Visiting Churches

Church #72: Respected and Esteemed

In addition to these three remaining churches on my spreadsheet is my mental list of four more. 

The first of these churches is the Salvation Army. Most people know the Salvation Army for their red donation kettles at Christmastime.

Beyond that, they focus on the needs of the homeless and provide disaster relief and humanitarian aid throughout the year. But they’re also a church. Few people know this. I’d like to experience one of their services. 

The Salvation Army is an organization I think highly of. I suspect everyone does.

Though I’ve heard people complain about various streams of Christianity and even more so Protestant denominations and specific churches, I’ve yet to hear any negativity about the Salvation Army.

The closest thing I’ve heard to a complaint is people who wish they wouldn’t ring their bells quite so much at their donation kettles during Christmas. But that’s hardly a criticism of their organization.

Instead, people respect the Salvation Army for the positive impact they make in their community and around the world. Their practical service to those in need earns the esteem of both the faithful and the faithless.

Helping one person at a time, they make a difference in our world, serving as the hands and feet of Jesus.

Someday I’ll visit this church. Their closest location is thirty minutes away, but for now I’ll put going there on hold.

[See the discussion questions for Church 72, read about Church 71 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

A Messianic Jewish Congregation: Church #71

Before 52 Churches, we visited a Messianic Jewish church: Jews who believe in Jesus as their Jewish savior, mixing Jewish tradition with Christian faith. 

They met on Saturday nights. The service involved a time of worship and a time of teaching. They concluded with a shared meal.

Most of the service was in English, but a few parts of worship were in Hebrew. I mumbled the words the best I could, but I had no idea if my fellow worshipers pronounced their Hebrew words correctly or not. 

Their hymnals were in both Hebrew and English. As I recall, page one was at the back. For their meal, shared potluck style, they provided food with a Jewish flair. I don’t know how authentic or Americanized these dishes were, but they were tasty.

The friendly people there embraced us. They welcomed us. We felt like family from the beginning.

Worshiping God in an unfamiliar way brought a freshness, an authenticity to our efforts. Their unfamiliar traditions occasionally confused me, but I also felt strangely invigorated by what we did.

They didn’t have their own building, but they did have their own worship space. It was in the basement of a Protestant church. This was ideal, since neither group used the facility at the same time.

There were two interesting things about this congregation. First, everyone there was Gentile. That is, they weren’t Jewish. It seems strange to me that a Messianic Jewish church wouldn’t have some Jewish people attending it.

When I asked about this, someone explained that sometimes a Jewish family did drive from another city to meet with them, but this didn’t occur every week.

The other interesting thing is most of the people present at this Saturday evening Messianic Jewish gathering also attend a Protestant service on Sunday morning. This perplexed me. This is, however, exactly what Candy and I did.

That was many years ago, but the experience stayed with me, and I want to encounter it again. When we embarked upon our 52 Churches journey, I desired to include this church and make a repeat visit. Unfortunately, they no longer met at the same place.

Instead their location rotated between the homes of their regular attendees. Revisiting them wasn’t going to work for 52 Churches. And though I would’ve liked to have returned later, we never got around to it.

There’s another Messianic Jewish congregation near where we live. It’s a thirty-five-minute drive, not close but not insurmountable either. I want to visit them and compare their practices with my recollection of the first Messianic Jewish congregation.

I want to go. We could go. But we don’t.

I guess I’m tired of visiting churches.

[See the discussion questions for Church 71, read about Church 70 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

Quakers: Unplanned and Spontaneous, Church #70

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a group of Young Quakers online. Their faith, their passion for community, and their desire to make a difference in their world drew me in. They even invited me to their annual gathering, halfway across the country.

Though I had never met one of them in person, for a time I considered going. That’s how desperate I was to be part of a vibrant faith community—even for a weekend.

They were all about half my age, which may explain their zest and their appeal to me. After serious consideration, however, I opted not to go.

Local Opportunities

Being ever practical, I looked for a gathering closer to home. Some of their group met on the other side of the state, but that was still too far away.

Casting a wider net for Quakers in general, I found a gathering some forty minutes from my house. They don’t meet every week, but instead get together the first, third, and fifth Sundays of each month.

According to their website, their meetings are unplanned and spontaneous. They use different wording, but my take is they spend a lot of time listening to the Holy Spirit, responding as appropriate.

Sometimes this means sharing insights and other times it entails keeping it to themselves. With no minister, everyone can participate in an egalitarian manner.

This is quite different from my normal Sunday practices, yet I have often experienced this, albeit without my bride, in other settings. There we would quiet ourselves and wait for the Holy Spirit to speak to us.

