Visiting Churches

My Wife’s Take on Visiting 52 Churches

Another Perspective of Visiting 52 Different Congregations for a Year

By Candy DeHaan

What do you do when God prompts your husband to take a one-year break from your home church to visit other congregations, a different one every week?

You can’t argue with God, so you go on a fifty-two-week adventure by your husband’s side.

And what an adventure we had. We had the honor of worshiping with friends, old and new, that we never would have otherwise enjoyed. With many memories and thoughts that I take away from our journey, here are a few:

  • With just seventeen people present, the pastor said, “If there are any visitors this morning, please raise your hand.” I still giggle about this, as everyone knew we were visiting. What would have happened if we hadn’t raised our hands?
  • Seeing firsthand how a congregation can pull together, as a family, when dealing with heartbreak was truly inspiring.
  • When a pastor is unavailable for a service, what a blessing when members step up and fill in.
  • The many ways that others worship God are amazingly diverse.
  • Worship in a group of five can be sweet, and a shofar is loud! This group met in a small office building. After the teaching, we went to a different room for worship: how breathtaking when they pulled the curtain aside for us to enter and we saw a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, cherubim and all. Awesome!
  • Even with a language barrier at the Chinese church (Church #20), the joy of Christ came through.
  • Just because you have guitars and drums doesn’t make your service contemporary.
  • Shared meals and conversation around a table are inviting and inclusive.
  • After three experiences with Catholic Mass, I’m still unable to follow their services.
  • It’s so nice when someone, noticing you’re a visitor, invites you to sit with them.
  • Also appreciated is when others offer guidance throughout the worship service to help visitors follow along.
  • I’m still uncomfortable when everyone shares the cup for communion. Just wiping the lip of the cup with a little white cloth is not going to remove the germs of everyone who drank before me. It’s just not sanitary.
  • There are some amazing husband-and-wife ministry teams who work together beautifully.
  • It isn’t necessary, but we appreciated it, when a pastor would make sure he or she reached out to personally welcome us. My favorite was the teaching pastor of one of the larger churches we visited. He welcomed us as we entered the building, simply introducing himself as “John.” What a notable example he set for the congregation—if only they had followed his lead. He was the only one to welcome us that morning.
  • Almost all churches had a cross somewhere in their facility, but the most meaningful was the one placed in the middle of the sanctuary, right in the center aisle.
  • If you have a talented vocalist, no instrumentation is necessary. The beauty of a solitary voice, simply praising God in a room with good acoustics, is fabulous.
  • A Belgian waffle breakfast for first-time visitors, with the pastor and his wife, is a great idea.
  • I appreciate a pastor who will take a stand on hot topics and face them head on, sharing what the Bible has to say instead of ducking the issues.
  • It was great to be included when most of one congregation headed to Arby’s after church. Potlucks are delicious, but this was the next best thing.
  • One church had a coffee bar. To help celebrate Lent, the barista topped my latte with a blue marshmallow Peep. What fun! Plus, their visitor packet had a coupon for a complimentary coffee, so it was free.

The most important thing I learned from this trek was how to—and how not to—make a visitor feel welcome. I need to take these lessons to heart as I reach out to visitors and those I don’t recognize.

The church is the body of Christ, not a single congregation or just one denomination. We have a huge spiritual family, and it was so good to worship with them for the past twelve months.

After being gone a year, it was amazing to come back to our home church on Easter morning and celebrate Resurrection Day with all four of our kids by our side.

God is good!

[Check out the discussion questions for this post.]

My wife and I visited a different Christian Church every Sunday for a year. This is our story. Get your copy of 52 Churches today, available in ebook, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook.

Visiting Churches

The Home Stretch

Wrapping Up Our Journey of Visiting 52 Churches in a Year

We’ve just completed a stint of visiting churches in three specific geographic areas. Now our focus shifts to a fourth: the churches to the east of us. We’re on the home stretch of visiting 52 churches in a year.

We’ve already visited eight of them (Churches #9, 11, 13, 15, 20, 24, 25, and 26) with scores more remaining, but we only have seven weeks to squeeze them in. We strategically select which ones we’ll visit, skipping the rest—at least for now.

Our journey is winding down. I have mixed feelings. Visiting a different church each Sunday has been fun, enlightening, and educational.

Already, I’m lamenting that our adventure will soon end. We must skip many churches, with dozens more that, although further away than ten miles, would be illuminating to visit.

But I’m anxious to return home, to revisit the familiar and reconnect with friends. The pull of reunion is powerful.

Our journey has worn on us. Every week we must plan where to go, confirm service times, and verify their location. Each Saturday night we go to bed asking, “What time is church tomorrow?”

Our schedule for the entire day hinges on the answer. We hope we’ll remember the right time and not be late. And even though you’d think I’d find visiting churches easy by now, I’m still anxious every Sunday morning.

Takeaway for Everyone: Remember that visiting a church is hard. Do everything you can to embrace visitors.

Part Four Perspective

To wrap up our adventure, we visited some of the churches (#45–52) on the western side of the area’s largest city.

Our home church, Church #53 (Home for Holy Week), which we returned to for Easter, is also in this city, located in the downtown area, but it falls outside of our ten-mile criteria at eleven miles away—and a twenty-one-minute drive.

With many more churches on our list than the number of Sundays left, it was hard to pick which ones to include. Our decisions involved much discussion between Candy and myself, a bit of give and take, and a couple of last-minute changes.

We picked churches which would provide the most varied experiences for this phase. Church #51 (The Megachurch) is our area’s largest, with #52 (Playing it Safe) and #49 (Large and Anonymous) being close behind.

These comprised our extra-large church encounters, offering insight into the pros and cons of “big.”

On the other end of the size spectrum was one small congregation, Church #48 (Small, Simple, and Satisfying) and one medium-sized congregation, Church #47 (Significant Interactions).

The rest of the churches were large congregations. Church #46 (False Assumptions) had a huge facility—suggesting a once prosperous past—but it now has barely enough attendees to fit the large category.

The other two sizable churches were Church #45 (Another Doubleheader) and Church #50 (Saturday Mass).

We included Saturday mass for multiple reasons: another Roman Catholic encounter, a church with a campus connection, and a Saturday night service.

We doubled up that weekend and one other, when we went to a Seventh Day Adventist Church (Church #31, A Day of Contrasts) on Saturday, and an Episcopal Church (Church #32, Commitment Sunday) the next day.

Although it would have been possible to double up and visit two different churches on Sunday mornings, we opted not to do so as it taxed us to go to two Sunday services at the same church.

By going to church on two Saturdays, as well as every Sunday, we were able to complete our fifty-two-church journey in fifty weeks, allowing us to return to our home church for Easter.

