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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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

Church #54: Emergent Church, Maybe

Someone once quipped, “There are more books about emergent churches than there are emergent churches.” That seems like hyperbole, but my experience confirms it.

I’ve read several books about the emergent church, but I’ve never actually been to one. Tonight’s experience may change that, but I’m not sure.

My wife, Candy, and I have an opening in our normal Sunday evening plans. This is an opportunity to visit a site plant of our home church (Church #53, “Home for Easter Sunday”). They meet at 5:30 for a community meal and then have a service afterward—more or less. 

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve discussed going. I’m in favor of it, but my bride is reluctant. It’s not that she fears adventure, but she fears the neighborhood. I offer the suggestion, but I don’t push it, hoping she’ll agree to go, without me having to talk her into it.

Talking with the Pastor

Sunday morning, I’m still waiting. The decision happens as Candy talks with one of the site plant leaders. He’s a friend and fellow writer. We hang out a couple times a month. 

His plans for tonight are to share a meal, offer a brief teaching, and then go for a prayer walk in the neighborhood. I’m sure his intent to wander the streets surrounding the church building will discourage Candy from going.

It’s one thing to drive to a semi-safe area and scurry inside a building, but it’s another to traipse around the neighborhood. (In all honesty, I’m apprehensive of the semi-safe prayer walk, too, but I’m willing to push through.)

His words don’t offer the assurance Candy seeks, but she asks what food to bring.

A Shared Meal

As visitors, they’d forgive us if we showed up empty-handed, but during our year of visiting fifty-two churches, we did our share of mooching, and I don’t want to do so again.

Vegetables, we learn, are typically lacking at their weekly potluck, so on our way home from the morning service, we stop by the store to pick up our contribution for the evening meal. 

The building is familiar to us. It’s the one our church first used until outgrowing the facility and moving. At first, a contingent of people remained, but our church leaders did poorly at managing multiple locations and eventually shut the site down.

Now—wiser, better equipped, and armed with a new plan—a cadre has returned, intent on serving this underserved neighborhood: the area’s poorest and least safe, crime-ridden and void of hope.

Arriving at Church

After a minor detour, because I made a wrong turn, we arrive right at 5:30. My all-too-familiar anxiety about confronting the unknown rumbles in my gut. My pulse quickens as we pull into the small, but mostly filled, parking lot.

I want to make a U-turn and race home, but the likelihood of my wife laughing at my panic steels my resolve enough to park our car. Another family exits their minivan, with kids in tow and food in hand.

Feeling a bit assured, we follow them through the back door that leads directly to the lower level.

With only a handful of people present, there’s even less food, mostly desserts. Round tables fill the basement. The one nearest us holds the food while one further away accommodates some people awaiting the meal.

Between the two is a room of empty spaces, except for a solitary woman sitting at her own table. Pleasant-looking and approachable, my instincts are to talk to her, while mindful that she could misunderstand my efforts or feel uncomfortable.

If I can get Candy’s attention, we can go together, but she’s at the food table, talking with someone who just emerged from the kitchen. To my relief, someone eventually joins the woman so she’s no longer alone.

Seeing Friends—and a Dog Named Beau

I scan the room, expecting to see friends who are part of this adventure, but I don’t see them. From upstairs come sounds of the worship team practicing. Surely, some of my friends are there.

Although I see a few familiar faces, I don’t recall any names. While I survey the situation, one of the familiar faces comes up to talk. We have a friendly, yet awkward, exchange that lasts too long. 

A small white dog meanders over to welcome me. I squat, offering my hand for him to smell. All he does is sniff and tremble. He doesn’t withdraw, yet he’s not advancing for me to pet him either. He’s apprehensive and has found a kindred soul in me.

I later learn his name is Beau, nicknamed Bobo. He serves as the church’s unofficial mascot, esteemed by all, and cared for by many. He belongs to our friends: the site pastor and his wife.

They welcomed Beau into their home and later adopted him. This is poetic preparation, for they will soon welcome a foster child into their home with the intent to adopt him too.

Eventually, the site pastor descends the stairs. Dismayed with the low turnout, he concedes we should not wait any longer for more to arrive. We gather in a circle and hold hands while he prays. He reminds us that sharing a meal is communion.

As we eat and drink together, we do so to remember Jesus. With the Amen said, people surge toward the food table. 

We’ve now grown in number to about thirty, yet the food hasn’t kept pace, and it’s still half desserts. Some people bought prepared food at the store, others share leftovers, and one person made some stew.

It smells tasty but is gone before I get to it. I hold back, as do a few others. Some people may depend on this for their evening meal. If I don’t have enough to eat, there’s more awaiting me at home. Others may not have that luxury.

