Visiting Churches

The Postcard Church

The Allure of Something Fresh

After a year or so of attending The Nonconventional Church, we receive a series of captivating postcards about a new church that will soon launch in our community. I soon call them the Postcard Church.

I’m intrigued and want to learn more. My wife doesn’t.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Though they’re part of a denomination, I’m willing to overlook that fact if they deliver what they promise. But their denominational affiliation is a sticking point for Candy. I get that.

So, we continue to attend The Nonconventional Church. I like everything about it and what they do—except for their music and their message. Neither draws me. Yet the allure of post-service community calls me.

I especially like the monthly potluck. I most anticipate sharing a meal with other believers and sharing life with them around the table. It’s the highlight of my month. Seriously.

Yet the food prep falls to my bride, and she wearies of it, which I comprehend. When she complains, I offer to handle it, but we both know that’s a bad idea. It’s her kitchen, and I need to stay out of it when she’s around.

Though I ably make meals when she isn’t present, the outcome is never good if she’s there to watch what I do. And the only time I could prepare for our Sunday potluck is when she’s home.

So, she continues to handle it, but it becomes a growing point of contention. The part I like best about our church is the part she likes the least.

Change in Plans

One week our daughter-in-law says she wants to visit The Postcard Church. She invites us to go with them. I know how hard it is to visit a new church, and I sense she’s looking for some support on their first visit.

With the pressures of work, life, and a growing family, their church attendance has become sporadic. Though they call The Rural Church their church home, they seldom go anymore. I think it’s been months.

The Postcard Church is in our community, meeting in the local middle school. Based entirely on their marketing materials, I’m excited to see what we’ll encounter.

Our daughter-in-law’s invitation is an excuse to visit this church and an opportunity for us to encourage our kids to plug back into a faith community.

We gladly take a one-week break from our church to help our kids find a spiritual place where they can belong.

Interestingly, The Postcard Church is a site plant of the parent church behind The Multisite Church. This is another location.

This is also the church that approached The Traditional Denominational Church seeking to work with them to expand their outreach to the community. In the end, that church turned them down, opting to continue pursuing their own path.

The Postcard Church is three-quarters of a mile from our home. Though we could walk, we opt to drive. We’ll meet our children and grandchildren there.

The church is a satellite location of an established church in the area. Unlike most satellite churches, they offer the music and message live. Their parent church provides centralized governance and financial oversight.

They meet at the local middle school, an arrangement I applaud.

Instead of investing money in a building that’s only fully used a few hours each week and only fractionally used during business hours, they free up money to invest in outreach and ministry.

Though they pay a rental fee, that’s much less than the cost to own and maintain a building. Besides the cost element, this arrangement provides flexibility if they outgrow the space.

As we drive up, the church’s trailer sits alongside the driveway, smartly doubling as a sign for the church and signaling the proper entrance. Renting space from a school means they need to set up and tear down each Sunday.

The large trailer doubles as a transportation unit on Sunday and storage space throughout the week for their equipment and supplies.

We drive past the trailer. A large vertical welcome banner shows us where to park and which entrance to use, staffed with two smiling greeters.

We talk a bit. Once inside there’s no question about where to go.

A portable sign tells us to turn right for the service, though the nursery and some children’s programs are to the left. We veer right and find ourselves in a large open space, with people mingling about.

As we move forward, two men interrupt their conversation to talk to us, something I seldom witness at the churches we visit.

They share their names, and we give ours, connecting with them as we do. After a while we thank them for their time and move into the worship space, a typical middle school gym.

In the middle are folding chairs set in three sections, with one hundred chairs per section. We sit as we wait for the rest of our family to arrive, which they soon do.

With the overhead lights off, we rely on indirect lighting. The subdued ambiance pleases but makes it hard to read the literature they gave us.

People and excitement fill the space. All age groups show up, but most are younger than us. It’s likely many of the tweens and younger teenagers also attend this school during the week, while their younger siblings will in a few years.

As we wait, soft music plays in the background. People talk with friends. The atmosphere strikes a pleasing balance between churches whose members sit in stoic silence waiting for the service to start and those where frenzied activity overwhelms.

A worship team of five gathers in front. There is a drummer, two on guitars, one on keys, and one backup vocalist. They have no one for bass. The keyboardist doubles as the worship leader.

Four-fifths of their ensemble fit within the millennial generation, with a lone baby boomer.

After the first song, the teaching pastor welcomes us and gives announcements. One is a chance to get to know others in the church.

The idea is simple: three individuals or families get together three times over three months around a shared meal, dessert, or coffee.

This helps people get to know others and form connections. It’s a short-term commitment with a long-term benefit.

The pastor moves us into the greeting time. I interact with four people, but no one else makes any effort. I fidget, longing for this time to end. As church greetings go, this one is neither memorable nor haunting.

Our space is now over half full, which is good for a holiday weekend. We sing some more. I don’t know any of the songs, but I pick up the chorus on most and the verses on a few.

Next is the offering. There’s an information card to fill out and drop in the offering basket, but Candy’s still working on it when the offering gets to us. We’ll turn it in later.

After the collection they slide smoothly into a final song before the sermon.

Despite some empty spaces in the front, they’ve stealthily added more chairs in the back, which are now mostly full. I suspect the attendance pushes three hundred, with a hundred or more kids and their leaders elsewhere in the facility.

Belong, Believe, Become

It’s week three of a three-part series: “Belong, Believe, Become.” Today is about becoming. As I contemplate his teaching, I jot down a profound phrase: “Know your community.”

This makes sense. If we’re going to reach our neighbors, we need to better understand them.

He gives us a simple three-point process to engage people: Step one is to talk to them. Step two is to ask them a question. Step three is to invite them for a meal, an outing, or a service opportunity. Most people are open to an invitation to do something.

He concludes with an encouragement to build church where we are.

The service ends. Many people pick up their chair, collapse it, and stow it on a nearby rack. Others come up to us to talk. We enjoy these conversations, which are friendly and engaging.

 After doing my part to pick up our family’s chairs, we move back into the lobby. There we turn in our information cards to the visitor center and enjoy an extended time of conversation with a most engaging woman.

She tells us about the church. I ask how next Sunday’s service will compare to this holiday weekend experience. The woman says the service will be the same format, but there will be many more people. I wonder how many more.

We could return next week to find out. In two weeks, they’ll have an after-church event for people who want to learn more about their gathering.

This church has much to offer, but we’ll miss it since we’ll be back at The Nonconventional Church.

I long to go to church in my community and attend with my neighbors. This church meets the first criteria, but I don’t spot any neighbors.

The four of us debrief at lunch. We all had a positive experience at the Postcard Church.

Our grandson, however, struggled in nursery, with the director of children’s programming holding him the entire time. The two of them bonded, which so touched his mother’s heart.

“We’re coming back next week,” she announces. “Do you want to come with us?”

We agree.


Giving first-time visitors a positive experience is key to having them come back.

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.

Visiting Churches

Evangelical or Charismatic Church?

Confusing Messaging

I’m excited about visiting the last church on our list—or at least the final church we intend to visit. Our plans could change, and with God, they often do. I’m not sure if this church is charismatic or evangelical.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

An Independent Charismatic Fellowship

Unlike last week, this church’s website provides a lot of useful information. On their About page, they call themselves “an independent, charismatic fellowship.”

After visiting too many area churches that minimize the role of the Holy Spirit, I look forward to a church that doesn’t. I’m also encouraged that they’re independent, with no denominational baggage to slow them down or siphon off funds.

But their next line contradicts their claim of independence by stating they belong to a network alliance of churches. Either they’re independent, or they aren’t. My enthusiasm dims.

They post plenty of pictures on their website, photos of people smiling and having fun.

The adults featured are mostly younger and with lots of kids, not all with white skin. For an area with little racial diversity, a church with some cultural variation encourages me.

They offer all the programs common in church: Sunday school, nursery, youth groups, a college group, men’s ministry, women’s ministry, and small groups (albeit with a different label).

Sunday school is concurrent with the church service, forcing both the kids and their teachers to miss the experience of community worship. Though they don’t have a Sunday evening service, they do have a Wednesday night prayer meeting.

I don’t want a church that does what every other church does. I yearn for something different, something fresh and rooted in the mindset of the early church.

As I page through their website, I notice one conspicuous absence: the Holy Spirit. After a careful study, I see him only on the What We Believe page and the Senior High page.

Once a month high school students get together for “radical worship and times of contemplation where we wait, listen, pursue Jesus, and minister to each other in the Holy Spirit.” Junior high and up may join them.

Why just once a month? Shouldn’t we embrace the Holy Spirit every day?

Heading for Church

I wonder what the Sunday service will be like. Like last week, I hope for the best while braced for disappointment, though expectation prevails. Soon I’ll find out.

As we head for the church, I pray for our time there. The route is easy, but the entrance isn’t marked well, and I drive past it. A long drive reveals a parking lot that is filling up and a building larger than I expected.

The church is sixteen years old and has been meeting here for the past eleven. I assume they built the building, so it must be just over a decade old. The exterior is metal, and Candy calls it a pole barn. Though harsh, she’s essentially correct.