On this, the final phase of our journey, my thoughts center on church size, with my overarching concern for community hovering in the background. I claim I want to attend a small church, one with a close-knit and spiritually-significant community.

Yet, my actions belie that as our home church is a large one, bordering on extra-large. Also, and ironically, of the fifty-two churches we visited, Church #51 (The Megachurch) appeals to me the most.

The reason I don’t warm up to most smaller churches—the ones I claim I want to attend—is that they’re frequently older congregations. They have traditional services, don’t embrace newer methods, and are composed of aging parishioners.

I’ve often criticized older congregations, but I’m not against older people. I’m concerned for people who coast toward the finish line, hoping to hang on to the status quo until they go to heaven.

Their focus is on maintaining what they have, not expanding their church or preparing it for the next generation. Yes, they say they want their congregation to grow, but it’s often little more than a hope.

In vain, they expect that if they keep doing what they’ve always done, they will one day gain members. These congregations seldom do something different to attract new people.

Even though using newer practices might help embrace visitors, that would make the people of the church uncomfortable. And comfort, as they drift toward life’s end, is what they seek.

Though there are certainly exceptions, this is the attitude in most older congregations.

That brings me to Church #48 (Small, Simple, and Satisfying). By far the smallest church on the final leg of our journey, and one of the smallest overall, this church holds great appeal.

They earn high marks for conducting their service without the help of paid clergy or a guest speaker, which they did with excellence. They improved many aspects of a typical church experience.

This includes the placement of the cross, how they communicate announcements, the congregation praying without first sharing their needs, many members being involved in the service, and the easy, informal fellowship time afterward.

I assume these are all intentional tweaks made to maximize worship and strengthen community. They possessed a real sense of family, which all churches should have, but too many don’t.

Though the service was more formal than I prefer, it’s easy to overlook, given all the other pluses. My one concern is their future.

Candy and I were among the youngest present, so without an infusion of younger attendees, the church could be serving its final generation.

Though many of these older members are young in their heart, this church offers little to attract a younger crowd who can sustain and perpetuate it.

This isn’t their dilemma alone, but one shared by all the small churches we visited, as well as some medium-sized ones.

If the solution to numeric decline was obvious, churches would pursue it, but the only small churches I’ve ever seen grow are new ones. The established ones keep getting smaller until they close. This isn’t a lament so much as a reality.

The real problem is expectation. A congregation—or even denomination—shouldn’t expect to continue forever. Instead, it’s organic, following an expected life cycle: gestation, birth, growth, plateauing, slowing down, dying, and death.

In fighting this natural progression, members turn their focus away from worship, community, and outreach to concentrate on survival, as if that’s the goal. But it’s not; God is.

Yes, leaders can take steps to lengthen the life of a local church or denomination, but to assume it can—or even should—live forever, misses reality. The only way to last indefinitely is to become an institution.

With religious institutions, the primary focus switches from God to ensuring survival. Paid staff eventually place their continued employment ahead of all else, losing passion for their primary mission.

God isn’t impressed with our religious institutions or the people who strive to sustain them. What he desires are followers who will make a difference, advancing his kingdom for his glory—not their own agenda.

Our Home Church

Although outside our ten-mile requirement and fifty-two-week window, I shared about our home church. What happens there contrasts—often sharply—with many of our church visits.

Although some aspects at a few of the churches were like our home church, none of them matched it.

Our home church remains the lens through which Candy and I evaluate other congregations. Our children did this, too, with their experiences at our home church forming their expectations when they moved and sought a new church.

I’m sad our adventure is over, and at the same time, I’m glad to reconnect with friends and once again establish a regular rhythm to our Sunday worship routine.

Takeaway for Leaders: Individual churches should be organic, with an eventual life cycle that will one day end.

The only way to ensure they last forever is to turn them into a religious institution. Don’t do that.

[Check out the discussion questions for this post as we anticipate what is to come and review what happened.]

My wife and I visited a different Christian Church every Sunday for a year. This is our story. Get your copy of 52 Churches today, available in ebook, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook.

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

Visiting 52 Churches, Part Three

A Recap of Churches 27 through 44

The churches are starting to blur. Every week seems the same, offering only slight variations on a theme. I’m growing weary of our journey. I’ve realized this for a few weeks but didn’t want to admit it.

Yes, I still notice kindnesses offered and innovations presented at the various branches of Jesus’s church. But I worry that I notice more the actions that discourage me and disparage the reputation of my savior.

Have I become cynical? Am I truly able to see what God wants me to see?

My prayers before we leave for church lack freshness. Have they become vain repetition? Matthew 6:7 in the KJV says, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”

My anticipation for the service is no longer as expectant, yet God prevails and teaches me anyway.

For the first half of our journey, I picked our destinations solely by the driving distance from our home.

But heading in different directions each Sunday became disconcerting, making it challenging to synthesize an understanding of congregations within communities.

In retrospect, I should have divided our fifty-two churches into four groups: those within our local school district, those in the village to our west, those in the village to the southwest of us, and those on the western edge of the city to our east.

For the third part of our adventure we focused on the first three of these geographic areas, while remaining within ten miles of our house. This allowed us to better comprehend the churches within their local context.

The village to our west has twenty-one churches. We visited twelve in the first half of our journey, calling on the remaining nine for this phase (Churches #27–36). Together they comprise a wide-ranging group, offering an array of options.

Next, we turned our attention to the village to our southwest, with its five churches (#37–41). Although one was struggling, the other four weren’t.

They were vibrant and growing, each with its unique appeal and offering a different approach to worshiping God.

To conclude this phase of our sojourn, we visited the remaining three churches in our local school district (Churches #42–44).

Along with Churches 1 through 7, these ten churches are noteworthy because our local food pantry serves people living in the school district. Sometimes pantry clients ask me about area churches.

Now that I’ve visited all ten, I can share firsthand information, directing people to the one that best meets their needs and preferences.

Some of our clients attend church outside of the area, and I’ve seen them at several of the gatherings we’ve visited. I have mixed feelings about this.

Part of me wishes each congregation would care for the needs of their own, while the other part of me would decry each church replicating the same program.

Having an area food pantry is not only practical, but it’s also a great community service, with five of the district’s ten churches involved in a truly ecumenical outreach.

Greeting and Community

At the halfway point in our journey, I noted the importance of community, with some churches excelling at it, a few failing, and most falling somewhere in between.

The prelude to community is greeting. Churches that greet well embrace visitors and foster connections.

Liturgical churches, I observed, struggle with greeting and fail at community.

Fortunately, this isn’t an absolute principle, merely a tendency. Church #43 (A Welcoming Church with Much to Offer) and Church #32 (Commitment Sunday and Celebration) proved liturgical churches can greet well and foster meaningful community.

