Categories
Visiting Churches

Church #64: Is Bigger Always Better?

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

A Last Minute Change

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her silence tells me “No.”

“Do you know what time their services are?”

“Nine and eleven.” 

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

She nods her agreement.

“How long will it take to get there?”

“Thirty minutes will give us enough time.”

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

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

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

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

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

Listening Online

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

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

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

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

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

A 30-Minute Drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Helpful Greeter

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

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

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

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

She points to her right, and I nod.

“Coffee?” Candy asks.

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

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

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

In the Round Seating

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

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

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

The Worship Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother’s Day and Ascension Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now we return to their regular schedule. 

Greeting Time and Questions

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

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

Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

Alter Call of Sorts

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

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

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

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

The Debrief

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

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

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

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

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

I leave spiritually filled and emotionally hungry. 

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

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches 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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

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

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

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

Taking a Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A break from this will be good.

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

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

First Impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Grand Welcome

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

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

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

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

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

Raising Money for Missions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supported Ministries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The associate pastor dismisses us with little fanfare.

No Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

[See the discussion questions for Church 63, read about Church 62, Church 64, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches 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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

Church #62: Off to a Great Start

I notice a church sign in front of a school. It’s not been there before. I’m quite sure. I’m partial to churches that meet in nontraditional spaces. They are more likely to be nontraditional in their approach to God, being spiritually invigorating and providing a breath of freshness.

As a bonus, they don’t have the hassle of a building to distract them or the expense of a monthly mortgage payment to weigh down their budget. I have high expectations. Church is at 10 a.m.

It’s a new church, a nondenominational church plant, with the congregation that sent them residing several states away. It’s curious that an out-of-state church would plant one in an area noted for its religious reputation, with “a church on every corner.” Even so, they did just that.

First Impressions

The day is mild and sunny. A light breeze presents the perfect combination of weather, belying the norm for an August day in southwest Michigan. We arrive ten minutes early. The parking lot is about half full.

A man stands along the walk at the parking lot’s edge. He doesn’t need to direct us to the entrance because there is only one set of doors. A most gregarious fellow, he is there to greet us.

What a wonderful welcome to church. With his broad smile and easy banter, we immediately feel at ease. His laidback embrace lets me know our experience here will be a good one.

At the door stands another man. He sports a red T-shirt, asking the question: “How can I serve you?” With an engaging smile, he welcomes us, opening the door with a gracious flourish. The friendly reception of these two men is infectious. I can’t wait to experience church here.

Our greeting isn’t over. Just inside stand a couple, also wearing red T-shirts. They further welcome us. We exchange names and they repeat ours, making a pointed effort to remember them.

Excited to see us, we talk a bit. Among other things, they tell us about the coffee and snacks that await us inside. Having never received such a grand welcome when visiting a church, we move into the meeting space.

Meeting Space

The room is curious, more resembling a church than a school. It is a modern space, about square, with a permanent stage in one corner. The flat floor hints that this is an all-purpose room, albeit now nicely carpeted and smartly finished.

An out-of-place scoreboard hangs high on one wall, but there’s no hint that the space would work for a sporting event.

Chairs, arrayed in three sections, face the stage, offering enough room for about two hundred. A music video plays, providing background sound and a nice visual on the screen overhead. After a couple of minutes, the video stops and a countdown timer appears, starting at five minutes.

My excitement mounts. With only seconds remaining in the countdown, the worship team scrambles to the stage.

The guitar player barely makes it in time, but to their credit, they launch into song when the timer hits zero. The worship leader plays keyboard, flanked by a guitarist and backup vocalist. The drummer sits behind them, along with a bass guitarist.

With a rock sound, we sing two songs in the opening set.

The associate pastor comes up and welcomes us. He asks first-time visitors to raise their hands. Quite a few do, including the couple sitting next to us.

With few empty seats, attendance must approach two hundred, quite remarkable for a new church during the month of August. I suspect a huge jump in the fall.

He tells us to greet those around us. This period of welcome is neither stellar nor lame, but it is pleasant, despite a lack of time for meaningful connection.

Then he announces the offering, stressing that it’s only for regular attendees, not visitors. They don’t use offering plates but velvet bags with wooden handles. They are awkward for me to pass. As the offering bags work their way down the rows and across the aisles, the associate pastor gives some announcements. 

The church is only four months old, having launched on Easter. In a few weeks they will have a “gathering with the pastors” for new people who want to learn more about the church.

He also plugs small groups, “E-3 Groups,” which stands for Encounter, Embrace, and Engage. Taking August off, the groups will resume in September. After a few other announcements, he reads selected passages from Psalms.

After this respite, the worship team leads us in four more songs. All are contemporary, but none are familiar. The senior pastor, who is taking a break from teaching in the month of August, dismisses the children for their own activities. Then he introduces today’s guest speaker. 

Guest Speaker

He is the founding pastor from the church that sent this team to plant a church. He opens by giving some background. When they decided to plant a church, they considered several possibilities across the United States but kept coming back to this region, even though there didn’t seem to be a need. 

Despite the many churches in the vicinity, this area is “over-Bibled and under-Jesused.” Given this church’s rapid numeric growth and the excitement surrounding their gathering, I think they’re right in their assessment of a need to plant a church in this locale.

Today he will speak from Philippians chapter three. Ushers pass out Bibles to anyone who doesn’t have one and would like one. I’m not sure if this is just for the service or to keep. The Bibles are English Standard Version (ESV).

In a bit of irony, however, the pastor uses the more popular NIV for his discourse. 

“We need to attack the lie that you can have it all,” he says. “It’s not possible. Something needs to give.” Although most engaging, I struggle to catch all the nuances in his rapid-fire delivery. 

The apostle Paul was willing to lose everything so he could gain Jesus. “What are you willing to lose?” He reminds us of the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl in Matthew 13:44–46, where a man and a merchant are both willing to give up everything for one great treasure.