If his words were for the group, we would share them. Otherwise, we would keep his insight to ourselves. I wrote what I heard in my journal.

I know Candy would go to this church without complaint, but I also worry that their format would make her uncomfortable. I never resolved this dilemma, so the Quakers also kept moving down the list as we visited other churches. 

Range of Quaker Practices

Of note: In my online research about Quakers, I gather there is a wide range of Quaker practices. On one side are those gatherings that focus on the leading of the Holy Spirit, as this church seems to follow. In contrast, other Quaker meetings are quite different.

[See the discussion questions for Church 70, read about Church 69, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

Suffering from a Bad Reputation: Church #69

First on our list is a church from a small conservative denomination. Their denomination website says they have thirty-three churches in North America, eleven of which are within driving distance from our house.

The closest one is five miles away. In contrast, they have five more international locations.

A Bad Reputation

I’ve never met anyone who currently goes to one of this denomination’s churches. In the past few years, however, I’ve met several people who used to go there. Their stories are similar and worrisome.

They left this church bruised and bloodied, rejected by the people they used to worship with. Sometimes they’re spurned by their family and friends who continue to go to these churches.

Although there are two sides to every story, their accounts of what happened breaks my heart. That’s because their perspective of what caused their separation seems to be over trivial matters.

Every church has people who think poorly of it. As long as we’re frail humans with a nature to sin, this will occur. Sometimes the reasons for these low opinions are justified and other times they’re self-inflicted.

However, to only meet people who harbor hurts from this denomination is troublesome. It has a bad reputation.

A Negative Mindset

I want to visit one of these churches to learn more about them. But because of their bad reputation, I already know too much and couldn’t go with an open mind. I would look for the negative, hunting for areas to criticize so I can justify the depths of my friends’ pain.

Surely, I would find the validation I seek. I fear I wouldn’t have eyes to see the good in their practices, truly worship God with them, or celebrate meaningful community while I was there.

Until I can properly adjust my perspective, I need to hold off visiting them. Unfortunately, after a couple of years of trying, I’m no closer to being successful. For this reason, their church keeps moving down my list as we visit other congregations.

[See the discussion questions for Church 69, read about Church 68, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

Urban on a Mission: Church #68

Candy and I live in a homogenous area of mostly white, middle-class families residing in a suburban setting, sitting on the edge of rural. Our community has minimal diversity and our area churches, even less.

Most of my life I’ve lived in settings with people like me. Our current home is like our others. The neighborhood, both comfortable and stable, stands as a safe place sheltered from the world around it.

We chose this general location to be near family and this setting for its amenities and ambiance. We didn’t intentionally set out to segregate ourselves. It just happened. However, we weren’t deliberate about seeking a more diverse environment, either.

Even though we couldn’t have achieved this goal along with our other objectives, it still pains me. What hurts me more is to know that if we visit an area church, it will be a mostly white experience. 

A Nearby Urban Church

When a friend mentions an urban church in a nearby city, I’m excited. I can’t experience much diversity where I live without moving, but I can experience it through my church selection.

Based on this church’s location and its desire to serve the inner city, I anticipate meeting people of other races and expect a service style relevant to its neighborhood.

It takes some effort, but I eventually find their website. They’re an evangelical community of Christians committed to “intentional discipleship.”

I have no idea why they put intentional discipleship in quotes, but it calls attention to the phrase, though in a curious way. The phrase appears multiple times on their home page. It must be important.

I also know to expect “verse-by-verse Bible teaching.” Next I learn they’re “a multi-racial and multi-socio-economic relational community,” a “true urban church,” where “the homeless worship side-by-side and support one another in Christ.” 

Their website also talks about community outreach, including serving at the community kitchen, inner city street events, and downtown student fellowship—the campus of a Christian college is only a couple of blocks away.

Surely their urban setting allows for these things to happen. I’m excited for what we’ll encounter when we visit. 

What About Parking?

I tell Candy it’s a thirty-minute drive and she accepts this, even though online resources put it at twenty-four. We add a ten-minute buffer and plan to leave forty minutes early, but I doubt we will. I wonder about parking.

In truth, I worry about parking. I know there’s limited street parking in the area, and I have no clue about parking lots in the vicinity. The church’s website doesn’t help, giving only a street number.

As we head out, thirty minutes early, we pray for God’s blessing during our time at this church, that we will be an encouragement to those we meet, and God will show us what he wants us to learn.

Silently, I add my request that we’ll find a place to park, one that is both close and safe.

After my prayer, I breathe a bit easier and my shoulders relax—just a little. Whatever happens will happen, and worrying about it won’t change a thing.

We once attended an urban church. Ironically, back then it was Candy who had concerns about safety when walking from our parked car to the church and then back again.