Church #43 excelled at this, perhaps even more so than the non-liturgical Church #22 (A Caring Community). Two other non-liturgical churches that greeted well were Church #38 (A Refreshing Time) and Church #41 (People Make the Difference).

I’d like to revisit them all, simply because of the amazing way they greeted, welcoming us into their community. We made connections. We had relevant conversations. We shared a spiritual camaraderie.

There are three opportunities to greet visitors: before, during, and after the service. Churches need to master all three. Few do, but Church #43 did.

Two churches ignored us beforehand and had no greeting time during the service, but they did embrace us afterward: Church #28 (Intriguing and Liturgical) and Church #35 (A Well-Kept Secret).

But it’s hard to overcome a bad first impression. While Church #28 did, enough so that I want to return, Church #35 didn’t.

The opposite error is not ending well. Church #27 (A Charismatic Experience) ignored us afterward. With no one who approached us and no one available for us to approach, we had two choices: stand there and look pathetic or leave. We left.

Then, one church, a non-liturgical one, failed at all three opportunities: they ignored us. This was Church #31 (A Day of Contrasts). It was as if we were invisible.

Though their service was most impressive, their cold demeanor isolated us, effectively pushing us out the door as soon as the service ended.

Yes, they did have two assigned greeters at the front door, but the personable pair couldn’t overcome the 150 indifferent people inside.

Yes, greeting well is important. Without it, visitors cannot hope to find community. So why would they want to come back?

Highs and Lows of Our Journey

Overall, our time at charismatic gatherings continues to disappoint.

While Church #27 (A Charismatic Experience) came close to providing a true charismatic encounter—or at least my perception of one—they also had some disconcerting shortcomings, including a rambling message and not being friendly.

The narrow doctrine at Church #34 (Acts Chapter Two) and Church #36 (The Surprise) especially dismayed me.

Like Church #14 (The Pentecostal Perspective), they placed an unbiblical emphasis on speaking in tongues, viewing it as a requirement to signify true salvation.

Church #42 (High Expectations and Great Disappointment) went to the opposite extreme, dismissing charismatic followers of Jesus as heretics and doing so with a most dogmatic fervor.

The way these otherwise well-meaning clergy divide Jesus’s church grieves me.

This error, of rejecting other Christians because they fail to meet some personally held opinion, is perhaps the biggest shortcoming we’ve seen at any of the churches.

I wonder if they’ve lost their first love. (Consider John’s stinging rebuke in Revelation 2:4–5 against the church in Ephesus). Do they truly comprehend what it means to follow Jesus? I seriously doubt it.

Conversely, Church #29 (Led by Laity) greatly encouraged me; they conducted their entire service without any clergy. I wish more churches would follow their example.

I beg churches to do so. Through Jesus we are all priests. We shouldn’t need ministers to do for us what we’re supposed to do ourselves. (See 1 Peter 2:5, 9 as a starting point.)

In considering Church #37 (Another Small Church), sometimes a church just needs to close. This church has more people on the outside trying to save it, than there are local people who attend.

Yes, God can do the impossible, but without a clear instruction from him to persevere, the wise action, the prudent option, is to simply shut down and stop wasting resources on an unpromising situation.

Interestingly, there was once local interest for this church to merge with another, but their respective denominations wouldn’t permit it. Their decision was self-serving and not kingdom-focused.

Lastly, some churches, despite many good traits and positive elements, showed us some bizarre practices:

  • Greeting strangers with a holy kiss was creepy, Church #28 (Intriguing and Liturgical).
  • Church #30 (Misdirected and Frustrated) duped us into attending Sunday school and angered me.
  • Avoiding all forms of promotion made them hard to find, Church #35 (A Well-Kept Secret). We stumbled upon them by accident.
  • Cancelling services because the minister was called away disappointed us, Church #36 (The Surprise). Hold services anyway. Church #29 (Led by Laity) did.
  • Having a dirty sanctuary made me reluctant to sit down, Church #37 (Another Small Church). The overall neglected condition of their facility didn’t help.
  • Heading to a restaurant after the service was interesting but unusual. Arming us all with coupons may not have left the best impression on the restaurant staff, Church #39 (A Great Way to End the Year).

Takeaway for Everyone: Set divisive theology aside and celebrate commonality in Jesus. Seek ways to work with other churches, not oppose them.

[Check out the discussion questions for this post about our journey of visiting 52 churches, along with two more questions that precede it.]

My wife and I visited a different Christian Church every Sunday for a year. This is our story. Get your copy of 52 Churches today, available in ebook, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook.

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

52 Churches Infographic

Learn More about 52 Churches

Discover more in the 52 Churches infographic to see key insights and data about the churches my wife and I visited in a year as covered in my book 52 Churches .

52 Churches infographic, from the book 52 Churches, by Peter DeHaan

Click on the above image to get a better look or download your own copy of the 52 Churches infographic.

Whether or not you’ve read the book, check out this insightful 52 Churches infographic about visiting fifty-two churches in a year for a quick visual overview of key findings.

Here’s a bit about our adventure:

My wife and I visited a different church every Sunday for a year. This book is our story.

52 Churches is part religious exposé, part travel memoir, and 100% authentic. Peter refuses to hold back his punches. You’ll cringe when this Christian author is singled out by a fire-and-brimstone preacher, unnecessarily determined to save his soul out of hell. You’ll find yourself thankful that you weren’t in Peter’s shoes when the pastor told his congregation to greet one another with a holy kiss.

You’ll read about Christian practices that are far different from your own, and in the process gain a deeper understanding of believers from all walks of life and denominational backgrounds: Protestant mainline, evangelical, and charismatic, Roman Catholic, and more.

Discover just how vast, diverse, and amazing Jesus’s church is.

My wife and I visited a different Christian Church every Sunday for a year. This is our story. Get your copy of 52 Churches today, available in ebook, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook.

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

Getting Started Visiting 52 Churches

Apprehension about Visiting Our First Congregation

It’s Sunday morning, and we’ve yet to visit our first church. Even though it’s only been a week, I already miss my friends at our church. I already miss what I know and expect, even though I know to expect the unexpected.

At least the unexpected happens in a familiar place and with friends.

As an introvert who excels at social awkwardness, I relish familiar surroundings. Going somewhere new produces a deep fear I yearn to avoid. I have driven into a parking lot at a new place, panicked, and driven away.

Instead of fighting fear, I prefer to flee it. I understand panic attacks. It takes prayer and God’s help to subdue them.

I get up around 6 a.m., as usual, but Church #1 doesn’t start for five hours. That’s far too much time for me to wait. I wonder, and I worry. Doubt creeps in. My fear grows.

If only the service started earlier. Then there wouldn’t be as much time for the enemy to whisper his lies: “This is a stupid idea.” “You will fail.” “No one will read your book.”

