People Make the Difference
All day Saturday I fight the threat of a cold, applying equal parts prayer and pills to conquer it. What I need is sleep—desperately. By Sunday morning, my wife, Candy, is not surprised when I tell her I’m staying home.
“Fine, I’ll go myself.” She’s not defiant, just decisive. She’s an independent spirit. I appreciate her confidence to go alone and without complaint.
Relieved at her acceptance of my decision to stay home, I nod in agreement as I close my eyes. Sleep overtakes me.
The church she picked is an independent congregation with an evangelical past and fundamental vibe.
She knows two couples who attend there, former coworkers whose company she enjoys and whose faith walk she respects. I’ve met them briefly over the years. They’re good folks.
During the week we talked about visiting this church. While I had a different destination in mind—another megachurch—Candy lobbied for this one. By the time Saturday rolled around, I didn’t much care, giving my assent because it was too hard to discuss.
I don’t hear her leave, and the next thing I know she’s back.
Though still needing rest, my two-hour nap offered some improvement.
“What was it like?”
She responds, but I struggle to focus and don’t remember what she said.
Later, I ask again. She liked the church but mostly talks about seeing her friends. I wish I’d felt good enough to go, but I know that would’ve been a mistake. Today I needed rest much more than I needed community.
A third time, I question her further. It reminds her of a church we attended twenty years ago. She means this in a favorable way, but what I hear is this church is at least a decade out of date.
“I’d like you to go with me sometime,” she says, “but I don’t think you’ll like it.”
My expectation sinks. I want to groan, but that would take too much effort. Confused, I nod to show I heard. Then I fall asleep again.
I’m sure she’ll take me there sometime. Unfortunately, she did little to sell me on it.
If you’re enthusiastic about your church or your faith, be sure to communicate it and not leave people wondering.
Experiencing The Church with the Fundamental Vibe
Today Candy makes a return trip to The Church with the Fundamental Vibe, this time with me in tow. The first time she went, I stayed home sick. She didn’t tell me much about the service, but she enjoyed reconnecting with friends.
She also predicted I wouldn’t like it, so I’m not sure why we’re going back. I pray for a good attitude and an open mind.
It’s the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s. The weather is unseasonably warm, with no snow on the ground and no clouds in the sky. The drive is pleasant and quick. Flanking the large facility is ample parking. I expected something smaller.
A Most Helpful Welcome
As we hang up our coats, a woman talks with Candy. I assume they know each other. Wanting to be supportive, I join in. However, they don’t know each other.
Despite that, our new acquaintance concisely shares a lot of helpful information.
“Normally we have a Bible study hour after the church service but not today because of the holidays.” She pauses and then smiles over what she’s about to share next. “And normally we have a Sunday evening service but not today because of the holidays.”
I smile. “Taking a break?”
“We want to focus on family time. Some people are traveling, and others have family visiting.”
They’re between senior pastors and their interim pastor will speak today. “He’s really good.” Then she adds, “We’d like him to become our regular pastor, but he’s not interested.”
Not having anything to add, I nod to show I’m listening and encourage her to share more.
“It’s been about a year so far and we expect it to take another year,” she adds. “But while we wait, we’re in good hands.” She beams.
“I really appreciate knowing all this. Thanks so much for telling us.”
She points us to the sanctuary and then excuses herself. Never has someone shared so much helpful information about their church before the service. I feel informed and not so apprehensive over what awaits me.
Finding a Seat
Candy guides me into the sanctuary, a huge square room of newer construction. It boasts a minimalist vibe but with smatterings of elegant furnishings scattered about.
She heads to the section on the far left. Last time her friends sat in this area, and she expects to find them here again.
Along the way, she surprises another person as she walks by. “Candy? Candy, is that you?”
I stop and nod to the stranger. “Yes, that’s Candy.” I wait for my wife to realize I’m no longer following her and to come back. She does and reconnects with yet another former coworker.
This friend, we learn, lives a couple miles from us. Today she is running sound and excuses herself to make last-minute preparations.
Candy does indeed find two of her friends, sitting right where she expected. They make room for us to sit with them.