Then he quotes Socrates: “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

He concludes his message with a prayer, followed by a time of introspection, reminiscent of an altar call, sans “with every head bowed” and an invitation to come forward. “Is Jesus the point in your life?” he asks.

The worship band comes up for a closing number and then the associate pastor dismisses us with a benediction. The staff is available up front for anyone who wants prayer.

After Church Interaction

Before I can talk to the visitors sitting next to me, they scoot out. During the greeting time, I learned the guy behind me shares my first name. I’d like to talk more to my namesake, but he is already engaged in another conversation, as are the folks who sat in front of us.

With no one to talk to, we make our way out.

In the lobby stand the couple who greeted us when we arrived. They remember our names and conversation. They wish us a good day and invite us back.

This church is off to a great start. They are already making a difference in the community and poised to make an even greater impact in the future. Their numeric growth is obvious and the potential for spiritual growth is present.

They are meeting an unmet need in what some would call an already over-churched area.

[See the discussion questions for Church 62, read about Church 61 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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

Church #61: The Wrong Time to Visit 

Based solely on their name, I assume this church is of the same denomination as Church #19. I enjoyed my time at that church, but I also recall their pastor saying the denomination’s member churches vary widely in their beliefs, with most holding a liberal theology.

I wonder what I’ll encounter at today’s destination. 

It turns out my speculation is needless. 

Nondenominational

Their website says they are nondenominational. I’m at the same time disappointed and pleased. I’m disappointed for not being able to broaden my understanding of this denomination, but I am pleased to be able to enjoy a nondenominational experience, which is my preference. 

My false assumption about their affiliation reminds me to avoid making wrong conclusions about a church or forming misguided expectations.

While this tendency to categorize—that is, to label things—is a natural leaning that aids our understanding, it can cloud our perspective as much as enhance it. The problem is that “nondenominational” is also a label, which can carry false expectations and produce needless assumptions.

Furthermore, in reviewing the “Our Beliefs” section of their website, I add the label of evangelical and note that it sounds Baptist. I’ve removed one wrong label and replaced it with three new ones: nondenominational, evangelical, and Baptist.

I’m no closer to a reasonable understanding of what to expect.

I do know a few other things about them, however, which are more tangible. First, they have two services. I’ve driven by on many Sunday mornings, noting a parking lot that was three-quarters full for their first service and a packed lot for their second.

I also know they are planning on a building project to add space. While the size of a church doesn’t impress me and growth can be a misleading indicator, both can signal spiritual vitality. I’m intrigued. 

A Solo Visit

Candy is gone this weekend, so I will be on my own. I’m okay visiting a church by myself, but that also gives me the freedom to vacillate. Staying home is a tempting option, one which I consider and reject multiple times.

To end my uncertainty, I decide to visit the first service. This is, in part, to give me less time to change my mind but also because I have a lot planned for the rest of the day. 

As a result of my volunteer work at a budget program that meets at this church facility during the week, I know where the church is and how long it will take to drive there. I time my departure to arrive ten minutes early. I don’t need to.

The parking lot has plenty of space when I arrive. I’m underwhelmed. Where are all the people? I walk in with a woman whose husband drops her off by the door. I know her from my volunteer work, but she doesn’t recognize me. We talk a bit anyway.

Pre-Church Interaction

Across the narthex I spot another familiar face from the budget program. I consider going over to talk to her, but I don’t.

She is by herself and so am I. I’m mindful that confusion or discomfort could result if I approach her alone. Aside from saying “hi” or giving an acknowledging nod, I’ve never communicated with either of these ladies before.

Other people occupy the narthex, a few in private conversation and others moving about but with no discernable pattern. Without my partner by my side, I feel more exposed and am more uncomfortable than usual when just standing around.

I look for someone to talk to—not that I expect to find anyone. The few people I see are all preoccupied. Once again no one notices me.

I turn to the sanctuary, where there are even fewer folks. I stand in the doorway, looking about, giving ample time for someone to approach. No one does. Two guys in the sound booth focus on preparations. Another man stands on the stage. I assume he’s part of the worship team.

Two people are already sitting, while a third flits about. I smile, looking as approachable as possible. No one sees me.

The hexagon-shaped space is newer construction, open and inviting, though not well-lit and possessing few windows. The six walls give way to six roof sections, which reach up and converge in the center. There are three sections of comfortable looking chairs, angled to face the front.

On stage sits a drum kit and several guitars, hinting at a contemporary sound. If there’s an organ, I don’t see it. Along the back wall sit the readied accessories for communion.

Having held my position and my smile for as long as I can stand to, I meander in to select my seat. Of the two hundred or so options, I head to the second aisle, go up a third of the way and scoot in two spaces.

After sitting, I lay my Bible on the chair to my left and put my coat on my right. I’m not saving seats, but with plenty of room, why not spread out? When I realize I could be signaling people to not sit near me, I consolidate my coat and Bible on one chair.

After a few minutes a man comes up and introduces himself. He welcomes me and gives me a bulletin. Then, with a smile, he turns and leaves, just as I open my mouth to speak. I read the entire bulletin—twice.

A couple sits directly behind me. Given over 190 other places they could have sat, I take this as an encouraging sign. Twice I turn to interact with them, but they’re not interested, offering only the most basic responses and scowling when they do.

A Low Turnout

Now time for the service to start, it doesn’t. Eventually the worship team of seven congregates on stage. The worship leader plays guitar. Helping him is another guitarist, bass guitarist, drummer, and keyboardist. Two ladies round out the ensemble, ready to add backup vocals.

There are as many people onstage and in the sound booth as there are sitting down. This low attendance is not at all what I expected.

I anticipate a light pop sound for the music. Instead I’m treated to rock with the hint of an edge. How exciting. The opening strains of their prelude call people into the sanctuary. Our numbers grow to about twenty-five and another ten or so eventually join us.

Most of the people are couples in their twenties and thirties, though a few are older. Aside from a baby in the back with her parents, there are no kids or teens. I know there are classes for the kids, but I wonder about the teens. Where are they? Do they go to the second service?

