Visiting Churches

The Nonconventional Church

Locked Out

We head for a church that meets in an office complex, using space provided by an adoption agency. A former coworker of Candy’s is the teaching elder there. Another of her friends recently started attending this nonconventional church.

The thought of knowing someone at church is a powerful pull.

Lacking a website, they do have a Facebook page. However, aside from oodles of photos and a few dated reviews, there’s only one other thing I can learn about them. However, it’s monumental.

The words quicken my heart. A simple but laden question asks, “What does a church look like when you drop all the programs, masks, facades, and actually learn to love one another in participation of the Way of Christ?”

Sloppy writing aside, this nonconventional church is definitely one I want to check out. They may be the kindred spirits I seek. Dare I hope they’ll live up to the implied promise of their spiritually provocative statement?

Everything Goes Wrong

An early winter snow makes traveling slippery. Wet feathery flakes of white threaten to cover the road, obscuring our visibility. I wonder if we should even be out driving.

Through a mix of partial information and assumptions, we get lost, stumbling on the building by accident once we’ve given up any hope of finding it. We pull into the parking lot six minutes late.

Amid multiple buildings, with a slew of tenants, we spot the adoption agency, but their door is locked. An adjacent entry marked “employee entrance” is locked too.

After wandering around in the cold, wet snow, we finally spot a third entrance in another building that also lists their name. This one, with its double doors, is more promising, but it is likewise shut tight.

Fighting off the fluffy dampness of the falling snow, we walk around the complex, looking for hints of where to go or how to get in. Some sections of the walks are shoveled; most are not.

Random footprints in the snow reveal recent traffic, but they don’t converge on a common entrance or even hint at a way inside. Frustrated, we get back in our car and drive around the facility, looking for their church sign or another entrance to try.

When this yields no new clues, we return to the parking lot.

There are other cars there, so we know people are present. Having given up, I remain in the car.

Candy gets out and presses her ear against the glass in the double doors and hears music emanating from deep inside. She rattles the doors, and even pounds, but garners no response. After waiting in exasperation, she repeats her efforts, this time with more fervor and increased ire.

Flight or Fight?

She returns to the car, fuming. Now twenty-five minutes after the start of their service, my impulse is flight, while hers is to fight. At an impasse and not knowing what else to do, we drive home in silence, wondering how something so simple could go so wrong.

Though we encountered locked doors at some churches, we eventually found one that was open. This time we did not.

Later that day, my wife vents to the teaching elder in a private Facebook message. He apologizes but doesn’t explain the locked doors. He provides a vague description of which entrance we should have used, but if we understand correctly, we tried it.

We’ll attempt to visit them again, arriving early so we can be sure to get inside. This congregation claims to have a different approach to doing church, and I must learn more.

But I’m not sure if I can work past my frustration of being locked out in the cold while the faithful gathered in the warmth inside. I may have already decided against this church, and I haven’t even been to their service.

Part 1 Takeaway

Make sure visitors know where your church is located and what entrance to use.

A Second Chance to Make a First Impression

Try Again

Two weeks later we head back to The Nonconventional Church. The implication that this congregation does church in a different way intrigues me. However, I’m still harboring hurt from them effectively excluding us from their gathering on our first attempt to visit.

Praying for the Service

With two weeks to stew about this, I’m still peeved when we get in the car on Sunday morning. I don’t want to pray for a good attitude. I don’t want to pray for the church service we hope to encounter.

Praying about this, however—I realize too late—is what I should have been doing for the past fourteen days.

I ask Candy to pray. She declines. I grunt out a petition to the Almighty using phrases oft repeated when we head for church:

“May we receive what you would have us to receive. May we give to others what you would have us to give. And may we worship you today in spirit and in truth.” Then I add a begrudging afterthought. “Oh, and give me a good attitude. Yeah. Amen.”

Feeling guilty over my halfhearted prayer, I suspect God isn’t pleased either. I have little hope my pitiful plea, one offered more out of obligation than expectation, will gain much traction with the godhead. I sigh.

New Instructions

Once again Candy had some last-minute communication with her friend at this nonconventional church. Though their Facebook page says 9:30, he assures her it starts at 10 a.m.

Today he tells us to go through the door of a travel agency and not the adoption service. That would have been helpful information last time. At least today we know where the building is.

We also leave early to give us extra time. We hope to time our arrival with other attendees and follow them inside. Unfortunately, Candy’s friend will not be there to look for us. He had a bad encounter with a halibut at dinner last night and is home recovering from food poisoning.

We arrive about ten minutes early, not as early as Candy wanted. Again, there are cars in the parking lot, but we see no people. We sit for a while, waiting for others to arrive. They don’t. We scan the building, searching for the name of the travel agency. We don’t see it.

However, I spot a different travel agency. “Do you think he gave us the wrong name?”

Candy’s not sure, but I think he did. We double-check all the other signs. With no other travel agencies, I assume he misspoke.

We get out of the car and head in that direction. Only when we’re almost to the door do we spot a small, ground-level sign for the church. While most helpful to us now, we had to get out of our car to see it. We would’ve never noticed it from the parking lot.

Inside, to our right, is the inner door to the travel agency. It’s shut and the lights inside are off. To the left is a glow, emanating from a stairwell around the corner. We head toward the light.

Though wide, the stairway is otherwise unimpressive: dirty and well worn. At the bottom we see new construction injected into an old facility. Though the hallway is lit in both directions, we hear people to our left. We head toward the murmuring.

