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.

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 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.

“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?

Visiting Churches

The Traditional Denominational Church

An Easy No

As Sunday approaches, I want to return to last week’s church. Instead, I refer to our list. The second closest church to our house is another from traditional denominational church, a short 1.4 miles away.

I attended a church in this denomination for the first decade of my life. Later, early in our marriage, Candy and I were members of one for three years.

Based on my experiences, too many churches in this denomination are dying because of aging congregations and few young attendees. The Outlier Congregation was a notable exception.

Perhaps this traditional denominational church will also be different. To my shock, Candy doesn’t balk when I suggest this church. I voice hope. “Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

We don’t leave as soon as we should. As a result, we’re both frustrated when we get into our car.

Praying for Church

Only a few seconds into the drive our simmering emotions erupt with raised voices and unkind words. Having mutually expressed our respective angst over some trivial slight, we drive in silence.

In another minute we’ll be at this traditional denominational church, but we haven’t yet prayed for the experience. The sad thing is, right now I don’t care.

“Do you want to pray for the service?” Candy asks.

No, I don’t; I’m mad. I hope she will. After all, she suggested it. “Will you pray?”

“No, I want you to.”

I just yelled at my wife. I don’t want to talk to anyone, especially not God. Letting out a deep breath, I sigh.

“Lord, calm our emotions and prepare us to experience church today. May we receive what you would have us to receive and give what you would have us to give. Open our minds to see what you want to show us. May you be honored by our actions today.”

During my short prayer, God soothes my raw emotions and transforms my attitude. I feel better. I’m ready for church. That’s good because we’re here.

First Impressions

I count six cars in the parking lot. We’re number seven. Great! I tense a bit, braced for another too-small gathering.

Only after we get out of our car do I see many vehicles parked on the side, too many to count. That’s better. I relax a little.

Though I suspect we should walk around the building to where most of the cars are and seek an entrance there, the biting wind of the winter cold assaults me.

It’s not as unseasonably cold as last Sunday, but today the wind pushes the feeling of cold much lower. I want to get inside as fast as I can. I follow a few footprints in the snow to the closest door.

It’s at a lower level than the main entrance in the front, and I wonder where it might lead.

It’s not a welcoming approach. I brace myself to tug on a locked door. To my relief the door yields to my gentle pull, depositing us on a landing midpoint on a stairway. We walk up several steps and find ourselves in the narthex, a pleasant and warm space.

A lady heading to the stairs welcomes us with a smile. But she has no time to talk, she explains, because she’s headed to work in the nursery. I’m encouraged. Despite seeing only senior citizens milling about, the need for a nursery suggests younger families attend too.

We saunter in. Already I know I won’t like this church or our experience here. This isn’t a snap determination made with premature rashness but a reasoned judgment resulting from the scores of churches we’ve visited over the past few years.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, I can predict with high accuracy what the people and service will be like.

Why are we here? Why did we bother?

I want to leave.

Pressing Forward

Meandering toward the sanctuary, we look for someone to talk to or someone looking to talk to us. No one notices. We’re invisible—again. I look for coatracks but don’t see any.

Although slightly irked, I’m okay keeping my coat on. Despite only a brief exposure to the winter chill, it will take time for my body to warm.

While I’m looking for a coatrack, Candy seeks a bulletin. This is definitely a bulletin-type church, but she can’t find one. Now she’s irked too. The pews have padded seats but aren’t nearly as nice as last week’s. I squirm, trying to get comfortable.

The character of the building reminds me of 1960-style construction, but it’s nicely maintained and doesn’t feel that old. Though there are few windows, the space is well lit, giving an open, inviting ambiance.

The stage, however, has the strangest array of decorations, giving off an almost spooky vibe. It’s surreal, and I try to ignore it. I know someone put a lot of effort into this, but the results are bizarre.

Candy still looks for bulletins, finally spotting a rack of them by one of the side aisles. After she leaves to retrieve one, an older lady approaches me from the other side. With a smile, she hands me a bulletin. “Here, you might want one of these.”