As we head to the door, we enjoy a nice spring day with warm sunshine and a gentle breeze. Unlike last week, when I felt anxious on my approach, today I feel peace.

Initial Interactions

Greeters, one outside the door and the other just inside, compete to offer us bulletins. Both are pleasant, but neither offers more than their brochure.

Inside is a bustle of people. Some give us wary smiles, but most ignore us. We weave our way through the masses toward the sanctuary. One man, smiling broadly, approaches us with intention. “Hi,” he beams as we shake hands. “People call me Doc.”

I share our names and ask the obvious question. “Why do people call you Doc?”

His eyes sparkle. “I used to be a doctor, but if you call me Doctor, I’ll need to send you a bill.”

“Well, we don’t want that, Doc.”

As we talk, a woman tries unsuccessfully to get his attention. Though I see this, Doc doesn’t.

It’s not until we’re walking away that I learn her mission: she wants to make sure we sign their visitor card. Eventually, she gives one to Candy, along with a pen and some brief instructions.

We sit off the middle aisle, a third of the way up. The padded chairs are comfortable, pleasing enough that I never give them another thought.

There are four sections, capable of seating 280. In addition, there are a few high tables and chairs behind us.

The space is simple, but nicely finished, giving no hint on the inside of what the outside suggests. Centered in the front, positioned as high as permitted by the gently sloped ceiling, hangs a large screen. Below it is a stage, elevated by three steps.

A traditional wooden pulpit sits in the center, the only dated accessory in the place. Lining the back of the stage is a series of curtains, hanging from metal rods supported by metal posts. Behind them is the hint of what might be a baptistery.

The place quickly fills, as people buzz with excitement. Kids abound, a few of them with darker skin, just as their website shows. However, I don’t see any adults with the same skin color. Curious.

Evangelical or Charismatic?

I also check out the bulletin. Here they call themselves evangelical, with no mention of charismatic.

Though rare in my experience, it’s possible to be both evangelical and charismatic, but one trait always predominates. Which one is it for this church?

I scan their list of elders and deacons. All the elders are male, as are all but one deacon. I wonder if this is by design and doubt it’s by coincidence.

I’m discouraged when churches place limits on how women can serve. Last, I see that the “youth band” will lead the service next Sunday.

My experiences with youth leading worship have all been positive, and I wish it were happening today. Their normal worship team, however, might also be good. Soon we’ll find out.

Seven people open the service, leading us in song. The worship leader also plays keyboard. Other musicians play guitar, bass guitar, drums, and piano. Two more sing backup vocals.

The music feels alive. I sense God’s presence. Though the song is unfamiliar to me, its message clicks.

Next is a greeting and prayer. The minister reminds us that it’s Memorial Day weekend, and some members are gone. Since they’re at about 75 percent capacity today, they surely fill the place when everyone is in town.

Pentecost Sunday

The pastor also informs us it’s Pentecost Sunday, fifty days after Jesus’s resurrection. Today we celebrate God sending the Holy Spirit to the early church. It’s fitting we’re here on such an important day, even if I didn’t realize it.

The service will be different this Sunday, with extended music and a shorter teaching.

They’ll also celebrate Holy Communion, with the suggestion that through Communion we’ll finish the message—whatever that means. Sunday school is on hold today.

Next is a lengthy music set, contemporary songs that resonate with me. Along the side and in the opposite front corner, kids wave flags. One is so exuberant that his flag flies off the pole.

Though some kids appear to do it just for the fun of it, others connect their flags’ movements with the music, worshiping God through motion.

One woman also waves a flag, although stealthily. I wonder how many other adults would like to worship God in this way but are too self-conscious. I wonder the same about me.

Many adults raise their arms as we sing, physically worshiping God. For the first time in eighteen churches, this is the accepted norm.

Most of the churches we visited were stoic in their worship and for those who weren’t, raising hands was an anomaly. Today, it feels natural. I join them, happy to do so.

A lengthy list of announcements follows. The pastor says they don’t meet for Wednesday prayer in the summer. I’m dismayed. Does this imply it’s okay to take a break from prayer when other activities are more pressing?

I’m so preoccupied by this that I miss the rest of the announcements.

Taking Communion with Your Family

The minister starts his “short message,” again saying we will finish it when we take the Lord’s Supper. This perplexes me.

Is he speaking figuratively, or will this Communion celebration differ from my other experiences, allowing us the opportunity to complete his message verbally as we partake? I’m excited at the prospect and worried over the unknown.

He reads John 12:27–33 but starts teaching at verse 20. I jot down several thoughts:

Greeks are present, which is most unusual; they approach Philip, not Jesus; Philip goes to Andrew and, together, they bring the Greeks to Jesus; the door opens to Gentiles, but some people will never believe.

Though these are interesting, the teaching ends without me grasping a main point or takeaway.

“By taking Communion with your family,” he says, “we take a stand and complete the message.” I’m still confused.

Though he makes no invitation for nonmembers to partake, Doc was thoughtful enough to tell us we could. Without his approval, I would have sat in isolation while everyone else took part. Thanks, Doc.

With seven stations, each one staffed by an elder or deacon, we have options. People go forward as families. Most linger after they take the Communion elements, sometimes in conversation, other times in prayer.

After observing the process, we get in line. As it works out, we’re among the last to reach the front. The man holds out a plate with broken crackers.

We each take one, and he says something. Candy and I look at each other, wondering what to do. As he reaches for the tray with small cups of juice, we shove the pieces of cracker in our mouths. With a nod, we pick up the juice and drink it.

Without another word, he accepts our empty cups, and we sit down. Did I miss something? Were we supposed to interact with him? Was he supposed to interact with us?

Not only did we miss the community others enjoyed, but the process so distracted me that I missed the meaning of Communion. Forgive me, Lord Jesus.


After this, the minister recognizes a deacon and elder whose terms are ending; we applaud their service. He begins to offer the benediction when someone stops him. “Oh yeah, I almost forgot the offering—again. You’d think we didn’t need money.”

He launches into a lengthy discourse on giving, their budget shortfall, their plans, and the need to give. He claims he never talks this long about money, but I wonder who he’s trying to convince. Then he talks about it some more.

During this time, people wait patiently at the front of each of the five aisles, holding offering baskets. He forgets they’re standing there and finally notices them, permitting them to collect the offering.

As the basket goes by, I spot only a few bills in the bottom. Candy drops in our visitor card, with the pen clipped to it.

As another addendum, the minister asks some church leaders to come up after the service to pray for him and his upcoming trip to Africa. Then the service ends.


We gather our things with intentional deliberation, giving time for the people sitting nearby to talk to us. But no one does. No one looks our way. I hope for someone to approach us, but no one does.

As we file out, one deacon asks if this is our first time there. When we confirm it is, he asks if we have questions. I do, but none come to mind until later.

I tell him “No.”

The conversation ends.

Doc makes his way to us, thanking us for visiting and inviting us back. He introduces us to some nearby people, but our interaction is nothing more than a handshake or head nod.

Then we repeat the process in how we entered, weaving our way between people who barely know we’re there.

We return to our car, ninety minutes after we arrived. Before I can ask, Candy shares her opinion. “The music was safe, and they were off-key sometimes.”

I groan. “I liked the music and thought it was some of the best we’ve encountered.” Though a handful of other churches are better, I ignore that fact for now. “I felt God’s presence, like I haven’t felt it at church for a long time.”

“That could be,” my wife responds, “but the music was still safe and off-key.” She’s probably right.

What we agree on is the pastor’s awkwardness. The congregation seems to accept his quirky communication traits, but I know they would grate on me. And aside from Doc, they weren’t at all friendly.

Making meaningful connections there would be hard. I don’t feel up to the challenge.

Despite some elements I really liked and an imperative desire for this church to click with me, they fell short. As I feared, I’m disappointed. Candy eliminates them from further consideration, so I do too.

We’ll get home around noon. I wonder what’s for lunch.


Make sure your church website sends a clear and consistent message about who you are and what you value.

I later emailed the church asking if adults are welcome at the monthly time when high schoolers radically worship God and listen to the Holy Spirit. I’d like to join them. No one responds. I could try calling them, but by now I’ve given up on the idea.

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

The Friendly Church

Retired and Welcoming

This church has an innocuous name, giving no clue about who they are. But this is precisely why I didn’t dismiss it or the people who go there.

Besides judging churches by their affiliation—or more precisely applauding their lack of a denominational connection—I realize I’ve also begun judging churches by their websites.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Their Website

This website has only four pages, five if you count the site map. The footer gives a date from four years ago. I’m not sure if that was when they created it or last edited it. It could be the last edit because all the information is static.

The site displays two nature pictures and a map. It’s short on information, weighing in at only four hundred words, three fourths of which are on the About Us page. It shares the basics and nothing more.

Their site reminds me of “An Intriguing Opportunity” from 52 Churches, a “meditation group of self-realization fellowship” that mixed the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, and Kriya Yoga.

We skipped that “church,” and I wonder if we should skip this one too.

They earn a reprieve, however, when their “theology” section mentions several items harking from the Protestant Reformation.

Though reeking of formality, at least my worry eases by confirming they’re a Christian gathering and not a cult or made-up religion.

