed surprised to see us. She is as excited as he. They both make us feel so welcomed, so embraced, so loved.

It’s an ability I don’t have, and I’ve seldom seen people who wield this skill of hospitality so adeptly as this couple. Though everyone in a church can, and should, greet visitors, some people have a real gift for it. 

Raising Money for Missions

We learn that this is “Faith Promise Sunday,” so they won’t have a sermon. The lack of a sermon overjoys me, yet I wonder, what will fill the time? Is this their annual budget drive?

We once visited a church when they did this (Church #32, “Commitment Sunday and Celebration”), securing pledges for the upcoming year. They even brought in a heavy hitter to lead the fund drive and maximize the pledges.

Though it lacked an emotion-laden plea, I still squirmed a time or two. Will today be like that? I’ll need to wait to find out because we have an opening song set first.

A contemporary team leads us in song: the song leader on guitar, two female backup vocals, bass guitar, keys, drums, and Candy’s coworker on percussion. They have a light rock sound, though it’s obvious the lead guitarist is holding back—way back.

Some of the songs are new to us, but even the familiar ones move at a slower pace than I like, so I struggle to sing along.

The backup vocalists occasionally raise their hands in praise, but no one else does in the congregation of about one hundred. (I see only adults, so the kids must be in their own program.)

Not wanting to confront their practices, I clasp my hands behind my back to prevent any spontaneous wayward movement. Besides, I don’t want to call attention to myself.

Then one of their three pastors explains Faith Promise Sunday, an event they’ve been moving toward for the past couple of weeks. This is for missions, not their general fund.

Distinguishing it from a tithe, this is an above-and-beyond commitment to support missions work. Alluding ever so briefly to 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, he gives biblical precedence for setting aside money each week to support those who do missionary work.

By asking for a faith pledge they will be able to let each of the six groups they support know how much money they plan to give them for the year. Ushers pass offering plates to collect the pledges.

Supported Ministries

With this as a backdrop, they spend the next forty-five minutes or so explaining each of these ministries. They start with three local ones.

The first is an after-school program with a structured time for homework, tutoring, literacy, recreation, and spiritual expression. It recently relocated to this facility. For the first time, its two staff members can receive a paycheck.

The second local ministry is an urban church, which also just relocated. They now have more space, at a lower cost, for their growing ministry.

The third is a husband-wife team with Youth for Christ. Not having local connections, they struggle to raise support.

For the three non-local missions, the first is in the US, a couple of states away. It’s a Christian youth home, which struggled for a while when they refused to capitulate to their state’s insistence that they do not mention faith or God. Having found a workaround solution, their program is again full. The church also sends mission teams there to help.

Next is a program in the UK, part of a global organization that works with schools, community projects, businesses, and churches to repurpose churches with a focus on mission, discipleship, and study.

Rounding out the six is a missionary couple covertly working in a Muslim country, one closed to missionaries. Theirs is a solitary effort, with no local community support or Christian connections. They struggle emotionally.

Lay members of the missions committee come up to pray for these organizations and people. Then they announce the pledge total: $44,900. The congregation celebrates this generous commitment. We close with another song set, this one much shorter.

The associate pastor dismisses us with little fanfare.

No Sermon

“We’re sorry you didn’t get to hear a sermon,” we hear more than once. 

I’m not sorry at all. I heard what I needed.

The work of God’s people to share his love, both locally and around the world, fed my soul. I find encouragement from a church that treats missions seriously and not as a minor add-on to a normally cash-strapped budget.

As far as church services go, this was one of the best I’ve experienced in months.

As a bonus, our friends invite us to their house for a Sunday meal. It is so good—and so right—to spend time with other followers of Jesus in intentional community.

[See the discussion questions for Church 63, read about Church 62, Church 64, 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

Who Says We Should Give 10 Percent to the Local Church?

Fundamentalist preachers twist what the Bible says and misapply it for their own benefit

I was taught to give 10 percent of my money to church. I’ve heard many evangelical preachers assert that their followers had to give 10 percent to the local church. It was a tithe, an obligation. You could, of course, give more.

That was a voluntary offering, but the 10 percent baseline was a requirement. If you failed to do so, it was a sin.

Says who?

It turns out the preachers who proclaim the 10-percent-to-the-local-church rule made it up. They want to fund their operation and ensure their paycheck.

Seriously, it’s not in the Bible.

The Bible never says to give 10 percent of our money to the local church. It’s not a command or even a guideline. Any place the New Testament mentions a tithe it’s in reference to the Old Testament Law, which Jesus fulfilled.