This church meets in an old warehouse, which they just started using. I like the idea of churches meeting in reclaimed spaces, as opposed to going to the expense of constructing a huge church building that they’ll only use a few hours a week.

For them to meet in a downtown area, using existing space is their only option.

I navigate the one-way streets, needing to overshoot our destination and approach it from the other side.

As we get closer, my pulse quickens with apprehension about the parking situation and for the unknown that awaits us inside. With one block to go, I wipe my sweaty hands on my jeans. My heart pounds. I strive to keep my fears to myself.

Ahead, I spot a sign for the church on the sidewalk, with a few people mingling around the entrance. To my left is a city parking lot. I thank God and pull in.

There are empty spots awaiting us and, as a bonus, we don’t need to pay because it’s the weekend. I worried for nothing, but then, most of the things we worry about never happen anyway. Still, I give credit to Papa for answered prayer and a place to park.

Anticipating a Potluck

The surrounding area is nice. It’s well-kept and clean. We feel safe. As we walk from the parking lot to the building, another family approaches from the opposite direction and others walk from across the street. Both groups wear smiles and carry crockpots. I groan. 

“Looks like there’s a potluck,” I whisper to Candy. A time around a shared meal is a great way to connect with others and build community, but I regret coming emptyhanded.

Once more on our adventure of visiting churches, we’ll be freeloaders. They’ll surely welcome us generously and invite us to stay, insisting there will be plenty of food. Nonetheless, I’ll feel a tad guilty for receiving what they’ll share, offering nothing in return.

I also know that instead of a two-hour church meeting, we’ll have a three-hour church community experience.

Since we have no other plans for this afternoon, this isn’t a problem, but I do need to mentally adjust my thinking for how long we will be here. I don’t do well with handling the unexpected, but God graciously enables me to accept this twist as an adventure. 

Navigating the Facility

Two people welcome us before we enter the building of this urban church and more folks greet us inside. They share two important pieces of information.

The first is the location of the sanctuary and the other is directions to the restrooms, which are on another floor and not close by. Good to know. 

The worship space is a large banquet hall, reclaimed from what was once a warehouse. Along one side of the rectangular space sits a slightly-raised stage, the focal point of the service, with musical instruments and gear for the worship team.

In front of it is a communion table, an altar of sorts. On the opposite wall, a row of tables lines the other side, already filling with the food we’ll enjoy in a couple of hours. In the space between stand fifteen round tables, with seven chairs each. That calculates to 105 seats.

So that we won’t need to contort our necks or pivot our chairs to participate in the service, I look for a table that has open seats facing the front. Few people are sitting, but others have claimed most of the forward-facing chairs, marked with Bibles, purses, and coffee mugs.

At the far end of the room, I spot one open table and scoot toward it, grabbing the two forward-facing spots. As we settle down, another couple joins us, and we spend time getting to know each other.

The Worship Team

They’re friendly, and we make a quick connection. Then the wife of this couple excuses herself to join the worship team as it assembles in the front.

Six people lead us in singing. The lead vocalist also plays keyboard. Our new friend plays violin. Joining them are a bass guitar player and a drummer, along with two backup vocalists.

For the next forty-five minutes we sing, mostly modern choruses and one updated hymn. 

We stand as we sing. Some of the seventy or so people present raise their hands in praise as they sing to God, while a few gently move their bodies in a subtle form of physical worship.

With plenty of space, I can freely raise my arms without bumping into people—a common occurrence given the tight seating at most churches.

The crowd is mostly older, fifty plus if I’m being generous, but over sixty is more likely. There are few kids, one set with their grandparents and another set who we later find out are visiting. The crowd is white and not the amalgamation of races I had anticipated. 

I don’t spot anyone who looks—or smells—homeless. Having been part of an urban church for eight years, one which attracted a large contingency of homeless, I’m used to being around them. Could the homeless in this area be a more upscale version than what I know?

Ones who enjoy regular access to showers and washing machines, who have clothes that match. Aside from the urban setting, this doesn’t look much like an urban church. We don’t ask, and no one explains the lack of diversity that their website promised.

We have a reading from Psalm 148, followed by a meditation. Next is the offertory prayer and the offering. After this we move into a time of prayer.

They share specific concerns—mostly health and work related—for the people present. Some people gather around those near them who need prayer and pray for them. Next is a ministry update and more prayer.

People in the congregation take an active part in all of this. At this point, we’ve only heard from the teaching pastor two brief times. This is more how a church gathering should function, with people ministering to one another.

An Intermission

Now at an hour into the service, we take a fifteen-minute break. This allows us time to meet more people. We don’t need to mingle to do this. They come up to us.

