An Intriguing Possibility
The neighbor who goes to The Kind-of-Traditional Church also mentioned this one. “All the rest of the neighbors go there,” she said. “It’s more contemporary.” That’s where we’re headed today, all the while questioning how many of our future neighbors actually go there.
The facility is larger than I expect and the parking lot, huge. With minimal congestion, it’s easy to find an open spot. The main entrance is obvious, and we walk toward it, along with many others who converge there from their parking spaces.
Several people stand outside to greet arrivals.
They’re friendly in excess, but there’s no effort at anything more than to flash a broad smile and offer a hearty handshake. Their apparent intent is to keep us moving forward, funneling us indoors.
Among the bustle of activity inside, many people pause to share an inviting smile and state their welcome, often accompanied with a handshake. But the interaction stops at that point as they hustle off to something else.
Though the contact lacks depth, it’s encouraging they noticed us at all, far different from our experience at the last church.
I scan the lobby—quickly, to not look pathetically lost—hoping to spot the welcome center. Seeing nothing, and no one who beckons us, we mill forward toward the sanctuary, which is actually a smartly accessorized gymnasium.
It reminds my wife, Candy, of “Church #45: Another Doubleheader” in 52 Churches: a full-sized gym with a large stage on the side, hundreds of padded chairs, and plenty of room to move about. She’s right, and I nod my agreement.
She heads to the center aisle and moves forward with intention. Fearful she wants to sit too far toward the front for my wellbeing, I halt her onward movement. “This is far enough.” I turn into the back row of the front section, move in a few seats, and sit.
To my relief she joins me.
I calculate the room has eight hundred chairs and estimate about two hundred people present. By the time they dismiss the children for their own activities, I suspect the crowd has swelled to 350.
A large screen over the ample stage displays a countdown timer until the service begins. Two larger screens flank it, repeating the same information.
As the worship team assembles onstage, a fourth screen behind us cues them on what the congregation sees. At T-minus three minutes, they begin playing. The worship team is so large that I count three times to confirm they number fourteen.
The musicians are arrayed in an arc: French horn, trombone, baby grand piano, drum kit, keyboard, bass guitar, and two electric guitars. In front of them stand six vocalists, including the song leader on acoustic guitar.
As a prelude, they sing softly. Their contemporary sound is practiced but with no hint of an edge or excess energy. A rock concert it is not. Even though the words for this first song appear on the screens, most people don’t join in, instead continuing to talk.
At T-minus two seconds, the song ends, and a video announcement plays, followed by a string of verbal messages from a man who gives only his first name. Next week is infant dedication, followed in a few weeks by adult baptisms.
He jokes about them providing donuts as an incentive for people to go to the first service instead of the fuller second one. Then he segues into an opening prayer, which precedes the offering. A concluding song serves to transition us to the message.
Another man stands, but he doesn’t give his name. With too many pastors who are quick to drop their title—and even their advanced degree—at every opportunity, I appreciate he doesn’t.
He has either the humility or self-confidence to skip this, but I wish to at least know his first name.
His message is from the book of Nehemiah, “a case study in leadership.” Focusing on select verses in chapter two, he talks about the city walls being in shambles, but the people accept this as reality and do nothing to repair them.
“Many churches ignore their problems,” he says. To highlight this, he shows a video clip titled, “It’s not about the nail.”
I’ve seen this before, and I delight in watching it again, while my bride groans at the unexpected reveal midway through.
“Never allow fairness to determine our receptiveness to being obedient to God,” he reminds us. Under Nehemiah’s leadership, the people rebuild the wall in only fifty-two days.
He then moves to two other verses, Philippians 2:5 and Acts 2:42, focusing on them for the rest of his message. He concludes by hinting at why churches are dying, which parallels why the city wall of Nehemiah’s day remained broken.
The solution to dying churches is adopting the same attitude as the people did under Nehemiah’s leadership: “They were willing to give up their personal agendas in order to be obedient to God.”
I have a page of notes and jotted down several pithy one-liners, but despite all this, I can’t follow the flow of his message and connect the dots. Still, he gave me much to consider.
Know What You Stand For
After concluding his sermon, he prays we would “know what you stand for; not what your stand against.” We’ll do well to follow his advice.
As we leave the gym, ushers hand out key tags with the message’s two key verses. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. Philippians 2:5” is on one side.
The other proclaims, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 2:42.” (They don’t list the version, but I later find both in the NIV, 1996 version.)
I’m puzzled. Why did they give us key tags with these two verses? How do they tie in with the first part of the message and the conclusion? What are we supposed to do with them?
Returning to the lobby, we make our way to the information table to pick up a free book for first-time visitors. They offer us three to consider. I’ve read two of them, so I opt for the third.
Though the title doesn’t interest me, and I’m not sure I’ll read it, I don’t see a graceful way to decline.
We talk with the two people there for a few minutes. Despite the ample number of folks who welcomed us, or invited us back, they are the only two to ask our names or share theirs.
Outside stand the minister and another man, greeting people as they arrive for the second service and saying goodbye to those leaving the first.
Just as at our arrival, their focus is on interacting with as many as possible but doing so quickly. I abandon my hope to talk with the pastor. Even though no one else is nearby vying for his attention right now, his gaze is far away.
On the drive home, we discuss our experience. Candy calls the music “safe,” and I agree. She didn’t like the message. While I did, it’s not so much because I followed it, but because of a few thought-provoking insights.
“They were friendly,” she adds with a hopeful tone.
“Yes, but it was all superficial,” I counter. “We didn’t have any meaningful conversations and didn’t make any connections.”
She nods. “Do you think any of our new neighbors go there?”
“I didn’t recognize anyone.”
On the surface, this church has a lot going for it and much to offer with their contemporary music, intriguing message, larger size, newer building, and friendly people. But I fear it would require much effort and take a long time to make meaningful connections.
This church offers some intriguing possibilities. We could come back sometime, perhaps for their second service, but I’m not sure we will.
Know what you stand for, not what you stand against.
Read the full story in Peter DeHaan’s new book Shopping for Church.
This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, their year-long sabbatical of visiting churches.
Here’s what happens:
My wife and I move. Now we need to find a new church. It’s not as easy as it sounds. She wants two things; I seek three others.
But this time the stakes are higher. I’ll write about the churches we visit, and my wife will pick which one we’ll call home. It sounds simple. What could possibly go wrong?
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.