Visiting Churches

An Urban Church with a Mission: Discussion Questions

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

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church 68.

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

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

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

What key information do visitors need to know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can we live with greater kingdom intention?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short of Meeting Expectations: Visiting Church #65

Our home church canceled today’s Sunday service because everyone (except us) is off at church camp, a weeklong community experience on the shore of Lake Michigan.

While many at church dislike camping, they so treasure the extended time with a church family that they go anyway. It’s a highly anticipated annual event, the highlight of the year. 

Candy and I are not there, however. For one, neither of us are campers, not even close. Second, my work schedule and writing demands make taking a week off impossible. Even with much planning, one day off is hard for me to manage with any degree of success.

Lastly, the time when everyone else arranged for campers, Candy was embroiled in an intense season at her job that took every waking minute of her time and much of mine. 

An Open Sunday

The result is that we are not at church camp and have a Sunday free.

I’m glad for the reprieve. I need it. Candy doesn’t voice it, but I’m sure she realizes I need a break from the tedious routine of our regular church service.

I have a list of churches to visit and have longed to experience this one for over a year. I met one of their staff at a speakers conference. As we talked about her church and their belief in the present-day power of the Holy Spirit, that same Holy Spirit nudged me to visit. 

“It won’t be soon,” I told her, “but it will happen.”

“Let me know when,” she said, “so I can look for you.”

I agreed, anticipating that day, not knowing it would take thirteen months. With this opening in our Sunday schedule, I email her, unsure if she’ll remember me. To my delight, she does.

Planning When to Leave

I fill Candy in on the details. “Their service is at ten, and it will take twenty-three minutes to drive there. I’d like to leave at 9:30.” 

She agrees.

As I move through my Sunday morning, I realize a 9:30 departure won’t be soon enough.

First, it’s unlikely we will leave at that time.

Second, we need a cushion in case we have trouble finding the church and to park our car and find our way inside.

Third, my goal when visiting churches is to arrive ten minutes early. This allows time for some pre-church interaction but not too much time in case there is none.

When I suggest 9:20 to Candy, she glares. And she shakes off a compromise of 9:25. “You should have told me sooner. I’m on track for 9:30. I don’t know if I can be ready before then.”

At 9:37 we leave the house. I’m frustrated. As I drive, I pray for our time at this church. I’m still not sure what the Holy Spirit has in mind.

My prayer is short and direct. “Lord, may we learn what you would have us to learn and share what you would have us to share. Amen.”

We encounter road construction on the way, which slows us down some but not too much. Our GPS says we’ll arrive at 9:57 and then updates our ETA to 9:58.

A Residential Setting

The church sits in a residential area. It’s a tired-looking, older facility, a bit on the dreary side, but I don’t have time to consider it much as I round the block looking for the parking lot.

We slide into an open space and walk with intention to the entrance. A few others arrive with us. I guess we will be fashionably late together. A woman with a walker lurches forward. If we give her patient passage, the delay will be interminable. If we rush past her, we might still make it by ten.

What Would Jesus Do?

I shake off that consideration as I scoot around her. Candy follows.

Starting Time

Inside is a bustle of activity, which beckons us to the right, yet I spot a quiet, darkened sanctuary to my left. A greeter of sorts glides up to us to provide an overview of our options.

Candy decides to snag a cup of coffee, leaving me alone to wallow in discomfort. When she rejoins me, we head toward the sanctuary and my friend warmly greets us. 

Relieved to see a familiar face, I introduce her to Candy and then mutter my despair over cutting the time too close. It’s exactly 10:00. She dismisses my distress with a nonchalant wave. “We don’t start on time here,” she says with a smile. As proof she gestures to the throng still behind us.

I follow Candy into the sanctuary. She bypasses many viable places to sit as she moves too far forward for my comfort. Although sitting toward the front results in fewer distractions, it also makes observation of the congregation more difficult.

It’s a challenge to balance engagement with examination when visiting churches, and I’m not sure which one the Holy Spirit wants me to focus on today.

Room-darkening shades cover the few windows in the space, and the lights are low. I’m not sure if I like the subdued, almost mystical, vibe or not. The room is about as wide as it is deep, with two hundred chairs, which might be 40 to 50 percent occupied.

I expected a bigger sanctuary with more people, but it’s mid-August. Church attendance typically ebbs to its low point of the year during late summer.