Most everyone asks where we live and are amazed at how far we traveled to visit them.

When I ask them the same question, I’m surprised to learn that not one of them lives in the downtown area. Everyone we talked to drove from suburbia or the country to reach this urban setting. Curious.

During this interlude, a prayer team is available to pray for people. A line never forms, but they keep busy as people approach them for prayer.

The Message

The sermon is “Let the Church be the Church” and the text is Philippians 1:1–2. The interior of the bulletin offers a two-page spread, packed with sermon notes, complete with over fifty blanks for us to fill in.

I skip this, knowing I’ll become so fixated on filling in every blank that I’ll miss the actual message. Candy, however, is up for the challenge and fills in most of them.

For forty-five minutes, the pastor tells us about elders and deacons, about God’s grace and peace. In doing so, he pulls in much related teaching from other passages in the Bible, adding much to the text.

This isn’t the verse-by-verse Bible teaching that the website promised, but a springboard text that serves as a preface for expanded instruction.

His informed teaching is interesting, but I don’t grasp a central point or purpose in what he shares. As he concludes, his message takes an evangelical turn, reminding us to pray for one person to lead to Jesus.

We then quickly move into the potluck, with a bounty of food—much of it left over from a wedding reception the day before. Many people invite us to stay, almost relieved when we say “yes.”

Plenty to Eat

With so many who reach out to us, we’re among the last to get in line to select our food. Even lining up late, there’s still plenty to eat, at least twice the amount needed.

In true potluck style, I take a little bit of most everything and end up with a plate heaped full of more than I should eat. It tastes so good. Good food, good fellowship, and good times. This is more of what church should be.

We interact with more people. All are friendly and engaging. Through it all, we suffer through no awkward moments that too often happen at churches where people don’t welcome well or don’t welcome at all.

This, however, is an engaging group. They’re intentional about their faith and their life. 

I’m glad we experienced community with this urban church. God, bless them and their work for your kingdom.

[See the discussion questions for Church 68, read about Church 67, Church 69, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

Church #67: Satellite Church

I’m not sure why it works out this way, but it’s another holiday weekend, and we’re off to visit another church. This one is three-quarters of a mile from our home. We could walk to it, and consider doing so, but we talk ourselves out of it.

Part of the issue is that I don’t know how long it will take to walk there. I think ten minutes will do it, but what if it’s twenty? Instead, we opt to drive. 

We’re meeting family there, visiting this church together, the first time for all of us. I’ve been curious about this church since it launched two years ago. This is the first time Candy expressed a willingness to go.

A Satalite Location

This isn’t a new church, not really. It’s a satellite location of an established church. Unlike many satellite churches, however, this one offers its music and message live. There’s no remote feed from the main location. 

Their model is straightforward. The parent church, one of the larger ones in the area, has been launching satellite sites for several years. I believe this marks their fifth. Each location has a teaching pastor and its own worship team, with centralized governance and financial control. 

I’ve heard of this arrangement before and know of two churches that attempted it. In both cases, things didn’t work out as planned. Early in the process the launch team at both sites decided they didn’t want to be a satellite location.

Instead they wanted independence and to form their own congregation. What started as a satellite location turned into a church plant. This church has avoided this problem and seems to have fine-tuned the art of opening satellite locations.

When they launched this site, they coupled it with a smart direct-mail campaign to people in the surrounding area. That’s how we learned about them, and that’s why I longed to visit. Today we will.

Meeting at a Middle School

They meet at the local middle school, an arrangement I find most attractive. Instead of investing money in a building that’s only fully used a few hours each week and is only a fraction occupied during business hours, they free up money to invest in outreach and ministry.

Yes, they do have the expense of rent, but that’s much less than what it would cost to own and maintain a building. In addition, if they outgrow this facility, they can simply rent a different one.

However, if you outgrow a building you own, you have limited options. So in addition to the cost factor, I appreciate this arrangement for its flexibility.

As we approach the entrance to the middle school, the church’s trailer sits alongside the driveway, smartly doubling as a sign for the church and signaling the proper entrance. Renting space from a school means they need to set up and tear down each Sunday.

The large trailer doubles as a transportation unit on Sunday and storage space throughout the week for their needed equipment and supplies. 

We pull in and drive past the trailer. There are two lots, with cars parked in both. I wonder which one to head to, accompanied by the question of which building entrance to use. My deliberation is short-lived.

Welcome Banners and Welcoming People

A large vertical welcome banner waves by both entrances off both parking lots. Apparently each entrance works equally well. I pull into the first lot and park our car. We head to the closest entrance, staffed with two smiling greeters. 