Fellowship

Candy and I sit at a nearby table with our food, and others join us. We get to know them, making connections as we eat. As a bonus, today is the birthday of one of our leaders. We sing to her and share cake.

My focus is more on the fellowship than the food. But I reckon they cut both short when they urge us upstairs. As we do, more friends show up.

With four young children, it’s too much work to get their brood’s tiny mouths all fed before the worship time starts, so they eat at home and show up a bit later.

The Worship Space

The sanctuary is different from the last time we were here some five years ago. The antiquated pews are gone, replaced with comfortable, padded chairs. The ambiance of the coffee house next to the sanctuary is gone with its accessories stripped away to provide only the most basic options.

In the back, areas are set up for kids to play, with plenty of open floor space for physical worship. The overhead lights remain off, with mood lighting taking their place. The result is a peaceful, subdued setting.

There’s a short teaching, though our leader misses his goal of keeping it under ten minutes. He references Exodus 14:19–22, speaking about slavery, drawing present-day parallels for us to contemplate.

He wraps up about fifteen minutes later. With the planned prayer walk canceled due to a light rain, a time of worship starts, now an hour into the evening.

A few of the people from the meal are missing, but several more have arrived, swelling our group to over forty. Candy and I are at the upper end of the age spectrum. Most are in their mid-twenties and thirties, with a good number of children present.

The other site leader—the birthday girl—sits at the keyboard and leads us in song. A skillful and spirit-filled leader, she moves us forward with music. For some people the songs are the focus, while for others the sounds become reverent background music.

Candy soon wearies of the repetition, repetition, repetition of the choruses. For me it’s not the words that matter but the atmosphere: a worship space where we encounter God in multiple ways, according to each person’s preference.

Some people stand as they feel led, raising their arms, swaying, and reverently dancing. Others sit, bow, or kneel. 

Some kids wave worship flags, praising God through solemn movement. A few adults join them. Other kids play quiet games, build with foam blocks, or create art on a wall-sized chalkboard. A couple of women dance in the back with graceful movement.

I want to watch, worshiping God through the beauty of their motions, but I fear that in doing so I may intrude on a private moment between them and the Almighty. 

The teaching pastor stands again, signaling his wife to pause her playing. He offers a bit of encouragement and instruction. We sing a final song, and he dismisses us with a traditional benediction.

More Fellowship

The planned service is over, but no one leaves. Everyone tarries. We chat with several friends, offering prayers and blessings as needed. We say our goodbyes to the new friends we’ve made, thanking them for the opportunity to get to know them and wishing them well.

Many people attempt to leave, but they’re unsuccessful. There are simply too many conversations to have. Among the first to exit, we leave at 8:00 p.m., two and a half hours after we arrived.

The time passed quickly for me, as it does when I’m in the company of winsome Jesus followers. I relish the experience, suspecting this group is approaching a truer meaning of church than I’ve ever experienced on a Sunday morning. 

Candy has a different assessment, saying that had she not already gone to church today, this would have left her wanting. This must be one reason why there are so many types of churches.

Regardless of our differing perspectives, I think we just had our first emergent church experience.

[See the discussion questions for Church 54, read about Church 53, 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 #53: Home for Easter Sunday

Our journey of visiting fifty-two churches in a year is over. I’m sad and excited at the same time. Our reunion with our home church community looms large. We will be home for Easter Sunday.

It’s Easter, and we’re returning to the people we love and have missed. I expect a joyful homecoming and a grand celebration: personally, corporately, and spiritually. 

We arrive early to meet our kids. While our daughter and her husband attend this church, our son and his wife make an hour drive to spend Easter with us, beginning our day together at church, home for Easter Sunday.

I hope for a discreet return, but friends spot me right away. They’re glad to see me but not sure if we’re back for good. I confirm our adventure wasn’t to find a new church. They’re relieved. 

Our reunion blocks the flow of people, so I excuse myself to find my family. Even arriving early, there aren’t many places left for six, but they did find a spot. I sit down and soak in the ambiance.

There’s nothing special about the building, except its age. Located in the heart of the downtown area, the sanctuary is over 150 years old, far from contemporary. Even with many enhancements, a dated feel pervades.

To start the service, our pastor welcomes everyone, telling visitors what the regulars already know: there’s no plan for the service today, only a general intent. Its length is unknown, so it will end when it ends.

He reiterates that we have freedom in worship: We may sit, or stand, or kneel. We may dance or move about—or not. As is our practice, children remain with their parents during the service, worshiping along with the adults, but often in their own way.

There will also be an open adult baptism later in the service. With the place packed, he asks the congregation to slide toward the center of the seating to make room on the ends for those still needing seats. 

The worship team starts the service with a prayer and then kicks off the first song. The energy level is high. After thirty minutes or more of singing we hear a brief message.