Based on what little I can glean from their sparse website, I suspect we’ll find a traditional church mired in the past.

I hold out hope, however, there might be an exciting thread in their religious practices to appeal to my yearning for an intentional, spiritual community that seeks God in fresh ways.

Despite this small sliver of hope, my realistic expectation is to be disappointed. Still, it’s worth checking out on the off chance that they may offer what my wife seeks.

Arriving Early

At five miles away, it should be a quick eight-minute drive. Candy suggests we leave a half hour early, and I agree, fully expecting we won’t. However, we leave at the planned time.

In no rush, I pray as I drive, asking God to teach us what he wants us to learn and that we can give back to the folks there.

My heart rate picks up as we pull in the drive. My thumping chest confirms my anxious insides. The parking lot has thirty to forty cars, so I know there’s church and there will be a decent number of people.

I breathe out in relief but am still anxious. We’re fifteen minutes early and sit in the car for a few minutes before heading in.

A warm sun hits my face, balanced by a gentle breeze. Though the spring forecast is for 80 °F (27 °C) and humid with an afternoon chance of rain, there is only a hint of that now. It’s an ideal morning, perfect for church.

Given the weather, I’m wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes. I expect no one else will dress like me. I don’t care. If they judge me for my attire, this is not the place for me.

A Warm Welcome

As we approach the door, a smiling man in a suit rushes from the inside to open it for us. An affable fellow, he welcomes us with a sincere greeting and a hearty handshake.

Men congregate in the hallway, some eyeing me as we walk by and most nodding their welcome. Some say “Hi” or shake my hand. Several thank us for visiting, and we chat with a few.

Half the men wear suits and the rest, business casual. As I suspected, I’m underdressed. I’m not sure where the ladies are, but the entryway seems to be the men’s domain.

A man motions to a pile of fresh rhubarb sitting on a table in a side hallway.

“Help yourself,” he says with a gracious gesture, “but don’t wait too long because it will go quickly.” His eyes twinkle. I suspect it’s from his garden.

“I prefer that someone else have it,” I say with a smirk. He misses my attempt at dry humor and thinks I’m being generous, deferring to others. The reality is I don’t like rhubarb.

The building is newer, possibly built in the last ten years. It more resembles a single-story office building than a church. I like the feel. The hallway leads us to the sanctuary, a large rectangular room, about forty by sixty feet, with a flat ceiling.

The roving minister greets us by the doorway. “Welcome,” he beams with a wide smile. “I’m Ron. I work here!”

What an unassuming man. I immediately like him. “Sit anywhere you want.” He motions to the peopleless space. “There’s plenty of room now, but we fill up fast at 9:30.”

I consider his words, wondering if he’s serious. Realizing my confusion, he laughs. “Just joking. There will be plenty of room.” Then he flits off.

“Do you see any bulletins?” Candy whispers. I glance around and shake my head. Given the tenor of everything else here, I fully expect to see an usher handing out bulletins.

At the least, I think we’ll see some on a table or in a literature rack. I don’t.

Initial Thoughts

Perhaps I misjudged. Maybe this isn’t a bulletin type of church after all.

We mosey on in. Though the back rows are empty, people have already laid claim to them by laying their Bibles, bulletins, and even purses on the seats. We move midway into the room before we find a place to sit.

The row we pick has one odd chair. Though it’s padded like the rest and matches, it also has arms. “Do you want the one with the arms or shall I sit there?” Candy asks. I shrug.

A lady behind us tells us in the nicest way possible that we can’t sit there. It’s a special chair for a member who needs one with arms. I nod. Then I point to the other end of the row. “Can we sit there?” She confirms we can.

With a smile she gives Candy her bulletin. “My husband will get me another.” It’s a simple one-page document.

The front repeats all fifty words from the home page of their website, but instead of a waterfall picture, there is line art of a butterfly and flower.

The back gives their order of worship, with two announcements at the bottom: there’s a men’s forum Tuesday morning and women’s Bible study Tuesday afternoon.

The times of these events confirm what I see. This is a congregation of retirees. We may be the youngest ones here.

A Traditional Service

The service starts with a prelude, sung by five people with piano accompaniment. I’m not sure if they’re a choir or a worship team. The words appear on an overhead screen.

I assume it’s there for us to follow along, but some people sing too. They have a hymnal and every song listed in the bulletin comes from it. However, they also display the words overhead.

Except for the responsive readings, we don’t need the hymnals. Each reading has four parts: the leader, everyone, men, and women. However, it sounds like both genders read the men’s and women’s parts.

After three songs comes the invocation, which morphs into us reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I’m tentative, knowing there are variations for a few words, and I don’t want to call attention to myself by saying the wrong phrase.

Next is a lengthy congregational prayer and another hymn leading into the sermon.

During all this, a clipboard works its way through the four sections of chairs, distracting me from what’s going on in the service as it winds its way up and down each row.

On the top of the first page is a place for visitors to sign in and record their contact info. We are the first (and likely only) people to do so. Below it and on page two is a list of all the regulars.

They need merely check their name. I count forty-six member families on the list, mostly couples but some singles. With ninety chairs and at about 75 percent full, most of the people in their congregation must be present.

Today they have a guest speaker from a nearby denominational church. Given his affiliation, clues from the minister, and the style of the service, this must be a denomination church, albeit a stealth one.

I’ll need to apologize to Candy for dragging her here after I promised we wouldn’t visit any more denomination churches and her telling me she wouldn’t pick one.

The minister’s text is familiar, from Daniel chapter three, about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow down to the golden monument.

His delivery is smooth, but his body language is off-putting, exuding a smug distance, bordering on arrogance. The tone of his words is sincere, but his actions are too slick.

Eventually I decide not to look at him and just listen. Still, I learn nothing new. By the end of his message, I’ve not taken a single note. I glance at Candy’s notebook. Her page is blank.

The bulletin says that next are “offerings.” I inwardly groan at the plural notation. However, despite what the bulletin states, they only take one. We sing two more songs, and the minister dismisses us.

Time to Connect

The woman behind us invites us to stay for coffee and cookies. We nod yes. It’s a good thing we agree, because she ushers us into the fellowship area so expectantly that I don’t think we could have escaped without being rude.

The woman’s husband stands by the door shaking hands and talking with people as they leave. I enjoy seeing someone other than the minister doing this. It feels more real and less forced.

Though Candy and I have a few moments of awkward silence as we stand in the fellowship hall, the people give us a lot of attention. Many thank us for visiting and encourage our return with the words, “We hope you’ll come back.”

As we talk with the folks, we tell them we’re new in the area and visiting churches. I share with several people that I saw their website and was intrigued.

Each time, they smile and nod. I’m not sure if this means they’re pleased their website is working or that they didn’t know they had one and are being polite. Either conclusion is possible.

As the crowd thins, the minister also comes up and talks some more. His attention is nice but not needed. The congregation excels at reaching out.

A second person apologizes that they had a guest speaker today and invites us back to hear their minister, who is “really good.”

Nondenominational Afterall

A third person surprises me. She says they’re nondenominational. I’m shocked, so sure they were part of a denomination.

I guess they can be nondenominational with a traditional vibe, just as The Church That Meets in a School was nondenominational with an evangelical vibe.

Even when people attempt to form a new faith gathering, they’re informed by their past practices and preferences. I wonder if a nondenominational church can truly be void of denominational influences.

Curiously, the person we talk to the most and make the deepest connection with is not a member. She lives in another town and comes to this church when she visits her parents. That makes her a regular visitor.

Interestingly, as we’ve visited churches, in many cases the person we connect with most deeply is also a visitor and not a member. This has happened too often to be coincidence.

Nevertheless, we leave feeling accepted and embraced. This is the friendliest of the churches we’ve visited so far and one of the few who shared food afterward.

Friendly, however, isn’t enough. Their services are too traditional to connect with me; their theology, too stoic; and their future, too dim.

If we were retired and wanted to plug into a comfortable church with idyllic ease in a close-knit church community, this would be the ideal place.

Comfortable, however, is not our goal.


Know that for many visitors, your church website will be their first stop. Make sure yours is inviting, easy to understand, and clearly communicates who you are.

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

A Church That Meets in a Public School Gym

Excitement Prevails

I removed every church from my list that was part of a denomination. At best they would merely offer variations of what we’ve already experienced—and rejected.

Left are three churches with intriguing implications. Perhaps one will click with Candy. We’ll visit them the next three Sundays. This church meets in a public school gym.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Meets in a Public School Building

The first church meets in a public school building, which automatically increases my affinity with them.

By renting space, they save themselves from the financial obligation of a mortgage and the maintenance stress of owning a building, one largely unused 97 percent of the time. I see them as wise stewards.

Their mission is to “glorify God by making disciples.” Their vision is “to become an Acts 2 church.”

Though the passage begins and ends with worthy intents, the middle part may not work in our materialistic society with its consumerism mindset: holding “everything in common” and selling their possessions “to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:44–45, NIV).

I wonder how closely they follow this example. Supporting this, they have five pillars: prayer, worship, instruction, community, and outreach.

A Bit Lost

Their service begins at ten and we plan our schedule accordingly. I’m glad for a little more pre-church time for my Sunday morning routine than what I have most Sundays.