We walk up and engage in easy small talk. I feel free to linger because there are no people behind us waiting to get in. It’s nice not to feel rushed, even though we didn’t leave home as early as I wanted. The drive took less than two minutes, and we arrived twelve minutes early.

Entering, we walk down the short hallway. There’s no question about where to go. Another portable sign tells us to turn right for the church service, though the nursery and some children’s programs are to the left.

We veer right and find ourselves in a large open space, with people mingling about. 

As we move forward, two men interrupt their conversation to talk to us, something I seldom witness at the churches we visit. They share their names, and we give ours, making a connection with them as we do. They’re both involved in the worship team, but one has the summer off.

The other will play today. He’s on drums. After a few minutes, he excuses himself to join the rest of the worship team. We talk with the other man a little longer. He’s not outgoing, but he’s friendly and easy enough to talk to.

Meeting in the Gym

We thank him for his attention and move into the worship space, a typical middle school gymnasium.

It’s large enough for two basketball courts running left to right, or one running the other direction, with retractable bleachers to provide a nice-sized viewing area. Thankfully, we will not be sitting in the bleachers. 

In the middle of the gymnasium are folding chairs set in three sections, with one hundred chairs per section. We sit down as we wait for the rest of our family to arrive and for the service to begin, wondering which will happen first. As it turns out, both occur at the same time.

The overhead lights are off. What light we do have comes from indirect lighting. The subdued ambiance in the room makes it hard to read the literature they gave us when we walked in. 

The space begins to fill. All age groups show up, but the demographics skew younger, with many families present. It’s likely that most of the tweens and younger teenagers here today also attend this school during the week, and their younger siblings will go here in a few years.

As we wait for the service to start, the interlude is agreeable. Soft music plays in the background. People talk with friends before the service begins.

The atmosphere strikes a pleasing middle ground between churches whose members sit in stoic silence for their service to start and those where an excess of activity overwhelms.

Time to Worship

A worship team of five gathers up front. In addition to our new friend, the drummer, there are two on guitars, one on keys, and one backup vocalist. They have no one for bass. The keyboardist doubles as the worship leader.

All are male. I wonder if that’s intentional or how things worked out today. Also, four-fifths of their ensemble fit within the millennial generation, with one lone baby boomer. 

They launch into their first song, which, thankfully, is familiar to me. The Bible tells us to sing a new song to God (Psalm 96:1), but encountering only unfamiliar tunes and hard-to-sing lyrics is off-putting when visiting churches.

The worship team’s leading in song is quite effective, though they lack an accomplished edge to separate them from the typical worship team at a midsize church. Since it’s a holiday weekend, we may not have their A-team leading us.

Regardless, their sincerity in what they do is evident. Their hearts seem in the right place.

After the first song, the teaching pastor welcomes us. He’s been on a sabbatical this summer, and this is his first Sunday back. He’s glad to return and gives some announcements. One is something they call “Breaking Bread.”

It’s a chance to get to know others in the church. The idea is simple: three individuals or families agree to get together three times in the next three months around a shared meal, dessert, or coffee. Interested families sign up, and the church assigns the groups.

This helps people get to know others and form connections. It’s a short-term commitment with a long-term benefit.

Greeting and Offering

Then the pastor moves us into the greeting time. I interact with four people, two young boys who play along with the ritual and two adults. The boys offer wide smiles and immature handshakes. I appreciate their effort.

One adult keeps her interaction with me to a minimum, while the other one takes time to share her name and ask mine. 

And yet after these four, no one else makes any effort to offer a greeting. I fidget a bit, longing for this time to end. Fortunately, I don’t need to wait long. As church greetings go, this one is neither memorable nor haunting. I survived it.

Our space is now over half full. We launch into more singing, a five-song set. I don’t know any of the songs, but I’m able to pick up the chorus on most of them and the verses on a few others.

Next is the offering. I wasn’t listening, but I don’t believe there was any mention that visitors need not participate. Not that I would have felt any obligation, but it’s a nice gesture, especially given that a common complaint against churches is, “They’re only after your money.” 

There’s an information card to fill out and drop in the offering baskets as they pass by, but Candy’s still working on it when the offering gets to us. We’ll turn the card in after the service.

The offering wraps up, and they slide smoothly into one more song before the sermon begins. They’ve added more chairs in the back, which are now mostly occupied. I suspect the sanctuary attendance is now pushing three hundred.

Sermon Part 3 of 3

In addition, I guess a hundred or more kids and their leaders are off doing their own activities.

After his break from preaching, the teaching pastor is more than ready to deliver our message. It looks like it’s week three of a three-part series. He doesn’t recap weeks one and two, but I surmise the key points from the series title: “Belong, Believe, Become.”