Settling in, I glance at the bulletin, a trifold affair, more attractive than most and packed with useful information. However, it’s not until we get home that I spot the part about stopping by the visitor center and staying afterward for the Visitor’s Coffee.
I miss reading this in the bulletin because the stage distracts me. At first glance it gives a pleasant vibe, but it’s an overdone arrangement that visually assaults me. Do we really need faux trees on the platform?
Interspersed among the staging, the worship team prepares for the service.
The worship leader plays a baby grand piano, and then there’s a violin, with a conga drum next to it but pushed into the background. Also part of this eclectic group is a guitar, harp, and keyboard, with the lead vocalist front and center.
I suspect they think the service is contemporary—and thirty years ago it was—but today it’s merely safe, skewing toward traditional.
What captures my attention is the girl on the conga. Accomplished, I’m sure she’s holding back to match the rest of the group.
Occasionally the hint of a smile threatens to overtake her already pleasant face. I sense she’s itching to cut loose and play her heart out. Though I’m sure that would please God, the rest of the congregation might not be so appreciative.
I estimate the sanctuary seats 1,200, and it’s mostly full by the time the service starts. I try to sing along, but my efforts fall flat. The words elude their formation on my lips.
I’d rather watch the conga girl and her mesmerizing playing. Her demeanor exudes peace as her inviting rhythm draws me to God.
Is it possible to worship God vicariously through the musical skill of another? I think I can. I hope I am. If not, God will be disappointed today with my worship of him.
Failing to engage in anything other than the drum player, everything else blurs. There’s more singing, a prayer or two, some announcements, and a greeting time, but the details escape me.
I want to connect, both with God and with others, but I’m mired in the routine of church boredom. Though Candy’s prediction of my reaction is proving correct, I really hoped she would’ve been wrong.
A Christmas Message
We segue into the sermon. Part four of a four-part series on “Christmas Names for Jesus,” today the focus is on the “Prince of Peace,” courtesy of Isaiah 9:6.
I once memorized this passage for a church Christmas play when I was in middle school. Though the minister isn’t reading from the King James Version, that’s the version I learned for the program and those are the words that resound in my head now.
Memories of that performance resurface: My parents’ pleasure over my flawless recitation—after weeks of practice:
- My pride in turning an ordinary bath towel into a reasonable representation of shepherd head garb, inspired by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
- Fun hanging out with my church friends.
- And a random classmate who unexpectedly showed up and mocked my involvement in something so hokey. Fortunately, he forgot about it by the time we returned to school, so I was spared further embarrassment.
Oh yeah, Prince of Peace. I push aside these memories and try to focus on the words of the preacher. He unpacks the word peace as I scribble key phrases in my notebook. Jumping to Luke 2:14, “. . . and on earth peace . . . .” He then follows with a dozen or more New Testament verses about peace.
Easy to listen to, he moves effortlessly from one verse to the next, from one thought to another. After his resurrection, Jesus gives his disciples peace (John 20:19, 21, and 26).
The end of his message doubles as the benediction: “Peace be with you through Jesus.”
Post Service Interaction
The daughter of Candy’s friends, whom we sat with, wasn’t feeling well and left midway through the message. By the end of the service, the entire family is gone so we can’t talk with them.
The others sitting near us are also unavailable, though we do talk with her friend who ran sound, which is good.
Later, as I wait for Candy outside the women’s restroom, a lady comes up who recognizes me. What a surprise. In this area, my bride often runs into people who know her, but this is only the second time it’s happened to me.
The woman is on staff at the church, and she knows me from a writers’ conference where I spoke. We have a warm conversation. It’s nice to be known and welcomed.
On the drive home, I process my thoughts aloud about the preacher and his message. “He’s a gifted speaker: polished, articulate, and accomplished.”
Candy nods in agreement.
“He’s comfortable in front of a group and most knowledgeable about the Bible. He’s easy to listen to . . . and I was completely bored.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think you’d like it.”
She was right.
If your church is still doing what you did thirty years ago, what should change?
Read the full story in Peter DeHaan’s new book Shopping for Church.
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.