As we head down the road, my prayer for our time there is fresh, as I’m able to avoid some phrases I fear I repeat too often. The sunny day further boosts my spirits. My expectations are high.

A black pickup truck driving next to us seems lost, making random lane changes, slowing down, and speeding up. They pass us and then we pass them. When I turn toward the school, they turn too.

“Maybe we’re both visiting the same place,” I tell Candy with a grin.

I turn again and they follow. I drive to the specified location, but there’s no sign of a church. There are no cars and no people. But I spot cars in another lot, and I go around the block to get there. So does the pickup.

“I hope they’re not following us, because we’re as lost as they are.”

I pull into the parking lot with the cars. But there are no signs to confirm a church meeting will happen. Though I see people, no one is close enough to ask. A couple gets out of the black pickup.

The guy looks familiar. We say “Hi” and confirm we’re both looking for the same church. However, we can’t verify we’ve found the right one until we go inside and ask.

We head to the gym where the service will be, but the other couple heads in a different direction.

Excitement Abounds

Inside the gym we meet another person, who also welcomes us—the third one to do so. We talk at length. Excitement permeates the place.

A low, portable stage flanks one side of the gym. Stackable chairs, arrayed in three sections, will seat over two hundred.

Most people are younger than us and very few are older. It’s great to see young families in church, with lots of kids and teens.

Aside from seniors, the only other group who might be missing is the college crowd, but there are no colleges nearby.

We sit midway up in the center section. The chairs are functional, neither comfortable nor uncomfortable.

Five vertical floor-mounted banners stand next to the stage, reminding us of their five pillars. Before the service starts, more people welcome us, including our son and daughter-in-law’s neighbors—the ones who told us about this church.

Even though we’re visitors, it’s great when people recognize us.

Polished Worship Music

A worship team of ten gathers on stage to begin the service, leading us in an opening song. It’s upbeat like The Church with Good Music, perhaps more polished but without as much edge.

Two guys play guitar, with a third on bass. A drummer and keyboardist round out the instrumentalists, with five more on vocals, ably led by their pastor.

After this solitary song comes a welcome, opening prayer, and greeting time. A women’s quartet sings to an accompaniment track during the offering. Then we sing several more contemporary songs, all energetic and inviting.

There’s another prayer, and the kids leave the gym for their own activities. Though all the common elements of a church service are present, today they feel fresh, full of meaning, and exuding life.

This is church as it should be—at least for me.

Living and Leaving a Legacy

For his message, the pastor roams the stage, with an iPad strapped to his palm as an extension of himself. He glances at it periodically as he scrolls through his notes. After a while I forget it’s there.

They’re in the middle of a series, “Living and Leaving a Legacy: Lessons from Malachi.”

He runs through a lengthy list of stats about the significantly higher risks children face when they come from fatherless homes. It’s dramatic, sadly sobering.

Even more so is the reality that half of all children live in homes without their biological dads. How much better our world would be if men would stick around to live with the kids they fathered. Though a few have no choice, most do.

With this as an introduction, he pauses and prays again before reading today’s text from Malachi 2:10–16. The priests in Malachi’s day lead the people astray through their poor example.

They divorce their wives and marry foreign women, both prohibited by the Law of Moses. In doing so they commit idolatry and adultery. This is point one: “They profane the covenant of marriage.”

Though there is much more to his message, neither of us catch any more points. Perhaps we’ll need to come back next week to hear point two.

Regardless, he has much more to share. To leave a legacy, we need to produce godly offspring. This starts with parents and includes the Word of God. We also need to get involved in church.

He sums up his message with the encouragement, “It is most rewarding to see our kids grow up to follow God.” This is our chief legacy.

Wrapping Up

He concludes by giving the congregation a set of challenges applicable to each life situation: parents, dads, married couples, and single adults.

As he runs through announcements, the kids return to join their parents. Today the church talks in depth about child sponsorship through Compassion International.

A few members share their experiences sponsoring kids in developing countries.

People can learn more after the service, even select a child to support. After an hour and a half, the service ends with a request for everyone to help pick up chairs.

More people welcome us, and we enjoy meaningful conversations with several. After a while, I walk across the now chairless gym to talk with the visitors who arrived with us.

I learn they normally go to The Rural Church—the fourth one we visited and which I called “country fresh.”

“We visited there last fall,” I tell the man. “That must be why you look familiar.” He nods but seems doubtful.

But as we continue to share our stories, he remembers me. We had an extended conversation when we visited his church six months ago.

“Your church is one of our top choices. We really liked it. We’ll probably revisit it in a few months.” I hope we’ll see him when we do.

Final Words

It’s been an hour since the service ended, and the crowd has thinned, but twenty or thirty people linger to hang out. The pastor remains at the exit of the gym, talking with an attendee.

We walk up and he tells us more about their church, including how they bring on new members. He isn’t being presumptuous, just helpful. I appreciate the information.

I also realize this church is one of my top choices, perhaps even moving into first place. As we discuss our experience, my bride confirms the music was good.

Though she stops short of my level of enthusiasm, she doesn’t dismiss them either. I suspect we’ll return. I hope we do.

We have two more churches to visit. Then we will narrow down our options, and Candy will decide. Part of me wishes I had never promised her she could pick our next church.

Nevertheless, I’m excited about visiting the next two churches, revisiting our top picks, and finally settling down.


Doing church in new ways—like a church that meets in a public school gym and forgoing usual expectations—can bring in a freshness and vitality that today’s seekers want.

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

The Simulcast Church

Two Options in One Building

The budget program I’m involved with on Wednesday mornings also has a Thursday evening option. Though I’m not a regular volunteer on Thursdays, I help from time to time. It’s bigger, with more classes, more clients, and more volunteers.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

The Thursday evening budget program meets at a different church, and we head there today.

Not only do I know how to get to this church, but I also know how long it will take, which removes both items of uncertainty from our typical Sunday church visits.

A bit of online investigation reminds me this church is part of a denomination, one prevalent in the area. We’ve already visited three: The Outlier Congregation, The Traditional Denominational Church, and The Church with a Fresh Spin.

Their website also informs me they have one service time but two options, with the second being a simulcast feed. They name the second option but not its location. Curious.

Navigating to the Sanctuary

We arrive fifteen minutes early to a packed parking lot, with some people already using their overflow spaces. Just as I’m about to veer toward one, I spot a couple of empty slots in their main lot and scoot into one.

The facility entrance I use on Thursdays is far away and, though I’ve never been to the sanctuary, I doubt that door is the best one to use.

The main entrance, complete with a covered drop-off area, is not close either and would require more walking than I want to do in the biting wind of today’s weather. Though a bright sun beckons, the conditions are far from comfortable.

The closest door is a side entrance, which is where most people head.

We follow them, suspecting that once inside, we’ll need to wander around to find the sanctuary. As the door closes behind us, we have two options: one flight of stairs going down and the other up.

We go up, ending in a medium-sized room of undiscernible purpose. It’s too large for a classroom and too small for a fellowship hall.

We weave our way through it, spilling into a hallway, one lined with mail slots for member communication.

Two People Reach Out

An older gentleman walks up, smiling broadly. “Should I know you? You look a little familiar.”

“No,” I assure him. “We’re visiting today.”

“Welcome!” We shake hands and exchange names.

“I sometimes help on Thursday nights with the budget program.”

He smiles again. “Sometimes my wife and I help out too.” Maybe we have seen each other after all.

“We have two options for the service. One is in the sanctuary,” he says with a tip of his head to indicate a general direction. “It’s live. The other is simulcast, and you can watch on a big screen. But they’re both the same.”

Though he doesn’t explain how to find simulcast option two, it’s somewhere in the building.

We chat some more. By the time we’re finished, I feel at ease, having enjoyed a pleasant connection, even though I’ve already forgotten his name, despite my best efforts not to.

Candy and I head to the sanctuary. We take a meandering path but find it with no wrong turns or needing directions.

People stand about in the narthex, all engaged in conversation. Seeing no one available to talk to, we snake our way through the crowd toward the sanctuary.

As we near, one woman aborts her conversation to greet us. She knows we’re visitors and welcomes us warmly.

We have a pleasant conversation, and she introduces her friend to us. By the time we make it to the sanctuary, I feel embraced and accepted, ready to immerse myself into the service.

What a key difference a couple of people can make. An usher seats us and hands us bulletins.

Facility Observations

Based on the construction, I judge this part of the facility to be about fifty or sixty years old, though it’s nicely maintained.

The sprawling structure has several additions, explaining our confusion on where to enter and how to reach the sanctuary.

With steep vaulted ceilings, the space is long and not wide, reminiscent of older cathedrals, though not as ostentatious, except for the impressive organ pipes on one side.

An elegant oversized cross draped with a white burial cloth is the focus up front. It’s flanked by two banners proclaiming, “He has risen, just as he said.” On each side of the stage hangs a screen, poised to guide us through the service.

The room seats about five hundred and fills fast. No wonder they need overflow space in another part of their building, though having two services might be a better solution.

The attendees’ age skews older. Candy and I are in the younger half of the crowd. Though I spot some young families, I see no one who looks college-aged and notice only a few teens.

I wonder about the ages of the folks in the simulcast room. Do they skew younger?

