Categories
Visiting Churches

The Church with Good Music

Waiting for the Service to Start

I volunteer at a budget program where I teach classes and encourage people to manage their finances, unlearn bad money-handling habits, and dig out of debt. It’s a biblically based program, and it meets at a local church, which is also today’s destination.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

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

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

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

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

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

Anticipation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extra Time to Wait

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

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

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

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

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

With coffee now in my bride’s hand, we have nothing else to do, so we head toward the sanctuary. With every chair empty, the usher encourages us to wait. “Most people don’t come in until after the service starts,” he says with a smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music Prelude and Worship

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greeting Awkwardness

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

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

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

Communion Clarity

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

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

Never have I had Communion at a church I visited when I fully knew what to expect, how I fit in, what to do, and when I should do it. Without uncertainty getting in my way, I’m able to contemplate Jesus’s amazing gift to us as I partake in this ritual he started two thousand years ago.

Two Offerings

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

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

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

Getting to Know God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Church Connection

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

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

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

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

In the narthex, one of their worship team members introduces himself. He works with our son-in-law. We talk at length, connecting, meeting his family, and learning about his journey. Our conversation is even better than the church service.

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

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

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

Our Debrief: the Music Was Good

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

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

The next day our daughter shares more: the music was good, but not as good as our former church. I’m resigned to not being able to find music that matches that church; perhaps our former church doesn’t even align with our memories of our time there.

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

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

Takeaway

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

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


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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

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

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

Categories
Visiting Churches

The Closest Church

Warm Inside

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

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

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

As we move forward, I wonder if we’ll add other congregations to our lists of contenders or if visiting more churches will merely delay her selection. I promised that she could pick our next church. I wonder if she already has and is keeping it from me.

The Importance of Christian Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold Outside

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

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

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

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

With the frigid temperature and a much lower wind chill of up to -30 °F (-34 °C), we walk briskly and take shallow breaths so we don’t freeze our lungs. The cloudless sky treats us to a bright sunshine, trying to trick us into thinking the day is more pleasant than it is.

A Warm Welcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The area is essentially cube-shaped, with white walls. It reminds us of some of the United Methodist churches we’ve visited in the past. Here, offsetting the plain white walls, is too much stained wood trim and some gold-colored embellishments, which strike me as pretentious.

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

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

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

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

Worship Time and More

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

When he moves, the pianist switches over to a keyboard. There’s also a drummer and a backup guitarist, who plays various stringed instruments. A trio of background vocalists round out their light pop sound as we sing contemporary songs and choruses.

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

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

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

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

The Message

The minister has a slight accent, Dutch I assume. At first, I need to focus to catch what he says, but after a few minutes, I no longer notice. This is because of the easy flow of his words, his engaging nature, and the value in what he shares. I immediately like him.

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

Next Sunday will feature Holy Communion. He reads a preparatory text to focus our thoughts on that event and the meaning behind it. Then we have a responsive reading of the Ten Commandments, followed by reciting the Apostles’ Creed in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Points

There are two keys to this understanding.

First, we must be united (Matthew 16:18). Second, we must be holy (1 Peter 2:9), The minister defines holy as “set apart” and “associated with God”. I appreciate this definition of holy, as it helps me perceive it as something I can grasp as opposed to something unattainable.

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

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

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

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

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

Connection Time

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

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

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

I’m pleasantly surprised to spot a neighbor and we talk at length. For years they attended another church, one quite different from this one, but have been coming here for the past few months. He also points out another one of our neighbors I haven’t yet met.

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

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

“Why?” I ask.

He shrugs.

Our time together is great, really great. His wife comes up, and we talk as well. Though I want our interaction to continue, their kids grow antsy. I suspect Mom and Dad are ready to leave. I thank them for our conversation and wish them a great rest of the day.

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

For years I’ve longed to attend church in my neighborhood with my neighbors, to share Christian community in my community. This church, our closest church, offers that. Coupled with a great sermon, I add this congregation to my list of contenders.