And don’t forget that the Old Testament tithe was from the harvest, not a paycheck. It was to the national temple, not a local assembly. Besides that, how many of the other 613 Old Testament Laws do you follow? Not many, I suspect.

So if you want to re-interpret the Old Testament and forget that Jesus fulfilled it, go ahead and tithe as a legalistic requirement. Just don’t act like it is an obligation or command others to do so.

Here’s what the New Testament has to say:

In the New Testament we see a principle of stewardship, of carefully using what God blesses us with to help those around us. If you feel God calling you to give 10 percent to your local church, than go ahead and do it. But know that the Bible doesn’t command it. (It doesn’t prohibit it either.)

What I see in the Bible is a clear principle to help the poor and assist those who go outside the church to tell others about Jesus.

May our focus be on advancing the kingdom of God more so than on perpetuating the manmade institution of what many today call church.

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.

Christian Living

Do You Live in a Spiritual Silo?

Aligning Ourselves with Like-Minded People Results in Isolation and Division

An issue in the corporate world is business silos. This is where a department or unit puts up walls that separate them from the rest of the company. The leaders of these silos of information and function do so to maintain control and assure them of power.

The result is a lack of communication with other units or departments, along with the hoarding of knowledge. This means the sales department doesn’t talk with the customer service department and neither one knows what marketing is doing, along with research and development, billing, and operations.

In the end, the customers suffer and the company is less than what it could be.

You may or may not have experienced this in the business world, but in Christian circles it’s much more common. It’s so common that it’s hard to avoid.

For most Christians who’ve been following Jesus for a while, their circle of friends and the people they interact with have become other Christians. They have little meaningful interaction with people who don’t follow Jesus.

This, however, overstates the situation. In truth their circle of friends and the people they interact with aren’t just other Christians, they’re only other Christians who think and act like they do.

Spiritual Silo as a Group

Over the centuries Christians have become experts at dividing themselves. Courtesy of the Reformation we ended up with Catholics and Protestants.

Protestants then divided themselves into three main streams: mainline, fundamental, and charismatic. But within each of these groups, further division occurred, now amounting to over 43,000 Protestant denominations. That’s a lot of division, disunity, and opportunities to form spiritual silos.

Most denominations isolate themselves from other denominations. Afterall, it was disagreement that caused them to form their denomination in the first place. And once they split off and formed their new denomination, they isolated themselves from those they disagreed with.

The result is a spiritual silo. Even within denominations, individual churches isolate themselves from other churches in their own group.

Some churches go so far as to isolate themselves from every other church.

The result of these spiritual silos is people associating themselves only with others who believe and act exactly as they do. Their understanding and practice of Christianity becomes extremely narrow, with them on the side of right and everyone else, wrong.

Spiritual Silo as Individuals

The spiritual silos that churches form—and most every church has done so to one degree or another—spills over to the people who attend there. Within churches people congregate with others like them, specifically others who follow Jesus with the same spiritual paradigms and priorities as theirs.

They push away people who think and act differently, even if it’s by the smallest of degrees. This produces even smaller spiritual silos, where members of the same church withdraw from other members over the most trivial of issues.

Taken to an extreme a person completely retreats from church and any form of spiritual community to live an isolated life away from all other followers of Jesus. They create for themselves a spiritual silo of one.

Spiritual Silos Promote Disunity

As we associate with people who are precisely like us, we push aside all others. The result is we spend our time with people who think exactly as we do, believe exactly as we do, and act exactly as we do. We view our own thoughts, beliefs, and actions as best aligned with God.

The logical extension is that we view all others as misaligned.

But our spiritual silos are exactly what God doesn’t want. Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers, that we would be one just as he and Papa are one. Our divisions, denominations, and spiritual silos work against Jesus’s desire for us to get along and function as one (John 17:20-23).

And why does he want us to be one? It’s to maximize our witness to the world, so that they may know.

Read more in Peter’s new book, Living Water: 40 Reflections on Jesus’s Life and Love from the Gospel of John, available everywhere 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

The Seven Transformations of Peter DeHaan

A Personal Story of Growing in Faith and Action

[This personal essay first appeared in The Transformation Project: A West Michigan Word Weavers Anthology.]

A caterpillar turns into a butterfly; a tadpole becomes a frog. People can change too. We call it transformation. Here’s my story.