The Service Begins

When the service begins, we’re at about 80 percent capacity. We sing two contemporary songs to the light pop accompaniment of a piano, guitar, and drums, with two vocalists.

Though the male and female singers stand on the stage, the musicians are sequestered to the left, on our level in the corner. The words appear overhead on the dual screens.

The pipe organ sits unused and, to my wife’s delight, we never open their traditional hymnal.

Following the opening song set is a short liturgy and then a “special music” solo. Though the words appear in the bulletin, no one sings along. It’s a performance, and we reward the singer with resounding applause.

Children’s Message and Offering

As the minister calls the kids forward for the children’s message, he invites the youngsters in the overflow room, where they view the simulcast, to join us in the main sanctuary, granting them permission to run in church.

Soon they arrive, sprinting in along the side aisle, faces beaming.

About twenty-five sit and anticipate what the pastor will share. He talks about trust and taps a boy for an object lesson. “Do you trust me?”

The boy thinks he might.

“Then turn around and when I count to three, fall backward, and I’ll catch you.”

It takes two tries, but with the second attempt, the boy succeeds, providing a visual aid to support the minister’s lesson.

After the kids return to their parents in the sanctuary and simulcast room, the pastor gives the morning prayer (a traditional congregational prayer). Following it is the offertory prayer, given by a member.

As the ushers receive the collection, we listen to a piano solo and fill out the friendship folders, passing them down our rows. Immediately after the offering is a second one, this one for the benevolence fund.

We sing another song and hear another prayer.

Message: The Joy of Believing

The minister stands on the stage to deliver his message, separated from us by both distance and height. A gulf divides us.

Sitting in the middle of the sanctuary, I’m too far back to make out any facial expressions of the preacher, so the folks in the back must have a terrible view.

His message is “The Joy of Believing: Facing Our Doubts,” based on the passage in John 20:19–31. It focuses on the story of Doubting Thomas.

Though Doubting Thomas becomes Believing Thomas, he’s known for his former condition, not his ending state. The pastor talks about moving from hope to belief, from doubt to knowledge.

The sermon is long. I grow tired and squirm. I want to take notes but jot nothing new—except that this account only appears in John.

After the message comes a closing prayer and a reprise of the special music number. This time we join in. To dismiss us, the pastor sings the benediction, something I’ve rarely encountered and am surprised to hear.

The service ends.

Heading Out

The minister stands by the main exit, acknowledging the congregation as they pass by.

With hundreds of people to greet, he’s on autopilot, mechanically shaking hands as we file past. Sweat beads on his forehead.

He doesn’t make eye contact with us and is already looking at the next person in line, as though eager to finish his ordeal.

Though I missed it, the bulletin says they have a coffee hour afterward. The minister didn’t mention this from the pulpit, and nobody invites us to stay.

With no one to talk to and no reason to stick around, we retrace the meandering path we took on the way in, eventually returning to our car. The service lasted ninety minutes, with the message pushing an hour.

Though the service was pleasing, it offered nothing special. Neither of us feels a reason to return. I didn’t see anyone from the budget program, but at least I know about the church in case a client has questions.

Candy asks when we’ll stop visiting churches so she can make her selection.

I, too, sense the need to stop looking and settle down, to stop dating churches and commit, but there are a couple more I want to visit first, in expectation that my bride will like them.


Look for old practices at church that no longer make sense—such as your minister shaking hands with hundreds of people after every service—and offer a fresh and meaningful alternative.

When you run out of space for your morning service, seek creative and low-cost solutions, like a simulcast.

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.

Visiting Churches

The Church with Good Music

Waiting for the Service to Start

I volunteer at a budget program where I teach classes and encourage people to manage their finances, unlearn bad money-handling habits, and dig out of debt.

It’s a biblically based program, and it meets at a local church, which is also today’s destination.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

In the brief time I’ve been involved, the budgeting program has grown significantly. I have mixed feelings about this. Part of me is glad we’re meeting the needs of more people in the community, but I’m also dismayed at the demand.

I wish I could work myself out of a job, but according to Jesus that will never happen. He said there will always be poor people who need help (Mark 14:7).

I’m pleased this church provides space for the program. I’m sure this comes from a desire to make a difference in their community, something all churches should do but that too few pursue with any degree of effort or success.

It’s also an example of good stewardship.

Nearly all church buildings sit idle most of the week, so anything that increases occupancy expands the reach of the church and honors the donations of the people who made the facility possible. I’m sure this pleases God too.

The pastor of this church teaches a Bible class as part of the budgeting program, so I’ve met him a few times, and we’ve had some brief conversations. However, I’ve not told him I plan to visit this church.


I think our daughter and son-in-law might like it, so I invite them to meet us.

Though I’m open to this being our future church home, I’m doubtful. It’s not as close to our house as I’d like, and I don’t think any neighbors go here. I wonder if it will appeal to Candy.

Regardless, I expect to better understand the church and their services.

This will allow me to tell clients at the budgeting classes about it if they have questions. Though most clients already have a church connection, some don’t.

I want to help those folks find a church home, and this one would be an obvious choice since they already come here during the week for budgeting classes.

I know it takes exactly fifteen minutes to drive there, and we depart ten minutes before that, allowing time for possible pre-church interaction. We leave on schedule, and I pray for our time at this church.

My wife is grumbling a bit, however. She didn’t have time to brew a cup of coffee before we left, so she gave up her morning routine to keep us on schedule. Her decision pleases me.

On other occasions she’s persisted in making her hot beverage when we should have been leaving. In those instances, I’ve not been patient, with us invariably arriving at church late and with me frustrated. This won’t happen today.

With our pre-church prayer going before us, the drive is pleasant. It’s a nice spring day, with warm sunshine, increasing temperatures, and a gentle breeze.

Extra Time to Wait

We pull into the lot ten minutes early. There aren’t many cars. My expectations sink. Though more park in the side lot, this isn’t the bustling church I expected.

The rest of our family isn’t here yet, so we move with deliberate slowness. We head inside, standing in the narthex as we scope things out. To our left is the sanctuary.

Though an usher stands at the door, the room is empty except for the sound guys in back and the worship team up front. To our right are classrooms, along with most of the activity.

Candy spies some coffee and heads toward it. As she prepares her concoction, I stand alone. People scurry past. I try to make eye contact, but no one notices. No one stops to chat or even wave a hello.

Once again, I’m alone in a room full of people. I expected better.

With coffee now in my bride’s hand, we have nothing else to do, so we head toward the sanctuary.

With every chair empty, the usher encourages us to wait. “Most people don’t come in until after the service starts,” he says with a smile.

This bothers me—a lot. This practice suggests other things are more important to these folks than preparing to worship God. Even though he should be their focus, they place other activities first, and he comes second.

If people would talk to me, I’d gladly wait. Maybe the usher will, since he has nothing else to do at the moment. I extend my hand to shake his and introduce myself. He reciprocates and hands me a bulletin. So much for conversation.

After we sit, the minister spots us and comes over to greet us. I’m so excited for some interaction that I forget to introduce Candy.

“There will only be about fifteen people here when the service starts,” he says with a smile, “but by the end of the second song, there will be about forty.” I nod. “There are about one hundred at our second service.”

Looking around, I suspect the place seats about 150. “It would be crowded if you just had one service.” This time he’s the one to nod.

“We encourage people to serve during one service and attend the other.” I wonder how many do. He again thanks us for visiting and excuses himself.

Music Prelude and Worship

I spot our family in the narthex and go to meet them. Someone is explaining the nursery options, but they decide to keep their son with them. I hold out my hands, and he comes to me.

As I carry him into the sanctuary, the music plays. His body responds to the beat. “Do you like the music?”


“There are guitars,” Candy says. “Do you like guitars?”

“Yeah!” He nods and then starts bobbing his little head.

By the time his mother joins us, he’s ready to go back to her. After a few minutes he reaches for his dad. Then back to her. It’s a game for him, but they don’t want to play. They take him to the nursery.

The music is upbeat, possibly the most engaging of all the churches so far.

The worship leader plays guitar, with two more on guitars and one on bass. A drummer and keyboardist round out the ensemble, with a young woman singing backup. Some instrumentalists are also miked for vocals.

Their voices blend nicely, with the sound superbly balanced. Though the newness of the situation distracts me, I’m drawn into worshiping God. Musical excellence is one of Candy’s requirements for our next church. I wonder if this qualifies.

After two contemporary songs come announcements and a time to greet those around us. As predicted, our numbers have now swelled to about forty or more.

Greeting Awkwardness

Though we sit in the second row from the back in the front section, no one sits in front of us. Most people pick the middle section. With the only people to greet sitting behind us, I turn to the young couple behind me.

Though they aren’t prepared for it, I try to draw them into conversation. We just start to connect when the music resumes and halts our interaction.

We sing an old hymn, updated to work with their modern instruments, followed by another contemporary song. I enjoy the singing.

Communion Clarity

Communion is next. The bulletin notes, “All believers may take part,” addressing my most pressing question.

Then, perhaps for our benefit, the minister thoroughly explains their process. He succinctly addresses every other question anyone could have about how they practice the Lord’s Supper.

