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Visiting Churches

Advent Service: Discussion Questions for Church #59

One of the area’s megachurches has intrigued me for years. I once wanted to be part of it. Now I’m not sure. Our first visit came several years ago, long before the original 52 Churches project. Now we return for a fresh look. It’s Advent and they have an Advent service.

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church 59.

As we drive to their facility, I pray for our time there, what we will learn, and what God wants to teach us. Do we remember to pray before church? What is the focus of our prayers?

An usher hands me a bulletin. This isn’t an usher-and-bulletin church. The paper states “Advent Liturgy.” This certainly isn’t a liturgical congregation. How can we engage in a service if it’s different than what we expect?

The subdued playing lacks the excitement I anticipated. They teach us a song in Latin. The timing befuddles me. The words perplex me. When the music doesn’t click, how can we push through and worship God anyway?

I assume the liturgy, restrained playing, and song are something different they’re doing for Advent: changing the familiar into something with a mystical aura. What can we do to breathe freshness into our adoration of Jesus?

During the greeting time we have brief interactions with those sitting around us. But, unable to move, we then stand writhing in awkward isolation while conversations abound around us. How can we best greet those who need it most?

I suspect this Sunday’s teaching is typical and the rest of the service is not. Somber music pulls me down, while liturgy pushes me away. I must work to embrace all forms of worship. How can we help people overcome barriers to encountering God?

“I loved the teaching,” I tell Candy, “but I don’t have the energy to try to plug into a large church.” How can we help people plug into our church without making them work too hard?

[Read about Church 59 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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

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

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Visiting Churches

Church #59: Big, Yet Compelling 

One of the area’s megachurches has intrigued me for years. At one time I was a regular podcast consumer of their weekly messages, which usually featured their founding pastor. A gifted communicator, he conveyed truth with a fresh voice and looked at spirituality from new vantage points.

His perspectives moved me toward the spiritual more that I sought and helped satiate the angst in my soul. At the same time, he opened the door to more questions, good questions. Questions that pointed me to a more holistic pursuit of the God revealed in the Bible.

I longed to attend this church and experience him in person. Our first opportunity to visit came several years ago—long before the original 52 Churches project.

Arriving For Our First Visit

We were out of town and planned our return trip to put us in the right place, at the right time for their second Sunday service. We got up early, grabbed a fast food breakfast, and hopped on the highway.

The balmy spring day, coupled with expectation for what awaited, bolstered my anticipation as the miles ticked off. As we neared our destination, my exuberance, however, yielded to worry.

The drive was taking too long. We’re going to be late! Unexpected Sunday morning traffic didn’t help.

After pushing the speed limit for the last forty-five minutes, we pulled into their parking lot five minutes early. I sighed, relieved it would all work out. But the packed parking lot didn’t have a single open slot.

Frustration mounted as I drove around, praying to find a spot as precious seconds ticked away. At last I saw someone head to their car, departing late from the first service. I drove to their spot, slipping into it as they left.

Relief replaced frustration.

Still, we had a long walk to the building. We strode with purpose to the nearest entrance. The parking lot overwhelmed me, but inside the building my understanding of overwhelmed was redefined. The throng of people pulsated in all directions, providing a maze I could barely navigate.

The church occupied an old mall, with our entrance far from our intended destination. I pushed onward—with my bride in tow—weaving my way between the press of people. Some flowed with me, but most had other intents. 

Eventually the passageway opened, providing three options, with none more obvious than the others. The service should be starting now. My heart thumped. Which direction should we head? I spotted an information booth and knew my answer was nearby.

“Where’s the sanctuary?” Panting and in a rush, I surely wasn’t the friendliest of people.

The woman smiled and gave me a calm, reassuring look. “Is this your first time here?” She wanted to engage me in conversation, something I’d have welcomed if there had been more time.

I nodded, gasping for air. “Where’s the sanctuary?” I knew I was being rude and that the young lady had valuable information to share, but right then I had a different goal.

I think she now understood my time crunch. “That way.” She pointed to her right.

Still trying to catch my breath, I nodded again, able to squeeze out a whispery “thank you” as I spun around and hurried off.

“Feel free to stop by after the service.” Her words chased me as I sped off. I nodded again, fully intending to, but I never did.

