Categories
Visiting Churches

The Church with a Fundamental Vibe

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.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

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 She means this in a favorable way, but what I hear is this church is at least a decade out of date.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.

Takeaway

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.

Distracting Staging

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.

Takeaway

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.

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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

The Church with Much to Offer

An Intriguing Possibility

The neighbor who goes to The Kind-of-Traditional Church also mentioned this one. “All the rest of the neighbors go there,” she said. “It’s more contemporary.”

That’s where we’re headed today, all the while questioning how many of our future neighbors actually go there.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Easy Access

The facility is larger than I expect and the parking lot, huge. With minimal congestion, it’s easy to find an open spot. The main entrance is obvious, and we walk toward it, along with many others who converge there from their parking spaces.

Several people stand outside to greet arrivals.

They’re friendly in excess, but there’s no effort at anything more than to flash a broad smile and offer a hearty handshake. Their apparent intent is to keep us moving forward, funneling us indoors.

Among the bustle of activity inside, many people pause to share an inviting smile and state their welcome, often accompanied with a handshake. But the interaction stops at that point as they hustle off to something else.

Though the contact lacks depth, it’s encouraging they noticed us at all, far different from our experience at the last church.

I scan the lobby—quickly, to not look pathetically lost—hoping to spot the welcome center. Seeing nothing, and no one who beckons us, we mill forward toward the sanctuary, which is actually a smartly accessorized gymnasium.

It reminds my wife, Candy, of “Church #45: Another Doubleheader” in 52 Churches: a full-sized gym with a large stage on the side, hundreds of padded chairs, and plenty of room to move about. She’s right, and I nod my agreement.

She heads to the center aisle and moves forward with intention. Fearful she wants to sit too far toward the front for my wellbeing, I halt her onward movement. “This is far enough.” I turn into the back row of the front section, move in a few seats, and sit.

To my relief she joins me.

I calculate the room has eight hundred chairs and estimate about two hundred people present. By the time they dismiss the children for their own activities, I suspect the crowd has swelled to 350.

The Countdown

A large screen over the ample stage displays a countdown timer until the service begins. Two larger screens flank it, repeating the same information.

As the worship team assembles onstage, a fourth screen behind us cues them on what the congregation sees. At T-minus three minutes, they begin playing. The worship team is so large that I count three times to confirm they number fourteen.

The musicians are arrayed in an arc: French horn, trombone, baby grand piano, drum kit, keyboard, bass guitar, and two electric guitars. In front of them stand six vocalists, including the song leader on acoustic guitar.

As a prelude, they sing softly. Their contemporary sound is practiced but with no hint of an edge or excess energy. A rock concert it is not. Even though the words for this first song appear on the screens, most people don’t join in, instead continuing to talk.

At T-minus two seconds, the song ends, and a video announcement plays, followed by a string of verbal messages from a man who gives only his first name. Next week is infant dedication, followed in a few weeks by adult baptisms.

He jokes about them providing donuts as an incentive for people to go to the first service instead of the fuller second one. Then he segues into an opening prayer, which precedes the offering. A concluding song serves to transition us to the message.

Another man stands, but he doesn’t give his name. With too many pastors who are quick to drop their title—and even their advanced degree—at every opportunity, I appreciate he doesn’t.

He has either the humility or self-confidence to skip this, but I wish to at least know his first name.

Nehemiah’s Leadership

His message is from the book of Nehemiah, “a case study in leadership.” Focusing on select verses in chapter two, he talks about the city walls being in shambles, but the people accept this as reality and do nothing to repair them.

“Many churches ignore their problems,” he says. To highlight this, he shows a video clip titled, “It’s not about the nail.

I’ve seen this before, and I delight in watching it again, while my bride groans at the unexpected reveal midway through.

“Never allow fairness to determine our receptiveness to being obedient to God,” he reminds us. Under Nehemiah’s leadership, the people rebuild the wall in only fifty-two days.

He then moves to two other verses, Philippians 2:5 and Acts 2:42, focusing on them for the rest of his message. He concludes by hinting at why churches are dying, which parallels why the city wall of Nehemiah’s day remained broken.

The solution to dying churches is adopting the same attitude as the people did under Nehemiah’s leadership: “They were willing to give up their personal agendas in order to be obedient to God.”

