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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.

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?

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?

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?

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? 

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?

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?

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.]

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 and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

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

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

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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.

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

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

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

Categories
Visiting Churches

Church #61: The Wrong Time to Visit 

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

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

It turns out my speculation is needless. 

Nondenominational

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Solo Visit

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

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

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

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

Pre-Church Interaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Low Turnout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greeting Time

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

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

“Great!” 

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

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

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

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

Communion

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

They skip the bread. Curious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tear forms. God is so good.

Offering

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

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

The Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading for Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Was the Wrong Time to Visit

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

It was the wrong time to visit.

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

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

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

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

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

Categories
Visiting Churches

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.

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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.]

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

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

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

Categories
Visiting Churches

Church #58: Not So Friendly

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

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

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

Charismatic Church

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

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

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

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

An Urge to Flee

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Impressions

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

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

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

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

Trying to Worship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome

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

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

Communion

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

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

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

Guest Speakers

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

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

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

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

Wrapping Up the Service

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

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

Post-Service Interaction

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

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

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

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

I’m relieved. “Good point.”

Service Overview

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

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

I walk out feeling lonely.

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

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

Get your copy of More Than 52 Churches and The More Than 52 Churches Workbook today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

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

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

Categories
Christian Living

Are You a Sunday Morning Spectator or Performer?

Church Services Have become an Event, With Consumers Who Come to Watch a Show

Today’s churches contain two types of people. And each of us fits in one category or the other. We are either performers or spectators.

If this seems callous, consider that we live in an entertainment-centered society. We watch TV, go to movies, and attend performances. We go to the game, attend a concert, and watch videos online.

What do these have in common? Each example has performers to entertain us in one way or the other. The masses are spectators, mere consumers of the event. Though we may participate in a way, our involvement is limited to clapping, cheering, or fist-bumping the spectator next to us.

Church is no different. We are spectators there for entertainment, be it emotionally or intellectually, by the performers. The masses consume the church service.

Yes, we may sing along with a couple songs (though many people stand mute during the singing), mumble out a heartfelt “amen” upon occasion, or shake hands with our seatmate during the compulsory greeting time. But the service structure restricts our involvement.

We’re there for the sermon, that is, the lecture, and for the worship set, that is, the concert. And when it’s over we often critique the performance.

Performers

The performers at a church service are the people who stand in front of us, often on a stage. The elevation allows the spectators a better view.

The star of the show is the minister, who gives the lecture and may also serve as the event’s MC. The opening act is the worship team, consisting of singers and musicians.

If this description offends you, consider that most churches don’t select a senior minister or teaching pastor until after they have auditioned and delivered a stirring oratory.

People with spiritual insight but no speaking ability have no place in the modern church. And usually the worship team members must try out before they can sing or play. People with musical passion but not enough skill are turned away and relegated to spectator status.

Yes, we expect our performers to excel in presentation, and if they falter, they are replaced. After all, we don’t want a lack of excellence to mar the performance and drive away the spectators who have a plethora of other Sunday morning performances to select from.

Remember, we live in a consumeristic society.

Spectators

The majority of people at church services are spectators. We sit and passively watch the performance. Though we can view the elevated stage to witness the event, we may best see the back of the head of the person sitting in front of us.

We come. We watch. We leave.

Maybe we leave happy over a satisfactory performance, but maybe we leave unfulfilled, as empty as when we arrived. We wanted community but got a show.

We are church service spectators, watching a performance and consuming carefully presented spiritual content. At best we experience an event that may sustain us until we repeat it next week.

We are church service spectators, watching a performance and consuming spiritual content. Click To Tweet

Move from Spectate to Participate

The solution is to break down the wall between performer and spectator. Church shouldn’t focus on providing a performance but on offering community by letting everyone participate equally in the service.

We should all be able to share with others during our church services. Or at least have the opportunity to share. Paul tells us how. “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation,” (1 Corinthians 14:26, NIV).

When we start doing this in our church services, we will eliminate both the performers and the spectators, turning us all into full-fledged participants. Then we will build a true community of Jesus followers.

It will change everything.

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

Read more in Peter’s book, Love is Patient (book 7 in the Dear Theophilus series).

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

Who Teaches You?

Do Sermons Belong in Church?

We go to church to learn about God, right? So sermons belong in church, right?

Who told you that? It was likely the minister at your local church. That’s who I’ve heard it from, and church is always the place where I heard it.

Isn’t that self-serving?

Think about it. A church hires a preacher. The church pays the preacher. The preacher tells us we need to be in church every Sunday to learn about God and that he is the one to teach us. One of the things he teaches us is to give money to the local church, often 10 percent of our income.