The assistant pastor welcomes us and says the senior pastor is out of town. Filling in for him is one of their members, a second-year seminarian.

This is not what I hoped for, nor what I want to experience. Maybe I should have stayed home after all. I wonder if their pastor being gone and a student filling in might account for the low attendance, or at least lower than what their parking lot typically suggests.

After an opening prayer, we sing some contemporary songs. With no songbooks, the words project on an overhead screen. It’s offset slightly from the stage, but not so much as to be uncomfortable.

The first song is a familiar tune but with slightly altered words, which trip me up every time we get to the chorus. Fortunately, I doubt I’m singing loud enough for anyone but God to hear.

The second song is likewise familiar, but our rendition lacks the punch and power that I’m used to when David Crowder sings it.

Greeting Time

Following these two songs are announcements and an instruction to “greet everyone around you.” As I shake hands with the guy in front of me, I surprise him when I ask, “How are you?” 

With his attention already shifting to the next person to greet, he does a double take. He looks back at me and smiles. “Fine, how are you?”

“Great!” 

Before I can respond further, I’ve lost him again. There will be no conversation, no chance for a connection. I turn to the couple behind me. Although brief, this is our best interaction all morning.

I manage to shake hands with a few more people, but fail to make eye contact with those just out of reach. They are not available to see my wave or receive a nod of acknowledgment.

I’m weary of these trivial attempts at greeting, which confront me at too many churches. I want real connection, not people going through the motions: faking friendly when instructed and withdrawing the rest of the time.

I’m quite sure this is not what “meeting together” means in Hebrews 10:24–25.

Communion

Then we sing two more contemporary songs. Both are familiar—and quite comfortable. We sit down for communion. It is “open to all who believe in Jesus.” I’m glad to know this. Too often churches fail to share this important information, leaving me in a quandary about what to do. 

They skip the bread. Curious.

Instead they offer the juice in tiny plastic cups presented on a glistening chrome platter passed up and down the rows. As I reach for mine, I notice the cup is double stacked. I consider taking just the top one with the juice and leaving the bottom one, but it’s easier to grab both, so I do.

I now know I may participate, but I don’t know when. Do they drink the cup together, as each person feels led, or do they have some unexplained ritual? I agonize over what to do, so focused on the when, that I fail to celebrate the why.

Then the lady to my right quickly drinks the juice. Seconds later a man a couple of rows up does the same. Relieved to know their process, I’m anxious to follow, lest I call attention to myself should I tarry too long.

I fail to corral my racing mind to focus on God. I can’t quiet my heart to consider what Jesus did for us. The harder I try, the tighter anxiety grips me. God, I am so sorry I can’t focus. Time slips by. As more people partake, my chance to join them grows short.

Convinced that God knows my heart and will not hold it against me for not taking time to appropriately acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice of his Son, my Savior, I throw out a desperate prayer. Thank you, Jesus, and I drink the juice.

Feeling a bit guilty, yet also relieved, my next question is what to do with the empty container? I glance at it, noticing something trapped between the two cups. Lifting the first one, the mystery item comes into focus. It’s a little square communion cracker, the tiniest I’ve ever seen.

Now so much makes sense. They didn’t skip the bread. They passed the elements together. That’s why one person seemed to drink twice. First they ate the cracker and then they drank the juice. Their motions, especially for the cracker, reminded me of people I’ve seen in movies doing shots.

I need to eat the cracker, but I’m not doing it like a shot. Smirking, I fish the miniature wafer out from the plastic container. As unobtrusively as possible I slide it into my mouth. With one chomp I demolish it. I swallow, wishing for a chaser of juice.

Today I did communion backward and failed to fully embrace this remembrance of God’s gift to me. Even though I merely went through the motions, somehow it seems all right, even good.

I envision Father God in Heaven, laughing with his Son over my consternation. Standing at their side, Holy Spirit remains silent but grins broadly. I smile, too, suspecting I gave them a bit of pleasure through my disquiet and my unfilled desire to do communion right.

A tear forms. God is so good.

Offering

I have little time to consider his goodness, however. The offering follows as soon as they finish passing the communion elements. I already filled out the visitor card and, as instructed, I place it in the offering plate when it passes.

The plate is small but able to accommodate cash and checks, but the oversized visitor card does not fit. It hangs a couple of inches over the edge. This will make it hard to contain the donations of those sitting behind me.

The Message

With the collection done, our guest preacher stands up. He begins with a prayer. His disjointed speaking—pausing too long midsentence or after each phrase—exposes his uneasiness. I understand. I ache for him. I also know it is the wrong time to visit.

His message is about Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector, as recorded by Doctor Luke in chapter nineteen, verses one through ten. He notes that whenever Jesus encounters a tax collector, the outcome is good. Whenever he encounters a rich man, the outcome is not.

With Zacchaeus being both a tax collector and rich, there is tension over what will happen. I question this distinction. Weren’t all tax collectors wealthy?

The guy is green. He should be practicing in seminary, not on a congregation. Yes, his introduction shows promise, but his presentation fails to deliver. His points are trivial and only loosely connected.

Despite the first three items coming from the text, his fourth does not. Instead it’s pulled from an unnamed song that I don’t know. He ends with an invitation of sorts, followed with another prayer.

With the Holy Spirit’s help, I gain one insight. Hinging on the word “today,” I see a parallel between Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross who hangs next to Jesus.

In both cases, they make a profession of some kind to Jesus and he pronounces an immediate reward for them of “today,” (Luke 19:8–9 and Luke 23:40–43). God’s idea of salvation seems so much different than what we’ve turned it into. 

Finished, the speaker sits, and the worship team gets up to play an old hymn, one tweaked to work well with guitars and drums. It’s familiar, but out of place with the rest of the service.

I wonder if they work an obligatory hymn into each service to keep the traditionalists among them happy.

The assistant pastor returns to give the closing prayer and then the worship team reprises their opening song—the one with different words—to conclude the service. Once again, I stumble over the changed lyrics. At its conclusion, the worship leader abruptly dismisses us.