Never have I had Communion at a church I visited when I fully knew what to expect, how I fit in, what to do, and when I should do it.

Without uncertainty getting in my way, I’m able to contemplate Jesus’s amazing gift to us as I partake in this ritual he started two thousand years ago.

Two Offerings

The offering follows. The pastor excuses visitors from participating and then implores members to give and to give generously. His entreaty borders on pleading.

First, they take a collection for their general fund, and then they take a second one, but I don’t catch the designated cause.

I’m irked at how often churches in this area take two collections during their services. As I’ve already mentioned, this further reinforces the claims of the unchurched that “churches are always asking for money.”

Getting to Know God

The sermon is part of a series, “Breaking Free,” from the book of Exodus. Today’s topic is “Getting to Know God,” with Exodus 3:13–15 as our text. The pastor is easy to listen to, but his style confounds me.

He doesn’t provide us with three points or give a message that allows for easy note taking. Instead, his talk takes us on a meandering journey with interconnected thoughts that loop and intersect and repeat.

I enjoy listening to him but cannot corral his words into a succinct summary. Even with the fill-in-the-blank sheet in the bulletin, I’m not able to subject his words to an order that satisfies my logical-thinking mind.

“We are each known by different names . . . and by different attributes,” I write. So is God. When Moses asks God, “Who should I say sent me?” God merely says, “I am.”

The minister voices what has always exasperated me. “This explains nothing; it doesn’t help at all.”

Yahweh, he adds, is represented as Lord in the Bible. I never knew that—or I forgot. I’m glad for the insight.

“We are not the center, the focus, or in control,” he says. “God is.” He wants us to know him. Moses knew God and radiated his glory. “Our job,” the minister later adds, “is to reflect God’s glory.”

This one line is my key takeaway, his main point for the message. By the time he ends, I feel satiated but can’t explain why.

He concludes with the subtlest of invitations, a ritual I learned to ignore after five years at an evangelical church. After a closing prayer, the worship team treats us to a resonating reprise of their opening number.

The powerful music draws me to God as the words resound in my mind.

After Church Connection

After the worship leader dismisses us, we talk some more with the couple who sat behind us and another couple who joined them after the greeting time. As we file out, the minister stands by the exit, smiling and shaking hands.

This isn’t a rote exercise. He’s bonding with people, caring for his flock. I want to communicate my sincere appreciation for the way he explained their Communion practice, but my words refuse to form when the time comes.

I could honestly tell him I enjoyed his message but am not sure how to do so without it sounding like an obligatory compliment. Instead, I just smile, and he thanks me for being here today.

I nod. “It was good to be here.” And it was.

In the narthex, one of their worship team members introduces himself. He works with our son-in-law.

We talk at length, connecting, meeting his family, and learning about his journey. Our conversation is even better than the church service.

This is why I go to church: to connect with other followers of Jesus, to enjoy meaningful spiritual conversations, and to experience true fellowship—without coffee and cookies to detract from forming real relationships.

The extended conversation lasts until music signals the start of the second service. Our new acquaintance scurries off to join the rest of the worship team.

We walk outside. The sun is shining, but the wind now has a bite. I long to bask in the warm rays while simultaneously desiring to escape the bitter gusts.

Our Debrief: the Music Was Good

We decide to have an early lunch and head to a quick-serve restaurant. As we enjoy our burgers and fries, my mind is still on church. “I think that was the best music of the churches we’ve visited.”

Candy agrees, both surprising and pleasing me, but that’s all she has to say. Our daughter and son-in-law remain noncommittal about the experience, neither gushing with praise nor criticizing the service. Maybe they need time to process it.

The next day our daughter shares more: the music was good, but not as good as our former church. I

’m resigned to not being able to find music that matches that church; perhaps our former church doesn’t even align with our memories of our time there.

Besides, picking a church based on music, while understandable, is shortsighted. When the music wanes, will you leave?

“If you decide to go there,” she concludes, “we may go with you once in a while.”


Church practices that seem normal and self-explanatory to regular attendees—such as Communion—may confuse or confront visitors. Be sure to let them know what will happen and how they can take part.

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

The Multisite Church

An Innovative Approach

Removing The Mystery Church from our schedule leaves us with a last-minute quandary of where to go this Sunday. Candy recalls that one of our neighbors and her husband attend a multisite church in the community east of us.

My bride contacts her online, and we soon have the details we need.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

The initial information about this church surprises me. They have three Sunday morning services: 8:00, 9:30, and 11:15.

Though some of the area’s larger churches have two morning services, this is the first we’ve heard of with three. How big is this church, anyway?

We pick the middle service, and our neighbors confirm that’s the one they attend. I wonder if we’ll be able to find them in what is likely to be a large crowd.

Intrigued, I go online. I find an easy-to-use website, with all the needed information, including a helpful FAQ section under the “I’m New” tab.

A Multisite Church

They’re part of a multisite network of churches started by one of the area’s larger denominational churches, whose main site alone borders on being a megachurch.

We visited it several years ago with our son and daughter-in-law when they first moved to the area.

Though the service was neither traditional nor formal, it carried the vibe of both, feeling constrained within a contemporary setting.

The founding church began their pursuit of multisite church a few years ago, now having five congregations.

How to handle a multisite church varies, from essentially independent to watching a video feed from the main location and everything in between.

One option for a multisite church is to have the music and other aspects of the service local, with the message piped in. I wonder which flavor we’ll experience, hoping we won’t be watching the entire thing on a giant screen.

As we leave our subdivision, we meet another set of neighbors headed north, while we head south. “I wonder where they’re going to church?” As we continue driving, we cross paths with many people, dressed for church but all headed in different directions.

“Look at that,” I tell Candy. “Everyone heads someplace different for church. Why can’t we all attend church in our own community?” The whole thing is absurd, but she feels the same way about my comment.

Parking Lot Attendants

Soon we’re at church. I turn into the drive where we’re greeted by a flag-wielding parking lot attendant who motions me right.

To see if he’s paying attention, I smile and wave as I drive by. He reciprocates. Another man signals us onward to where a third directs us to our parking spot.

Although they guide us to a parking space with exacting precision, we don’t know which door to enter. A quick glance reveals three options, with people streaming toward two of them.

The closest door is more logical, both in terms of proximity and building position, yet the one further away is grander. That’s where we head.

A Mass of People

Inside is the din of people as they mill about. There are no greeters to welcome us. No one says “Hi” or acknowledges our presence.

We blend into the mass of people, so I don’t expect anyone to approach us as visitors—or to even know we’re visiting.

We float anonymous in a surging sea of humanity, albeit one exuding excitement over spending time together and worshiping God. Today is Palm Sunday. I wonder if the day carries heightened excitement or if this is normal.

Though the lobby space is not small, the throng of people navigating it make it crowded. A couple small tables offer an assortment of baked goods.

I’m not sure if these are for the first-service crowd, who has by now mostly departed, or for new arrivals.

Candy checks out the goodies but takes nothing, while I scan for a coatrack. Not seeing one, or even the hint of where to look, I resign to keep my winter coat with me even though few others have.

We snake our way through the crowd toward the sanctuary that looms in front of us.

The Auditorium

The facility has a typical large-church auditorium: pleasant, yet utilitarian, smartly finished with no hint of ostentatious fluff.

It reminds me of last week’s meeting space, only on a newer, larger scale. It seats about 650. I find it quite comfortable.

I walk halfway up the aisle and slide in four seats. Candy sits next to me with a questioning look. “I left two seats for our neighbors,” I explain, “just in case we see them.” Out of hundreds of people, we know we won’t.

She smiles at my hopefulness but then moments later spots them a couple rows forward across the aisle. The wife beckons us to join them, and we do. We exchange introductions and chat as we wait for the service to start.

Sitting with people we know, even though just a bit, is comforting—and comfortable. This only heightens my expectations for the morning. However, I’m also mindful that at nine miles away, there are scores of churches closer to us.

After criticizing others for driving past some churches to attend another one, part of me will feel guilty if I like this church better than the options in our community.

I don’t have long to contemplate this, however, as the service begins. The sanctuary is mostly full, and the clang of folding chairs being set up in the back suggests more people arriving and in need of a seat.

The Welcome

Tim, the lead pastor for this site, welcomes us to this service. He gives a brief teaching about Palm Sunday, weaving seeker-sensitive language into more typical church jargon.

I wonder, however, if an uninitiated visitor would find his explanation accessible or confusing.

To me it’s a bit jarring as he switches between fresh wording for familiar concepts and common Christianese verbiage.

He also specifically addresses visitors, giving a brief overview of the church before the worship team takes over for the next part of the service.

Seven people, with guitars, drums, and keyboard, lead us in worship, singing a modern song and then a hymn for their first set. I don’t know either song and find them hard to sing. My wife feels they drag on for too long, with too much repetition.

The worship leader is skilled and the instrumentation mixes nicely for a contemporary sound with the hint of an edge, but the vocals don’t flow, calling attention to certain individuals when they should be blending.

Tim pops up again, this time for announcements, including reeling off a packed schedule for Holy Week, culminating in the Easter celebration next Sunday. I can’t keep track of all the options and soon stop listening.


Somewhere in the mix, we greet one another.