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

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

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

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

Takeaway

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?

Categories
Visiting Churches

The Rural Congregation

A Country Fresh Church

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

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

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Focus on Jesus

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

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

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

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

On the drive there we’re soon talking about what we might do the rest of the day, as if church is a prerequisite for what will follow. We’re losing focus. “Who wants to pray for church?” Our son begins and I finish. My words aren’t much different from what I typically ask, but the “Amen” possesses enhanced expectation. I share what I learned from their website, interspersed with speculation. We discuss the church for a while. We’re primed for the experience by the time we arrive.

A Country Fresh Church

Right off a main street, they’re easy to find. We pull into their parking lot to a bustle of activity. With two services, we arrive ten minutes early for the second one. We pick a space in a small parking lot in the front as we spot the drive to a larger one in back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Based on the building style, I suspect this part is about fifty years old. The cement block walls frame windows with rectangular panels of stained glass. They boast a rainbow of vibrant color on each side. Overhead, an understated cathedral ceiling provides an open feel.

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

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

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

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

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

Making a Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worship Time

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

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

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

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

After the opening song, we have a greeting time. The people do well at greeting, but they don’t excel at it—few churches do. Smiles and handshakes abound, but we don’t connect. There’s not enough time to talk. Perhaps the people know this and therefore don’t try.

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

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

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

Let It Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winding Down and Wrapping Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you see yourself getting connected there?”

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

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

Takeaway

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


Returning to The Rural Church

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

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

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

Down on Denominations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another concern is that the cost to support the denominational structure siphons off money from local congregations and local needs to support a machine that seeks to control what happens at the local level. For what it costs, they add little to the cause of Jesus.

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

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

Five Requirements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full of expectation, perhaps too much, we hop in our car and head off, saying a prayer as we go. The trip, at 6.2 miles, is quick. Once we leave our subdivision, we head straight south, encountering minimal traffic, just two stop signs, and making no turns. It takes eight minutes.

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

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

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

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

It’s wonderful to see someone we know before we even get inside. We talk for a few minutes and then head for the entrance. We encounter the same mass of people as last time, though this time a few of them say “Hi” or nod a greeting. I don’t see our son and daughter-in-law.

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

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

Music and More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set politics aside. Put God first.

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

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

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

Dealing with Fear

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

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

The pastor shares, at length, his own journey of failures, of risks taken and risks avoided. Last time he also used personal anecdotes to introduce the message. I still remember what he shared then. I wonder if self-disclosure is his normal practice.

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

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

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

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

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

Despite the song leader, the overall result is pleasing. All the songs were great. I expect they’ll reverberate in my mind for the next several days. The instrumentation added to the experience, but the vocals were the weak link. Hopefully, he just had an off day.

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

The After Party

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

When I return, the senior pastor is talking with the rest of my family. He greets me by name. I assume someone prompted him, but they didn’t. He also remembers Candy’s name and where our son and daughter-in-law are building their house, noting it’s near completion.

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

We debrief at lunch.

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

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

The thing that most endears me to this church is their after-church interaction at our first visit. Then, the pastor told the congregation to spend their first three minutes after the service getting to know someone new. They did, and we benefited. I assumed this was their norm.

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

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

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

Return Visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconnecting at Last

As we move forward into the sanctuary, one woman approaches us with intention. We met her and her husband on our first visit and we enjoyed getting to know them. They were also the couple we were surprised to see at our visit to another church.

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

“Janet,” she says.

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

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

“And we’ve always gone to the second one. I’m glad we could see you today.” Her husband stands nearby but talks with another group. She and I struggle over what to say. Even though Candy joins us, our words remain awkward as we grapple with conversation.

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

Moving into Worship

The countdown timer says 4:12, but I doubt they’ll start then. But with a minute remaining the worship team gathers on stage to pray, and when the time hits zero, the music begins. The associate pastor, flanked by eight others—musicians and vocalists—leads us in song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Newcomer Picnic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Uncomfortable Request

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have much to contemplate.