Heading for Home

I stand slowly, trying my best to look friendly and appear approachable. Inside I am, but I wonder what my body language communicates. I often consider this and likely cause more harm than good when I attempt to contort myself into an open posture. 

Regardless, no one notices, and no one approaches. With nothing else to do, I amble toward the sanctuary doors, where the guest speaker stands, receiving handshakes and good wishes from the crowd.

I, however, don’t want to talk to him. I won’t lie and tell him he did a good job. And I fear any form of encouragement could come out as backhanded criticism. I can’t even share an element of his teaching that I liked, because I didn’t like any of it.

I shake his hand in silence. He looks at me with a question forming in his eyes. Then I realize he’s a member of this church and doesn’t know me. I share my name, and he thanks me for visiting. 

I nod and slide into the narthex. No one leaves, but I see no indication of any fellowship time or informal gathering. Not having my bride with me is even more isolating.

I feel awkward just standing there. To avoid any more discomfort, I give up. I turn right and hit the main doors. I’m the first to leave.

It Was the Wrong Time to Visit

Driving home, I carry frustration with the threat of tears. I enjoyed the music, and, in an odd way, communion worked for me, but the message caused consternation, and the lack of connection left me empty.

It was the wrong time to visit.

If only their senior pastor had been there, I’m sure my experience would have been different. Then I realize I forgot to pray before the service. That would have made an even bigger difference. Sorry, Papa. I messed up—big time.

[Read about Church #60, Church #62, 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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

Church #60: A Missed Opportunity 

I meet a woman at a writers conference. In addition to being an author, she is also a pastor. She’s launching a new church in an underserved downtown urban area.

The Vision

Her dream is a church for people of all ages, races, and backgrounds—a colorful mosaic of folks who seek to grow together in Jesus under the power of the Holy Spirit. She shares more. Her passion draws me in. Her vision inspires me. I want to be part of this great adventure. 

I occasionally see her online, reminding me of this church. Being part of this church is not inconceivable, even though the downtown area is about thirty minutes away. I share my excitement over the possibility with Candy.

She doesn’t see the opportunity I see. Urban church experiences in a rundown area aren’t what she wants, but she does agree to visit once. 

I go online to find the details. Their website casts a vision for a downtown church, but it also talks about their meetings in a suburb. Details appear for a suburban church service, but not for a downtown one. 

In frustration, I fill out the contact form on their website to seek clarity. A couple of weeks later I receive a response, not from my friend, but from her associate. They have not yet started meeting downtown and are presently only gathering in the suburban location.

We are welcome to join them.

The problem is the suburb is northeast of downtown, while we are southwest. It would take an additional fifteen or so minutes to get there. Forty-five minutes is too far of a drive, even to visit a church one time. For us, it’s a missed opportunity to experience their gathering.

The Result

Several months later, I think about this church again. I wonder if their downtown meetings have started. I revisit their website. A picture of the downtown remains, but they have no mention of their downtown vision or meeting there.

I’m disappointed. It’s a missed opportunity.

I understand that dreams can change, and vision can shift. I assume they’ve given up on reaching the downtown urban area, just like many other well-intentioned folks. They are now content in the suburbs. Most people are.

[See the discussion questions for Church 60, read about Church 59 , Church 61, 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.

Categories
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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

Church #58: Not So Friendly

Today, we head to one of the area’s larger churches. In the past, they had a visible presence, but I’ve not heard much about them recently. Their website boasts that we’ll find “a warm and friendly group of people.”

I bristle. It’s like telling someone you’re humble or you’re honest: if you have to say it, you probably aren’t. Experience tells me they’ll try to be friendly but will fall short. 

Their “First Impressions Team,” sporting blue name badges, will be located “throughout the building” and available to answer questions. I suspect I should dress up, but their website says to “come as you are.” What a relief.

Charismatic Church

I can’t tell it from their website, but I know they’re a charismatic church, part of the Assemblies of God denomination. Even their name obscures that fact. Their website has only one mention of their affiliation, which is in small type at the bottom of one page. 

So many of the charismatic churches we’ve visited have left me disappointed. I wonder what today will bring. I see a photo of their lead pastor.

He’s a thirty-something hipster and not at all what I expect for a church with reputed conservative leanings. With this enigma confronting my mind, my anticipation for their service heightens.

The church facility enjoys a visible presence with easy access from the Interstate. We follow the arrows for visitor parking, but we don’t find it. So we park where everyone else does, glad for a spot under a shade tree, which will keep our car cool on this warm July day.

An Urge to Flee

Always anxious before visiting a new church, today my gut churns even more, and then a sharp pain surprises me. My heart thumps. In near panic, I fight the impulse to flee.

Unaware of my anxiety, Candy presses forward, and I fall in step alongside her. It’s going to be okay. I begin to pray. By the time we reach the door, my breathing is back to normal, and my pulse has slowed. I’ll be all right. Thank God!

Two greeters stand at the nearest entrance. The pair smiles broadly and holds open the doors. “Welcome youngsters!” The man is twenty years or so my elder.

I wonder if this is his attempt at flattery or if we represent youth to this congregation. While we have been the youngest people present at too many churches, I don’t expect that to happen today.

“I don’t know you,” says the woman. Affable, her directness carries an edge.

We admit to being first timers and exchange names. I don’t catch theirs, and I doubt they remember ours. We soldier on in. Despite people milling about, all act preoccupied. Once again, we’re invisible.

First Impressions

We walk slowly, giving people time to approach us, but no one does. And we see no one for us to approach, either. Where are those blue-name-tagged “First Impressions” folks mentioned on their website? We have yet to see one.

Based on the facility and decor, I expect an usher handing out bulletins, but there isn’t one. With nothing else to do, we stroll in and sit down. 

The large sanctuary seats about eight hundred on the main level. The sloped floor and auditorium seating, although contemporary in intent, gives a stoic vibe. There’s also a balcony, but, unlit, it must be closed. With only a smattering of people sitting down, they’re not even close to needing it. 