52 Churches: A Yearlong Journey Encountering God, His Church, and Our Common Faith

I must resist the devil, so he will flee from me (see James 4:7).

Or at least I can distract myself by working on this chapter. My insides churn with equal parts excitement and fear—or perhaps it’s just the sausage pizza from last night.

It doesn’t help that my bed provided more restlessness than rest. I add “tired” to my growing list of reasons not to go.

I now understand why the non-regular church attender can so easily stay home despite their best intentions. The living room recliner and television remote are much more inviting and much less threatening.

Yet I press on. This isn’t due to my character but to avoid embarrassment. Too many people know about this project for me to abort my mission on day one.

The first of fifty-two churches is a small one in an old building. I know nothing about them, even though they’re a scant one mile from home.

For years, we’ve driven past their tiny church, yet I’ve never met anyone who went there. How strange. We’ve lived in this community for nearly a quarter of a century, and my connection to it goes back even further.

I know people from the other local churches, why not here?

Does anyone actually go to this one?

Learning about them online isn’t an option. They don’t have a website or even a Facebook page.

Candy and I discuss when we should leave but don’t agree.

We don’t want to breeze in at the last minute, removing any opportunity for pre-service interaction. Yet, arriving too early opens us to awkwardness if there’s no one to talk to, leaving us with nothing to do but squirm.

We pray before heading out. I ask God to bless our time at church and teach us what he wants us to learn. I request his favor, so we can have a positive impact on this church and the people there. We say “amen,” and then we leave.

Candy shows no apprehension, and I doubt she’s aware of mine. She keeps our conversation light. In the two-minute drive, there’s no time for my angst to grow. Before I know it, we’re there.

My palms grow sweaty and my heart pounds. Nausea overtakes me.

What have I gotten us into?

Takeaway for Everyone: Make it as easy for visitors as possible. Providing helpful information online is critical: what to expect, how to dress, a theological overview, and any distinctive characteristics.

[Check out the discussion questions for church #1.]

Learn what happens next when we visit our first church.

My wife and I visited a different Christian Church every Sunday for a year. This is our story. Get your copy of 52 Churches today, available in ebook, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook.

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

How It All Began: A Holy Spirit Prompting

An Introduction to 52 Churches

“Where do you go to church?”

Oh, how I dread that question.

It isn’t that I don’t go to church or am too embarrassed to answer. Instead, my frustration comes from the scowls I receive as I fumble through my reply. No matter what I say, I cause confusion.

This question about church attendance comes from clients at the local food pantry, where I volunteer. The pantry is a community effort started by local businesses, service organizations, and churches.

Now staffed mostly by church members, church attendance is a common topic of our patrons.

I serve as the point person for the clients. I explain our process, guide them through the paperwork, and match them with a volunteer to help them shop. As we move through these steps, we often chat.

This is when the awful question about where I go to church comes up.

The problem is that I don’t attend any of the churches that support the pantry. Instead, my wife, Candy, and I drive some fifteen miles to a church in another community.

Though I long to worship God in the community where we live, he has sent me to one further away and less convenient.

Sometimes I explain all this, but the clients’ eyes glaze over, either in boredom or bewilderment. Other times I only share the name of our church, but no one recognizes it.

Since it’s not a typical church name, they wonder if I’m kidding. Occasionally, I change the subject, but they don’t like that either.

Eventually, I realize they ask because they’re looking for a church.

Sure, some people are being polite, others feel obligated to ask—since nearly all our volunteers go to church, and a few want to label me based on my church affiliation. But most of them just want to find a spiritual community to plug into.

The pantry’s mandate is to serve residents of our local school district, which has ten churches within its borders. I don’t know a thing about some of them.

I know a little bit about each of the five churches involved with the pantry, but I don’t know enough to answer folks’ questions or direct them to the best match for their needs and background.

What if I visited all ten? Then I could better help clients who were looking for a church.

Yet, it isn’t that simple. What about churches just outside the school district? Should I consider nearby congregations too?

In addition to the ten within our school district, five more are a few miles to the southwest, twenty-one to the west, and scores more to the east.

A Lifelong Practice

All my life, I’ve gone to church. This has been a regular practice, pursued with dogged determination.

Yet, in considering the churches I’ve attended—first with my parents, next by myself, and then with my family—our church of choice was seldom the nearest one.

Why don’t we go to church where we live? This is a deep desire of my heart: to live, worship, and serve in the same community.

In addition to being practical in terms of time, effort, and cost, worshiping locally would also provide more opportunity to connect with and form a faith community in our geographic community, not somebody else’s.

Another perplexing question is wondering why each of our church-attending neighbors goes to a different one.

I long to worship God with my neighbors. Are the forms of our faith so different that we can’t go to church together? The answer should be “no,” but the evidence proves otherwise.

My hunch is that each possible church opportunity offers a fresh perspective of pursuing God or perhaps a different understanding of what it means to worship him.

If I can learn from each one, my comprehension of the God I love will grow and my understanding of worshiping him will be enhanced.

These reasons propel me forward, to undertake my unconventional faith journey of visiting different churches.

This isn’t the first time I wondered about the practices of other churches.

My grandmother went to a Baptist church. It was so different from the mainline one I attended that as a young child I thought she was a borderline heathen or perhaps part of a cult.

I was even more concerned about the girl next door, my only consistent friend for the first ten years of my life. She went with her family to a Roman Catholic parish and attended a parochial school.

Based on misinformation from people who didn’t understand Catholicism—or perhaps didn’t care to—I was convinced she was on her way to hell. She likely thought the same thing about me. I assumed I was on the side of right, and she, on the side of wrong.

The idea that we could both be right was beyond my comprehension. I even wondered how I might convert her to my church practices, not knowing we both looked to the same God, just in different ways.

When my family moved, my exposure to Catholics increased. In middle school art class, where the teacher had no clue what went on in her room, some classmates started arguing about Purgatory when we were supposed to be making art.

A group of us ditched our projects to debate the issue. We aligned our teams on opposite sides of a rectangular table. We stared at each other until I framed why we sat there glaring at each other. “Is there Purgatory?”

“Yes,” answered the other side of the table.

“No,” came the retort from my side.

No one said anything more. We each had our opinions, but we lacked support.

The debate ended without any discussion and without a winner. We slunk away from the table.

It bothered me that I couldn’t defend my unexamined position and that I learned nothing about Purgatory. How could Christians—who all claim to follow Jesus—hold such polarized opinions over the same faith?

The Same Team

I was a voracious reader, and my grandmother kept me supplied with a steady flow of books, all from a Baptist perspective.

This influenced me significantly during my formative years, causing me to wrestle greatly in attempting to reconcile a traditional Christian mindset with evangelical teaching.