Takeaway

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

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


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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

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

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

Categories
Visiting Churches

The Outlier Congregation

New Approaches for an Old Denomination

It’s a holiday weekend. Our son and daughter-in-law are out of town, so we’re free agents. A return trip to the Megachurch is in order, but our daughter invites us to go to a church she and her husband have visited the past couple of weeks. A friend from college invited her.

The Megachurch can wait.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

This church, part of an old traditional denomination, has two services: 9:15 and 11:00. We’ll go to the first one. I check their website and am encouraged to read the bold proclamation: “Making passionate followers of Jesus.” This must be their vision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we find the church easily enough.

Larger Than Expected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They have a typical time for greeting. Though the people are nice as we shake hands, it’s cursory, consisting of pleasant smiles and lacking connection. Aside from our family and hosts, this is the only time all morning we interact with anyone else.

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

An Outlier Church for Their Denomination

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

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

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

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

The Church in Laodicea

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

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

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

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

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

I notice a Celtic cross on the side of the sanctuary and ask about its significance, but no one knows. As I recall, the circle that surrounds the intersection of the cross’s two arms represents unity or eternity, two concepts I embrace: unity while on earth, followed by eternity in heaven.

Different Perspectives

Later, I talk with my son-in-law about the church. He likes it but wants something more contemporary, more like the church we went to before we moved. I agree with him and then wonder aloud if this might be the closest we’ll find in this more traditional area.

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

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

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

I tell Candy I could see myself going back.

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

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

She snorts. “I sure hope not.”

Takeaway

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

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


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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

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

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

Categories
Visiting Churches

The Portable Church

A Different Approach

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

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

Now, each Sunday morning, we all hop in the car and head to church. It’s a nondenominational gathering, about ten years old. The congregation includes people of all ages, though it skews toward young families. Notably, the church doesn’t own a building.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Rented Space

It rents space for their Sunday service, meeting in a well-known banquet hall. I like that they aren’t spending money on a mortgage and building maintenance for a facility used only a few hours each week. This frees up funds to help people in need and reach out to the community.

This modern, well-maintained facility is easy to get to, with ample parking near the door. Though designed as a banquet hall and conference center, it adapts nicely for church, with a large meeting space for the service and other areas for children’s activities.

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

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

A trailer specifically designed for this purpose transports these items on Sunday and stores them between services. Though set up and tear down have many steps, transforming the space and then returning it to its default condition goes quickly with many volunteers.

A Friendly Church

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

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

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

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

Easing into the Service

To start the service, the worship team sings an opening song. They never display the lyrics so we can’t sing or even follow along unless we know the words. Most of the regulars treat this first song with indifference, continuing their conversations.

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

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

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

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

The Mid-Service Welcome

At some point, a staff person gives announcements, and then a greeting time follows. They do well at welcoming one another, certainly better than most churches. But most conversations are brief, as the number of people greeted takes precedence over the depth of conversation: quantity trumps quality.

About a half hour into the service, the minister stands for the first time, signaling a transition into the message. With a charismatic presence, this thirty-something pastor exudes confidence with an easygoing smile and approachable demeanor.

A peer of the congregation’s largest demographic, he greets attendees and then prays before teaching. Sometimes he starts his message with an anecdote, while other times he opens by reading the Scripture text after a brief introduction. Words appear on the large screen overhead as he reads the passage.

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

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

The Wrap Up

Afterward, most people stay and mingle. Longer conversations happen, and connections can occur. Donuts and beverages are available to entice people to stay and talk. But there are no tables or places to sit, so interaction must occur while standing.

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

This is an easy church to attend, but I don’t get a sense of spiritual depth or feel commitment from most of the people. I could easily amass acquaintances here, but friendships would require work. Though I’m open to attending this church, I don’t think it’s the one my wife will pick.

Takeaway

Seek to form genuine friendships and not merely make acquaintances.