A countdown timer on dual screens tells us the service will begin in a few minutes. At some churches the counter signals the launch of the service, while at others it serves as a mere guideline, an anticlimactic tease. Today it is both.

Trying to Worship

The worship team of nine begins leading us in song when the display hits zero. Most of the people, however, aren’t ready to worship. Many aren’t even sitting down. Conversations continue as the band plays.

Just as I’m settling into the chorus of an unfamiliar tune, a reunion between two people occurs to my left, with their loud conversation distracting me well into the third song. I want to worship God. I must focus on the words I’m trying to sing. Even so, focus evades me. I can’t worship.

The band boasts three on guitar, with an electric bass, keyboard, and drums. Three vocalists round out the group. The vocals balance nicely with the instruments, though they’ve cranked the overall volume too high.

Most disconcerting, however, is the subwoofer that sends out sound waves to press against my chest with each beat. It causes me discomfort, but Candy can’t feel it.

Eventually we end up with about three hundred people, half of whom wander in well after the service starts. They’re mostly older than us, with few families and no children that I can see.

By the end of the fourth song, the flow reduces to a trickle. Is worshiping God in song not important to them or was this just a prolonged prelude?

After ten minutes, with most everyone finally seated, the lead pastor welcomes us. He’s everything I expected. I can’t wait to hear his message.

Welcome

His open, casual demeanor is geared toward visitors, yet his occasional use of church jargon would leave the unchurched confused. I wonder how much of my speech is likewise salted, despite my efforts to purge my words of Christianese. 

He refers to the bulletin, and I’m irked no one gave me one. I can’t look at the section he mentions or read the additional information. Then he sits down as a series of video announcements play. 

Communion

When he returns to the stage, he leads us in communion. “Everyone is invited to the table,” he says, “to encounter Jesus in their own way.” He explains the process, so we know what to expect. They serve both elements on one platter.

The “bread” is small oyster crackers. As for the clear liquid, I wonder if it’s white wine or clear grape juice. This is the most inclusive communion service I’ve ever experienced.

As a teetotaler, communion wine unsettles me, and I brace myself for its assault. It turns out to be grape juice, but my preoccupation over it fully distracts me from celebrating communion as I want.

Guest Speakers

We sing some more, and then the senior pastor introduces the guest speakers. I groan, hopefully to myself, at this news. I really wanted to hear their pastor, not some missionaries. But theirs isn’t a typical missionary message.

Instead, they share their story of how God prepared their future restoration even when they were in the middle of deep turmoil. 

They are effective communicators. God’s work in their lives is compelling. I jot down three one-liners: “Storms in life are inevitable,” “God is present in the storms,” and “May we see God’s hand in the center of our storms.”

Though the message doesn’t apply to me now, it one day might. I’m glad to know their story of hope.

Wrapping Up the Service

Afterward, the senior pastor returns to the stage and introduces the offering. The ushers pass the offering plates with quick efficiency, yet they somehow miss a few rows. Miffed because they skipped him, one man chases down an usher so he can present his gift.

Having completed his mission, the man returns to his seat while the pastor asks the prayer teams to come forward after the service to be available for prayer. As for himself and the rest of the staff, they will scoot out for their monthly visitor reception. The service ends, and most people scatter.

Post-Service Interaction

Candy thinks she sees someone she knows and goes over to investigate. I tarry, waiting to meet the man at the other end of my row, but he’s already talking to someone else, and it seems it will be a long conversation.

I scan the auditorium but see no one I can approach, and no one comes up to me. Soon I’m standing alone, with a gulf of emptiness around me. Not wanting to look too pathetic, I meander over to Candy. As I do, I look for the prayer teams up front but see no one.

After my wife wraps up her conversation, we head toward the door. 

“We could check out the visitor thing,” says my bride, “but why bother? We’ll never be back.”

I’m relieved. “Good point.”

Service Overview

We didn’t hear their lead pastor speak, but we did hear a worthy message, one that will stay with me. I’m glad to know this couple’s story of God’s provision and restoration.

From that standpoint, the hour-and-forty-five-minute service was worth it, but the rest of our time here left me disappointed. I didn’t worship God today or experience Christian community.

I walk out feeling lonely.

At the door stand two people with blue nametags, the first ones I noticed all morning. At least now I know what the tags look like. Pleasant folks, we say our goodbyes and step out into the warm sunshine.

[Read about Church 57 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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

Church #57: the Purpose of Church

Another New Church

During our 52 Churches journey, many people suggested we visit today’s destination, but with their location falling outside our self-imposed ten-mile limit, we skipped them—all the while feeling we were missing something.

When the building’s former occupants became too few to carry on, one of the area’s largest churches (Church #52, “Playing it Safe”) took over the building with the intent of it becoming a second location.

The people they sent there, however, eventually decided to start a new church. Today, we’ll see the results.

First Impressions

The building is visible from the Interstate but not so accessible. It’s hard to get to, with no direct route available, but we finally make it. Once we arrive, there’s a circular drive around the building.

Even though a sign, albeit too small to easily read, directs some traffic left and others right, my instinct is to drive counterclockwise. I think the main entrance is to the left, but I can’t overcome my compulsion to go right. Fortunately, it works out. 

As we walk to the building, I enjoy the warm sun and gentle breeze, a nice counterpoint to our cold, wet weather of the past few days. I spot friends, and we talk a bit before they head off to their small group meeting.

Then we see another acquaintance and chat some more. Once we sit down, a friend of Candy’s comes up and talks at length.

The sanctuary is nearly a cube. Its vaulted ceilings, supported by massive arched wooden beams, provide an impressive, open feel. Up front is a spacious stage, not grand but most functional.

Behind us is a balcony. The main floor has about 250 padded chairs, with about one hundred people using them. 

Five musicians begin to play: two guitars, a bass guitar, drums, and baby grand piano. This signals the service is about to start. Candy and her friend continue talking. I try to listen to their conversation, but I want to take in the music too.