Later, I discovered the Holy Spirit—the third part of the Trinity that mainline and conservative Christians downplay, sometimes even dismiss. I immersed myself in a pursuit of the charismatic.

We’re all on the same team, I lamented. Why can’t we get along?

This so vexed me that, years later, when it came time to select my dissertation topic I had no hesitation. I chose Christian unity.

My imperative need to learn why we were different and to advocate Christian harmony became even more urgent as I studied Jesus’s prayer in John 17, which he uttered just prior to his capture and execution.

With an agonizing death only hours away, Jesus took time to pray. His final request was that all his future followers would get along. He knew the impact of his sacrifice would be lessened if those who later professed to follow him lived in conflict with each other.

Now, with my dissertation complete, I have a theoretical understanding of the need for unity.

Despite that, I lack the practical knowledge of how the different streams of Protestants express their faith and worship God. And I’m completely ignorant about the rest of Christianity.

A Holy Spirit Prompting

As I wonder what to do with my idea of visiting area churches to better inform myself and help the food pantry clients, God prompts me to pursue a grander vision.

At his leading, I plan an unconventional faith journey, one of adventure and discovery: to learn what he would show me by visiting a different Christian church every Sunday for a year. I eventually call my sojourn “52 Churches.”

Oh, how this vision resonates with me. All my life I’ve yearned for more, spiritually. More from church, more from its community, and more from our common faith.

I’ve searched for answers, answers to impertinent questions I can sometimes barely articulate.

Yet something deep inside compels me to ask them, even though I confound others every time I do. A primal urge forces me to reach for this spiritual “more,” one I know to exist, as surely as I know my own name.

I dare to extend my arms toward God and have the audacity to expect him to reciprocate, perhaps even touching the tip of my outstretched fingers.

We’re content to drink Kool-Aid when God offers us wine. (This is an unlikely metaphor for me to use since I don’t drink alcohol—except for the occasional communion service that serves it.) Yes, there is more.

So much more. I’m desperate to discover it—and visiting fifty-two churches offers the potential to uncover more—or at least get me closer. This is something I must do. For me, this is no longer an option but a requirement.

My faith demands it. My spiritual sanity requires it.

This adventure earns the support of my wife and willing accomplice; my pastor, who encourages me to move forward; and my fellow elders who, after initial apprehension, support me, even anticipating what I will learn and share.

This isn’t a church-shopping romp, looking for a perfect faith community. Instead, I seek to broaden my understanding of God, church, and faith by experiencing different spiritual practices.

To do this, Candy and I will take a one-year sabbatical from our home church, intent on returning, armed with a greater understanding of how to better connect with the God we love, worship, and serve.

Yet I realize God might have other plans. He could tell us to join one of the churches we visit. He might instruct us to extend our quest or end it early.

He could fundamentally change our understanding of church and our role in it. Or perhaps things might work out as we plan, with us simply returning to our home church, one year later, better equipped to worship and serve.

Along the way, I suspect each church will show us a different approach to encountering God. I’m determined to learn what I can each week to increase my comprehension of him and enhance my worship.

I want to expand my understanding of our common faith, and I expect to boost my appreciation for the diversity of the local branches of Jesus’s church.

Whatever the outcome, I know God will teach us much, and I intend to come back well-armed with helpful information for the clients at the food pantry.

As I tell close friends about my plan—actually, it’s God’s plan—many resonate with it. This isn’t just a journey for me but for us all, albeit vicariously for most. This isn’t one man’s narcissistic pursuit.

It is an adventure for all who sense a need for more.

  • To those disenfranchised with church: This is a journey of hope and rediscovery. Don’t give up on church. God has a place in it for you. Yes, church can be messy at times, and the easy reaction is to give up.

    Maybe church left you disappointed, or her members hurt you beyond comprehension, but there are many people, at many churches, ready to offer love and extend acceptance.

    Don’t let a bad incident, or two, cause you to miss a lifetime of spiritual connection with others. I pray this book will call you back to Christian community.
  • To spiritual seekers: You have a place in God’s family. I’ll share fifty-two ways to expand your perspective. Diligently seek God as you explore churches, and you will find him. But don’t shop for a church as a consumer.

    Instead, travel as a pilgrim on a faith journey, seeking fellow sojourners to walk beside you. I pray the end of this story will mark the beginning of yours.
  • To the inquisitive: The church of Jesus is bigger, broader, and vaster than most of us have ever considered. Here, I share fifty-two reasons why, fifty-two variations of one theme.

    I pray you will begin to ask brave questions about church practices, explore fresh ways to worship God, and accept those who hold different understandings.
  • To church leaders: I offer a narrative to help you reach out more effectively, embrace more fully, and love more completely.

    You’re sure to catch glimpses of your church reflected on these pages, with anecdotes that will cause you to smile—and to groan—with each impression offering insight to those willing to accept it.

    May this book serve as your primer to celebrate what you do well and improve what you could do better. I pray this will mark a new beginning for your local branch of Jesus’s church.
  • To advocates of Christian unity: We’re part of the church Jesus began. It’s time everyone embraces this reality.

    I pray this account will encourage you to pursue greater unity in Jesus, to help churches in your area work together for God’s glory, so that everyone will know the Father, just as Jesus prayed (John 17:20–26).

    Another word for Christian unity is ecumenical: Of or relating to the worldwide Christian church.
52 Churches: A Yearlong Journey Encountering God, His Church, and Our Common Faith

My Wife Joins Me on This Adventure

Candy compiles a list of churches within ten miles of our home. She initially identifies fifty-seven, but we keep discovering more. Our file eventually balloons to ninety churches located within a ten-mile drive.

Not on the list is our own church, an outlier congregation that is part of a small mainline denomination, even though many assume we’re nondenominational—because that’s how we act.

God told me to help start this church. He called me to go there. Despite aching to attend church closer to home, he hasn’t released me to do so.

To realize the most from our sojourn, we form a plan. We’ll visit those churches nearest our home first, picking them in order of driving distance.

Toward the end of our journey, we’ll choose other churches from the remaining list, visiting those most different from our norm. Making the list is the easy part.

Next, we set some guidelines. Each week, we’ll check their website, hoping to learn about them before our visit so we can more fully embrace our time there.

Still, knowing that websites are sometimes out-of-date, we’ll email or call to verify service times. (Candy faithfully handled this every week for the entire year.)

If there are multiple meetings, we’ll go to the later one, since second services, which usually have a higher attendance, possess more energy, and lack time constraints.

We’ll dress casually, as we normally do, for church. For me this means a T-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes in the summer and a casual shirt, jeans, and boots in the winter.

This is practical because my wardrobe best allows it. It will also help because casual attire is what a non-churched visitor would likely wear.