Why does the local church need money so badly? In large part, it’s to pay the preacher. The greatest expense at almost all churches is payroll, usually over half of their total budget, sometimes much more.

We don’t need preachers to teach us; that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. Click To Tweet

So we hire someone who tells us we need him and then asks for money so he can stick around. If we didn’t revere our preachers so much and cling to our sacrosanct practices, I’d call this a racket.

As I read about the church in the New Testament, there is plenty of preaching. But I wonder if sermons belong in church. In the Bible, the preaching is always directed at those who are not following Jesus, the folks outside the church.

Yes, there is teaching inside the church, but I’ve not yet found any passage that says it happens every Sunday or is given by paid staff. In the examples I see, missionaries do the teaching when they come to visit or the congregation instructs one another as they share with each other.

John writes to the church and tells them plainly: “You do not need anyone to teach you.” Then he clarifies: “His anointing teaches you about all things.”

So it is God’s anointing, the Holy Spirit, who reveals truth to us. Therefore, we don’t need anyone to teach us, especially a paid preacher. John says so.

I suppose, then, if we go to church to learn, what the preacher should be telling us is how to listen to the Holy Spirit. Once we’ve learned that, the preacher’s job is done; we don’t need him to teach us anymore.

God’s anointed one will teach us and reveal truth to us. Then we can spend Sunday mornings sharing with each other what we’ve learned through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

But that will never happen. Preachers need to be needed, and they need us to pay them. They would never say anything to work themselves out of a job.

They want their paychecks too badly to tell us plainly what John said and what his words truly mean for the church of Jesus: We don’t need preachers to teach us; that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.

[1 John 2:27]

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.

Categories
Bible Insights

Don’t Be a Baby Christian

Learn How to Eat Spiritual Food and Feed Yourself

The author of Hebrews (who I suspect was Paul) warns the young church, the followers of Jesus, that they need to grow up. Though many of them should be mature enough to teach others, they still haven’t grasped the basics themselves.

They persist in drinking spiritual milk when they should have graduated to solid food.

A Baby Christian

When most people hear about this passage, they assume the baby Christians, those subsisting on milk, are other people. They reason that this verse couldn’t be a reflection on their own spiritual status—or lack thereof.

The truth is that I fear the church of Jesus is comprised of too many spiritual infants.

If you don’t believe me, let’s unpack this analogy. In the physical sense, babies drink milk and are wholly dependent on others to feed them. As babies grow they graduate to solid food and begin to feed themselves, first with help and then alone.

This is how things function with our physical bodies and how things should function with our spiritual selves.

Mature Christians can feed themselves and don’t need a sermon every Sunday. Click To Tweet

The Sunday Sermon

So when people go to church on Sunday to hear a sermon, they expect their pastor to feed them. They subsist on spiritual milk. They are a baby Christian. Instead they should feed themselves and don’t need to hear a sermon every week in order to obtain their spiritual sustenance.

When pastors feed their congregation each Sunday, they keep their people in an immature state (albeit with more head knowledge) and help justify their continued employment. Instead pastors should teach their church attendees how to feed themselves, to not need a pastor to teach them.

If ministers do this, they could work themselves out of a job. But that’s okay, because there are plenty of other churches in need of this same teaching.

Some might infer this means that the mature Christians, those who can feed themselves, don’t need to go to church. This is only half correct.

Mature Christians can feed themselves and don’t need a sermon every Sunday, but they do need to meet together and be in community with other believers.

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Hebrews 5-7, and today’s post is on Hebrews 5:12-14.]

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.

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Categories
Visiting Churches

A Familiar Place

We attended this church years ago. This won’t be a visit as much as a reunion. It’s a familiar place.

Consider these four discussion questions about Church #44

1. The building is twenty-five years old and well-maintained. Too many church buildings show neglect, repelling people instead of inviting them. 

What are some low-cost ways you can upgrade the appearance of your church facility?

2. The worship team has a full sound, upbeat and energetic, yet most of the congregation stands stoic. They’re spectators. 

How can you be an example to encourage others to participate more fully in worship?

3. Without a pulpit, the pastor moves to a tall table with two chairs, giving a coffee shop vibe. He introduces today’s topic, and then takes a dramatic pause while taking a sip of tea. He’s not preaching a sermon, as much as having a conversation. 

How can your church service better connect with today’s audience? What will you say to those who don’t like the change?

4. The sermon is about our creed. The minister concludes by asking two questions: “What do you believe?” and “How are you living it out?” 

How do you live out your faith?

This church is a familiar place that provided positive outcomes.

[See the prior set of questions, the next set, or start at the beginning.]

Get your copy of 52 Churches and The 52 Churches Workbook today, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

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

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