I thank her, and she nods. That’s the end of our exchange, but I’m pleased she made the effort.

Candy returns, with bulletin in hand, and a man—the first person we’ve seen younger than ourselves—walks up to us. He introduces himself and we have an extended conversation.

Our exchange, however, is uncomfortable because he’s standing and we’re sitting. Why didn’t I stand too? Nevertheless, his outreach honors me.

We’ve now had three interactions with people at this traditional denominational church. Each one felt awkward, yet I prefer uneasy conversation to no conversation. No one wants to be ignored.

(I must admit I could have contributed to the discomfort of each situation.)

I estimate the church seats about 350 and is less than half full. Though all age groups are present, the crowd skews toward the senior citizen demographic.

The front five rows are completely empty in each of the four sections, with most people packed into the back of the sanctuary. Though we’re only a fourth of the way in, as many people sit behind us as in front.

We keep our coats on. I squirm trying to find a comfortable position in the uncomfortable pew.

Out of Place Drums

“Look, there’s a drum set.” Candy points with a subtle tip of her head. “It’s hidden behind the piano.” Drums seem so out of place in this traditional setting. I wonder if they will be part of today’s service. I don’t need to wonder long.

With a pleasant smile, a man approaches the piano. An accomplished pianist, he plays the prelude and then invites the worship team forward. Four vocalists pick up mics as they fan out along the front of the stage.

A woman sits at a keyboard behind the piano, and a twenty-something guy goes to the sequestered drum kit, housed in a Plexiglas enclosure.

They open with a contemporary song, followed by an obligatory greeting time. Though we shake hands or wave at everyone around us, the most anyone says is “Hi” or “Welcome.”

The intention is good, but the results are superficial. I feel like a poser, a fraud. I smile and pretend to be happy, just like everyone else, but we’re acting as if we’re all friends, when in reality we’re strangers—except for the one man we talked to when we first sat.

We sing two more songs, one contemporary and the other a hymn. The congregational prayer follows. As a kid I learned to ignore these lengthy recitations of congregational needs, and I never broke that habit. The prayer drones on.

Afterward he dismisses the kids. It’s too late. They should have been released before the boring prayer, lest they, too, learn to ignore it as I did.

Then the ushers take two offerings in rapid succession. Though many people sit in front of us, the first bucket goes by with only a few bills in the bottom. The second one is empty.

Either this is a stingy church, or they give their offerings in other ways. Singing during the collections, we stand for the final verse once the ushers have completed their task. At last, I’m warm enough to take off my coat.

The Book of James

The sermon is part of a series from the book of James. The pastor is a contract minister; they just extended his agreement six months while they seek a permanent replacement. He reads James 5:7–20.

He’s a polished presenter who communicates with ease. The title of his message is “The Quest for Christian Maturity: In Patience and Prayer.”

We are impatient, he says. Consider Moses, Abraham and Sarah, and Peter. “Patience produces fruit, gives testimony, and reveals God’s care.”

With three points for part one, I wonder if this was once a sermon by itself. “Without trials,” he concludes, “there would be no perseverance; without battle, no victory.”

For the second half on prayer, there are likewise three points. We pray “in difficult circumstances, in sickness, and in spiritual struggle.”

What about prayers of confession, thanksgiving, and praise? We need those types of prayers too. Surely God must tire of us only asking for things.

“Prayer is getting God’s will done on earth,” he says in conclusion. This sounds nice, but I wonder if it has biblical support.

He says a closing prayer and dismisses us.

We move slowly and are the last to leave the sanctuary. Some people give us a passing nod, others thank us for visiting, and a few invite us back. But no one shares their names or asks ours. No one attempts conversation. I wonder if they expect their paid clergy to do that.

The Exit

The minister stands dutifully at the sanctuary’s main exit. With no one behind us, we tarry. I tell him we are new to the area and visiting local churches, but I think he assumes we’ve already selected this one.

He tells us about their evening service and where the church is in their process of finding a new minister. He’s a nice man, and I like him, but we don’t plan to come back, so I doubt we’ll ever see him again.