Finding Friends

We approach a hall with trepidation. However, before we make it to the doors, a woman I recently met while volunteering looks up in surprise to see us. She walks to us with intention, offering a hearty greeting. I’m pleased to see someone I know in this new area where I know so few.

As we talk, several of Candy’s friends spot her and come up to welcome us. None of them expected her, but all are pleased we’re visiting. As we talk, we learn more about their situation.

First, this church is about thirty years old and not the startup I assumed. My friend was one of the founding members. The fact that they meet in rented space after three decades encourages me, reinforcing their claim they’re committed to break from church conventions.

Without owning a building, they’re free from the financial burden it entails. The owner of the facility is indeed the adoption agency, so our initial information was correct, though misleading.

The basement recently flooded and is undergoing repairs. It will take a couple more weeks to finish.

The reason no people arrived with us is that they all came at 9 a.m. for Sunday school, with classes for all ages. Each class covers the same topic but with age-appropriate content.

I appreciate this twist, as it allows families to encounter the same curriculum but at accessible levels, providing the opportunity for further discussion at home.

At the same time, I wish they’d broken from the habit of Sunday school, as its original intent—to teach illiterate people how to read—no longer applies. Yet the expectation to provide Sunday school lives on.

A bit overwhelmed by all the attention, I sit down to wait for the service to start. I review the names of people I’ve met, jotting them in my notebook on the page reserved for today’s experience. I suspect I’ll see these folks again, so I work to remember names.

Aside from being in a meeting space in the basement of an office building, the room is configured as expected for a church service. About seventy chairs, set in three sections, are arced to face a podium centered in the front.

Time to Begin

The worship team assembles to the right of the lectern. An impressive drum kit sits in the other corner. Housed in a Plexiglas enclosure, it seems even grander. Couches fill the space behind us, with the soundboard in the back corner.

The service opens with a family reading three Scripture selections and lighting the first Advent candle. They give way to the worship team of nine, a mixture of teens and adults, sporting an eclectic mix of instruments: violin, saxophone, drums, keyboard, guitar, and bass guitar.

The song leader stands behind the podium, directing us with his strong, soothing voice as his arms sway to keep time. Two female backup vocalists stand between him and the instrumentalists. We sing for about thirty minutes, mostly Christmas songs, with a lively crowd-pleaser in the middle.

Part way through the song set is the offering. People walk forward to present their donations, while the rest of us sing. Throughout the singing, many people raise their arms in an act of physical worship.

Because of the flood, there is no children’s church today, and they expect a few more weeks before repairs are complete. The kids, who are many, remain with us for the message. I estimate fifty people present, including the worship team.

It’s a comfortable-sized gathering, with all age groups, though a slight majority are families with younger kids. There also appear to be a few three-generation family units sitting together. I enjoy seeing kids migrate to their grandparents’ laps as the service progresses.

A Last Minute Replacement

With their teaching elder at home recovering from his food poisoning, another member fills in to give today’s lesson. He’s comfortable in front of the group, and though he’s had little time to prepare, he ably fills in, speaking for an hour.

“Advent,” he says, “is a time of waiting.” We wait with hope, in anticipation, and full of excitement. Later he expounds on our time of waiting: “We don’t have what God wants to give us because we didn’t cry out for it.”

He cites a verse in Psalms, but I must have written it down wrong. Later I find nine verses in Psalms with the phrase “cry out,” and I’m not sure which one he cited. Still, his question of “What are we crying out for?” is a convicting one.

The last segment of the service is a time of prayer, with our leader opening it and members who take turns praying. Some come forward and use the mic, while others pray from where they sit—both adults and children.

They direct their words to God and not to impress others or to promote an agenda, which I’ve seen too often in group prayer. Unfortunately, during the periods of silence between the petitions, my mind drifts.

What time is it? How much longer will this last? What’s for lunch?

More Connections; More Community

Our leader offers a concluding prayer, and the service is over, but no one leaves.

Most of the people we talked to earlier come up again to thank us for visiting and invite us back. A few people mention the need for signs to guide visitors to the correct door.

Apparently, our inability to get inside two weeks ago has circulated. While no one mentions our dilemma directly or apologizes, they do acknowledge they’re working to address this problem.

My friend gives me a copy of The Story, which is the basis for their Sunday school lessons. I feel guilty in accepting the gift, but it would be rude to decline. I do, however, appreciate her gesture and sincerely thank her.

Some kids gather around a table in back, playing an intense game of cards. I smile. According to my wife’s fundamental upbringing, these “devil cards” are explicitly forbidden. It would be sacrilegious to play with them at church. Yet here they are.

Despite all the people who welcome us, it only comes from those our age.

None of the younger adults talk to us. While there may be many legitimate reasons for this—ranging from other people for them to greet, the reality we were already welcomed well, or of pressing issues with their children—I feel slighted.

Too many churches unofficially, yet effectively, segregate by age. Though it’s natural for people to gravitate toward those most like them—especially those their age—we have more to gain by interacting with people of different ages, at different life stages.

This is the hallmark of a truly multigenerational church, as this church hints at being.

Eventually we head out, the first to do so. I don’t know how long the others will linger in community. Though I long to do so, too, I don’t know anyone well enough for an in-depth conversation, and I have exhausted all my socially polite talk.

On our way home, we discuss our experience. Without asking her, I know Candy likes the church and wants to go back. While a return visit is in order, I don’t share her level of enthusiasm. Though they’re high on my list, they’re top on my bride’s.