Though I don’t want to come off as an unchurched outsider, I’ll learn more if they don’t view me as a conformed insider.

We agree to go along with any visitor rituals, but we’ll do nothing to imply we might come back or consider joining their community. If they want to give us literature or welcome gifts, we’ll graciously accept them.

When asked why we’re visiting, we’ll be honest, saying we’re seeking to expand our understanding of worshiping God by visiting area churches—but we aren’t looking to join one.

Also, we’ll avoid showing up at the last minute, instead aiming to arrive ten minutes early. This will allow for possible pre-church interaction.

Afterward, we’ll look for opportunities to talk with people and will stay for any after-church activities—except Sunday school.

This is because the original purpose of Sunday school was to teach poor children how to read. By the time public schools took over this task, Sunday school had become an institution and continued as an expected requirement.

At most churches Sunday school is now little more than an obligatory expectation, where frustrated faculty seek to fill time that antsy children strive to avoid.

Too many Sunday school programs bore their students and effectively teach kids that faith is boring.

However, aside from Sunday school, as we visit churches, we’ll do our best to be open and approachable, interacting with others any way we can.

Perhaps most important, we’ll participate in their service to the degree we feel comfortable, while being careful not to push their boundaries.

For more exuberant expressions of worship this means we’ll have the freedom, but not the obligation, to follow their lead. For more reserved gatherings, we won’t do anything to alarm them with our behavior.

I’ll blog about our visits, but I won’t keep the dispassionate distance of a reporter. I’ll engage in the service and with their community.

Throughout our adventure, I will continue to participate in a twice-a-month, midweek gathering at our home church. It is a nurturing faith community where we encourage and challenge each other.

This will serve as my spiritual base during our sojourn and help keep me connected. I’ll also listen to our church’s sermon podcasts and attend elder meetings.

As friends pray for our journey, one asks that we make a positive impact on each church we visit. This surprises me. I strive to make a difference wherever I go, but I never considered it for 52 Churches.

I assumed we would receive, but I never considered how we might give. With an expanded perspective, our adventure becomes doubly exciting.

Talk is safe. Action is risky. It’s easy to consider a bold move in the indefinite future. But I need to pick a date, or this will never be anything more than an intriguing idea that never happens.

It’s the season of Lent, and our church is marching toward Easter. What if we start our journey after that? I share the timing with my wife.

I expect resistance—or perhaps, I hope for some—providing an excuse for delay. But she nods her agreement. My pastor and fellow elders also affirm the timing. Some are envious.

Candy and I celebrate Jesus’s resurrection with our home church. Then we slip away to begin our sojourn the following Sunday.

I expect this to be an amazing adventure, and I invite you to journey with us.

My wife and I visited a different Christian Church every Sunday for a year. This is our story. Get your copy of 52 Churches today, available in ebook, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook.

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.

Peter DeHaan News

52 Churches Audiobook

New Format Now Available

The audiobook for 52 Churches is now available. 52 Churches is one of Peter’s most popular books. In addition to the audiobook, it’s also available in ebook, paperback, hardcover, large print formats. The audiobook is auto-narrated by Maxwell.

In 52 Churches Peter DeHaan spent an entire year roaming from one church to another, visiting 52 different Christian congregations.

In the process he learned what makes these places of worship unique, what makes newcomers feel like they belong, and what cringe-worthy shenanigans are guaranteed to keep visitors from ever coming back.

52 Churches is part religious exposé, part travel memoir, and 100% authentic.

You’ll read about Christian practices that are far different from your own, and in the process gain a deeper understanding of believers from all walks of life and denominational backgrounds: Protestant mainline, evangelical, and charismatic, Roman Catholic, and more.

Audiobook Sample

Listen to a sample of the audiobook.

The 52 Churches audiobook is now available direct from the author at, as well as GooglePlay, Apple Books, Kobo, and Booktopia, with more outlets being added.

Book Trailer

Discover more about Jesus’s church in Peter DeHaan’s book, 52 Churches. It’s book one in the Visiting Churches Series.

Get your copy of 52 Churches today.

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 Much to Offer

An Intriguing Possibility

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

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

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Easy Access

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

Several people stand outside to greet arrivals.

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

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

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

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

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

She heads to the center aisle and moves forward with intention.

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

To my relief she joins me.

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

The Countdown

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

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

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

As a prelude, they sing softly. Their contemporary sound is practiced but with no hint of an edge or excess energy. A rock concert it is not.

Even though the words for this first song appear on the screens, most people don’t join in, instead continuing to talk.

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

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

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

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

Nehemiah’s Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know What You Stand For

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t recognize anyone.”

On the surface, this church has a lot going for it and much to offer with their contemporary music, intriguing message, larger size, newer building, and friendly people.

But I fear it would require much effort and take a long time to make meaningful connections.

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


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

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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

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

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

Visiting Churches

The Kind-of-Traditional Church

A Failure to Connect

It’s time to leave for church, but our son isn’t feeling well, and his wife will stay home with him. So, Candy, my wife, and I make another last-minute change.

It’s 9:50 a.m., with not enough time to make it to any of the area’s many 10 a.m. services. I scan my list of options and only five have later services. I pick a church that one of our future neighbors attends.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

A Recommendation (of Sorts)

She’s the first person we met in the neighborhood. We had an extended conversation about family and life, which led to talking about God and faith.

When I asked what church her family attends, she rattled off the name, and I made a mental note to investigate. “But I’m not sure why we go there,” she added with reservation. “I don’t really like it; it’s kind of traditional.”

“How long have you gone there?”

“About fifteen years.”

“That’s a long time to go to a church you don’t like.”

“We have friends there,” she explained. “It’s comfortable.”

“Yeah, community and connections are important, but still . . .”

“I guess it’s easier to keep going than to change.”

“Do your kids like it?”

She shrugged. “It’s all they’ve ever known.”

I want to probe some more, but I’ve already said too much to a person I just met. I remain silent and let her steer the conversation. She changes the subject.

So, we head to her church today, but I’m not sure why. Partly, I suppose, is out of respect for my new friend. I hope to see her and her family.

Perhaps we can sit with them. But we should have planned for this, and with two morning services, our chances of seeing them are cut in half.

Another reason for going is to see if I agree with her assessment. Already I’ve decided I won’t like the church, while at the same time I strive to remain open-minded. What a conundrum.

A Raining Day

With an 11 a.m. service, we have plenty of time to arrive early—and we planned to—but by the time we get in the car, we don’t have much of a cushion. I drive as Candy enters the address in our GPS.

I pray for the service and our time there.

The fall day is cool and the skies, gray. Windy, with intermittent rain, the gloomy weather matches my melancholy mood.

As we drive, the sun tries to break through the clouds to brighten my perspective. Unsuccessful, the clouds win, unleashing their torrent as we pull into the parking lot.