Candy asks if I want to hang out in the narthex to see if there’s anyone we can talk to. I see no point in trying and am okay to leave. I think she’s relieved. As we head toward the door, though, we have one final interaction. It’s the best of the whole morning.

Two ladies take time to learn about us and share about themselves. One woman is the mother of the man we talked to before the service, and the other is the fill-in pastor’s wife. Both are nice ladies, and I appreciate them reaching out to us.

As we say our goodbyes, they both invite us back.

Candy and I don’t talk about the experience on our short drive home. Later I ask what she thought, but she has little to share. I already know and didn’t need to ask.

She didn’t like it and doesn’t want to return to this traditional denominational church. I agree.

Last week’s sermon elevated the Holy Spirit to an equal level with the other parts of the Trinity; this week’s message ignored him.

Last week I enjoyed our church experience; this week, I didn’t. I wonder if there’s a connection.


Look for ways to welcome visitors and give them a reason to come back.

[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 Closest Church

Warm Inside

Despite my encouragement, Candy has provided little input on the churches we visit. Though she recommended The Church with the Fundamental Vibe and The Nonconventional Church, I compiled the rest of the list. Today we’ll visit the closest church.

Originally containing thirty-five names, I’ve now cut my list in half. While it might be interesting to spend nine months visiting area churches, I lack the patience.

As we move forward, I wonder if we’ll add other congregations to our lists of contenders or if visiting more churches will merely delay her selection. I promised that she could pick our next church. I wonder if she already has and is keeping it from me.

The Importance of Christian Community

Not being part of a specific Christian community gnaws at my soul. Though I maintain my personal spiritual practices of Bible reading and study, prayer, fasting, and writing, my faith flounders.

I need, desperately so, to be part of a faith community to provide support and encouragement. I need to receive it, and I long to give it. Without this vital element of spiritual camaraderie, I’m less of a follower of Jesus.

“No man is an island,” said John Donne. Now I understand. This realization, however, takes too long for me to recognize, but when I finally do, the need is imperative.

While I don’t expect church to fill this void, I expect it to stop my downward slide into religious dejection.

Having at last moved into our house, we decide to visit nearby churches. First up is a church a scant six tenths of a mile away.

For years I’ve longed to attend a church in my community where we can gather with our neighbors. Though this church is the closest to us, ideally meeting my first desire, I’m not aware of any neighbors who go there.

Cold Outside

Today is unseasonably cold, the coldest day of the winter so far, at -6 °F (-21 °C). The biting wind makes it feel even worse. Though some churches canceled because of the cold, this one did not.

It’s the closest church to our home. In the two minutes it takes to drive there, I forget to pray. Feeling guilty, I mumble a quick petition after I park the car.

The parking lot is vast. With every inch plowed, massive snowbanks line its perimeter. With 90 percent of the lot empty, I chuckle at the futility of clearing the entire space when they need only a small section.

Of course, with today’s cold weather, some folks will surely stay home. This will make attendance even more sparse.

With the frigid temperature and a much lower wind chill of up to -30 °F (-34 °C), we walk briskly and take shallow breaths so we don’t freeze our lungs. The cloudless sky treats us to a bright sunshine, trying to trick us into thinking the day is more pleasant than it is.

A Warm Welcome

Two men greet us just inside the door. Though I don’t think they’re greeters per se, I do think they’re intentional about meeting new people. “Are you new to the area or visiting?”

“We are new to the area, and we are visiting,” I say.

They welcome us to the neighborhood and to their church. I don’t offer my name because I’m waiting to see if they offer theirs. They don’t. We make small talk. It’s an affable conversation, but they share no information about their church.

Pleasant but superficial best describes our encounter. When the conversation wanes, I excuse myself and move further inside the building.

I scan the large narthex. Most everyone appears younger than us, with many thirtysomething couples and their kids. I’m encouraged.

People mill about but no one else seems interested in talking to us. A few folks, however, do smile and give us a welcoming nod. With nothing else to do, we head toward the sanctuary.

At the auditorium entrance, a man hands us a bulletin and an information brochure. I thank him with a smile and a downward tip of my head.