My fear is she’s already decided where she wants to go, while I’m not so sure. Regardless, I know we’ll one day revisit this church.

Part 2 Takeaway

As far as Christian community is concerned, it’s what happens after the service that has the most impact.

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

Bible Insights

Does God Receive Our Actions as a Memorial Offering?

Cornelius is a commander in the Roman army; he’s also a man of faith, who prays often and gives to the poor. One day, during his afternoon prayers, he has a vision. An angel appears to him and says that God has received his prayers and gifts as a memorial offering.

Imagine that. God sees Cornelius’s prayers and help of those in need as a gift directly given to him. It is an offering, something done in his name.

I don’t know if God accepts all our prayers as memorial offerings or holds all our efforts to help others in such high esteem, but it is something to contemplate.

I think to be counted as a memorial, it must be done in Jesus’ name. And to be received as an offering, it must be presented with right motives. So when we do things for Jesus with pure intentions, it may be that God will likewise receive our actions as a memorial offering to him.

As a kid, I was confused by how we could directly give to God. Maybe this is how. May all we do be a memorial offering to him.

Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Acts 8-12, and today’s post is on Acts 10:4]

Read more about the book of Acts in Tongues of Fire: 40 Devotional Insights for Today’s Church from the Book of Acts, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

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

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

Visiting Churches

The Megachurch

Navigating Big

Our son and daughter-in-law’s Sunday plans change abruptly one Sunday morning. We scramble to find a church to visit. Not just any church—that would be easy—but a church fitting our search criteria.

However, we’ve not yet given it much thought. With little time to plan and most services already in progress, we need one that starts later.

A nearby megachurch has a second service at 11:30 a.m. We’ll go there. One of our future neighbors attends this church, but the chances of spotting them in a crowd of thousands in the service we attend seems slim.

Though big is not what I claim to want, the one church out of 52 Churches that I felt the most affinity with, the one I sensed was the best match, was also the biggest. I hope this megachurch will evoke a similar connection.

We don’t leave as soon as we should have. It will take a miracle to arrive on time, let alone ten minutes early, which is my goal when visiting churches.

I pray aloud as we head their way.

“God, slow my racing heart. May our focus be on you. May we worship you in spirit and in truth. Show us what you would have us to see. Teach us what you would have us to learn. May we give to others what you would have us to give. Amen.”

“The speed limit is forty-five,” my wife, Candy, says. My heart still races, and our car’s speed reveals it. I wonder how much of my prayer she heard and how much I meant. I sigh.

Taking my foot off the accelerator, I add something to my prayer. “Please don’t let the service start until we get there.” It’s a selfish thing to ask, to assume God will make a couple thousand people wait because we didn’t leave soon enough.

Yet I don’t know what else to pray. I need to slow down, both mentally and physically. Drawing in a deep breath as our car slows, I sigh again.

Now traveling at the posted speed, I accept the fact that we’ll be late. For 52 Churches we were never late once. But for this round, we’ll be late on the first Sunday. It’s not a good start.

We’ve been to their sprawling facility before, but it was for concerts in their youth center. We’re not even sure where their sanctuary is. I follow the stream of cars. Parking attendants direct us to a general area. I follow the car in front of us and park next to it.

There’s no clear path to the building and no obvious flow of people to follow. Some go right and others go left, while a few meander. We’re already five minutes late and still must hike to the building. We’re panting by the time we reach the doors.

Inside, activity bustles. Sounds come from all directions, with the loudest emanating from the right, but to the left is music and a doorway hinting that a sanctuary might be behind it.

Though twenty feet away, I make eye contact with a woman at the information center. I point to my left and, with raised eyebrows, mouth the question, “That way?”

Confused, she asks, “For what?”

“Is the sanctuary that way?”

She nods, and I veer left. Candy follows. I push forward.

Sensory Overload

Inside, the service is in full swing. My senses overload. I could aim for a seat in the back, but there’s plenty of room closer to the front. I turn and head for the next aisle.

Moving forward, we walk past twenty or more rows. Still well back from the stage, I slide into a seat near the aisle. Candy slips in beside me.

Astonished, I try to take it all in. I count fourteen on the worship team: guitars, drums, keys, and a slew of vocalists. Behind them sways a praise choir of twenty or thirty, smiling broadly, worshiping God with their singing and the gentle rhythm of their bodies.

Overhead, three large screens, perhaps twenty or even thirty feet across, present the service in super-sized reality. Images of the worship team fill the giant displays with the song lyrics underneath. Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be singing.

I don’t know the song but pick it up easily enough. However, as I look about, I soon stop singing. There are two boom cameras, whose constant motion distracts me, along with two handheld cameras roaming the stage in their operators’ skilled hands.

Two more stationary cameras round out the count to six. But from the various shots I see on the screens, there are even more cameras that I can’t locate.

They continue to sing, but with too many distractions, I can’t focus. After several songs, the worship leader asks the prayer teams to come forward. People seeking prayer follow them. As the prayer teams minister to those in need, the rest of us resume singing.

Eventually, a man I assume is the minister appears on stage. The worship team withdraws into the shadows. He reads Genesis 12:2–3. The words appear on the screens beneath his jumbo-sized image.

I like this passage and often ask God to bless me so I can be a blessing to others. As I take notes, I assume this is the message, but he is simply introducing the offering.