A Musical Experience

A worship team of five opens the service. It’s a contemporary assembly with the leader on guitar. Joining him are a backup guitarist, bass guitarist, someone on keys, and another on drums.

Their sound borders on grunge. Without much coaxing, I envision them cutting loose. They remain restrained, however, suitable for a church service but disappointing for me.

With words displayed overhead, we sing a contemporary song that is new to me and then another and another, four that I have never heard and most of which I struggle to even mouth the words.

“Sing a new song,” the Bible says repeatedly (Psalm 33:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, and 149:1, as well as Isaiah 42:10.). I try to shove aside my discomfort with the acknowledgement that the Bible never says to give God the old songs we know and like.

The chorus of one song starts to click with me, and I sing along—more or less. One phrase grabs my attention: “we are defiant in your name.” (A later search online reveals we sang “More than Conquerors” by Rend Collective.)

Self-described as spiritually militant, this line connects with me. I give it to God as my new song.

As we sing, one woman dances worshipfully off to the right and several more join her with flags on both sides of the stage. Easels of artwork flank each side as well, yet I see no one working on art during worship.

A couple of people raise their hands as they sing, but they are so few that I don’t want to call attention to myself by joining them, despite a gentle Holy Spirit nudge to do so.


Our numbers continue to grow, and by the end of the fourth song I estimate the place is about 60 percent full. Most seem to be older generations without many Gen-Xers or Millennials. 

Millennials are supposed to be more open to spiritual things, and my expectation was that I would see them at this church, which is more open to spirituality through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

I don’t see any millennials. I suppose their openness to spirituality doesn’t make them equally open to a spiritual experience in a church building, or they just aren’t aware of this church. 

I fully suspect these spiritually-open Millennials are hanging out elsewhere in nontraditional settings and times. I want to be with them. I also know that not all that is spiritual is good, so I pray they’re drawn toward a biblical, Jesus-focused spirituality and not one that runs counter to it.

A Good Greeting Time

After a half hour, the music winds down and gives way to the greeting time. This church does better than most in making this awkward time feel not so awkward for visitors.

Many give us a sincere welcome, sharing their names and asking ours. They are genuinely interested.

With gentle probing they learn about us without prying: “Are you new to the area?” asks one. “Where do you live?” inquires another. “Is this your first time here?” queries a third. “Are you looking for a new church?” And so on.

A countdown display measures the time allotted for greeting. I don’t know where it started, but I notice it during a lull in conversation when it says 45 . . . 44 . . . 43 . . . Then my friend comes up and welcomes us again.

We’re nicely engaged in conversation when someone taps her shoulder and points to the screen. The counter has hit zero and the screen is now blank. My friend is supposed to give announcements, intended to start when the timer hit zero. She scurries off to her assignment.

She gains the attention of the crowd and corrals our disparate conversations. We sit down, but I only half listen. I want to continue our conversation, but we can’t. After the announcements, a prayer follows, and they ask first-time visitors to raise their hands.

I don’t like calling attention to myself this way and grouse at the thought of it. I don’t want to play along, but I always do, albeit without much enthusiasm. Even so, I’m relieved we don’t need to stand and introduce ourselves, as at Church #20 (“Different Language, Same God”). 

Someone hands me a card, which I accept, hoping this will end the attention I feel foisted upon me. Thankfully it does. The card invites us to stop by the welcome center after the service for a gift. 

Live Expectantly

The minister stands to give us his message, based on Luke 1:5–25. He talks about living expectantly. Imagine waking up each morning and asking God, “Daddy, what are we going to do today?” What a grand way to live life, but few people do.

Instead of living expectantly, we live with expectations, which are bound to disappoint us. I certainly had my expectations about this church, its size, its attendees, and my experience here. I’m sad to admit that today my expectations overshadowed my expectancy.

He wraps up with his prescription for how to live expectantly. The worship team reassembles, playing softly as he gives a call to action. I’m not really listening to what he says, only enough to know that it’s not a typical altar call.

Prayer Time

After the closing song, they move into prayer time, the third part of the service.

Prayer teams come forward in pairs, while most of the congregation files out into the lobby. A few linger for their own time of sharing and praying. Some go forward to meet with the waiting prayer teams. Gentle music plays to produce a safe and holy place.

“Do you want prayer for your knee?” I ask my bride.

“No, you can pray for it at home.”

That wasn’t the response I expected—or wanted. I long to tarry, but I know Candy does not. I hand her the gift card, which she accepts with an eager smile. 