The band’s driving sound draws me. Reminiscent of grunge, an unexpected harmonica provides even more intrigue. This church has a reputation for its many talented musicians, and I’m witnessing the results.

What Is the Purpose of Church?

As the prelude winds down, we start the service in surprising fashion. One of the members gives us an assignment: break into groups and answer the question, “What is the purpose of church?”

I look at the stranger to my left, the only one close enough for a group. I extend my hand. “Hi, I’m Peter.”

“I’m Lisa, and this is my son, Jordan.”

“Hi Lisa. Hi Jordan.” When Jordan ignores me, I turn back to Lisa. 

“How long have you been coming here?” she asks.

“One week!” I flash a crooked grin, something I do well. “We’re visiting.”

She laughs and then becomes serious. “So, what is the purpose of church?”

“This is something I’ve given a lot of thought to.” Despite extensive contemplation, I don’t have a pithy one-liner to share. However, that doesn’t stop me from trying.

I think out loud. “The purpose of church is to form spiritual community.” That’s a good start, but there’s much more: serving, outreach, giving, worshiping God, and mutual edification. The list goes on in my head. 

Then my mind races to what church shouldn’t be. It’s not a place that entertains, serves me, meets my needs, or feeds me spiritually—that’s my job. It’s not a one-hour-a-week meeting or an obligation to fulfill.

I want to say something snarky about sermons, too, but decorum prevails. This is good because I later learn her husband attends seminary.

Our discussion has just started when the leader tells everyone to wrap things up. I tune out the lengthy set of announcements that follow. I’m still thinking about what else I should have said.

Church needs to have an outward focus, but we can’t ignore an inward component either. What I am quite sure of is that true church seldom happens Sunday morning. I’m convinced it’s a mere distraction to what God desires for us to experience. 

Calm down, Peter. Don’t get yourself worked up.

Worship Conundrum

The musicians return to the stage, along with three backup vocalists. The lead vocalist plays piano. Curiously, she has her back to us. Her voice is strong, but I have trouble following since I can’t see her face. Her seven compatriots face the congregation. Why doesn’t she?

If the intent is to remove them as the focus and let God receive our attention—a goal I heartily support—then why are they even on the stage? This so unsettles me that I struggle to sing, failing in my worship of God.

The Big ‘C’ Church

They’re in week two of a series: “The Big ‘C’ Church.” Today’s installment is “The Purpose of Church.” Their minister is gone, with the intern filling in.

He’s comfortable in front of a group, speaking more as a teacher than a preacher. He also attends seminary, and what he shares seems plucked from the classroom. 

He imparts a string of Bible verses and theologically intriguing soundbites, but I fail to grasp their connection with each other or how they relate to the purpose of church. I learned more during our thirty-second group discussion than from him.

The fault could lie with me. Or did he try to cram too much into his talk or do his presentation skills need work? Regardless, I leave still pondering the purpose of church. 

Post Service Interaction

The worship team plays softly to end the service, while the prayer team comes forward to pray for those who seek prayer. I talk more with Lisa. Her husband joins us. He attends the same seminary as today’s speaker. 

“What do you plan to do when you graduate?” I ask.

“I’m willing to go wherever God sends me and do whatever he asks.” Then he grows somber. “So far, I don’t know.”

“What would you like to do?”

“Well, I don’t want to preach. I’m leaning toward small groups or discipleship ministry. Or ministry that involves one-on-one interaction. I’m waiting for God’s direction.”

I nod. “Usually, he only tells us one step at a time.”

He smiles in agreement. 

Before he heads out, I bless him and his studies.

I find another friend. I sense I’m supposed to pray for him. He wants prayer, but not in the area I assumed. He receives my prayers for his future and for wisdom.

The second service is about to begin. Candy’s waiting for me. When the music starts, we hustle out of the sanctuary.

Reflections

We had rich interaction with people before and after the service. Yet they were people we knew. I wonder about our reception had we not known anyone.

Our only other conversation was with Lisa and her husband, something that may not have happened if not for the assignment at the beginning of the service. 

I think we need to return to better understand this church. I suspect they have much to offer, but I don’t feel any compelling reason to come back and find out.

[See the discussion questions for Church 57, read about Church 56, Church 58, 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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

Church #56: The Reboot

We planned to visit this congregation for 52 Churches but couldn’t—because they didn’t exist then.

Back then, two churches—one we skipped and one we visited (Church #25, “Embarking on a Metamorphosis”)—planned to simultaneously shut down for a few months and then reopen as a new, merged entity.

It took more than a few months, and they didn’t start their services until after the original 52 Churches project ended. 

As they moved forward, the process went by various names, but for simplicity I’m calling it a reboot. Along the way, two other churches joined in, sending people and support. Today, we’ll see the results, eight months after their launch.

The large parking lot has ample room, but it also looks full. It’s a nice sight. A warm day, people mill about outside, including two greeters by the entrance, bantering with all who pass. One opens the door for us. 

Inside is a bustle of activity, almost chaotic—at least to the uninitiated. As our eyes transition from outdoor glare to indoor normal, we pause to take in everything. There’s a nursery check-in station, a table for missions, and another for visitors, but we don’t make it that far.

Nametags

A woman greets us. We connect with each other, but, as our conversation wanes, I wonder what to do next.

“Oh, nametags,” she says. “Do you want a nametag?”

“That’d be great.” But I’m not sure she hears me. 

“We all wear nametags here.” She gestures to her own and guides us to the nametag table. By the time we finish, she’s disappeared, and a line has formed behind us.

With no room in the lobby to mingle, we have two choices. We can turn right to the fellowship hall and socialize, or head into the sanctuary and sit. We didn’t arrive as early as I wanted. The service should start in a couple of minutes, so we walk straight ahead and choose our seats.

Waiting to Begin

The floorplan of the facility remains the same. However, the lobby received a makeover, and the sanctuary underwent a complete transformation.

Gone are the pews, organ, and more formal elements. In their place are padded chairs for a couple hundred, a stage for the musicians, and a contemporary altar. What once approached stodgy is now chic. Subdued lighting adds to the allure. I’m quite sure something special awaits us.