The Service

The sanctuary, occupying the former space of the mall’s anchor store, opened before us. I gasped at the enormity of the room, overwhelmed for the third time since our arrival.

I remember no details about the service, only that the music and message were even more than I hoped they would be.

The History

Since that time, the founding pastor left. From what I can piece together, his departure was a combination of controversy, dissention, burnout, and disillusionment.

Thankfully, there was no misconduct or impropriety on his part. It was just people being the flawed vessels that we are, which caused him to leave.

I persisted in listening to the weekly podcasts, learning to embrace the teaching pastor who replaced him. The new pastor was good, too, but in a different way. I enjoyed his messages and learned directly applicable insight.

This, however, was a short-term arrangement, for the new pastor resigned after the board revised his job description. Unwilling to follow this church through another transition, I stopped listening to the podcasts, even though the newest guy was quite good.

Now we have a chance to visit again. This time, we plan to arrive extra early.

The allure this church once had on me is now gone, but I’m still excited to make a return trip. Contrary to what I once thought, however, I now doubt this could become our church home. The pull is gone, the congregation is too large, and it’s not that close to our house.

The rumor is that attendance dropped significantly since our last visit, while other sources claim that’s an exaggeration. Soon we’ll find out.

Our Second Visit

As we drive, I pray for our time there, what we will learn, and what God wants to teach us. I know where they’re located and drive to the spot. Even so, alarm surges through me when I don’t see their sign. My impulse is to flee, but Candy would never stand for that. I must press on. 

There is plenty of room in the parking lot, supporting the claim of lost members. However, this time we approached the building from the other direction. The other side of the parking lot could be fuller. From what I can see, it is.

The building boasts signs for the other tenants but not one for the church. Which entrance do we try? Then I spot their logo over one set of doors—no name, just a logo. People flow in that direction. We join them.

Last time I picked the farthest entrance and worst place to park. This time I found the best entrance and a convenient place to park. This time our approach is quite different. My anticipation builds. 

Inside, people from the first service mingle, some sharing coffee and bagels, others enjoying prolonged conversations. This corridor is wide and easy to navigate. Ahead unfolds the sanctuary, and I don’t even need to look for the information booth.

What overwhelmed me last time, now unfolds with ease. Am I that different now or has the church changed that much? I suspect the answer lies within me. My perception has changed the most.

At the doors to the sanctuary, a man hands me a paper. I don’t remember anyone passing out bulletins last time. This doesn’t seem like an usher-and-bulletin type of church. “You’ll need this for the service,” the guy says with a smile. I wonder why and glance at it.

It’s labeled “Advent Liturgy.” Now I’m really confused. This certainly doesn’t seem like a liturgical church that follows a printed liturgy.

We move into the sanctuary, a large square room. With in-the-round seating, chairs aligned in sections, 360 degrees around the center stage, there is no apparent front. The few times I’ve experienced this configuration, the result was satisfying, though not ideal.

Sometimes the speaker faces you and other times you see their back. I look around for cameras, suspecting to be able to watch a front-on view on screens. I see no cameras, but there are four screens, configured as a box and suspended over the stage.

The room capacity is too massive to even try to estimate, so I’ll simply say it seats thousands. Attendance is sparse when we arrive early. It’s about 95 percent full when the service starts.

Sixteen pillars support the beams that in turn support the roof. Each of the pillars is wrapped in evergreen-like garland and strings of white Christmas lights. It gives a festive feel in a smartly understated way. The only other holiday accessory is a display with the five Christmas candles.

There is no gaudy glitz or overproduced Christmas display here to assault us. This conforms nicely to the minimalist feel of the entire room: open ceiling painted black, block walls painted beige, and the sixteen pillars. A stained-glass display on one wall is the only artwork.

The tables and stations around the stage suggest we’ll have Communion. The peace of God fills me.

A worship team of seven gathers on the stage, hinting that the service is about to start. As they scatter to their positions, I’m dismayed that most will have their backs to me, though I will have a side view of the worship leader. He also plays guitar.

Rounding out the ensemble is another guitarist, a bass guitarist, a drummer (who’s sequestered out of view on the opposite side of the stage), a keyboardist (who breaks out an accordion for one song), and two backup vocalists.