1. The Bible Matters

We moved between fourth and fifth grade. I didn’t learn much at my new school. I was far ahead in most subjects, especially Math. However, I lagged in English, especially grammar, sending me on a lifelong quest to grasp it. Given that I ended up an author, and not a mathematician as planned, this ironic twist amuses me.

How I managed to earn A’s in English remains a mystery.

Teachers give more attention to students on the fringe, both those who struggle and those who shine. Since I stood out in most areas, my teacher gave me more attention. Although I didn’t learn much academically that year, she gave me something more important, something life changing: an enhanced self-image.

Succinctly, I began fifth grade as an above average student who believed he was average. I ended the year as an above average student, convinced he was exceptional. This single readjustment of my self-perception forever altered my life.

No longer did I seek to merely get by in school, to take the easy way out. Learning changed from drudgery to delight. I desired to excel.

My newfound interest in education spilled over into religion, as I devoured faith-friendly books—both fiction and nonfiction. Later, I became intentional about reading Scripture. I loved my pursuit of biblical knowledge.

Soon I read the New Testament, and a couple of years later I covered the entire Bible over summer vacation. This sparked a life-long passion of digging for truth in God’s word.

As strange as it sounds, a secular schoolteacher provided the catalyst for my first transformation: an overall desire to learn, which spilled over to an intellectual pursuit of God.

2. The Vast Diversity of Jesus’s Church

I grew up attending two small, mainline denominational churches, where church was a traditional experience: stoic, reserved—and boring. I had trouble connecting faith with church.

What I read in the Bible didn’t much match what I experienced on Sunday. Perhaps changing churches would solve my dilemma.

After high school, I veered evangelical.

At this new church, aside from seeing young adults my age excited about faith and happy to go to church, two other things astounded me: the music and the sermon. Both were fresh and inviting. This sparked a spiritual rejuvenation in me.

My old church had effectively put God in a box. As I migrated to a different doctrine, I had to escape my old theology. This resulted in a newfound freedom to comprehend God afresh.

My faith leapt forward when I came to this church, completing a shift in my focus from an intellectual pursuit of God to a personal relationship with Jesus.

My new church, however, also put God in a box, even smaller and more confining.

Their box, fundamental in construction, lacked love and excelled at judgment. Their idea of godly living existed as rules. Theirs was a heavy load and not freeing. Jesus proclaimed the opposite: a light burden and gentle yoke. He offered rest from the religious regulations of the day—not bondage to them.

This church’s doctrine was narrow, dogmatic to an extreme. Pastoral opinion, uttered as fact, allowed for no disagreement. They isolated themselves from most of Christianity, turning up their religious nose at the unity Jesus prayed for.

At first, I didn’t see their error, but when I did, it became an oppressive weight. A spiritual angst welled up inside. I craved escape.

My second transformation occurred not when I joined this church or when I left it, but in the realization that Jesus’s church is more than one gathering, one denomination, or even one faith perspective (be it mainline, evangelical, or charismatic; Protestant or Catholic).

The church of Jesus, with its many branches, is diverse and wonderful. He prayed we would be one (John 17:20-21)—and I began to embrace that too.

Jesus’s church is huge—and I’m glad I’m part of it.

3. Learning to Feed Myself

I wasn’t being fed spiritually, so I switched churches. My reason sounded so spiritual, but my claim revealed immaturity. Unable to feed myself, I expected my pastor to do it for me. I was a baby Christian, only able to drink milk and not eat solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-3).

Though I read the Bible daily, prayed most days, and had a relationship with Jesus, I expected my pastor to shovel enough spiritual sustenance into me each Sunday to sustain me for the week. I didn’t know how to do this myself.

Even worse, I didn’t realize I was supposed to. Isn’t that what we pay our ministers to do?

The pastor at this church had a different view. He explained I needed to feed myself—and then showed me how. Soon I learned what to do, no longer relying on him to nourish me.

I discovered how to listen to God, hearing his words and direction. I grew as a person of prayer and faith. My intimacy with God deepened, overwhelming me with peace and joy.

Learning to feed myself spiritually marked my third transformation, establishing the basis for the next one.

4. Holy Spirit

I joined with a group of believers who were diligently seeking more from their faith. We immersed ourselves in learning about the Holy Spirit. I was ecstatic about the new truths we learned.

After a time, with my friends gathered, I asked the Holy Spirit to indwell me, to take over my life, and envelop me. They stretched out their hands and prayed for me—and nothing happened.

What went wrong?

Discouraged over this non-event, only later did I realize I’d already done this.