I have a page of notes and jotted down several pithy one-liners, but despite all this, I can’t follow the flow of his message and connect the dots. Still, he gave me much to consider.

Know What You Stand For

After concluding his sermon, he prays we would “know what you stand for; not what your stand against.” We’ll do well to follow his advice.

As we leave the gym, ushers hand out key tags with the message’s two key verses. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. Philippians 2:5” is on one side.

The other proclaims, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 2:42.” (They don’t list the version, but I later find both in the NIV, 1996 version.)

I’m puzzled. Why did they give us key tags with these two verses? How do they tie in with the first part of the message and the conclusion? What are we supposed to do with them?

Returning to the lobby, we make our way to the information table to pick up a free book for first-time visitors. They offer us three to consider. I’ve read two of them, so I opt for the third.

Though the title doesn’t interest me, and I’m not sure I’ll read it, I don’t see a graceful way to decline.

We talk with the two people there for a few minutes. Despite the ample number of folks who welcomed us, or invited us back, they are the only two to ask our names or share theirs.

Outside stand the minister and another man, greeting people as they arrive for the second service and saying goodbye to those leaving the first.

Just as at our arrival, their focus is on interacting with as many as possible but doing so quickly. I abandon my hope to talk with the pastor. Even though no one else is nearby vying for his attention right now, his gaze is far away.

Concluding Thoughts

On the drive home, we discuss our experience. Candy calls the music “safe,” and I agree. She didn’t like the message. While I did, it’s not so much because I followed it, but because of a few thought-provoking insights.

“They were friendly,” she adds with a hopeful tone.

“Yes, but it was all superficial,” I counter. “We didn’t have any meaningful conversations and didn’t make any connections.”

She nods. “Do you think any of our new neighbors go there?”

“I didn’t recognize anyone.”

On the surface, this church has a lot going for it and much to offer with their contemporary music, intriguing message, larger size, newer building, and friendly people. But I fear it would require much effort and take a long time to make meaningful connections.

This church offers some intriguing possibilities. We could come back sometime, perhaps for their second service, but I’m not sure we will.

Takeaway

Know what you stand for, not what you stand against.


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.

Categories
Christian Living

Church Distractions

What Do You Focus on When You Should Be Focusing on God?

This is a post I’m hesitant to share. Yet I’ve always been forthright when I talk about my spiritual journey. So there’s no point in holding back now.

The disconcerting truth is I often struggle with church distractions during the service. I wrestle to keep my focus solely on God.

Though not often, sometimes my thoughts go elsewhere. I may fixate on something that occurred before church or be preoccupied with what will happen afterward. Though my body is present, my mind isn’t always there.

Yet these types of church distractions don’t happen to me too much—anymore. My pre-church prayer usually removes these mental interruptions.

My struggle with church distractions usually relates to what happens at church during my time there. This can occur throughout the entire service.

Church Distractions during the Music

Here’s a list of some things that threatened to take my attention away from God in the first part of the church service:

Edit song lyrics: As a writer, I fixate on words. Whenever I see something written—and even sometimes when I hear words—I’m mentally edit them. This happens often with song lyrics at church.

Irritated by false rhymes: Though I don’t often write rhyming poetry, I appreciate a smart rhyme. But whenever I encounter a false rhyme in a song—or a contrived twist to force a rhyme—I’m taken out of the text.

Add punctuation: Another occupational hazard of being a writer is that I edit too. This means I often mentally insert commas, periods, and ellipses into the song lyrics displayed overhead. This would make them easier to sing, especially for songs with odd timing.

Consider biblical support: The purpose of the songs we sing at church (at least I think so) is to draw our attention to God.

It’s not altogether bad if our focus shifts to the Bible, but too often a lyric captivates my attention as I mentally seek biblical support for it. I can easily miss the rest of the song when I go down this path.

Critique the audio: Early in my life I was an audio engineer at a TV station. I ran the sound board and mixed the audio feeds for broadcast. I sometimes slip back into this mindset with the sound and sound system at church.

Consider cameras: In my work in TV, I sat next to the director. This allowed me to hear his instructions to the camera operators and technical crew, as well as to watch him switch between video feeds.

Because of this, I sometimes slip back into focusing on the technical aspects of producing the service.