Liturgy

We open with part one of the liturgy, “Gathering God’s People,” followed by the opening song. Their subdued playing lacks the excitement I anticipated. Then they teach us a song, complete with Latin words. Candy knows it, having learned it in Elementary School.

It’s a simple song, but the timing befuddles me, and the words perplex me. This reminds me of criticism once levied against the Catholic Church for conducting Mass in Latin. The people learned to participate but had no idea what they were saying. So it is with me and this irritating little ditty. 

I assume the song, along with the restrained playing and liturgy, is something different they’re doing for Advent: changing what is familiar into something with a mystical aura to highlight the significance of the season.

I appreciate the intent of the liturgy, but for me it falls short of what I expected and leaves me wanting.

Next is part two of the liturgy, “Responding to God’s Presence,” with a canticle (responsive reading), lighting the next Advent candle, more singing, and a liturgical prayer, which employs much repetition, apparently for emphasis.

Then we recite the Lord’s Prayer in unison, followed by a time of greeting. We have brief interactions with those sitting around us and then, unable to move from our seats, we stand there writhing in awkward isolation.

Following this is “Encountering God’s Word,” part three of the liturgy. I suspect that for each Sunday in Advent they examine a different gospel account of Jesus’s birth. Today we read part of Matthew 1. After reciting a prayer for understanding, we listen to the message.

Sermon

The teaching is a real treat. The speaker communicates like few others. With an easy-to-listen-to style, he offers a fresh perspective in a most engaging manner. Enthralling is the best word to describe the experience.

Though I occasionally hear ministers whose message I really appreciate, this one takes things to a higher level. He artfully draws parallels between the birth of Jesus and the birth of Moses. I’m engaged, inspired, and encouraged.

As he expounds on the text and details the striking parallels between Moses and Jesus, he also throws in some notable one-liners:

  • “Religious people like rules. Jesus was most critical with religious people,”
  • “The Bible is more like a family album than a rule book,” and
  • “Denominations are involved in verse wars.” For a final parallel between Moses and Jesus, he connects the Passover celebration with Communion:
  • “Come to the table, and eat what is free.”

Communion

People flow forward to partake in communion, using the intinction method: dipping the bread into the juice.

With multiple stations to choose from, which present options, some gather in groups around self-serve tables and others approach solitary stands for a private encounter, while the rest go to pairs of people who offer the elements in a more personal manner. 

Without intent or discussion, Candy and I veer toward a couple who reverently hold the elements. “The body of Christ, broken for you,” smiles the lady as I take the unleavened cracker.

“And for you,” I nod.

Moving to her partner, he says, “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.” I nod in silence as I wait for Candy to join me. 

We dip our crackers together. “Jesus died for you,” I tell her. Then we eat the symbolic meal as we gaze into each other’s eyes, mindful of Jesus’s awesome love for us. As we do this, music plays and people sing along, with the words displayed overhead.

The music is soft and calm, with a holy reverence permeating the place. 

More Liturgy

The liturgy calls for lighting candles as we sing, but they’ll skip this step today. The minister quips something about fire codes and problems last Sunday. People laugh with understanding. I wish I’d been there to witness what happened.

The final part of the liturgy is “Sending God’s People.” We recite a written prayer and the minister dismisses us.

Heading Out

Candy and I gather our things slowly, hoping for a chance to interact with someone, anyone. To my dismay, all those around us focus on other things. I can’t catch anyone’s attention. We are invisible. We put on our coats with deliberate slowness and drift toward an exit.

Then the woman who served us communion approaches Candy. She introduces herself. Now Candy recognizes her. Their paths occasionally crossed years ago in the city where we used to live and where she still does.

She gladly makes an hour-plus drive every Sunday to attend this church. She’s done so for years because of the sermons. If today’s message is any indication, I understand.

Concluding Discussion

I suspect this Sunday’s teaching was typical and the rest of the service—full of liturgy—was not.

While appreciative for the words I heard, I’m dismayed that we didn’t experience one of their normal services. Somber music pulls me down, while liturgy pushes me away, both things I need to work on overcoming. It took the message to fully engage me.

On the drive home we share our thoughts. “I loved the teaching,” I tell Candy, “but I don’t have the energy to try to plug into a large church.”

“That’s what small groups are for,” she says, reminding me what we’ve discussed before.

“I don’t think I even have the energy for that.” I pause as I try to process the disconnect of my emotions. “But the message was really, really great.”