As we resume our singing, ushers come down the center aisle, balancing stacks of buckets in their arms. They give one to each row as they work their way toward the back. As the buckets move across their rows, they accumulate offerings.

In the adjacent aisles, more ushers pass the buckets across the chasm to the outside sections. On the end aisles, a final set of ushers receives the proceeds, struggling even more with their balancing act. Once completed, we stand again while we sing.

By now the main floor is mostly full, while the balcony is mostly empty. I wonder if there were more people at the first service. It’s mid-August, so I suspect attendance is low. How full will it be in another month?

I calculate the main level seats about 2,000, and surely the balcony holds at least 1,000 more, but both estimates could be off.

When the music ends, the worship leader tells us to greet four or five people around us. Though smiles abound as we shake hands, there’s little connection as the people move through this ritual with mechanical precision.

I’ve only greeted three people when most others begin to sit. I turn to the two people behind me, not because I’m complying with the instruction to greet five people, but to push back at the brevity of the greeting time and its insignificance.

What Is the Purpose of Church?

The minister returns. “What is the purpose of church?” He bounces through a series of Bible verses.

I try to note them as I jot down some intriguing phrases: “The kingdom is here, within you,” “Jesus wants disciples,” and “All religions are men reaching out to God. Christianity is God reaching out to man.”

An unassuming individual, the pastor doesn’t look the part of a megachurch leader. Though confident, he lacks the polish I expect and the dynamic delivery I anticipate. Either his message lacks significance or I lack focus.

Yet I can’t shake the persistent feeling that our late arrival has seriously skewed my perceptions. We’ll need to make a return visit for a proper experience. I’ve wasted our time today, failing to worship God or serve his people.

I scan the crowd periodically, searching for our neighbors. I don’t spot them.

“We focus on the receiving aspect of faith,” says the minister as he wraps up his message, “but we also have a faith that sacrifices, a faith that gives.”

We watch a video about their TV ministry. The recording shows several people in India who are now following Jesus because of watching this church’s services online each Sunday.

The video ends, and the congregation shows their affirmation with applause. Now they take a second offering, this one to support their TV ministry, which was the apparent underlying intent of the message.

As the ushers return with their buckets to repeat their earlier performance, a series of video announcements play. The presenters are not mere talking heads, but polished announcers, comfortable in front of a camera, with an affable presence and the practiced cadence of a professional newscaster.

I’m so impressed with the quality of their delivery that I miss their messages—all except one.

When we pulled into the facility, we had joked about a sign that simply read “Kids Sale” and gave dates. “How many kids do you want to buy?” I asked my wife.

“I wonder if you can sell kids too?” she quipped.

Now a video plug for this event repeats the same information but gives no clarification. It’s still funny to me. “Do you want to buy one kid or two?”

“I think we have enough.”

I want to give her a snappy comeback, but the service ends before I can. Everyone stands and files out. None of the people we greeted have any parting words to share, and I can’t make eye contact with them. No one lingers to talk.

Everyone exits the sanctuary, flowing as a mass of people intent on leaving.

The Mass Exodus

The parking lot will be a mess, and we’re in no hurry to be part of it. After using the restroom, Candy wonders aloud if there’s a bulletin. I scoff. “This doesn’t seem like a bulletin kind of church.”

But she heads over to the welcome center, now unstaffed, and proudly returns with a bulletin of sorts. In it we later learn that “Kids Sale” is a consignment sale of kids’ games, clothes, and paraphernalia.

I consider heading over to a pavilion for “first-time visitors,” something I spotted on the way in but skipped because of our tardiness. There’s not much going on there, and I lack the motivation.

Instead, we turn the other way and head outside, with our newly acquired bulletin in hand.

Walking just ahead of us is Vanessa, who sat in front of us at church, the only person whose name we know, learning it during our greeting time. I consider calling to her and wishing her a good afternoon. But she seems intent on leaving.

Besides, we’ll never see her again. I remain silent, even though I shouldn’t. Frustrated, I just want to go home.

We walk at a leisurely pace back to our car, much slower than when we arrived. A warm sun and gentle breeze make it an enjoyable saunter. This should relax me but not quite. A line of cars still awaits their turn to leave. “I think there’s a back way,” Candy says.

“Let’s try.” I follow a couple of cars headed in the opposite direction. We wind our way through a maze of buildings, trees, and drives. “I don’t know where we’re going, but at least we’re making good time.”

Candy either ignores my quip or doesn’t catch my humor. Eventually we find ourselves at a major road. It wasn’t the one I expected, but it will work out even better.

Reviewing the Experience

Reviewing what happened, I’m discouraged: we arrived late, were distracted by most of the service, struggled to worship God, couldn’t follow the sermon, failed to experience community, and didn’t give anything to anyone.

Vanessa was my one possibility, but I didn’t even try.

I am empty, all the while knowing we’ll need to make a return visit to consider this church. Next time we’ll plan better. “Today was a complete waste.”

My bride says nothing.

The Megachurch Takeaway

How you approach church influences your experience. If you leave empty, you likely failed to arrive prepared.

* * *

Returning to The Megachurch

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Big

We arrived late the first time we visited The Megachurch. Our tardy arrival seriously skewed my experience that day. I knew we’d need to make a return visit. Today we do.

We plan to leave early, but it doesn’t work out. Even so, we leave early enough to arrive fifteen minutes before the service starts. We park in about the same area as last time, and this time we know which direction to head.