Watch the worship team: Another early job of mine was working as an electronics technician at a music store. Though not musically inclined, everyone I worked with was.

Their job at the music store was merely to pay the bills so they could pursue their passion to play music.

They mesmerized me with accounts of their concerts and performances. As such, I watch musicians from a perspective different than most people.

Church Distractions during the Message

My list of distractions is shorter for the second part of the service, but it exists nonetheless.

Technical aspects: During the sermon I’m less likely for the audio, video, and camera work to divert my attention, but it still happens.

Biblical support: I’m more likely, however, to be sidetracked in considering the scriptural support for the minister’s words. Though this is a laudable effort (Acts 17:11), I may sometimes go too far.

Delivery: I consume many hours listening to podcasts each week, normally at twice the normal speed, at 2x. This requires me to focus if I am to catch every word.

The downside is when I hear a minister speak live, the slower, real-time delivery (effectively at 1x) provides much opportunity for my mind to go elsewhere. Taking notes helps keep my focus on the message.

Writing and research ideas: During the sermon—as well as the rest of the service—ideas pop into my mind.

Often these turn into blog posts. Occasionally it’s a book title or concept. Sometimes it’s a topic to research in the Bible or contemplate more fully under Holy Spirit direction.

I jot these items in my notebook so I can shove them out of my mind at the time and return to what’s happening in front of me.

How to Stay Focused at Church

My lengthy list of church distractions may have some elements that resonate with you. Or perhaps you’ve come up with your own list. Everyone struggles in this area, although some much more than others.

The issue in all this, however, is to combat it. Though we may make some progress on our own volition, as an effort of self-control, the real solution comes from God.

When I remember to seek him in prayer—both before the service and when distraction threatens—this is the best way to remove the disruption and return my focus to where it belongs: on God and my relationship with him.

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.

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Categories
Christian Living

Realign our Church Practices of Music and Message

We Must Rethink What Happens at Our Church Services

A friend once said in his Sunday morning message that some people go to church for the music and put up with the sermon. Others go for the sermon and put up with the music.

The minister’s statement suggests that people feel a church service has two primary elements. One is the worship music, and the other is the sermon: music and message.

I get this. At one point in my life I endured the singing as I waited for the teaching. Then my perspective flopped as I pursued worship and endured the sermon. Now neither matters too much to me.

In recent years I’ve not gone to church for the music nor the message. I show up for the chance of experiencing meaningful community before or after the service.

Put Music or Message in Its Place

Though the New Testament talks about both music and message, neither seems central to their meetings, especially not the way we pursue these two items today.

Music: Though music is a part of Jesus’s church, it emerges more as a secondary pursuit. Paul doesn’t ascribe music to a worship leader but to each person gathered. The purpose of this is to build up Jesus’s church (1 Corinthians 14:26).

Music is part of the one another commands as a way of ministering to each other (Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18–19).

An interesting side note is that the New Testament never mentions using musical instruments in their worship of God, as happened throughout the Old Testament. This doesn’t imply that our church singing today should be a cappella, but this is something we might want to contemplate.

Sometimes New Testament singing to God happens apart from a church gathering, such as when Paul and Silas are sitting in jail (Acts 16:25). Let’s consider how we can apply their example to our reality today.

Sometimes the music set at one of today’s church services is worshipful, drawing us into closer fellowship with God. But too often it’s more of a performance for attendees then a tribute to our creator.

This makes the music portion at some churches more akin to a concert, even to the point of including a light show, smoke machines, and accompanying video projection behind the performers.

And if you claim our church worship time isn’t a performance, then why are the singers and musicians positioned in front of everyone and elevated on a stage? If the music is truly a tribute to God and not a performance for us, then why not station the musicians behind the congregation or out of sight so their presence won’t distract us from God?

Message: Another friend calls the church sermon a lecture. I’m not sure if he’s joking or serious, but I get his point. I’ve heard sermons that so sidestepped the Bible, faith, and the good news of Jesus that the resulting words were no different than a lecture from a secular speaker.

There are, however, three instances where New Testament writers describe activity that we might equate to a sermon. These are in specific situations.

The first is educating people about their faith (Acts 2:42). This implicitly is for new believers, giving them spiritual milk as we would feed a baby (1 Corinthians 3:1–3). This basic training grows them in their salvation (1 Peter 2:1–3).