With few people sitting, we have our choice of seats. I walk halfway down the center aisle, turn left, and slide midway down the padded pew in the first section.

The area is essentially cube-shaped, with white walls. It reminds us of some of the United Methodist churches we’ve visited in the past. Here, offsetting the plain white walls, is too much stained wood trim and some gold-colored embellishments, which strike me as pretentious.

Windows abound, letting in much natural light and taking full advantage of today’s glorious sunshine. The high cathedral ceiling accentuates the open feel.

A few of the windows in the upper front are stained glass, not of the traditional variety, but a more subtle contemporary design. However, a large screen, ready to display elements of the service, blocks our full view of them.

The floor slopes toward the front, with the pews arranged in four sections, allowing room for several hundred people. At about 25 percent full, I wonder how much the weather affected attendance.

Overall, this is a cautiously modern setting, with traditional elements mixed in. I’m not sure how to react to this dichotomy, which is exacerbated by the nontraditional musical instruments on stage.

Worship Time and More

With a nod to the winter weather, the worship leader welcomes us to start the service. The worship team plays three or four numbers in the opening set. As they move from song to song, the worship leader alternates between guitar and piano.

When he moves, the pianist switches over to a keyboard. There’s also a drummer and a backup guitarist, who plays various stringed instruments. A trio of background vocalists round out their light pop sound as we sing contemporary songs and choruses.

Next is the children’s message. I’m surprised at the number of kids who flood forward, perhaps twenty-five or thirty.

In a church service, the kids are never easy to spot when scanning the crowd, but when they get up for a children’s message or to leave for their own activities, their numbers become apparent, often surprising me. Today is such a day.

The minister addresses the kids at their level, while also providing value to the rest of the congregation. He verbally interacts with them, physically involves them, and provides a demonstration for us all.

This is not a brief, obligatory activity to check off and move on. It’s packed with intention. By the time he dismisses them, we already know the theme of his message and his main point.

The Message

The minister has a slight accent, Dutch I assume. At first, I need to focus to catch what he says, but after a few minutes, I no longer notice. This is because of the easy flow of his words, his engaging nature, and the value in what he shares. I immediately like him.

Following the children’s message, he promotes a new sermon series for Lent, which he’ll start next week, after wrapping up his abbreviated five-week series on the Apostles’ Creed today.

Next Sunday will feature Holy Communion. He reads a preparatory text to focus our thoughts on that event and the meaning behind it. Then we have a responsive reading of the Ten Commandments, followed by reciting the Apostles’ Creed in unison.

From his brief introduction, I assume on week one of the series he summarized the creed, followed by a week for each part of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For a denomination that has historically glossed over the work of the Holy Spirit, I’m pleasantly surprised at his inclusion today, being mentioned from the pulpit and in our singing. I wonder if this is normal for them. I hope it is.

Today’s message addresses a line in the creed that is often misunderstood and a cause of concern for many: “I believe in the holy catholic Church.”

This is not a specific nod to the Roman Catholic Church, but instead an acknowledgment to the universal Christian church (which includes Roman Catholicism, along with all of Protestantism).

The key to this delineation is big C Catholic versus small c catholic. The distinction is huge, but it requires explanation for most all who hear this statement of belief from the creed for the first time.

Church, he says, is not a building, a congregation, or a denomination. From the Greek word Ekklesia, which is translated church, we comprehend it to mean “an assembly of people called out of the world to become part of God’s family.”

Key Points

There are two keys to this understanding.

First, we must be united (Matthew 16:18). Second, we must be holy (1 Peter 2:9), The minister defines holy as “set apart” and “associated with God”. I appreciate this definition of holy, as it helps me perceive it as something I can grasp as opposed to something unattainable.

To realize being a universal church, we must be united; we must be one. He hearkens back to his key text for today, Ephesians 4:1–6, which highlights this with the use of one seven times.

His message is brilliant and resonates with me, yet, out of necessity, he stops too soon. If we are to truly be a universal church, to be united, to be one, then there is no room for the division caused by our thousands of denominations.