Our first visit was on a pleasant fall day, with a gentle sun and warm breeze. Today is the middle of winter. Though it’s not snowing, the temperatures hover in the mid-twenties, and the biting wind attacks us with fervor.

My winter coat fails to protect me. I stride toward the door with purpose.

First-Time Visitors

Glad to be inside, I head straight to the “first-time visitors” pavilion. Several people stand ready to welcome us. I flash my best smile. “Hi!”

“Is this your first time here?”

Oh no, busted! “We visited once before,” I try to explain, “but got here late and . . .” I shake my head at the memory and try to stifle a shudder. I search for more words to justify our audacity at approaching the “first-time visitors” table even though we aren’t first timers.

The lady smiles and offers reassurance. “Who would like to fill out the visitors’ card?”

“The person whose handwriting we can read,” I say, gesturing to Candy. She always fills out the information card.

The woman hands me a coffee mug and offers a second so “you can both have one.”

I shake my head. “I don’t drink coffee.” I suspect I sound rude, but we don’t need any more church coffee cups. The woman accepts this and doesn’t show she took offense.

I realize that if a person ever needed coffee cups, they could start visiting churches and would quickly amass a cupboard full, albeit mismatched.

Get Connected

Then she hands me a “Get Connected” pamphlet, a 40-page booklet with the subtitle “Grow, Connect, Impact.” Many churches use these words or others like them. Theologically I embrace the idea, but execution is the key.

“This explains all about our church,” she gushes. “We’re a big church, so small groups are important to us. We encourage everyone to be in one. That’s the best way to get connected.”

I nod, confirming the importance of a small group and the community it can offer.

“I really encourage you to visit the small group table.” She points to an area behind me. “They can find a group in your area that’s a good match for you.”

I nod again, wanting to tell her how much I agree and how badly I want to be in an intentional spiritual community, one focused on mutual support and encouragement, one where we can help each other on our faith journeys. But before I can marshal the words, she continues.

“You can go there now or visit them after the service.”

“Okay.” I’m tempted to. Yet I also know that if the group is all I hope it to be, I’d see no need to attend church on Sunday. Could I be in one of their small groups and not go to their church? Not that anyone would know, with their two services and thousands of people. Yet it wouldn’t feel right.

She hands me another packet, this one bearing a CD to explain the history of their church. Interested in learning more, I’m happy to accept it.

Seeking a Different Perspective

By this time Candy has completed the information card. She cradles her new coffee cup, and we head to the sanctuary.

This time we enter a different door. We also sit in a different section, mindful of how the continuous movement of the boom cameras throughout the entire service distracted me.

By the time we select our seats, the countdown timer is at 5:00. I’m surprised at how few people there are. Actually, there are hundreds, but with more empty seats than occupied ones, the space looks empty.

With one minute left, the lights dim to hint that the service is about to begin. The crowd is still sparse.

When the counter hits zero, the band starts. Some people join in, but not many. The song isn’t familiar to us. I wonder if it’s new to everyone. I’m reminded again about how much there is to distract me.

The large screens overhead, the boom cameras, the camera operators roving the stage with their handhelds, the praise choir swaying with the music, the dozen or more musicians and singers on the worship team—and the steady stream of people flowing into the sanctuary.

I don’t know the second song or the third, but I mouth some of the words, which is easier on the choruses. Some lyrics hit me as significant, but I can’t focus on them, since I’m trying to move my lips while trying to ignore all the surrounding distractions.

Even though we are sitting halfway toward the front, we’re still too far back to see much detail of the people on stage. It feels more like a concert than a church service. I wonder if a concert vibe is their intent.

The order unfolds the same as before. The prayer team comes forward and people wanting prayer follow. There’s the briefest of greeting times. By now, the main floor is mostly full, but from what I can see, the balcony is mostly empty.

The attendance appears the same as at our first visit. Then the pastor gives a brief teaching on giving, from Matthew 6:20, before they take the offering.

Small Groups

We sing another song and watch a video about small groups. Sometimes they say “small groups” and other times they use “life groups.” (Their literature uses life groups, but their website uses both terms.)

The phrases mean different things to me, with small groups being more transient and life groups being long term.

The announcement ends with “sign up today; groups start next week.”

This suggests they run small groups in terms, with periodic reshuffling. That way if you end up in a group you don’t like, it won’t last long. However, there may not be enough time for a group to really gel and become all it can.

With these concerns, the pull of being in one of their small groups diminishes.

Guest Speaker

Today they have a guest speaker, a missionary from the other side of the world. His English is perfect and his diction, flawless, yet it seems his words are colored by the culture he ministers to. Though his intent is clear, his occasionally odd phrasing disrupts my concentration.

Reading from the KJV (last time the minister used the NKJV), he teaches from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He promises we’ll “learn something from the Bible we’ve never heard before.” It’s an audacious claim. I’m skeptical.

Though he unveils historical context that’s new to me, he doesn’t teach me anything new about the contents of the Bible itself—or maybe I missed it.

Then midway through the message, he switches to a lengthy illustration about evolving technology, obsolescence, and the need to adapt to changing conditions. Then, just as abruptly, he takes us back to Philippians.

I see no connection between his illustration and the lesson on joy from Philippians. This reminds me of Luke 19:12–26, which seems to be a mash-up of two unrelated parables, with one shoved inside the other.

To conclude, he launches into an altar call of sorts, leading the entire congregation in a prayer of salvation. I always bristle at this technique and don’t take part.