It prepares them to teach others (Hebrews 5:11–14). It’s not something to persist in Sunday after Sunday. Instead it’s a temporary situation we should grow out of.

The second is missionaries who tell those outside the church about Jesus. This can’t happen at a church meeting because those who need to hear the good news of Jesus aren’t there.

Spreading the gospel message requires going out to encounter people where they are, not expecting them to come to us and our church services (Acts 8:4, Acts 8:40, Romans 10:14–15, and 2 Corinthians 10:16).

And the third is traveling missionaries who give updates at the local churches (Acts 14:27, Acts 15:4, and Acts 20:7).

Everyone Participates: Regarding these two elements of music and message—that we place so much emphasis on in our churches today—Paul gives instructions to the church in Corinth. It’s not the job of a worship leader to lead us in song.

Nor is it the role of a minister to preach a sermon. We—the people in attendance—are to do these things, and more, for each other. It’s an egalitarian gathering where we all take part for our common good to build up Jesus’s church (1 Corinthians 14:26).

Remember, through Jesus, we are all priests. It’s time we start acting like it.

Community

What does show up as a reoccurring theme throughout the New Testament is community. But this goes way beyond the time of personal interaction that I seek before or after a Sunday service.

The church, as a group of people, should major in community, on getting along and experiencing life together. Community should happen before, during, and after all our gatherings—both those on Sunday, as well as throughout the week. In all that we do, community must be our focus.

We should enjoy spending time with each other, just hanging out.

If we don’t like spending time with the people we see for an hour each Sunday morning, then something’s wrong: not with them, but with us. Yes, community can get messy.

But we have Jesus’s example, the Holy Spirit’s insight, and the Bible’s wisdom to guide us in navigating the challenges that erupt when people spend time with each other in intentional interaction.

Here are some of the aspects of community that we see in the early church, and that we can follow in today’s church.

Share Meals: A lot of eating takes place in Jesus’s church. We must feed our bodies to sustain us physically, so why not do it in the company of other like-minded people?

In community, sharing food becomes a celebration of life and of faith. (Read more about breaking bread in “10 More New Testament Practices, Part 2”.)

Fast: Although Jesus’s followers do a lot of eating together, they also fast (Matthew 6:16–17 and Acts 14:23). Fasting is an intentional act of devotion that helps connect us with God and align our perspectives with his.

Remember that although Jesus’s disciples didn’t fast, once he left, it was time for his followers to resume fasting (Luke 5:33–35).

Prayer: Another reoccurring New Testament theme is prayer. This isn’t a minister-led oration on Sunday morning. This is more akin to a mid-week prayer meeting, with everyone gathered in community to seek God in prayer together (Acts 1:14 and Acts 12:5).

Listen to the Holy Spirit: As the people pray, sometimes associated with fasting, they listen to the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28). Then they obey what the Holy Spirit calls them to do (Acts 13:2–3).

Minister to One Another: In their community they follow the Bible’s one another commands, which teach us how to get along in a God-honoring way. (See treat one another.”)

Serve Others: We serve one another in our faith community (Galatians 5:13). We should also serve those outside our church, just as Jesus served others. And we shouldn’t serve with any motive other than with the pure intent to show them the love of Jesus.

Loving others through our actions may be the most powerful witness we can offer. We need to let our light shine so that the world can see (Matthew 5:14–16 and James 2:14–17). All of humanity is watching. May they see Jesus in what we do (1 Peter 2:12).

Tell Others about Jesus: The New Testament gives examples of people telling others about Jesus in their local community (Acts 3:11–26 and Acts 7:1–53). It also mentions sending people out into the world as missionaries (Acts 8:4–5 and Acts 13:2).

Witnessing, both local and abroad, springs from the foundation of community.

Unity

In our community we should pursue harmony. Jesus prayed that we would be one (John 17:20–21). The early church modeled unity (Acts 4:32). We also covered unity in the “The Acts 4 Example.”

When issues arise among Jesus’s followers that threaten their single-mindedness, they work through it to avoid division (Acts 11:1–18). This unity includes the agreement of their theology (Acts 15:1–21).

Conclusion

We need to rethink what happens at our church, deemphasizing the significance of music and message while elevating the importance of community, one that functions in unity for Jesus.

Read more about this in Peter’s thought-provoking 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.