[See the discussion questions for Church 59, read about Church 58, Church 60, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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

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

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Visiting Churches

Church Format and Size Matters

In general, we found smaller churches offered more opportunity to make connections. We also discovered that most liturgical churches weren’t very friendly.

Consider these two discussion questions about church format and size: 

1. Churches have characteristics that often relate to their size. 

How can you tap the strengths of your church’s size and counter its weaknesses to better connect with others?

2. Regarding church format, the format of a church’s service and the practices of members also impact the likelihood of embracing visitors. 

Given your church’s characteristics in these areas, what changes should you embrace to better welcome guests?

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

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

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

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Visiting Churches

A Welcoming Church with Much to Offer

Located in a building with shared tenant space, this church has an inviting location, easily accessible, with nearby parking. They are a most welcoming church.

Consider these four discussion questions about Church #43

1. With little room to mingle, we sit down. Several people come over to greet us. They give a heartfelt thanks for visiting and invite us back. 

How can you engage with people who sit in silence waiting for the service to begin?

2. We’ve identified two key elements that make us feel truly welcomed at churches. One is sharing names, and the other is making a connection. Any attempt works, provided it doesn’t become an interrogation. 

How can you do better at connecting with others?

3. Their multipage bulletin contains their liturgy, but I get my pages out of order and later joke about my ineptitude to an elderly man. “We have to get a projector to display the words,” he says. “I’ve wanted this for years.” 

How can technology make your service more accessible?

4. Except for the prayer and message, the members handle the service. 

How much of your service do leaders handle and how much do members take care of? What can you do to allow for more participation?

This was a welcoming church with much to offer. I especially like how involved the congregation is and their sense of ownership in the service. I anticipate that a great future awaits them.

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

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

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

Categories
Visiting Churches

People Make the Difference

The newer building doesn’t look like a typical church. The sanctuary is open and inviting, with a comfortable feel. But what we will soon learn is that people make the difference.

Consider these four discussion questions about Church #41

1. “Hi, are you the DeHaans?” The usher’s question surprises me. Either he looked up Candy’s picture online or he assumed the new people matched the name in her email. Though this might be off-putting to some, the extra effort impresses me. 

How can you honor a visitor (without going too far)?

2. The area is in a flu epidemic. The minister gives us permission to avoid hugs and handshakes. He suggests an “elbow bump,” which I’m happy to do, but most people don’t follow his suggestion. 

How easy is it to adjust your normal practices when there’s a good reason to do so?

3. Bits of liturgy occur throughout the service. The words, printed in their oversized bulletins, also appear overhead. I so appreciate this. 

How can you help people better participate in your service?

4. Afterward we enjoy an engaging conversation with a lady as we share our faith journeys. Only later do we learn she’s visiting too. 

What does it say about you and your church when it’s visitors who connect with other visitors? What must change?

Our key memory from this church is that the people make the difference in our experience.

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

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

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

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Visiting Churches

Commitment Sunday and Celebration

Discussing Church 32

This church has been homeless for a while, but they moved into their own space last week. Today they celebrate God’s faithfulness on a trying journey with their annual commitment Sunday.

Consider these four discussion questions about Church #32

1. We arrive to learn that it’s commitment Sunday for them, with contribution pledges sought for the upcoming year. The woman who explains this is embarrassed that our first visit falls on their annual plea for money. 

When you ask for money, how can you help visitors feel welcomed and not obligated?

2. When their minister learns we’re not used to liturgical services, she introduces us to someone who can guide us. He takes his job seriously and performs it admirably. 

How can you apply this visitor-friendly gesture to your church services?

3. The guest speaker says, “Bigger is no longer better in the church world,” and “Smaller is where the work will be done.” He’s so right. 

What is your attitude toward church size? Does something need to change?

4. Afterward is a brunch to celebrate God’s provision and praise him. “We don’t want to intrude on your celebration,” I say to one lady. Her response removes all doubt, “You are one of the reasons we’re celebrating.” 

How well do you celebrate visitors?

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

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

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

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Visiting Churches

An Intriguing Liturgical Church

Discussing Church 28

We learn of this church when we spot their name in a local paper’s church directory. Still, we struggle to confirm their meeting time. We expect to experience a liturgical church service.