With no open spots by the door, I keep driving. That’s when we spot another door on a newer part of their facility. This must be the main entrance, but there are no spots near it either.

I keep driving. Though I expect to find spaces recently vacated by the first service crowd, I don’t. Will I ever find a place to park? Eventually I do.

We brace ourselves against the wind and wet as we press toward the door. The facility is larger than I expected. The outside screams traditional. Inside, people mill about.

First Impressions

I immediately notice two things: I’m decidedly underdressed, which doesn’t surprise me, and we are in a throng of senior citizens, which does surprise me.

I mentally recoil, overwhelmed by the glut of suits and gray hair, paired with dresses and blue-hued perms.

Everyone looks a couple decades older than us. I feel out of place and am self-conscious. Why are we here?

People avoid making eye contact and may not even see us. Perhaps my blue jeans and tennis shoes are an affront to them, or maybe they’re preoccupied with their own pre-service agenda.

One man is the exception, not only making eye contact but smiling too. He extends his hand and welcomes me. I reciprocate and am about to share my name when I realize he’s not ready for further interaction.

We press toward the sanctuary.

The traditional vibe escalates as we weave our way, invisible, among the mass of people. “Aren’t there any bulletins?” asks my wife. “You’d think a church like this would have bulletins.” I agree but don’t see any either.

Finally, she spots a man holding a stack of papers. She approaches him and asks. He hands her one. Pleased, she rejoins me, and we sit in the second of four sections, about a third of the way forward.

The bulletin says they have a conference this weekend, with a guest speaker today. Inwardly I sigh. We came to experience their normal service, not an atypical one.

The bulletin also reports last week’s statistics. The attendance was 507, evenly split between the two services. Sixty percent of those folks also went to Sunday school between the morning services. For their evening service, 217 people showed up.

Their general fund, comprising 63 percent of their budget, is lagging their year-to-date target by a few percentage points. They also have a building fund, at 19 percent of their goal, which is slightly ahead of where they hoped to be.

Most encouraging, however, is their missions fund. I’m impressed they have one and that it’s 17 percent of their total budget.

Even more remarkable, their year-to-date missions contributions are 27 percent ahead of their goal. This is a giving church, and I applaud their desire to support outreach efforts.

They also have off-budget items for benevolence and debt-retirement.

I suspect the sanctuary seats about four or five hundred. It will end up being about 75 percent full.

Though I see a handful of younger families and a few mid-lifers, most are in their senior citizen years. I question the wisdom of expanding their facility when their numbers will decrease through attrition over the next ten years.

A man comes up and introduces himself. “Are you visiting today?” He’s wearing a wireless ear mic, so I assume he’s the pastor.

“Yes, we are.” He’s only the second person to talk to me and the first who said more than “Hi.” I want to make the most of our interaction.

“Is this your first time here?” he asks, even though he knows the answer.

Candy and I both smile, nodding our enthusiasm. “Yes, it is!”

“Great! I’m glad you’re here today. Did you receive our welcome gift when you came in?”

I want to tell him no one even talked to us. Instead, I shake my head.

“Well, be sure to get it on the way out.” But he doesn’t tell us where.

If I’m to do as he says, I need more details. “Okay,” I say with a lack of conviction. The obvious solution, the visitor-friendly approach, would be for him to go get a welcome gift and give it to us.

Satisfied with my response, he smiles broadly. “You’re in for a real treat today! We have a special guest speaker.”

“So we won’t get to hear you, then?”

A Guest Pastor

“Oh, no. I’m not the teaching pastor. I’m the visitation pastor. You’ll see me up front a little today but not much. Our teaching pastor is really good. Our guest speaker is even better. It will be a great service.”

As we talk, he’s also distracted by someone vying for his attention. Finally, he excuses himself to address this pressing need. I expect he’ll return to finish our conversation, but he moves on to other people, so I return to checking out the sanctuary.

Even with a baby grand piano and an area for a large choir, the huge stage provides ample space.

Their motto, projected overhead, reads “Living His Truth, Loving His People, Sharing His Message.” Arrayed in a circle, I’m not sure which element comes first. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Later I check their website for clarity, but it gives a different motto: “Changing Lives for Eternity.”

The service opens with a welcome and announcements. Then there’s time for “personal, private prayer.” But by the time I note those words in my journal, the personal, private prayer time is over, and the leader gives the opening prayer.

Though there was an organ prelude, we sing with piano accompaniment. After two hymns, there’s a congregational prayer, which morphs into the offertory prayer.

With the “Amen,” the ushers pass the offering plates while the organ plays “Take My Life and Let It Be.” Then we sing a third song.


Our guest speaker is an apologetics preacher. I groan to myself. Apologetics, which I’ve always thought was a strange name, is a reasoned, systematic defense of a theological position.

Though the older crowd will delight in his teaching, I will not.

I’ve experienced apologetics as close-minded, lacking in grace and abounding with critical conviction. Speakers leave no room for disagreement, presenting their opinions as fact and expecting everyone to agree with them.

Dissenters are surely heretics.

Though apologetics predates the modern era, I perceive it, and its cousin, systematic theology, primarily as constructs of the modern era, which fueled their popularity.

However, if God deemed a holistic, theological treatise as important, he’d have surely detailed it in the Bible—and Paul would have been the person to write it. He did not—or at least I’ve not found it yet.

Ironically, the speaker says he’s focused on today’s youth. Does he know they’re primarily postmodern thinkers?

I doubt apologetics holds much interest for them and may even reinforce their disillusionment with Christianity and the institutional church.

This doesn’t matter too much since few youth are present. Instead, their modern-thinking grandparents are here, and they will enjoy his teaching and clamor for more.

The title of his message is “Becoming Bold.” After some introductory remarks, he shares a surprising statistic: “There are 400,000 churches in the US and only 6,000 first-run movie theaters.”

He pauses for effect and repeats it a second time. Then he adds, “But we’ve lost our influence. We’re hardly even noticeable.”

Though this may not be a fair comparison, it’s a sobering one. It’s also the most interesting thing he says his entire message and the last thing I write. Eventually I close my notebook.

The conference’s intent is to give us a reason for hope, but by the end of the message, I feel only despair. I heard nothing of hope. I felt no love. But I do feel alienated.

Can’t Wait to Leave

This is not because I disagreed with the speaker’s message, but because his narrow interpretation left no room for divergent views.

He single-handedly became the poster child of everything I see wrong with narrow-minded, modern-thinking preachers. I can’t wait to leave.

Even though my spirit is seething, I still hope for some post-service interaction, to experience a bit of Christian community.

Though we linger, no one approaches us, and I can’t catch anyone’s eye, despite sometimes holding my gaze long enough to border on staring.