Though everyone is polite and tries to welcome all those around them, just as instructed, they do so with a honed brevity: a smile, a handshake, and a “Hello” before peeling off to repeat the ritual with the next person.

I throw off the cadence of several folks when I interject a “How are you?” into their routine. Though they politely reciprocate, no one takes this as a hint for more conversation. No one shares their name or asks mine.

They’re friendly without reaching out. Even though I’m disappointed, I realize that, despite their shortcomings, they greet better than most of the churches we visit.

With barely enough time to spin around to address the seven people within reach, the time for friendliness ends.


Tim introduces the offering, telling visitors not to “feel obligated,” while imploring regulars, almost to the point of begging, to “give generously.” I wonder how visitors feel about his instructions.

The ushers pass deep baskets to receive the donations, while the worship team leads us in another song. It’s unfamiliar to me, but most people here seem to know it well.

Afterward, another man stands to give the message. We learn he isn’t their regular speaker, just an occasional one. I wonder if he might rotate among the different congregations in their network.

He’s a gifted communicator, easy to listen to, and engaging.

The Good Life

He’ll wrap up the sermon series, “The Good Life,” based on Psalm 23. Today he focuses on the second half of verse 5, with the title, “He Anoints My Head.”

“Have you ever done something you don’t normally do,” he asks, “just so you can be accepted?” God exists in community, and he made us to want the same thing. “Belonging is good.”

He weaves stories from the Bible into his teaching as he moves the idea of acceptance forward. He ends his message with the reminder that we don’t need to do anything for God to accept us. It’s all about his grace, not our efforts.

He concludes with some thought-provoking questions and closes with prayer. The worship team leads us in a final song, a contemporary number that we know well. The service ends.

Post Service Connections

I stand and put on my coat, slowly turning to look at those I greeted earlier in the service. I seek someone to interact with, but no one notices. Candy talks with our neighbor.

As I try to listen in on their conversation, a woman approaches me with intention. I don’t recognize her but think I should. She introduces herself and tells me where they live.

It all clicks. I met her and her family last fall. I smile. “We passed each other on the way to church. You headed north as we headed south.” She looks confused, but her husband nods. We had waved to each other.

We have a joyful time connecting. They make me feel like I belong, as part of the community. Besides them and the neighbors we sat with, they say our next-door neighbors also go here, but to the third service.

I marvel at what I’ve just learned. Although in a different community, three of our neighbors attend this multisite church. This is more than any of the other churches we’ve visited.

A Possible Local Site

As I contemplate this, they say that their parent church wants to open another location and is in discussion for a partnership with The Closest Church, the option nearest to our home.

This explains the vague information I received when we visited there, about the possibility of them joining forces with another church that would bring hundreds more people to their location and result in multiple services.

I now understand what might happen and see how it could function. If this transpires, I wonder if our neighbors who go to this location of the multisite church would switch to the one closer to our homes.

Despite me desiring a smaller church community and not wanting to be part of a large gathering, if several of our neighbors went here, it would make a significant difference.

This multisite church has much to offer. I’m interested in returning, though I suspect Candy isn’t. When I ask about her thoughts, she complains over a comment the minister made about a social issue.

I missed it. My wife didn’t.

Though she wants to go to a church not afraid to address social issues, what they say about the issues is just as important. This pastor’s view doesn’t align with hers. This one comment is her chief memory of the service.


Consider how your church addresses social issues. Should you ignore them or stand up for what you believe?

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

The Mystery Church

A Marketing Failure

The last four churches have been the closest to our house and all are part of our local community. There is one more church that’s nearby. It’s two miles away. But we call it a mystery church.

In the brief time we’ve been in the area, the name of the church has changed. Its original occupants first migrated to a coffee house that’s closed on Sundays. Then they left that venue and disappeared.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Replacing them in their old building is another church from an adjoining community. They sold their facility and are renting this one—so say online news reports.

Because they’ve recently moved from another area, I expect the congregation likewise hails from other places and don’t expect that any neighbors attend there.

No one we’ve talked to knows anything about this mystery church.

All we know is their name and location. There are no service times posted on their sign, and they have no website.

A basic Facebook page has a couple of pictures and posts, but nothing gives service times or contact information. The most recent post invites people to their Christmas Eve service, which occurred several months ago.

It could be they’ve closed. Or they’re closed to visitors since they’re secretive of their service times and contact information. Who knows?

So aside from a desire to experience all the churches in our community, I don’t want to visit this one—even if I could. I share my feelings with Candy. She agrees to skip it.


Make it easy for people to learn about your church. This includes service times and who to contact with questions. Don’t be a mystery church.

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

Visiting Churches

The Church with a Fresh Spin

Breathing Life into Old Practices

The three churches nearest to us—The Closest Church, The Traditional Denominational Church, and The Church with the Fundamental Vibe—all have traditional-sounding names, meet in traditional-looking buildings, and have traditional-style services.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

I want a church with a fresh spin.

A Denominational Connection

This church, only 1.8 miles away and just past The Fundamental Church, boasts a nontraditional name. Though their building still looks like a church, it’s not as typical. I wonder if their service will likewise break from status quo religion.

They are from the same denomination as The Outlier Congregation and The Traditional Denominational Church. I wonder which one they’ll be more like. At last, we can find out.

On a corner, I’m not sure where their drive is. Candy points straight ahead, but I turn the corner. Only then do we see a drive off each street. A small church bus drops off riders under the awning that shelters the main entrance.

I wheel around and park in a nearby space, eager to get inside. Candy is in less of a hurry.

A Warm Welcome

Greeted at the door, the man knows we’re visitors and welcomes us warmly. Inside, many more acknowledge our presence with a nod, a wave, or a handshake.

No one asks if we’re visiting. They all know. What several ask is if we’re new to the area, while a few cautiously inquire if we’re looking for a church.

We move into the sanctuary, which is the shape of a gymnasium.

A high open ceiling, painted black, and dark walls provide a spartan feel, while the well-lit, laid-back atmosphere draws me in. Round tables, circled with chairs, fill the back and partway up the sides, while rows of folding chairs line the front.

The pastor, in casual attire and with an unassuming persona, welcomes us. He shares his first name but doesn’t reveal his title.

I’m so pleased to meet a minister who doesn’t need to tie his identity with what he does or his credentials. This is a fresh spin.

This man possesses both the confidence and the humility to be Gene, a person just like me, without any label to erect an unbiblical distinction between us. I immediately like him.

The tables are inviting, but I don’t want to sit on the periphery. I yearn to be closer to the action. We move toward the middle of the room, sliding into a center row.

As Candy reads the bulletin, I check out the space. It’s accessible and comfortable, feeling as much like a pleasant place to hang out as it does a church.

Unlike last week, with its predominance of seniors, there are few here today. What I see is a nice range of ages and many kids. Judging by their smiles and laughter, the congregation is excited to be here, eager for the service to begin.

Anticipation permeates the room.

Getting Started

The worship team gathers on stage, elevated by three short steps. Forming a tight circle, they bow their heads in a posture of intercession.

Their example reminds me of what I neglected to do. In anticipation of my visit, I forgot to pray on our way here. Candy didn’t suggest it either. I now bow my head.

The seven people on stage scatter to their positions. A tall man straps on a guitar and opens the service. Around him are a trumpet player, a keyboardist on an electric organ, a drummer, and three female vocalists.

Their sound is upbeat and inviting, something quite different from last week. They lead us in singing contemporary choruses and one updated hymn.

After the opening song set is the official greeting time. This is not the typical moment of rote interaction but an extended period that allows real connections to occur. Then we sing some more.

The Pastor’s Part

The pastor publicly appears for the first time, asking for people to come forward to pray for him and the service.

Two people do. I’m pleased to see the laity pray for the congregation and their minister as part of the service. What a fine example they set.

Behind the stage hangs some remarkable artwork, which guides their Lenten services. Reminiscent of the “Stations of the Cross,” an eight-panel mosaic shows Jesus’s journey toward his sacrificial death and ultimate resurrection.

Today is panel four, “Gethsemane.” Referring to Mark 14:32–42, a three-part sermon emerges about reaffirmation, restoration, and revelation.

The pastor, we learn, meets each Thursday morning with a group of guys. There he previews the text for Sunday’s service. He goes there as a participant, not a leader or teacher.

His goal is to listen to their discussion. Some of the men’s insights end up in his message. This is yet another fresh spin on how they do things at this church.

This is just one of the many small tweaks this church makes from the norm of status quo Sunday services. Collectively, these changes add up to provide a fresh experience for me.

Open Mic Time

He ends his message with a prayer and what I think is the closing song. Then they take an offering, during which is an “open mic” time. I cringe a bit, as I’ve often seen these go terribly wrong.

Invariably someone, either well-intentioned or with an agenda, hijacks the mic and subjects the congregation to a barely coherent story or a passionate rant about something few others care about.

Still, I like their bravery to try it, knowing that when this works, it works extremely well. It’s just one more for their efforts to put a fresh spin on their practices.

A young man comes forward, sharing what turns out to be a lengthy set of announcements about the youth group, which seems connected with Young Life. I like them tapping an available resource and not trying to reproduce what already exists.