“Meet me in back when you’re done,” she says, smartly granting me space without subjecting me to her eagerness to leave. 

I sit as I try to formulate a reason to go up for prayer. Each thought seems trivial. I consider simply asking a prayer team if God might give them a word to share with me. At the same time, I don’t know if they would be comfortable handling such a request.

I certainly don’t want to put them on the spot or make them uneasy. It’s one thing to pray for people in reaction to their request and quite another to proactively listen to what God would give you to share with them. 

I’ve done both, the first with ease and the second with trepidation, fearing that I might not hear correctly or in my anxiety to respond, I might mistake my nervous thoughts for Holy Spirit insight.

Instead of going forward, I sit, basking in God’s presence. He asks me gentle questions, which I jot down for further contemplation. Even so, I’m sad. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been to a church that had time for prayer at the conclusion of each service.

At one time I would have been on one of the prayer teams, listening, praying, hugging, and sometimes healing. That seems a lifetime ago. I so miss it. A deep longing emerges. I want to be at a church that allows the laity to minister to one another, not relegating us to passive pew sitting.

My friend is half of one of the prayer teams. She and her partner stay busy praying for others. If they experience a lull, I will go up to talk, open for whatever prayers they will offer or words they might share.

I don’t have a chance. They steadily move from one person to the next, without a break. What they’re doing is more important than what I’m contemplating. I head out to find my bride.

Post Church Reflections

Candy stands at the welcome center, engaged in conversation. The gift was a coffee cup, which she passed on accepting because we already have too many. I catch the end of their conversation, and we turn to leave. One person welcomes us and adds, “Hope to see you next week.”

I know he won’t, but I don’t say so. Instead I nod to acknowledge I heard him and say, “Thank you.” I know it’s an awkward response, but it’s the best I’ve come up with so that I don’t give them false hope or be rude by saying we won’t be back.

As we drive home, I’m deep in contemplation, but Candy’s thinking about eating, which is usually my post-church priority.

We talk a bit about the prayer time, me with nostalgic longing and her contrasting it to the church we once attended.

There they played music loudly during the prayer time, so intense that we struggled to hear and be heard. Despite our numerous pleas, they never turned the music down. Leadership claimed loud music was most conducive to post-church interaction and the prayer team needed to deal with it.

“They do their prayer time right,” I say. “This is how it should be done.”

Candy agrees. 

“The sermon wasn’t great, but God gave me a lot to think about,” I add. “It will take me a while to process it.”

“I didn’t like it,” she responds. I know my spouse well enough to know she’s done talking about church. We go to Burger King for lunch.

The church offered much but overall came up short of meeting expectations. Maybe I expected too much.

[See the discussion questions for Church 65, read about 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.

Visiting Churches

Church #64: Is Bigger Always Better?

It’s been three months since visiting the last church. We’ve slipped back into the routine of our own church, yet my unrest over going there remains strong.

A Last Minute Change

“Do you want to go to a different church today?” My bride’s words surprise me. She just crawled out of bed and, though awake, she seldom talks to me for the first hour or so each morning. Her unusual behavior grabs my attention.


She tells me the name. I’m familiar with it: a nontypical, nondenominational church with a good amount of positive local buzz. It’s a couple of towns away but not that far of a drive. I’m not interested in going, but I don’t say so. “Why?”

“I’m curious. I drive by it all the time. Also, we know three couples who go there.” She lists them.

I’ve been up for a few hours, moving through my Sunday morning routine of writing, exercise, and Bible study. Well, that’s my routine for every morning, but on Sunday I write next week’s blog posts about the Bible and spirituality, a fitting pre-church focus.

I’m open for a break, any break. Yet I hesitate. Already I feel a pang over not seeing my friends at church. I’m also miffed at her springing this on me at the last minute, or what seems the last minute.

Had I known last night, I would have adjusted my morning schedule so I could better accommodate visiting this church.

“Yes,” I say after a too-long pause, “but how about some other Sunday?” 

Her silence tells me “No.”

“Do you know what time their services are?”

“Nine and eleven.” 

Ah, she’d been thinking about this for a while. “I wish you would have told me sooner. You know I struggle with spur-of-the-moment changes.” If I drop everything and shower, we could barely make the 9:00 a.m. service. The 11:00 a.m. service, however, will give me an extra thirty minutes. “Nine is out. We can do eleven.”

She nods her agreement.

“How long will it take to get there?”

“Thirty minutes will give us enough time.”