For me, when a follower of Jesus prays the sinner’s prayer again, it’s disingenuous, either lying to God or casting doubt on the prior decision to follow Jesus. Maybe his theology requires we renew our salvation commitment every week.

Those who prayed the prayer “for the first time” are invited to go to a special place after the service to “get started.”

A Second Offering

Then someone announces a second collection, this one for the missionary who spoke. The first time we visited, they took two offerings, which I assumed was not typical. Now I wonder if two offerings are their norm.

I groan, realizing how right the unchurched are with their complaint that churches are always asking for money. We sing during the offering and stand for the final verse once all the buckets have been picked up.

We sit when the song ends. As a video announcement plays, many people shuffle out. I want to join them but also want to respect the service. The professional cadence and inviting smile of the announcer draws me in. After that, a long series of verbal announcements follow.

Mindful of the time and friends we’re meeting for lunch, I squirm as the speaker drones on, while more people file out. This is a church where many people arrive late and leave early.

At last, he gives us a blessing and ends the service. With intention, we head for the door, not looking for anyone to interact with, while noting that no one seeks to interact with us.

We head for the exit and push into the bitter cold. The biting wind of this winter day cuts through our coats and into our bodies, instantly chilling us.

I so wanted to click with this church, but I so didn’t.

Key Takeaway

For your sake and everyone else’s, strive to arrive at church early and leave late—not the opposite.

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

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

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

Christian Living

How Much Money Does the Church Need?

We Must Be Good Stewards of All That God Blesses Us With

The Old Testament church required a lot of financial support to keep it going. There was a tabernacle to build and transport. The temple later replaced the tabernacle, but it required regular maintenance. The priests and Levites received support too.

This huge need required the people to give their tithes and various offerings, some mandatory and others voluntary. In today’s church, facility costs and payroll expenses make up most of the church’s budget, sometimes all of it.

Yet if we were to do away with these two elements, there’s not so much need for money.

After building and staffing costs, what small amount remains in the budget falls into two categories. First is benevolence, that is, taking care of our own just like the early church did.

Second is outreach, sending missionaries out to tell others the good news about Jesus (Matthew 28:19–20, Mark 16:15–16, and Luke 14:23). Think of all the good a church could do with its money if it directed 100 percent of its funds on these two activities and not needing to pay for facility and staff.

New Testament Church Finances

In the New Testament church, people share what they have to help those within their spiritual community, that is, those within their church. They seldom take offerings and when they do it’s to help other Jesus followers who suffer in poverty.

The third thing they do with their money is to fund missionary efforts. Instead of building buildings and paying staff, they help people and tell others about Jesus. It’s that simple.

Rather than focusing on 10 percent as the Old Testament prescribes, we should reframe our thinking to embrace the reality that all we have, 100 percent, belongs to God.

We are to be his stewards to use the full amount wisely for his honor, his glory, and his kingdom—not our honor, glory, and kingdom.

Paul writes that the love of money is the source of all manner of evil. An unhealthy preoccupation with wealth is especially risky for followers of Jesus, as our pursuit of accumulating wealth can distract us from our faith and pile on all kinds of grief (1 Timothy 6:10).

Keep in mind that Paul is not condemning money. He warns against the love of money.

For anyone who has accumulated financial resources, this serves as a solemn warning to make sure we have a God-honoring understanding of wealth and what its purpose is.

When it comes to the pursuit of possessions—our love of money—we risk having it pull us away from God.

Three Uses of Money

We need money to live, but we shouldn’t live for the pursuit of wealth. We should use money to supply our needs, help others, and serve God. Consider these three areas:

First, we should use our financial resources to help fund the things that matter to God. This means we need to understand his perspective. With the wise use of our money, we can serve God and honor him. We must remember that we can’t serve two masters: God and money (Matthew 6:24).

Second, we need God’s provisions to take care of ourselves (2 Thessalonians 3:10). We must focus on what we need, not what we want.

Third we should consider the needs of others. What do they need? How can we help them? Again, as with our own balancing of needs versus wants, we must guard against supplying someone with what they want, instead of focusing on what they truly need.

God especially desires that we help widows and orphans (James 1:27). He also has a heart for us to help foreigners and the poor (Zechariah 7:10).

Therefore, we should give to God first (Exodus 23:19). Then we should concern ourselves with our needs and helping others with theirs. God wants our best, not what’s left over. This applies to our possessions and our actions.

Where Does Giving to the Church Fit In?

Does this mean we need to give to the local church? Maybe. But it’s much more than that. We must direct our money as wise stewards to where it can have the most kingdom impact.

I question if this means supporting an organization where most—or all—of its budget goes to paying for buildings and staff.

We must reform our perspective on money, realizing that 100 percent of it belongs to God, and we are merely stewards of his gifts. We must use God’s financial provisions wisely in a way that will honor him and have the greatest kingdom impact.

Check out the next post in this series addressing the fallacy of church membership.

Read more about this in Peter’s new book, Jesus’s Broken Church, available in e-book, audiobook, 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.

Christian Living

Embrace a Fresh Perspective about Having a Church Building

We Don’t Need a Church Building to Encounter God or Enjoy Spiritual Community

So far, we’ve looked at the Old Testament model for church—of building, paid clergy, and tithes—which we still follow today.

Then we considered how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament and looked at how the early church functions in the New Testament, considering their practices and detailing what church shouldn’t be today. Last, we looked at the essential components for a New Testament-style church.