The church is in a yearlong series—I’ve kept up by listening online and apprised Candy on key announcements and teachings. Today, the lesson is about Abraham and Sarah, her scheme for her husband to produce a child through her servant, and his boneheaded acceptance of her misguided plan.

Our pastor ties this in with Easter: We all make mistakes, and we all need Jesus, who offers forgiveness and provides restoration. 

Next is baptism. Our pastor shares the basics of the tradition. The rite is the New Testament replacement for Old Testament circumcision, which he addressed in the message.

Baptism symbolizes the washing away of our sins, a ceremonial cleansing, which publicly identifies us with Jesus. Other creeds say baptism (by immersion) portrays the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Can’t it be both?

People desiring baptism may come forward as the worship team leads the congregation in more songs. Even before hearing the full invitation, one person walks forward and then another. A line forms. 

For many churches, baptism is a somber affair, conducted with reserved formality. Not so for us. We treat it as a celebration with unabashed enthusiasm.

Our church leader prefers baptism by immersion, but the floor of this 150-year-old building lacks the structural integrity to support the weight of a baptismal pool. Instead, we use a traditional baptismal font, with the goal to get as much water on the recipient as possible.

After an elder douses the first person with water, a raucous celebration erupts from the crowd. We cheer this woman’s public proclamation of faith. We baptize a dozen this morning, with more that will happen at the next service. What a glorious Easter.

With the baptisms complete, we resume singing. After a couple more songs, the worship leader concludes the service and the crowd slowly disperses. We eventually make our way out after ninety minutes. Some have already arrived for the next service, which starts in half an hour.

Today we returned home for Easter Sunday. It was an amazing reunion, a grand celebration, and a fitting conclusion to our yearlong pilgrimage.

[Read about Church 52, see the discussion questions for Church #53, 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

Wasn’t 52 Churches Enough?

For 52 Churches, my wife and I spent one year visiting a different Christian church every Sunday. It was an amazing journey that allowed us to experience the vast scope of Jesus’s church.

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

The experience expanded our faith as we celebrated God in various local branches of his church. Yes, the worship practices varied and theology diverged, but the God behind these churches stood constant. It was good. So good.

We wrapped up the year in awe of God, appreciative of the diversity of his church, and grateful for the impact of the people we met along the way. We also felt relief (though mixed with a degree of sadness) as our journey concluded, and we celebrated a return to our home church on Easter.

In truth, visiting different churches week after week was exhausting. It wore us down. Even though our journey started as a fun adventure, toward the end it took more effort to walk into an unfamiliar church each Sunday with open eyes and fresh enthusiasm.

Yes, we learned so much and met so many amazing people, both leaders and laity, but it was good to reclaim the regular routine of going to our home church every Sunday.

Still, I knew the journey wasn’t over. We had more to do.

Yes, the fifty-two churches we visited were a diverse group. But by design, they were all within ten miles of our house. Expanding our journey will unveil greater diversity, new insights, and more to celebrate. Therefore, we’ll look for more churches to visit, but we can’t—we won’t—do this every Sunday.

Instead, we’ll plan our visits sporadically, as our schedule allows, while maintaining a firm connection with our home church. This time, however, instead of methodically selecting churches based on their distance from our house, we’ll strategically choose them to realize the greatest range of experiences. This will maximize the scope of our journey and magnify our lessons.

But first, I’d like to share a couple of personal notes. As I mentioned in 52 Churches, I’m an introvert—as is slightly more than half the population. Navigating new social settings challenges me. This includes visiting churches.

Even though I never got past my apprehension of walking into a new church each Sunday, it did become easier as the year progressed, since visiting churches became our new Sunday norm.

This time, I expect visiting to not be as easy. Since these church visits will unfold at irregular intervals, my Sunday norm will be going to our home church. Visiting a church will be an anomaly.

Therefore, despite having done so over fifty times, I anticipate walking into these churches to be more difficult, not less. I’ll simply be out of practice and will encounter more—not less—emotionally laden moments.

Also, I want to affirm Candy, my wife and accomplice, for these visits. I couldn’t have asked for more. Having her at my side for each of the first fifty-two churches made a huge difference. Throughout, she was a perfect partner on our journey.

Each week she would contact the church we planned to visit, verifying key details. And each week she went without complaint, offering her full support to me and our adventure. This became our normal Sunday practice for a whole year, and her support was essential.

This time, however, lacking a specific plan and schedule, we’ll need to discuss where we’re going and when. I anticipate some give-and-take that each marriage—each partnership of two people—encounters from time to time.

Nonetheless, I know her support will shine just as brightly this time as last. Having covered this, now I’m ready to start, but before we resume our church visitations, let’s revisit our return to our home church, Church #53. We’ll start with a condensed version of what I shared in 52 Churches.

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.