Then I remember. “Today is Mother’s Day.

Let’s not go on a special Sunday.” We recount the last two Mother’s Days, both visiting churches (Church #5, Catholics are Christians Too and Church #56, The Reboot).

Those experiences weren’t bad, but their special focus of the day was distracting.

Then Candy reminds me of the church we visited on Father’s Day (Church #10, A Special Father’s Day Message). Agonizing best describes that experience. I shudder at the recollection. But I suspect any Sunday would have been a rough time to visit that church.

She dismisses my concern, and I acquiesce to her suggestion.

Listening Online

Several years ago, a friend who attends church there encouraged me to listen to podcasts of their sermons. Excited for the opportunity, I downloaded the most recent message and listened to it on my iPod a few days later. 

The minister was an engaging teacher, but his topic was most difficult: child pornography. I struggled as I listened, glad for the privacy my earbuds offered. As I recall, he talked about a documentary on this despicable evil.

What I remember too vividly was his description of child pornographers shooting one scene. His details were not explicit, but the situation he depicted vexed me so much that I became ill. The memory of what he described torments me to this day.

That was the only podcast I listened to from this church.

I don’t know the name of that minister or if he’s still there, but the image of this deplorable scene is seared into my mind and firmly associated with this church. Hence, I’m apprehensive about going there.

A 30-Minute Drive

We chat on the drive there, forgetting to pray until we spot their building, “God, be with us at church,” I say in haste. “Amen.”

Two young women, stationed at the entrance to the parking lot, smile and wave as we drive past. What a nice greeting. We pull into the lot, but there is no one to direct traffic.

Some people are still leaving from the first service. I see no open spots. I make a quick turn away from the building and head for what I hope will be available parking spaces.

We park with ease and follow the flow of people to entrance #2. Greeters hold the doors open, giving us inviting smiles and a brochure as we walk into the facility.

A large open area, reminiscent of Church #51 (The Megachurch: A Grand and Welcoming Experience), steals my breath. People move in all directions toward a myriad of options, with no clear flow pointing us to the sanctuary.

My head bobbles, trying in vain to determine the correct direction to head.

A Helpful Greeter

I spot a lady sporting a name tag and wearing a T-shirt that suggests she’s a greeter. Her broad smile beckons me. There’s no point in pretending we know what we’re doing.

“This is overwhelming,” I tell her. “Which way do we go?” 

“That depends what you’re looking for,” she says with a playful jab.

“For the service,” I clarify, trying to smile and not look like an ogre.

She points to her right, and I nod.

“Coffee?” Candy asks.

“Sure,” she smiles and points in the opposite direction. “And the bathrooms are back there,” she gestures to the vast space behind her.

“That’s everything we need to know.” I thank her for her assistance and turn toward the sanctuary, but Candy is already heading for the coffee. I fall in behind her.

There are no baristas to make a custom concoction, but there is an array of air pots with a nice range of self-serve options. She makes her selection and stirs in the desired additives. Now we can go sit down.

In the Round Seating

The worship space is square, with the stage in the center of the room, reminding us of Church #59 (Big, Yet Compelling), though not as huge. It seats a thousand or so. It’s hard to estimate, having just walked in. I could easily be off by 50 percent.

With seating in the round, I try to make a split-second decision of the optimum place to sit. It’s pointless, so we head to some empty chairs. While my goal is to sit quickly and not call attention to myself, Candy usually takes a more deliberate approach to seat selection.

The sound booth is opposite us and a digital clock, I assume to keep the minister on schedule, reveals it’s 11:00. It’s time to start, yet nothing happens.

The Worship Team

The worship team gathers. We spot one of our friends on bass. I count eight on the team: two lead vocalists also on guitars, two backup vocalists, a keyboardist, a drummer, a third guitarist, and our friend on bass guitar.

About five minutes late, with the place now packed, the music swells. With a pleasing rock vibe, they launch into the first song. The worship team faces each other, which means those closest have their backs to us.

They need to do this to get their cues from their leader. It’s disconcerting, but it makes their playing less of a performance and more like the worship service it’s supposed to be.

The words to this unfamiliar song appear on four screens, connected to form a box suspended over the stage.

The angle is too sharp to work well with my bifocals, and I eventually give up trying to sing along, which for me is more akin to mouthing the words, since I don’t know the tune and the timing is irregular.