Another man follows him to talk about a recent short-term mission trip he was on, but I think his real goal is to recruit more people for future trips. Then the pastor prays for things mentioned by both people.

But the service isn’t over.

The minister asks for “prayer servants” to come forward. This may have been the same term he used when soliciting prayer before his message. Two people stand.

Two others rove the audience with handheld mics as people share their needs and joys. After each person speaks, one of the prayer servants intercedes.

As the people reveal what’s on their hearts, I pray silently for them too. Eight people seek prayer. This is a caring, praying congregation that puts biblical faith into action. I so like that.

More Interaction

Now the service is officially over, but the interaction isn’t. Although people prepare to leave, few hurry off. Many tarry to talk, some interacting with us.

Most of these conversations are short, but a couple are more intentional, and one is in depth.

Though part of a traditional denomination, this congregation has made several intentional adjustments in their practices to put a fresh spin on old customs, departing from the status quo in enough areas to entice me.

Although I desire an experience that breaks completely with the routines of today’s church culture to reclaim the mindset of the early church, I realize I may not find such a group.

I want to come back.

My wife sees only this church’s connections with their stodgy denomination and can’t move past it. It could be her insight is more accurate than mine. Unlike me, she has no interest in returning. Once was enough.

She makes her pronouncement with enough finality that I know we won’t return.


Look for ways to put a fresh spin on old customs to be more relevant for today’s visitors.

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

Visiting Churches

The Fundamental Church

Life Groups versus Sunday School

Early this morning we make our annual switch to Daylight Saving Time, a transition full of folly and one I wish we’d skip. I wake up tired. I don’t want to roll out of bed and so want to skip church, but I know Candy won’t stand for it.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

“What church are we going to,” she asks, “and when does it start?”

“Next on the list is the church just north of us . . . 9:30.”

“When should we leave, 9:15?”

The drive will only take two minutes, and I don’t care if we arrive early or not. Even leaving at 9:25 will be fine, but it’s good to pad our schedule because one of us is bound to be late, so I nod my agreement.

“We better get moving.”

Preparing for Church

I wonder aloud if today we should pick a different church, one that starts later. Even 10:00 will help, but Candy shakes off my suggestion.

Considering my morning routine, I should pare back my activities so I don’t have to rush to make church.

But that would mean cutting out my morning prayer time and Bible study. It seems foolish to skip personal intimacy with God just to make it to church on time.

Another idea is omitting my shower, but I need its warm comfort to feel awake and act civilized.

Bypassing breakfast is another thought, but I know I should limit fasting to when I’m not around other people because sometimes an empty stomach makes me less patient.

Of all my considerations, church is the least significant. I could skip it. I’ve now come full circle in my deliberations. In the end, I try to squeeze in everything.

Diligent, I push forward: prayer, Bible reading, breakfast, and a shower. I emerge from the bathroom breathless, ready for church and thinking I’m on schedule. I’m not. My wife stands by the back door with her coat on.

It’s 9:25.

We can do this.

Two days ago, I began my weekend construction project by hitting my thumb with a hammer. Hard. Since then, it’s hampered everything I’ve done.

Even the slightest touch to my tender digit shoots pain through my body. Unfortunately, many common motions qualify.

These include holding my car keys, reaching into my pocket, turning on my cell phone, buttoning buttons, and tying shoes.

Anxious to get out the door, I pull on my boots with haste, jamming my thumb into the stiff leather. I yelp.

On a scale of one to ten, the pain is at eleven. I curse. Always inappropriate, my words seem even more unholy given that in a few minutes I’ll be at church to worship God.

Tears well up in my eyes as my thumb throbs, perhaps even worse now than when I first injured it. Gingerly, I lace my boots and tie them with care.

Reaching into my pocket for my keys, I jam my thumb again. The tenderness is excruciating. I set my jaw to prevent another errant outburst, but my glare says it anyway.

The drive to church is tense. Knowing that I’m in no mood to pray, my wise bride intercedes for our time at church.

A Just-In-Time Arrival

We pull into the lot from a side entrance and park in the back of an elongated facility sporting multiple additions. The clock in the car tells me it’s 8:28. Mentally adjusting for Daylight Saving Time, we have two minutes before church starts.

Ahead of us, one couple scurries in a back door, but we don’t follow them. Another family heads toward the front of the building. We trail behind, entering through a side door that deposits us into the narthex.

The service has begun. I scan for a coatrack but don’t see one. I head to the sanctuary with Candy following. With people everywhere, we stand in a daze.

There are no seats available in the back for us to slide into. A smiling usher hands Candy a bulletin and offers to help us find a place for two. Seeing plenty of spaces further in, I push forward.

Halfway up, I slide into the center section and move in a few spaces.

Sitting, I take a deep breath, which serves as a wordless prayer that Papa hears and graciously answers. I forget our late arrival, my throbbing thumb, and the unholy drama that surrounded it.

I am ready for church.

The building is large, with comfortable padded chairs for over four hundred. It’s half full, mostly seniors, with some young adults but hardly any kids.

Many of the older men wear suits, with some ladies in dresses, but the rest of the crowd dresses more casually.

A Greeting Experiment

After the opening remarks, which occurred as we walked in, there’s the official greeting time. I shake hands and exchange hellos with the young man next to me, surprising him when I ask, “How are you?”

Stunned, he does a double take and gives a socially acceptable response but then quickly turns away as if uncomfortable with my unexpected question.

As an experiment, I try this with everyone I greet. None of them are ready for anything beyond “Hello.”

Worship Time

Next, we sing an opening three-song set.

In addition to a suit-clad worship leader are three vocalists and a bass guitar, all on stage. On the sides are the organist, pianist, keyboardist, and drummer.

They start the first song before the bass guitarist is ready, but it doesn’t matter because I can’t hear him when he does start to play.

The piano and organ carry the music, with an out-of-place percussionist tapping a rhythm that doesn’t seem to fit with what everyone else does.

The group’s light pop sound from a bygone era feels out of place with their hymns and older choruses.

Without hymnals, we follow along with the words displayed overhead. Only about half the crowd sings, and they do it with little enthusiasm.

For the second song, the worship leader straps on a guitar. A man wearing a suit while playing a guitar looks strange. Though he acts comfortable with this dichotomy, it strikes me as odd.

The third song, “Amazing Grace,” garners full participation from the crowd, the only number to do so.

An offertory prayer precedes the collection, which coincides with a special music number. The soloist sings as ushers pass the plates. But few people add anything to the offering.

When the man finishes his song, applause erupts. Since this is the only clapping all morning, I assume the praise is for him and not for God.

Teaching Time

Next week starts their two-week missions festival. Today serves as the warm-up, with a message titled, “What Is a Call?”

Though his delivery is good, the preacher is hard for me to watch. When he’s not looking down, he fixes his gaze over us, as though he’s watching something behind us and ignoring us.

I desperately want to turn around to see what he sees, but I resist the urge.

For the bulk of his message, he reels through a list of biblical characters and what God called them to do. He emphasizes, “God calls people in turn,” but I’m not sure what he means.

It’s not until he nears the end of his message that he mentions the text for today, Ephesians 2:8–10.

He wraps up with three practical, self-help style tips to discern our calling.

Though disappointed he didn’t mention hearing our call from the Holy Spirit, I’m not surprised. We’re at a quintessential fundamentalist church and not a charismatic gathering.

Sadly, I’m quite used to churches ignoring one third of the Trinity.

Life Groups

He closes the service with prayer and invites us to stay for “life groups.” I’m surprised at his mention of the more modern life group phenomenon.

I’m perplexed at them taking place when most traditional churches hold Sunday school.

As we slowly gather our things to leave, a suit-wearing man of our age introduces himself. He, too, invites us to stay for life groups.

“In fact, I teach one of them.” He beams, expecting we’ll jump at the chance. His smile disappears when I decline.

His assertion that life groups have an instructor confuses me. Life groups, as I know them, don’t have a teacher. Though some groups might have a leader or facilitator, many are egalitarian and there’s seldom a lesson.

I wonder if their label of “life groups” is a ruse, merely attempting to put a new spin on the old practice of Sunday school.

I don’t need to wonder long. An older woman walks by us as she defiantly declares, “I’m going to Sunday school!”

I smile at her honesty.

All the people sitting around us have scattered. None of those I greeted—those I dared to ask, “How are you?”—tarry to say “Goodbye” or invite us back.

One Person to Talk To

One elderly man approaches us as we’re about to leave. We actually talk, sharing information and learning about each other. This one person attempts to connect with us. He warms my heart.

As we say our goodbyes, he invites us back and hopes we’ll return. His sincerity touches me.

In the short drive home, we discuss our experience. I’m critical over some sloppy details in the preacher’s message. Candy is more generous. We both agree, however, that we connected with his main premise about knowing our call.

I’m not interested in returning to this church and don’t want to give them further consideration. However, I’m unsure of Candy’s perspective.

This church is like the one we met at and the churches she attended growing up. I’m relieved when she shakes her head.

We pull into the garage. There’s only one thing left to do: reset the clock in the car to Daylight Saving Time. Lunch and a nap await us inside.


Don’t put a new label on something old and think you’ve made a meaningful change. Instead, make changes that matter.

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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