We walk slowly. I wonder if someone will offer us the promised welcome gift, while not caring if they do. No one does.

By now we’re out of the sanctuary and halfway to the exit. My pulse quickens as my soul’s angst, a spiritual indignation, threatens to overflow.

A primal instinct to flee bubbles up inside me. “I’ve got to get out of here,” I hiss out of the corner of my mouth.

I don’t know if my wife hears me, but as the pressure on my chest builds, I stride toward the door with intention.

Even so, I make one last, futile attempt at eye contact with an older man as I push through the double doors to make my escape. He doesn’t even glance at me. Perhaps it’s for the best.

Now free, I gulp fresh air. Though the hard rain has stopped, it’s still misting. I’m glad for this moisture hitting my face, for it will mask my tears that threaten to erupt.

I plaster on a false smile as I stride toward the car. Once inside I finally feel safe. Now I can breathe again. I take a deep, cleansing breath.

I want to vent, but know that’s a bad idea, because I could lose the last bit of control I have over the pent-up emotion amassing inside me. With a calm, even voice, I finally seek my bride’s opinion. “So, what did you think?”

My modern-thinking wife really liked the message, as I knew she would. Eventually she answers my underlying but unasked question. “But I don’t want to go back.”

I’m so relieved.


If you want to cater to your members, give them what they want. If you want to attract new people, give them what they need—even if it makes some members upset.

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 Outlier Congregation

New Approaches for an Old Denomination

It’s a holiday weekend. Our son and daughter-in-law are out of town, so we’re free agents.

A return trip to the Megachurch is in order, but our daughter invites us to go to a church she and her husband have visited the past couple of weeks. A friend from college invited her.

The Megachurch can wait.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

This church, part of an old traditional denomination, has two services: 9:15 and 11:00. We’ll go to the first one.

I check their website and am encouraged to read the bold proclamation: “Making passionate followers of Jesus.” This must be their vision.

Their mission statement likewise impresses me, using the phrases “community of faith,” “renewed by the Holy Spirit,” “transformation of lives and community,” and “for God’s glory.”

Besides typical church components such as student ministries and community service opportunities, they also offer Alpha classes and small groups.

What’s unusual is they have a recovery program for people struggling with life issues. From what I see online, this is a big emphasis of this church.

I learn that the church is 7.2 miles away and the drive will take eleven minutes. We plan to leave twenty-five minutes early, but it ends up being more like fifteen. As I drive, my wife, Candy, prays for our time there.

Along the way, we pass several churches. As we wonder about them, the names become jumbled, and we forget the name of where we’re headed. I should have written it down, along with the address.

All I remember is the cross streets it’s near. I hope there’s only one church at that intersection.

But we find the church easily enough.

Larger Than Expected

The facility is much larger than I expect. As we head toward the entrance, our daughter texts us they’re running late.

A young couple notices us, and the wife greets us. It’s our daughter’s friend from college. I’ve only seen her twice, with the last time being about three years ago, but she recognizes us right away.

We chat as we stroll into the building. They invite us to sit with them—if we’d like. We appreciate this friendly gesture and gladly accept, as they find seats for us and two more for the rest of our family.

I estimate the sanctuary—which is a newer building with a trendy minimalist church design—seats four to five hundred. It’s over half full, which isn’t bad for a Labor Day weekend.

The service starts a few minutes late, but not before our kids arrive and slide in next to Candy. Soon the worship team—consisting of guitars, drums, and keyboard—plays an instrumental piece to signal that the service is about to begin.

Their style is smartly contemporary, without being edgy. I assume Candy will appreciate their professional sound, while I’d prefer a bit more edge. We stand to sing for the opening set.

Afterward is a series of announcements, previewing the fall kickoff of various programs and reviewing the upcoming schedule.

With all age groups present, we learn the average age at the church is twenty-seven. However, this isn’t a church dominated by millennials, but more so one with a slew of kids and their Gen X parents.

They have a typical time for greeting. Though the people are nice as we shake hands, it’s cursory, consisting of pleasant smiles and lacking connection.

Aside from our family and hosts, this is the only time all morning we interact with anyone else.

A clipboard moves down the row for us to leave our contact information. Candy enters our data, and I pass it to our friends.

An Outlier Church for Their Denomination

For this denomination, this one is quite progressive, an outlier congregation. But based on my overall church experiences it’s more middle-of-the-road. It’s certainly not traditional, but it still retains hints of traditional elements.

Today is the final message of the sermon series, “Letters to the Angels,” taken from Revelation 2 and 3. But before that, we’re treated to a skit, a takeoff on Jimmy Fallon’s thank-you notes routine, performed by their worship leader.

It’s done well, with relevant church humor, such as “Thank you, small group leaders, for doing work the staff doesn’t want to do” and “Thank you, church volunteers, for essentially being unpaid employees.”

In handing the service to the minister, the worship leader jokes that he’s thankful for only working one day a week.

The Church in Laodicea

The seventh letter, written to the angel of the church in Laodicea, is in Revelation 3:14–22. Whenever I’ve studied this passage, I’ve focused on the church being lukewarm and God’s rejection of them as a result.

Though the minister addresses this, his focus is on their smug self-complacency, which is also a pervasive issue in society today. We, like the church in Laodicea, need to “repent of being in control.”

Their problem—as with today’s culture, says the pastor—is their greed. “It’s not all about me,” he quips, decrying their self-focus. To their shame, they act as they do, relying on God’s grace to get them into heaven.

“He who has ears,” concludes the pastor, as he quotes from the text, “let him hear.”

When the service ends, most people head out, but we linger to talk with our family and friends. Though I thought the service was well attended, they say it was far below normal. I wonder about attendance at the second service.

I notice a Celtic cross on the side of the sanctuary and ask about its significance, but no one knows.

As I recall, the circle that surrounds the intersection of the cross’s two arms represents unity or eternity, two concepts I embrace: unity while on earth, followed by eternity in heaven.

Different Perspectives

Later, I talk with my son-in-law about the church. He likes it but wants something more contemporary, more like the church we went to before we moved.

I agree with him and then wonder aloud if this might be the closest we’ll find in this more traditional area.

Based on my experiences with this denomination, they’re contemporary compared to others in their denomination, an outlier. But they fall short of that compared to other churches.

The next day we talk about our experience when our son and daughter-in-law return home. They visited this church once and liked it but aren’t sure why they never went back.

When I say, “No one else talked to us,” they recall the same experience.

I tell Candy I could see myself going back.

She doesn’t. “I have no interest in returning.”

“We’ll see,” I say. “This may be the closest match we’ll find in the area.”

She snorts. “I sure hope not.”


Invite visitors to sit with you. And if you see someone you don’t know, reach out to them. You might be the only person to talk to them.

[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.