The second song is unfamiliar too. I fight an uncomfortable self-consciousness for standing there mute while most others are engaged in spirited worship, swaying to the rhythm and raising their hands in praise.

I try to focus on the words as they’re sung, so I can at least worship God in my mind and spirit. I think I’ve heard the third song before, yet not enough that I can sing along.

Eventually I pick up the chorus: “The Resurrected King is resurrecting me.” Thank you, Jesus. (I later discover online that we were singing “Resurrecting” by Elevation Worship.)

Mother’s Day and Ascension Sunday

Not only is today Mother’s Day, it’s also Ascension Sunday. I expect a focus on moms and wonder if Jesus’s ascension into Heaven will receive any mention at all.

Since Jesus returned to Heaven forty days after he resurrected from the dead, that makes the actual day last Thursday, known as Ascension Thursday. For convenience sake, the church calendar moves the acknowledgement to the Sunday after, Ascension Sunday.

Most churches I’ve attended skip this completely, yet some mention it in passing. Today, singing about Jesus’s resurrection is the closest we will get to acknowledging his ascension.

The opening song set concludes and moves into a video about a local homeless outreach, but I miss the explanation as to why they play it. Announcements follow the video and then a prayer for moms.

With a focus on celebrating motherhood, the prayer also admits this day is difficult for some, covering those who want to be moms and can’t, as well as those who were moms and no longer are. The concluding “Amen” wraps up our salute to moms. 

Next they do eight baby dedications, striking the right balance between the dedication and celebrating the child, without dragging it into a too-long ceremony.

The parents make their pledge to take the lead in raising their kids, then the families and friends add their support, and finally the entire congregation stands to acknowledge their role. 

Now we return to their regular schedule. 

Greeting Time and Questions

Since we’re already standing, the greeting time follows. Most people engage with one another. However, only one person gives us any attention, and no one near us seems approachable.

Candy asks me the icebreaker questions posited on the screens, then I reciprocate. We work through all the suggested questions, yet the time grinds on. After visiting so many churches we’re used to the awkwardness of most mid-service greetings, yet they remain agonizing. 


In the middle of a series titled “Heroes,” this church is examining the heroes of faith as summarized in Hebrews 11. Today we address Abel, who gave a better offering to God than his brother, Cain, Genesis 4:1–7

“How are we handling our resources?” the pastor asks. Cain gave some of his produce to God—not the first, not the best, and not extravagantly—just some. Abel gave the best of what he had. And he received God’s favor. 

“What does it mean to have God’s favor?” Our leader guides us to 2 Corinthians 9:6–10 about sowing generously and being a cheerful giver. The Mother’s Day message on Abel morphs into a sermon about giving. “Joyful generosity,” says the minister, “produces generous blessing.”

Then he clarifies that the blessing may not be financial. He shares two recent examples from their church family, in which a commitment to give to God, despite hardship, resulted in financial blessing. Apparently he didn’t have any examples of non-financial blessings to share.

“Cain gives because he is religious. It’s a transaction.” Instead, God wants relationship and isn’t so interested in us “doing stuff,” he explains. 

Alter Call of Sorts

At this point he slides into an altar call of sorts, but instead of coming forward, people should make a note of their decision on the connection card or go to the “Getting Started” area after the service.

He drones on, and I soon tune him out, conditioned to do so a long time ago during a five-year stint at an ultraconservative Baptist church. I shudder at the memory. 

Next they take the offering, a traditional passing of the plates in this otherwise not-so-traditional setting. Guests are exempt from giving. A closing song concludes the service.

We chat briefly with our bass-playing friend, and then he heads off to spend time with his mom. Not spotting any of our other friends and with no one approaching us or appearing approachable, we head out.

The Debrief

On the way home we debrief. “It was a nice break,” I tell Candy. “The music was definitely better than we’re used to.” The sermon also gives me something to think about.

In addition to the teaching about the Bible (which we normally have), I also received encouragement and application (which we normally don’t have).

Candy agrees about the music. “But I wouldn’t want a steady diet of it.” That ends our discussion.

Aside from the people assigned to welcome our arrival and our friend we talked to afterward, we only had the briefest interaction with one other person, which happened during the obligatory greeting time. 

As a big church, they offer excellence in their teaching and music, with an array of programs and service opportunities. However, they struggle to offer community and connection. Such is the case in most large churches. I still wonder if bigger is always better.

I leave spiritually filled and emotionally hungry. 

[See the discussion questions for Church 64, read about Church 63, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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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.

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