Categories
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.

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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.

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Visiting Churches

Discussing Church #61: Visiting Church by Myself 

Many Sundays we’ve driven by this church, noting a three-quarters-full lot for their first service and a packed one for their second. While church size doesn’t impress me and growth may be misleading, both can signal spiritual vitality.

I’m intrigued. Today, I’ll be visiting church by myself.

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church #61.

1. Candy is gone, so I’m on my own. I’m okay visiting a church by myself, but staying home is so tempting.

How can we form a habit of regular church attendance? How can we stick with it?

2. The parking lot has plenty of space. I’m underwhelmed.

What message does our parking lot send? How can we make parking be a positive and inviting introduction to our facility?

3. Being alone, I feel more exposed than usual. I pause, hoping someone will greet me. No one does. And no one’s available for me to approach. Visiting a church solo takes extra courage.

How can we welcome a person squirming in silence?

4. Several minutes after it’s time to start, the worship team begins playing. Their opening strains call people into the sanctuary. These late arrivals distract me from worship.

How can we make sure we don’t impede others from experiencing God?

5. Next is the greeting. Epic fail. I’m weary of these trivial attempts at connection: people faking friendly when ordered and then withdrawing.

How can we be open and friendly all the time and not just when instructed?

6. The senior pastor is gone, with a second-year seminarian filling in. The guy is green. He should practice in seminary, not on a congregation.

When a message falls short—which will inevitably happen—how should we respond?

7. I leave frustrated. I enjoyed the music, but the message caused consternation, and the lack of connection left me empty. Was it my fault or theirs?

How can we help others leave church feeling better than when they arrived?

[Read about Church #61, Church #62, 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.

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Visiting Churches

Church #61: The Wrong Time to Visit 

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

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

It turns out my speculation is needless. 

Nondenominational

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Solo Visit

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

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

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

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

Pre-Church Interaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Low Turnout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greeting Time

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

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

“Great!” 

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

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

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

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

Communion

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

They skip the bread. Curious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tear forms. God is so good.

Offering

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

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

The Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading for Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Was the Wrong Time to Visit

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

It was the wrong time to visit.

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

[Read about Church #60, Church #62, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches 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.

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Visiting Churches

Not Welcoming: Discussion Question on Church #58

The website of this large church boasts that we’ll find “a warm and friendly group of people.” If you must claim you’re friendly, you might not be; they might be not welcoming.

Experience tells me they may try but will fall short. 

Consider these seven discussion questions about Church 58.

1. Always anxious before visiting a church, my gut churns even more. A sharp pain jolts me. My heart thumps. I later learn I had an anxiety attack.

How can we best help people who struggle to enter a church building?

2. Inside, preoccupied people mill about. We walk slowly, giving someone time to approach us. No one does. And we see no one for us to approach.

How can we be more aware of people longing for interaction?

3. When the countdown timer reaches zero the worship team begins to lead us in song. Most of the people, however, aren’t ready to worship. They aren’t even sitting down.

How can we better prepare ourselves to worship God?

4. As I settle into the chorus of an unfamiliar tune, a reunion between two people hijacks my focus. Their loud conversation distracts me well into the third song.

How can we balance a desire for community with the goal of worship?

5. We end up with about three hundred people, half of whom wander in several minutes after the service starts.

How can we make sure we arrive on time and not distract others from experiencing God?

6. The minister leads us in Communion. “Everyone is invited to the table to encounter Jesus in their own way.” This is most inclusive.

How can we better include people and help them encounter Jesus?

7. The insightful message was worth the hour-and-forty-five-minute service, but the rest disappointed me. I didn’t worship God today or experience community. I walk out feeling lonely. This church was not welcoming at all.

What can we do to make sure people don’t leave church disappointed or ignored?

[Read about Church 58, Church 59, 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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

Church #58: Not So Friendly

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

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

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

Charismatic Church

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

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

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

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

An Urge to Flee

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Impressions

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

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

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

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

Trying to Worship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome

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

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

Communion

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

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

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

Guest Speakers

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

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

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

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

Wrapping Up the Service

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

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

Post-Service Interaction

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

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

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

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

I’m relieved. “Good point.”

Service Overview

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

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

I walk out feeling lonely.

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

[Read about Church 57 or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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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.

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