I’ve heard these three words strung together at other churches, so I have a good idea of what the prior two sermons covered. Today is about becoming. Yet if there’s a title for today’s message, I missed it.

Our scripture text is from Matthew 16:13–18. He says this is one of his favorite chapters in the Bible and is glad to speak on it.

The passage is about Jesus and his disciples traveling to Caesarea Philippi, a corrupt place far different than the less appalling environments he and his disciples typically frequent. 

What might the disciples have thought as they traveled to this place, a destination that good Jewish boys avoid? When they arrive, Jesus asks them, “Who do people say I am?” After various answers, Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

That’s when Jesus says to Peter, which means rock, “On this rock I will build my church.” I’ve heard sermons on this passage. People debate the meaning of this last phrase. Some say Peter is the rock on which God will build his church.

Others assert that Peter’s confession, that Jesus is the Messiah, is the foundational statement which will support the church. A third understanding looks at the setting—which ties in with the image of a rock— and the depraved behavior of the people in this area.

This may be the rock on which Jesus will build his church. Why else would Jesus take them twenty miles to ask them a question he could have asked at any other time? 

The point I derive from this is to take the good news of Jesus to the people who most need it. As I contemplate the implication of this, I jot down a soundbite from the minister.

Know Your Community

He says, “Know your community.” This makes sense. If we’re going to reach our neighbors, we should understand them better.

He talks about two kinds of community. One is the church’s internal community, and the other is the community around us. He gives us a simple three-point process to engage people: Step one is to talk to them. Step two is to ask them a question.

Finally, step three is to invite them for a meal, an outing, or a service opportunity. Most people, both those within and outside the church, are open to an invitation to do something. 

He concludes with an encouragement to build church where we are.

Post Church Interaction

The service ends, and two things happen at once. One is that most people pick up their chair, collapse it, and stow it on a nearby rack. The other is that people come up to us to talk.

Some recognize Candy from her involvement in the community, and others are strangers, extending gracious welcomes. We enjoy these conversations, which are friendly and engaging.

 After doing my part to pick up our family’s chairs, we move back into the lobby. There we turn in our visitor cards, and they offer us a gift. I suspect it will be a coffee mug or travel cup, and I also know Candy will pass.

We already have a cabinet stuffed full of them. She declines the offer with grace, and we enjoy an extended time of conversation at the visitor center, with a most engaging woman. 

She tells us about their church, and we ask her questions. Many thoughts bombard my mind, but the one question I do ask is how next Sunday’s service will compare to this holiday weekend experience.

With a knowing nod, the woman affirms the service will be the same format. The only difference will be the number of people present. 

I wonder how many more people but don’t ask. We could return next week to find out. In two weeks, they’ll have an after-church event for people who want to learn more about their gathering. It may be worth coming back for that too. This church has much to offer.

I long to go to church in my community and attend with my neighbors. This church meets the first criteria, but I don’t spot any neighbors. Perhaps if we come back on a regular Sunday, I might see some of them here. It’s a hopeful thought.

[See the discussion questions for Church 67, read about Church 66 or Church 68, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

A Normal Service: Church #66, Part 2

Several months later we have a chance for a return visit to this same church. Again, we’ll attend church with our friends and spend the afternoon together sharing our lives and faith. I expect the service will be led by the Holy Spirit.

I look forward to both, though the time with friends outshines the chance to revisit this church. Still, the opportunity to experience a normal service with their regular pastor and new worship leader stands as a nice bonus. 

Not only do we have a chance to experience one of their services with a different speaker and song leader, but they also moved since our first visit.

Instead of meeting in a public-school facility, they now rent office space in a reclaimed school building in another town, about nine miles from their prior location. In most respects it will be like visiting a different church. Therefore, I view it as such.

A Holiday Weekend

Then I realize that it’s a holiday weekend, the Sunday before Memorial Day. Many churches scale back their service and simplify their approach on holiday Sundays, especially during the summer.

I wonder if we’ll experience one of their typical services. Oh well. The main point of the day is a time of community with our dear friends.

Candy and I have our typical discussion about when we should leave, how long the drive will take, and when we expect to arrive. With bad weather behind us, at least we won’t have road conditions to contend with. 

To make our deliberations more complicated, she asks to stop at the coffee shop along the way to pick up a brew. This should add ten minutes to our trip, so we make the needed time adjustment, but when I pull into the coffee shop’s parking lot I groan. There are a dozen or so cars lined up at the drive-through window. 

Candy tells me not to worry. She’ll go inside. That will be much faster. I want to believe her, but I don’t think it will be fast enough. As it turns out, it’s not. By the time we’re back on the road our GPS tells us we’ll arrive four minutes early and not the extra ten to fifteen minutes we’d planned on.