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


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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

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

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

Categories
Visiting Churches

Discussion Questions on How to Be an Engaging Church

The experiences I share in this book are my experiences. Others may have different observations. I’m an introvert, as is a slight majority of people. Even so, I doubt my reactions are unique to me or even to other introverts. 

Consider these fifthteen discussion questions about How to Be an Engaging Church.

1. Whether introvert or extrovert, I’ve never talked with anyone who claimed they could visit a new church without some degree of anxiety.

How can the knowledge that visitors carry some unease better inform our interactions with them?

2. In visiting churches, I had a most supportive wife at my side. With her, I stood much braver than I would have on my own.

Who can we invite to go with us on our spiritual journeys?

3. Visiting a church alone is even harder than going with a friend. It’s easy to see why someone with even the best intentions of visiting will stay home.

Who can we invite to go to church with us?

4. People hold to the Sunday schedule they know—whether staying home or attending church. Maintaining our norm is easier than trying something new.

What do we need to change in our Sunday routine?

5. Churches that want to grow must do everything possible to make it less scary for a visitor to show up. Being welcoming is a start, but there’s more. Churches must be likeable, even irresistible.

How can we become irresistible people? 

Tip 1: Make it Easy for Visitors

Most people today go online to find information about a church they’re thinking of visiting. Therefore, having an attractive, up-to-date, and visitor-friendly website is essential. Don’t make them search. They don’t have much patience.

6. Some churches forego a website and try social media instead. But social media platforms can change their rules, restrict access, and even shut us down.

What impact would our church feel if we lost our social media presence?

7. Our website must be attractive, be easy to navigate, and follow best practices. It needs a makeover every few years to not look dated.

What can we do to improve our church’s website? 

8. Make it easy for prospective visitors to contact our church with questions. This means listing a phone number and email address. Respond quickly to both. Most churches don’t.

How can we help our church be more responsive to visitor questions?

Tip 2: Create a Great Impression

When a visitor arrives at church, create a great first impression, building on their perception that began with our website. A website may encourage a person to visit a church, but it takes a personal connection to turn one-time visitors into returnees. 

9. Some large churches have parking lot attendants to direct traffic and forward-thinking smaller churches have greeters in their parking lot to welcome visitors and answer questions.

What impression does our church make before people enter the building? 

10. Greet visitors at the building entrance with a smile, welcome them, and open the door. Greeters should focus on people they don’t recognize.

Whether we’re an official greeter or not, what can we do to better welcome visitors?

11. A positive welcome extends inside the building. Regardless of church size, seek ways to assist those who look confused.

What can we do to rescue a visitor who looks lonely or lost?

Tip 3: Greet Well

As mentioned in 52 Churches, there are three opportunities to greet visitors: before the service, during the service, and after the service. Few churches do all three well and too many fail at each one.

12. Pre-service greetings can occur in the parking lot, at the front door, and inside the facility. In addition to official greeters, everyone should take part.

Regardless of how outgoing we are, what can we do to interact with visitors?

13. If there’s a greeting during the service, we must be visitor-focused, not friend-focused. Make eye contact, smile, and offer a handshake. Share our name. Ask theirs. Now introduce them to someone else.

How can we better embrace visitors during the greeting time? 

14. The final greeting occurs after the service. Before visitors scoot out, talk to them. Just be friendly. Seek a connection. Invite them to stay for any after-church activity.

How can we better connect with visitors after the service?

Engaging Church Summary

To grow, a church should engage with visitors. This starts with online information, helping them to decide to visit. It continues by making multiple good impressions when they arrive.

It culminates with greeting them successfully before, during, and after the service.

15. Churches won’t succeed in each area every time, but we should work to succeed in as many as possible, as often as possible.

What can we do to be more engaging as a church? As individuals?

[Read How to Be an Engaging Church, 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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Impressions

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.

Categories
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.

Demographics

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.

Categories
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.

“Where?”

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. 

Heroes

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.]

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.