Decades prior, while still in high school, one of the things I read was a little blue booklet called The Four Spiritual Laws. I studied it carefully and eagerly said the prayer they suggested. A few years later came a follow-up booklet that taught about living the spirit-filled life.

I raced through it to reach the end, seeking what I needed to do. With excitement, I invited the Holy Spirit into my life and to fill me. A powerful wave of God’s love engulfed me, a warm supernatural whoosh. Life made sense.

Everything came into focus. God emerged for me as a vibrant, real presence.

After a few days, however, my supernatural bliss evaporated. My spirit-filled euphoria was gone. Dejected, I returned to my tiny booklet to reclaim that feeling but without success. I tossed it aside and soon forgot it.

Though I failed then to comprehend it, the Holy Spirit had been quietly active in my life ever since but without my awareness. I thought supernatural insights and promptings were normal for all Christians.

Now that I understood the scope of his influence, I became intentional about listening to and following the Holy Spirit’s lead. Nowadays we work together as a team—at least most of the time.

My fourth transformation embraced the person of the oft-forgotten member of the Trinity: The Holy Spirit.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

5. Jesus’s Healing Power

The opportunity for another change came when a group of like-minded Jesus followers launched a healing room. This required a bold step forward, both for our group and for us as individuals.

We went to training and we practiced what we learned, initially on each other and eventually applying it to others, timidly at first and then with greater confidence—not in ourselves but in God’s amazing power. Our faith in action moved forward.

This stretched me spiritually, and I savored my new insights into God and the grandeur of who he is.

Jesus, we learned, came to heal and to save. Two thousand years ago, the masses clamored for his healing power, but most missed his saving power. Today, Christians in the Western world see Jesus as savior but dismiss him as healer. I embrace both—and with unapologetic passion.

Each week our team would gather to worship God and listen for his instructions. Then we’d open our doors to offer prayer and healing. There I experienced firsthand what I’d only read about.

God used us to heal people: emotionally, spiritually, and physically—sometimes gradually and sometimes immediately.

As we worked together, we taught and encouraged one another, learning to rely on the Holy Spirit for direction and power. My fifth transformation had begun, never complete but always moving forward.

6. A Mission to Spread the Word

I started college when I was sixteen. Twenty-seven years later, I finally finished—or so I thought—with a PhD in Business Administration. I never went full time but always fit my classes and homework around a full-time job, usually while working forty-five to fifty-five hours a week.

Along the way, I made many sacrifices. To my dismay, this included giving up time with family. When my last diploma arrived, my wife asked, “Are you finally finished?” I assured her I was.

But God had other plans.

A few years later, he whispered to me, “Go back to school.” He didn’t say when, where, or why. He simply said, “Go.” The rest was up to me. Since God was doing the telling, I figured my studies should have a spiritual focus.

Both dismayed and elated at the prospect of more formal education, I moved forward, but my quest was a long one. It took five years, but I graduated with a second PhD, this one in Pastoral Ministry, of all things.

My dissertation explored church unity. The topic drew me in, with increasing fervor. I could not let go of its persistent grasp. The unity of Jesus’s church became my passion.

Writing my dissertation also sparked something else deep inside my soul. Although I’d been writing most of my life, for the first time my writing intersected with my faith.

Until then, I’d spent decades writing about business and for business. But now, being a wordsmith had a greater purpose. I ceased trying to write quickly for work and began striving to write with quality for God. My words had a higher calling.

My passion to write about godly things exploded into a calling I could not shake. Soon I wondered if my next career would be as a writer. As I studied and practiced and improved, I knew verbalizing my intention was the next step.

At a mere whisper, my words, “I am a writer,” released an inner desire to write for God. Then I spoke, again, this time a little louder, “I am a writer.” Self-doubt retreated. But I needed to make a firm declaration.

“I am a writer!” I bellowed with confidence. And so I was. My sixth transformation, as a writer on a mission for God, was set in motion.

7. The Final Transformation

I don’t know what the future holds or if an additional transformation awaits me. There is one, however, I can be sure of: death.

I will one day die, and my ultimate transformation will take place. My body—where my soul and spirit reside—will cease to function. My essence will find release, no longer imprisoned in the physical realm, no longer bound by time.

My spirit, the essential me, will transform into something wonderful, amazing, and everlasting—not for personal glory or self-aggrandizement, but for eternal communion with my Creator, worshiping and experiencing true spiritual intimacy with the King of Transformation.