A countdown clock, displayed on dual screens, implies the service will begin in two minutes and thirty-two seconds. While some churches employ this as an absolute trigger to launch the service, for others it’s a mere guide. Based on how organized they are, I expect the first, and I’m correct.

With twenty seconds remaining, the worship team starts playing softly. There are two on guitars, one who’s also the lead vocalist, another patting the congas, and a fourth who sings backup vocals. Their sound is light contemporary.

When the singing starts, a few people stand but most don’t. Slowly, others rise to join them and by the end of the first verse, most are standing, including Candy and me.

Changing the order today, communion—something they do every Sunday—follows.

Celebrating Communion

The program—they’re careful to not call it a bulletin—says communion is open to “anyone who acknowledges Jesus Christ as the risen Savior.” Children are welcome to take part, too, as determined by their parents or caregivers. 

In the pre-communion teaching, the minister, a thirty-something hipster, talks about mercy and grace. Mercy is not receiving the punishment we deserve, while grace is receiving the good that we don’t deserve.

I like these simple explanations and use them often, but I’ve never contemplated them during communion. As I do, I realize how perfectly they fit. Jesus exemplifies both mercy and grace. Communion celebrates this.

There are two communion stations, one up front and one in back, to serve the 160 or so present. The method is to dip the bread in the juice and eat, either at the communion station or later in our seats. As the worship team plays, we may go up whenever we want, but for most that means right away.

Candy and I sit, conspicuous by our inaction, as the throng surges forward. I try to concentrate on what I’m about to do, but as the only people still sitting, most of my effort focuses on not fidgeting. I sense my bride is anxious too.

After most of the people finish, we get in line. When it’s her turn, Candy breaks off some bread, while the man holding the cup says something appropriate. 

Candy dips her bread and pauses. Normally, we celebrate communion as a couple, eating it together as I declare Jesus’s gift to her while she agrees. When it’s my turn, the man says something different to me. Perplexed, I mumble a disconnected response.

I dip my bread and Candy waits for me to say something. Today no words come, and I eat the bread without her. She follows. She seems disappointed over my break from our practice. She should be. I know I am. 

Once again, I fail to fully embrace the wonder of what Jesus did. I went through the motions of communion, but failed to commune with God or my wife. We were the last to take communion, and now I just want to sit as quickly as possible.

Mother’s Day and Children

I shake off my failure at communion as a children’s choir sings. There are twelve girls and one boy. Today is Mother’s Day, though the song doesn’t follow that theme, but I’m not really listening. I’m more taken in by the animated antics of their leader.

Bubbling with expression, she leads them well—and entertains me. Afterward, they distribute carnations to all females, “honoring all women.” This nicely avoids the risk of having a celebration of mothers that inadvertently disregards those who desperately long to be moms but aren’t.

Candy doesn’t like carnations, but she accepts a red one. 

Then all the children come forward for a blessing. The pastor says, “Let’s talk to Jesus.” I appreciate his simple, kid-appropriate reminder of what prayer is. Then the congregation sings “Jesus Loves Me” as the kids head off for their classes.

Giving as Worship

For the offering, the minister reminds us, “Giving is an act of worship.” This again strikes me as profound, just as it did the first time I heard it at Church #13 (“A Dedicated Pastor Team”).

Even so, every Sunday during my teens, I heard the phrase “Let us worship God with our tithes and offerings.” It meant nothing to me then. I assumed it was merely a polite euphemism for “give us your money.”

I understood the offering as merely a way to fund the church, and I missed it as worship.

The Importance of Rest

The church is in the middle of a series about the importance of rest. Today’s message is “Abide, Grow, Fruit, Prune,” based on John 15:1–8. The goal is to produce fruit: the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22–23), good deeds, and transformation.

The minister asks, “Are you bearing fruit?” As the text reminds us, apart from God we can do nothing (John 15:5). Abiding will produce fruit. Rest will result in good works. We need to “find a place of rest,” says the pastor.

We will have “cycles of pruning and of growing.” He ends with the advice “to rest in Christ.”

The worship team plays softly as we exit the sanctuary. One man introduces us to some of his friends. He’s outgoing, with an engaging personality. We talk at length.

Connecting and Fellowship

He says sometimes he’s a greeter. Other times his role is to mingle and interact with visitors. Today he has the day off.

“You’re doing it anyway!”

He smiles. “Yes, I guess I am.” 

“When you’re serving where you should be, it comes naturally and gives life.”

He nods, and Candy adds, “But trying to serve in the wrong place is never good.” We acknowledge her wisdom.

Eventually our conversation wraps up. As I turn to leave, I spot the worship team at the communion table serving themselves communion. It’s beautiful.

Reflections

Despite the changes made in the facility’s appearance, the service unfolded like most others. They merely housed typical expectations in a new package, updating the form but not the format.

We exit the sanctuary and, once again in the lobby, we have two choices. Head to our car or veer into the fellowship hall for food and more conversation. We stay and enjoy both.

For an eight-month-old church, they have much to offer: many who are involved, several programs and areas to serve, and great community. May God continue to bless them on their reboot.

[See the discussion questions for Church 56, read about Church 55, 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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

Church #55: New and Small

One of our goals in 52 Churches was to visit all ten churches located in our local school district. After 52 Churches ended, that number increased to eleven.

The primary marketing for this new church is yard signs, spread throughout the area, suggesting a different kind of church. We make a mental note to visit.

With another last-minute opening in our schedule, we have an opportunity to go there, but we can’t remember their name—and the yard signs are gone.

Tracking Them Down

After some extensive online searching—investing much more time than any typical visitor would do—I stumble upon their name and find their Facebook page, but I can’t locate a website. 

Their Facebook page contains recent updates, but they don’t mention service times or a schedule beyond their first two meetings several months ago.