Consider these four discussion questions about Church #28:

1. We walk inside and a lady shares some basic information about the liturgy for today’s service. Without her help, we’d have been lost. 

Whether you’re a liturgical church or not, how can you help people better navigate your service?

2. During the sermon the minister forewarns us we will greet each other later with a holy kiss. Though there’s only a handful of people, they’re all strangers. This is the creepiest of practices. 

What does your church do that may cause people to squirm? (And before you say nothing, think harder.)

3. After the service they invite us to stay for fellowship. A neighbor and her dog join us. Though she missed the service, she’s welcomed anyway. 

How do you feel about people skipping church and showing up afterward to hang out?

4. Even though it was hard to participate, some of this church’s strange worship traditions fascinate me. 

Do your church practices and worship intrigue others or push them away? How can you make your liturgical church service more accessible?

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

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

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

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Visiting Churches

Revisiting Roman Catholicism

Discussing Church 18

Today we visit our second Roman Catholic Church. I’m excited—and nervous. We are revisiting Roman Catholicism

Consider these four discussion questions about Church #18:

1. The large sanctuary is grand without being ostentatious. Contemporary and airy, it seats several hundred. It’s the largest we’ve seen so far. 

Does your building facilitate worship or limit it? What needs to change?

2. This Catholic Church seems even more steeped in ritual than Church #5. While they announce hymns, the rest of the liturgy proceeds without direction. We think we’re prepared, but we aren’t. 

How can you help people better engage in your worship service?

3. After the Eucharist is a ritual where we exchange the greeting “Peace be with you” to those around us. This is the only interaction we have with anyone the entire morning. The priest dismisses us, and the people scatter. 

What can you do to interact with people at your church and foster community?

4. I leave feeling empty. Though their traditions have meaning to those who understand them, it’s a roadblock to visitors. 

What can you do to help outsiders better follow your church’s practices and not walk away empty?

Overall, I’m glad we spent Sunday morning revisiting Roman Catholicism.

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

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

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

Categories
Visiting Churches

Reflecting on Church #18: More Liturgy, More Struggles

Liturgical Church Services

With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #18.

We’ve now been to three churches with liturgical services (Church #5, 17, and 18), two of them Roman Catholic. I’ve struggled with the liturgy at all three.

I’m quite sure God is present, but we don’t connect. I could blame the church, the priest, or their tradition, but it’s no one’s fault but my own.

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

I appreciate that others are drawn to the tradition and find comfort in the ritual. I’m glad for them, but the rhythm of this practice evades me. I’m yet to find spiritual significance in liturgical services, but I’m willing to continue working at it.

Another struggle, a more critical concern is that the people arrive silently, worship subtly, and exit quickly. Without interaction, connection, or community, I leave feeling alone and isolated.

The ritual and rhythm of Catholic practices intrigue me, but the impersonal nature of their gathering discourages me.

May my worship be sincere and true, regardless of the style of church service. Click To Tweet

God, may I learn how to connect with you in all settings and circumstances, including liturgical services. May my worship be sincere and true, regardless of the style of church service.

[See my reflections about Church #17 and Church #19 or start with Church #1.]

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

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

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Visiting Churches

Reflecting on Church #17: Learning to Embrace Liturgy

A High Church Experience

With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #17.

This high church experience gave me much to contemplate about worshiping God in a more formal, liturgical manner. In contrast, most all of my church experiences have not been high church experiences, but low church, with little liturgy.

Although he was addressing prayer, I recall Jesus’ warning against “vain repetition” (Matthew 6:7 KJV). Part of me rebels against this churches rote practices. The liturgy, the solemn ritual, and the prescribed responses all fit my understanding of “vain repetition.”

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

I want nothing to do with a routine, mechanical connection to God. I desire a Spirit-led directness: organic, passionate, and real.

Yet at the same time, there’s a certain rhythm to grasp—and to embrace. Though allure of liturgy eludes me right now, I want to pursue it, not as a regular spiritual practice but as a refreshing break from my normal non-liturgical connection with God.

Liturgy can expand our relationship to God. Click To Tweet

Liturgy can expand my relationship to God, my connection, if only I can learn how to comprehend it. This is something I need to push through and explore further so that one day I can embrace it more fully.

[See my reflections about Church #16 and Church #18 or start with Church #1.]

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

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