Let’s now consider what must change in our churches today to better align with the New Testament narrative and early church practices.

We’ve already touched on this when we said that through Jesus, we have a new perspective on the temple (church building), priests (ministers and staff), and tithes and offerings (church finances).

Do We Need a Church Building?

Let’s look deeper into this idea of a church building.

Who needs a building? The early church met in people’s homes and public places. Why can’t we do the same today? Think of all the money we’d save and hassles we could avoid if we removed the shackles of owning and maintaining a church facility.

Not only are our church structures exorbitantly expensive, they’re also underutilized most of the time.

At best, one of today’s churches enjoys full usage for only two hours of each week. That’s 1.2 percent of the time. This means that for 98.8 percent of each week the building is underutilized.

Yes, the office staff uses a tiny part of the space during the workweek, and smaller meetings occur some evenings. But these activities occupy only a small portion of the church building. That’s a lot of wasted space.

The prime motivation for these large, but underused, facilities is for a one-hour church meeting each Sunday.

A Wrong Perspective

At one church I visited, the pastor in his pre-sermon prayer pleaded with God to supply a facility for them. “You know God, how much we need a building,” he begged. “Please provide it for us.”

Although their rented space offered what they needed on Sunday morning and other options provided office space and accommodated their weekly meetings, it appeared that his perspective was that to be a real church they had to have a building.

In a later discussion with one of their church elders I said, “You don’t need a building. You may want one, but you don’t have to have one.”

In most all cases, it costs a church much less to rent space than to own and maintain a building. But even better then renting space for Sunday morning service is to decentralize the church to meet in people’s homes.

Despite this, most every church thinks they need a building.

While owning a building may be convenient and may be a preference, it isn’t a necessity. And sinking mass quantities of money into a church building that goes unused most of the week certainly isn’t being good stewards of God’s resources.

In today’s developed countries churches routinely spend millions of dollars for worship space for people to go to on Sunday morning. The cost of the facility is disproportionately large in comparison to the lifestyle and homes of the congregation.

Building Campaigns

In another instance, a large, growing suburban church had frequent building fund drives to expand its facility. Though the people enthusiastically supported each expansion plan, one effort met with opposition.

They wanted to raise $1 million to build a ring road around the campus to ease the flow of traffic. One million dollars for a road. It was a hard ask for the people to accept.

Even in developing countries, where the expectations of the church edifice are much more modest, it’s still disproportionate to the lifestyle of the people who will go there. In one developing country, a church constructed the concrete shell for its church building and ran out of money.

For several years, they’ve worshiped in their half-finished space and continually asked for donations to complete its construction. Since the members are poor, they can’t finance the construction themselves.

They look to the generosity of those outside their community to complete the building.

Instead of focusing all his attention on his congregation and local community, the pastor diverts some of his time to solicit donations from those abroad.

Church Buildings are Expensive

Regardless of where we live in the world, our church buildings are expensive compared to the lifestyles of most of the people who go there. To have a building, we must either buy or build.

This often requires borrowing money and paying off a mortgage. And if a church falls behind in their monthly payments, the lender may have no choice but to foreclose on the facility. In this instance, no one wins, and the reputation of Jesus’s church is tarnished.

But expenses don’t stop with the acquisition of a building, whether bought or built. The ongoing costs add up. For starters, there are utilities, maintenance, and insurance. And we do all this so we can go to a place to have a one-hour encounter with God on Sunday morning.

Maintaining a church building is costly and does little to advance the kingdom of God. Remember, through Jesus, our bodies are God’s temple.

We don’t need to go to a building to go to church so we can connect with God. We take church with us wherever we go—or at least we should.

We must rethink the importance we put on our church buildings and replace it with a people-first perspective.

Next week we’ll look at church staff.

Read more about this in Peter’s new book, Jesus’s Broken Church, available in e-book, audiobook, paperback, and hardcover.

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

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

Visiting Churches

Faith Promise Sunday: Church #63

When my wife started a new job, she learned one of her coworkers goes to a church near the one we normally attend. With a non-church sounding name, I’m intrigued. We decide to visit.

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church #63.

1. As we drive to this church, I’m so glad for a reprieve from ours and the pointless messages I endure for the sake of community. Even so, I’ll miss seeing the people there.

Should the focus of church be on the message or on community?

2. Once inside the building we weave our way through people, all engaged in conversation with friends—and too busy to notice us.

How do we respond when we see someone we don’t know? How should we react?

3. In the sanctuary, Candy spots her coworker and waves. His face beams. He beckons us. “I’m so glad you’re here.” He is truly overjoyed to see us.

How happy are we when a friend shows up unexpectedly at church?

4. This man and his wife make us feel so welcomed. Though everyone in a church can greet visitors, some people have a real gift for hospitality.

How can we best do our part to embrace people at church? 

5. We learn that this is “Faith Promise Sunday,” so they won’t have a sermon. The lack of a lecture overjoys me.

Do we feel we need to hear a message for church to take place?

6. Instead of a message, they explain the six ministries they support. Then members from the missions committee pray for these organizations and people. When they announce the pledge total, the congregation celebrates.

How does our church celebrate missions?

7. Hearing about the work of God’s people to share his love fed my soul. I’m encouraged by a church that treats missions seriously and not as a minor add-on to a normally cash-strapped budget.

Do we make missions a priority?

This church didn’t have a sermon when we visited. Instead, they talked about the missions they supported on this Faith Promise Sunday.