Now armed with their name, my wife, cyber sleuth Candy finds their website, which confirms their schedule and service time. They call themselves nondenominational, but their website describes a church that fits snugly within the evangelical stream of Christianity. 

As an aside, I suspect most nondenominational churches are evangelical in function, since I’ve never been to one that wasn’t. It’s possible, however, for a church to include all three streams of Christianity.

The service at Church #19 (“A Near Miss”) seemed to embrace equal parts of traditional, evangelical, and charismatic churches.

Even though they were part of a denomination (albeit a very loose one), their service felt the most nondenominational of any I’ve ever attended. They exemplified what I think nondenominational should be: open to anyone and everyone, without leaning toward a denomination or stream of Christianity. 

A Wintery Drive to Church

We head out early. A winter storm blankets everything with a layer of ice. Several churches cancelled services, but we don’t think to check if this one has.

I pick a route that will be more traveled and hopefully less treacherous. Even these roads are slippery, and we shouldn’t be out. Passing an accident confirms the folly of our adventure. The drive takes twice as long as normal. 

The church is in a small strip mall. With only a couple of cars in the parking lot, I wonder if they, too, cancelled services. Supporting my suspicion, I don’t see any lights or movement inside.

Our Welcome

The parking lot is even more icy than the roads. As we exit our car, a man calls out to be careful. With much concern, we inch our way toward him.

He introduces himself and doesn’t bother to ask if we’re visitors. He knows. With the weather, he expects low attendance and says they only have half of their worship team. Inwardly, I sigh. It seems that too often we show up when churches don’t have one of their typical services.

Encouraged by the engaging welcome, we head inside. A guy in the sound booth looks up and comes over to talk. He looks familiar and says the same to me. My bride notices he’s wearing a clip-on mic and asks if he’s the pastor. I wonder the same. He says, “Yes.”

We’ve been at a church service in this space before. A couple of years prior to 52 Churches, we visited Church #15 (“An Outlier Congregation”) here. They since moved and changed pastors, which resulted in a much different experience for our 52 Churches visit.

Today the room feels bigger than that visit several years ago. I suspect the prior church had one space in the mall, with the present configuration using two. They have 144 padded chairs, aligned in long rows.

With only twelve people present, the vastness of the space makes our numbers feel even less. We’re the oldest people there, with kids, teens, and younger adults all represented.

Even though we walked in two minutes late, we have time to talk with several people before the service. They finally start about fifteen minutes later. I’m not sure if beginning late is their norm or if they’re allowing more time for people to arrive.

As it turns out, it doesn’t matter. We are the last to show up.

The Service

Today’s worship leader normally plays drums, but today he fills in as worship leader for his older brother, who is working. He also plays guitar. Another guitarist and bassist join him. The drum kit sits idle. His leading is confident, though not polished.

I’ve been to services where the worship team is so rehearsed that I feel I’m at a concert and miss worshiping God. The opposite is well-intentioned people who shouldn’t be leading music. Their efforts unfold as a painful ordeal, repelling me from God.

Today, we hit that ideal place between the two extremes. At least it’s ideal for me. We sing several current worship songs, which draw me to God.

Then they have a time of sharing. When churches do this, I often wonder why. One of three patterns usually emerges: 

They call attention to the person sharing, as in “I just bought a new Lexis. Pray that my BMW sells so I can give money to the mission.”

Or it borders on gossip, as in “My brother-in-law didn’t come home again last night. My sister might file for divorce and seek full custody of the kids.”

Third is a wish list to God, as in “Pray for a new job, a good-paying job, one where the boss treats employees with respect, and a new car to get me to work, suitable work clothes, and money for . . . ” 

Yeah, I’m exaggerating a bit, but not too much. 

Not so at this church. They share well. My first hint of this is tissue boxes scattered throughout the room. Certainly, people shed tears here. My assumption proves correct. When the first two people share, both end up crying as they reveal the angst of their heart.

Their words are not just a lament but also a testimony, teaching and encouraging others. 

They remind me of Paul’s words to Jesus’s followers in Corinth, that each person should do their part in building up the church (1 Corinthians 14:26). Their time of sharing doesn’t fully match Paul’s instruction, but they come closer than I’ve ever seen before.

After several people share, the pastor asks for others to do the same. His words go beyond being polite. He’s almost imploring more people to participate.

I wonder if he’s leaving an opening for Candy or me to say something. At his second request, I squirm a bit, but he doesn’t prolong his plea. With no more takers, he moves on to his message.

The Message

It’s the Sunday before Christmas, and he reads about Jesus’s birth from Luke 2:8–14. The pastor has a gentle delivery, kind and accessible. Though it’s not his fault, I have trouble concentrating on his words.

I jot down a few verses and one sentence that strikes me: “God sent Jesus here so we could better understand his nature.” I ponder this, missing what comes next in the sermon. I don’t think of helping us understand his nature as one of Jesus’s goals, but I realize the pastor is correct.

How could I have missed this?

Fellowship Afterward

The service ends with more music, and then everyone hangs around to talk. Eventually, we interact with every adult present and several of the braver teens. We learn their leader is a tentmaker pastor, following Paul’s example of working his trade to provide for ministry (Acts 18:2–3). 

This, I feel, is how it should be, not expecting paid clergy to serve members but for members to minister to each other. If we rightly serve and minister to one another, as the Bible teaches, the role of pastors becomes much less demanding—almost unneeded.

With less demand on their time, pastors won’t need to work as much or receive compensation, with each paying their own way. We also learn many members have a charismatic background, but they’re careful to avoid excess, doing all things properly, as Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 14:27–28.

As we talk, the lead guitarist has a bit of a jam session. “I really enjoy your playing,” I tell him later, “but I suspect you were holding back!” 

He smiles. “I didn’t receive the set list until last night. Since I live in an apartment, I couldn’t practice.”

Having talked to everyone, we finally head out, the first to do so, glad for the experience. Most of the ice has melted, and the roads are now fine. Our church experience today was a good one.

This church does so many things right. I wish more people were part of it.

[See the discussion questions for Church 55, read about Church 54 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.