Preparing for the Service

With the hour drive, we have a lot of time to talk, and we cover a variety of topics. This might be more time than we spent talking all week. That’s something to ponder.

Candy prays for the time with our friends, but I’m not sure if her prayer included church. I don’t bother to ask or to tack on my own prayer for the service. The main reason for our trip is to see our friends. Going to church is a secondary goal—at least for me.

The last few minutes of our drive grow a bit harried when I realize my GPS isn’t taking us to the correct location. I don’t have the exact address of the church and we’ve forgotten its name, but Candy conducts a creative internet search to find the needed information.

Ignoring the misdirection of our GPS, we drive straight to the correct place and get there four minutes early, just as our adjusted ETA predicted.

Again, an exterior sign tells us we’re in the right place and indicates which entrance to use. However, once inside there are no more signs. We walk down a long corridor and eventually find an open door with the church’s name on it.

We exchange nervous glances and stifle our apprehension. Candy scowls at me as I graciously gesture for her to enter first. Inside is a small space, converted from a former classroom, which serves as both lobby and office. 

First Impressions

A handful of people scurry about, each one exchanging a friendly greeting with us but nothing more. One man, however, gives me a quizzical look. We both remember each other from our prior visit, though neither can recall names.

We have a brief conversation to reconnect, but, knowing that the service is about to start, Candy and I move on into a connected classroom, which serves as their worship space.

The room is square, about 30’ by 30’, a small fraction of the space they used to occupy. It still has fifty chairs—five rows of ten with a center aisle—but they’re packed in, closer together and with little margin on the sides. Along the back wall sits the A/V equipment.

On the opposite side, and on our level, is the cramped space for the worship team and minister. In the corner stand the same three banners: Grace, Kingdom, and Power.

We slide into the back row, expecting to meet our friends in that general area, even though there’s little room for them to wave their worship flags.

The service starts a few minutes late with a dozen or so people present. We’re well into the first song when our friends arrive. We exchange hugs, and they sit in the row in front of us. Others trickle in and eventually our numbers swell to about thirty.

I could count, but I’m tired of counting the number of church attendees and merely make an educated estimate. The crowd is mostly female, skewing older, as are all the couples. I see no men by themselves.

The Worship Set

The worship leader is the same one we had last time, which I later learn was his first time leading worship at this church. Again, he plays guitar as he leads. An idle keyboard sits next to him, and he serves as our only musician and singer.

He has an easy, smooth style, without being slickly polished. It’s hard to tell how much he rehearsed and how much happens as he feels led by the Holy Spirit.

The singing goes on longer than I would like, and I know Candy must be fidgeting on the inside. I’m not sure how many songs we sing because they’re interwoven with each other, and we keep looping back to repeat choruses.

She later tells me there were only four songs, which filled up most of an hour. Through it all, I try to worship God, but we don’t really connect. I guess I should’ve made a better effort at praying for this service beforehand.

My friend turns around and whispers that they have open communion, and we can go up anytime we want—if we wish to—during the singing. I nod, even though I’ve already decided not to. I share this information with Candy, and she agrees.

I may have missed it, but I only see four or five people go forward for communion. Curious.

About half an hour into the music set, several people ease their way forward and surround a young man sitting alone in the front row, who I guess is the pastor.

They place their hands on him and their lips move in quiet prayer. Then they sit down. I assume the message is about to begin, but it doesn’t. We have more singing to do.

By the time he finally moves to the front, we’ve been singing for over an hour. He gives several announcements. Then he shares some news. The worship leader guiding us in song this service is no longer their backup, fill-in musician.

Effective today he’s their new worship pastor. The minister explains what the worship pastor’s role will entail and confirms they didn’t force out the prior worship leaders. They’ll still help lead worship when their busy schedules allow. This meets everyone’s approval.

Then we have the offering.

The Sermon

Before the sermon the pastor has a time of prayer, which includes prophecies, words of encouragement, and prayers for healing as the Holy Spirit directs him.

He feels led to pray for the needs of a woman in the congregation and invites other women to gather around her in support, if they wish. This subtle distinction keeps men at a distance, a wise action to foster a safe environment.

Then he moves into his sermon, starting with a lengthy review of last week’s message based on Luke 5:17–26. It’s hard to know where the review ends and today’s sermon begins, especially since he says he interjected new material into last week’s review.

By my reckoning, he spent more time on the review than on today’s lesson. 

Today’s starting text is Mark 5:24–34. His style is fluid as he jumps from one passage to the next. After a while I stop noting the Scripture references, but I do write down two thought-provoking one-liners. 