[Read more about Church #63 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

If you feel it’s time to move from the sidelines and get into the game, The More Than 52 Churches Workbook provides the plan to get you there.

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

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

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 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.

Christian Living

How Do We Give to God?

The Bible Says to Give to Caesar What is Caesar’s and to God What is God’s

While there is no biblical command to give 10 percent of our income to the local church, that doesn’t mean we should ignore giving.

Jesus’s detractors try to trick him into saying something condemnable about paying taxes. They figure they can use his words against him regardless of how he responds.

If he tells them to pay taxes, then they can accuse him of putting the Roman government over God (of literally worshiping Caesar instead of God). And if he tells them not to pay taxes to the ungodly Romans, then they can turn him over to the authorities for treason or even insurrection.

Either way they win.

Jesus responds wisely. He tells them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Luke 20:22-25). Once again Jesus foils their seemingly foolproof plan to discredit him.

But how exactly do we give to God?

As a small kid I connected our church’s offering ritual with Jacob’s ladder in the Bible (aka the stairway to heaven, Genesis 28:12). The ushers passed the plates and walked the collection up the aisle to the minister.

I assumed that on Monday he would climb Jacob’s ladder to heaven and actually give our gifts directly to God. It made sense to me then. And it made giving gifts to God so easy.

So the question remains, how do we give our gifts to God? Since I can’t actually make out a check to God and hand it to him, what am I to do?

Again, Jesus has the answer. In a parable he teaches that whatever we do to help the less fortunate, we effectively do for God (Matthew 25:40).

So we give to God by helping the poor. We can help them tangibly address their physical struggles and we can help them eternally by meeting their spiritual needs.

We can do this directly through our own actions, and we can do this indirectly when we support organizations that help those in need as they point them to Jesus.

If your local church can do this most effectively, then give to them. But check their budget first. For most churches only a very small fraction of the money donated is actually used to help those outside the church.

If another organization has less overhead and uses a higher percentage of donations to help others, then give to them.

Remember, we are to be wise stewards of the money God entrusts to us. We want to hear the words “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21) and not “You wicked, lazy servant!” (Matthew 25:26). May we use our money wisely to advance God’s kingdom and hear his approval.

How do you give money to God? How do you ensure you are a wise steward with the money God assigns to you?

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.

Christian Living

What is Your Greatest Accomplishment?

At church a few weeks ago we were asked a question, “What is your greatest accomplishment?” We were supposed to write it down on a piece of paper.

As a writer you would think I would be good at such things, but since I do all my writing in solitude, with as few distractions as possible, I have great trouble coming up with anything to write when in a public setting.

Focus alludes me, and any words that do tumble forth seem woefully inadequate.

As I ponder this question, other people quickly scribble down their answers. Gee this is hard to decide. I have many notable accomplishments, but none seem truly great.

As I try to determine which of my good-but-not-really-great accomplishments rise above the others, I start thinking outside the box. I sometimes do this, often to the dismay of others.

My greatest accomplishment is still to come. That is true; I am optimistic about the future. I have no doubt that God has amazing things in store for me. In complete confidence I know my future will surpass my past. How cool is that? Should I write that down?

If they read our answers will people think I’m snarky or even arrogant? Then I remember the setting. This is church after all. I should think of a spiritual answer.

Then truth hits me. It is clear and pure, without false modesty or feigned piety. I have accomplished nothing; Jesus has done it all. Still I hesitate to write. I try to figure out why they are asking this. While still in the middle of this exercise, I’m trying to anticipate the endgame.

I don’t want to call attention to myself; I don’t function well in the spotlight. Frozen in indecision, my hand won’t move.

Our leader tells us to bring our accomplishments forward. She holds up a trashcan, presumably the only handy receptacle. Others spring forward to offer their greatest accomplishments. I hesitate. I want to participate as instructed, not be the maverick who doesn’t follow instructions.

Reluctantly I circle back to the beginning. What is my best accomplishment to date? Nothing comes to me; my mind goes back to God. He deserves all the credit.

Our leader issues the last call and scans the room. One person scrambles to write down an answer. He dashes to the front and throws his paper in the trash. I sit in rigid stillness and say nothing. The window of opportunity has closed, and I’m okay with that.

Confident that everyone has now participated, she holds up the trashcan. “All of our accomplishments are garbage to God.”

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.

Bible Insights

Contemplating Cain and His Gift to God

The account of Cain is well-known. The Bible records his story as the world’s first murderer. It is out of jealousy—and possibly premeditated—that Cain kills his brother, Abel. But what are the events that lead up to this tragedy?

Cain and Abel each bring an offering to God. Abel’s is accepted but Cain’s isn’t. There is speculation as to why God disses Cain’s gift, but the reason is not recorded for us to know.

What’s disconcerting is wondering if God ever disses our gifts. It’s a shocking thought. I always assumed God is ecstatic over anything and everything I offer to him, be it money in the offering plate, alms, or acts of kindness offered in his honor.

I liken it to a small child showing Mommy and Daddy the picture he or she just drew. The parents are pleased, praising the child profusely, even though they may be clueless as to what the picture is. I expect God to act like that whenever I give him something.

But what if he doesn’t? After all, God is sovereign—and almighty. What if he doesn’t look at my offering with favor?

It’s a sobering thought. I certainly don’t want to be giving God a sorry little picture—thinking it is good and that he likes it—when he is expecting and desiring something so much more.

God, may my gifts and offerings be pleasing to you.

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.