Then my transformation will be complete. I will finally be home.

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

A Great Sermon (Visiting Church #46)

I struggle through the first half of the service. I can’t identify what’s wrong. Despite their efforts at excellence, something turns me off.

Now is the minister’s turn. An affable man, with combed-back hair, he wears a gray vest and maroon shirt, open at the neck. He tells the congregation to follow along in their Bibles as he reads.

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

The verses aren’t displayed on the screens, and with our version not matching his, it’s hard to grasp the text. There’s a fill-in-the-blank outline in the bulletin, and I follow along as he speaks.

This information is duplicated overhead, with the missing words displayed at the appropriate time.

It takes me a while to focus, but I soon realize the minister’s a gifted communicator—and entertaining, too. I appreciate his style and welcome his insights about church discipline.

He soon wins me over. His instruction is practical, laced in love, and void of dogmatic proclamations (that sometimes occur in fundamental circles).

I note the key scripture verses he cites (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Matthew 18:15-20, and 2 Corinthians 2:5-10), planning to study them further. He shares personal anecdotes of church discipline gone awry, contrasted with the practice done right.

We watch a comedy sketch video to illustrate his point. “Sin in the church, like leaven [yeast], affects everyone.” Churches must deal with it.

He ends his message by offering a “judgment-free time” for people to come forward to kneel on the steps of the stage and privately deal with any issue or conviction they have.

He and his wife make themselves available for those desiring prayer—a practice I wish more churches would adopt. Nearly twenty come forward and kneel. The Holy Spirit is at work.

Despite a slow start for me, the ending was great.

[Read about Church #45 and Church #47, start at the beginning of our journey, or learn more about Church # 46.]

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 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

What is Our Christian Witness?

Our Actions and Our Words Determine Our Reputation

In the post “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” we talked about the importance of our Christian witness. This is best accomplished by our love and our unity.

Unfortunately, the world rarely sees our love and unity. Instead we model hate and disagreement. That’s what the world sees and often what they think of when they hear the word Christian. As a result, we tarnish our witness for Jesus.

Instead we focus on our theology, our politics, and our opposition to what we deem as evil. And in our inability to get along, we segregate ourselves into divisive denominations. But these items are not the foundation of our Christian witness.

To our discredit these are the foundation of our undoing as Christians, losing sight of what it means to follow Jesus and be his disciple.

Is Our Theology Our Witness?

In the last several hundred years, Christians have debated, argued, and even fought over theology. Yes, in the name of pursuing a right theology, we have even killed one another. And toward what end?

The result of pursuing a right theology has fractured the church of Jesus, resulting in 42,000 denominations, which is a powerful confirmation of our inability to get along.

Our Christian theology is an ineffective witness to the world in search of answers.

Is Our Politics Our Witness?

Another area where Christianity emerges is in the political arena. We support candidates who we believe hold to a Christian worldview, espousing a biblically ethical mindset. And we oppose the other candidate, who we view as the antithesis to all that is right and godly.

Yet Christians end up sitting on opposite sides of the political table: some champion one candidate, while others support the opponent.

We’re missing the point. Arguing about politics will never point people to Jesus.

Is Our Opposition Our Witness?

Much of Christianity, especially the evangelicals and fundamentalists, take stands to oppose what they feel is wrong in the world. Two areas emerged in recent decades: opposing homosexuality and opposing abortion.

To make the point, well-meaning, but misguided, Christians loudly take a stand, spewing invective to anyone who listens. We come across as hate filled bigots and not the loving followers of Jesus that he desires.

Instead of talking about what we’re against, we should talk about Jesus, his love, and his power to save and to heal.

Is Our Denomination Our Witness?

As Christians argued and fought, we’ve divided ourselves over a minutia of details, most irrelevant and others perhaps with a bit of substance, but little that amounts to a faith-jeopardizing heresy.

What’s our reaction to this? Instead of promoting Christian unity and trying to get along, we turn our backs to one another, stomp off in anger, and make a new denomination.

As a result, we produced 42,000 examples that tell the world Christians can’t get along with each other. Our denominations stand as a powerful witness, not to Jesus, but to our selfish disunity.

Our Love and Unity is Our Christian Witness

Let’s sweep aside our theology—yes, I did say that—and our politics and our opposition and our denominations. When it comes to Jesus and his kingdom, these things don’t matter.

What matters most is that we love one another and work to get along. Our love and our unity form our best Christian witness. Everything else just gets in the way and tarnishes the name of Jesus.

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.