First, “Don’t preach against other religions. Preach Jesus and the Gospel.” Over the years, I’ve heard too many preachers who didn’t follow this advice. They were so quick to condemn the practices and ideas of others that they forgot about the good news of Jesus.

This might be a contributing factor as to why the public has such a negative view of Christians: we rant about what we’re against and don’t celebrate what we’re for.

In the other one he states, “The Law was given to the Jews, not the Gentiles.” This one merits serious contemplation. It could change how I understand and apply the Old Testament.

He says he spends most of his week in prayer and Bible study, admitting he prefers that over meeting with people and attending to congregational needs. Our friends later confirmed his deep dedication to his relationship with God and God’s Word. 

Indeed, his teaching flows as one who spends much time with God and immerses himself in the Bible. When he shares a verse, I never see him glancing at his notes first. The text and the reference gush forth as regular speech.

I wonder how many of his words are something he planned to say and how many come to him from the Holy Spirit just before they leave his mouth. I suspect the latter.

Unfortunately, I’m tired and stifle yawns throughout the sermon. It’s not that I’m bored. I just didn’t sleep well last night. Had I been more alert, I would have gotten much more out of his message.

At 12:30, two hours after the service began, he stops preaching. He’s not at a stopping point that I can tell, and he has no conclusion or call to action. He merely says he’ll pick up next week.

As he’s doing this, the worship leader slides up to the front. He picks up his guitar and begins playing softly. We sing a song, and the pastor prays.

As he wraps up his prayer, he turns his attention to Candy. He perceives she has a physical need for healing or restoration, a need she may not even know exists. He prays for her as the Holy Spirit leads him.

Then he wraps up the service, and we leave. Anticipated time with friends around a delicious meal beckons us.

Our Impressions

It’s several hours before Candy and I can discuss our experience at this church. In all our many church visits, few, if any, have been this spirit-led.

Though, unlike our other Pentecostal and charismatic experiences, I feel the Holy Spirit powerfully directed our time together through both the teaching pastor and the worship leader.

As for Candy, she’s upset over the prophetic words of healing the pastor directed to her. She doesn’t know of any physical issue. I point out that this was a draining week for her, emotionally and mentally. I suggest he was just a bit off when he said she had a physical need. She doesn’t buy this.

Then I share the concept of performance anxiety. It could be he so wanted to hear a word from God to give to the visitors that he overstretched, that he perceived something that wasn’t there. I get this.

Sometimes people who follow the Holy Spirit’s leading don’t bat 1,000. Sometimes they hit a home run, sometimes they get a single, and other times they strike out. I’m okay with this, but it’s hard for Candy to accept.

Regardless, going to church with our friends was a great experience. It showed us a way to worship God and function in community that I don’t see at many churches.

[See the discussion questions for Church 66, part 2, read more about about Church 66. part 1, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

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

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

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

Gifts of the Spirit

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

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

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

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

Hungry for More

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

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

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

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

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

A Guest Minister

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

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

A Long, Winter Drive

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

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

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

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

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

Apprehension Sets In

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

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

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

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

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

Figuring Where to Go

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

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

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

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

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

“This is our first time.” I smile.

Not a Normal Service

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

I play dumb. “Why not?”

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

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

“The same thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for the Service to Begin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginning at Last

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

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

Worshiping God through Song

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

His focus remains rightly on God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Message

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And that gives me something else to contemplate.

[See the discussion questions for Church 66, Read about Church 65 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

Short of Meeting Expectations: Visiting Church #65

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

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

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

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

An Open Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning When to Leave

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

She agrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Residential Setting

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

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

What Would Jesus Do?

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

Starting Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Musical Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

A Good Greeting Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live Expectantly

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

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

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

Prayer Time

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

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

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

“No, you can pray for it at home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Church Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

Candy agrees. 

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

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

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

[See the discussion questions for Church 65, read about Church 64 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

Church #64: Is Bigger Always Better?

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

A Last Minute Change

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Her silence tells me “No.”

“Do you know what time their services are?”

“Nine and eleven.” 

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

She nods her agreement.

“How long will it take to get there?”

“Thirty minutes will give us enough time.”

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

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

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

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

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

Listening Online

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

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

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

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

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

A 30-Minute Drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Helpful Greeter

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

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

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

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

She points to her right, and I nod.

“Coffee?” Candy asks.

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

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

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

In the Round Seating

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

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

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

The Worship Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother’s Day and Ascension Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now we return to their regular schedule. 

Greeting Time and Questions

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Alter Call of Sorts

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

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

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

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

The Debrief

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

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

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

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

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

I leave spiritually filled and emotionally hungry. 

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

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.