Yet he and this church are part of a denomination. The ultimate conclusion in a push for unity is removing denominational distinctions. He doesn’t make that statement.

In fact, he even attempts to justify denominations. But I don’t grasp his explanation. Despite this, he gave a powerful message that I appreciate.

He concludes the service with a short congregational prayer and a lengthy list of announcements. Then he excuses the children for Sunday school. The service ends by taking the offering.

Connection Time

Afterward, coffee and cookies wait for the adults and in fifteen minutes there will be a discussion about the sermon. The opportunity for discussion beckons, but I decide not to.

I fear I might blurt out something inappropriate, such as “denominations are the antithesis of church unity.” I am their guest, and it’s best to keep that thought to myself.

Though the greeting time during the service was one of obligatory routine, afterward people welcome us and talk. They share their names, and we reciprocate. They ask about us and tell us about their church.

I’m pleasantly surprised to spot a neighbor and we talk at length. For years they attended another church, one quite different from this one, but have been coming here for the past few months. He also points out another one of our neighbors I haven’t yet met.

As we continue to talk, he makes a vague reference to a likely future change for this church, assuming that is why we are here today. When I shake my head, he explains.

The gist is them joining with another large area church to form something new at this location. The result will be hundreds more people and multiple services, two things that turn me off.

“Why?” I ask.

He shrugs.

Our time together is great, really great. His wife comes up, and we talk as well. Though I want our interaction to continue, their kids grow antsy. I suspect Mom and Dad are ready to leave. I thank them for our conversation and wish them a great rest of the day.

We talk to a few more folks as we head to our car. My expectations for this church were low, but I’m pleased with what I see.

For years I’ve longed to attend church in my neighborhood with my neighbors, to share Christian community in my community. This church, our closest church, offers that. Coupled with a great sermon, I add this congregation to my list of contenders.

My wife, however, isn’t as enamored. I don’t think she’s willing to consider them further.

I wonder why she agrees to visit the churches I suggest if she’s not interested. Why did we go here today?

I fear she’s just patiently waiting for me to work through our list of churches, so that once it’s completed she can announce the church she’s already picked. Am I merely delaying her decision?

Midweek, the pastor emails us, offering to talk or meet if we have questions or would like to learn more. I want to take him up on his offer but don’t. Though I’d enjoy getting together, I fear it would raise false expectations on his part.


Seek ways to reach out to visitors: talk with them, form connections, even invite them to meet. And this doesn’t just apply to paid staff. It applies to everyone.

[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 Nonconventional Church

Locked Out

We head for a church that meets in an office complex, using space provided by an adoption agency. A former coworker of Candy’s is the teaching elder there. Another of her friends recently started attending this nonconventional church.

The thought of knowing someone at church is a powerful pull.

Lacking a website, they do have a Facebook page. However, aside from oodles of photos and a few dated reviews, there’s only one other thing I can learn about them. However, it’s monumental.

The words quicken my heart. A simple but laden question asks, “What does a church look like when you drop all the programs, masks, facades, and actually learn to love one another in participation of the Way of Christ?”

Sloppy writing aside, this nonconventional church is definitely one I want to check out. They may be the kindred spirits I seek. Dare I hope they’ll live up to the implied promise of their spiritually provocative statement?

Everything Goes Wrong

An early winter snow makes traveling slippery. Wet feathery flakes of white threaten to cover the road, obscuring our visibility. I wonder if we should even be out driving.

Through a mix of partial information and assumptions, we get lost, stumbling on the building by accident once we’ve given up any hope of finding it. We pull into the parking lot six minutes late.

Amid multiple buildings, with a slew of tenants, we spot the adoption agency, but their door is locked. An adjacent entry marked “employee entrance” is locked too.

After wandering around in the cold, wet snow, we finally spot a third entrance in another building that also lists their name. This one, with its double doors, is more promising, but it is likewise shut tight.

Fighting off the fluffy dampness of the falling snow, we walk around the complex, looking for hints of where to go or how to get in. Some sections of the walks are shoveled; most are not.

Random footprints in the snow reveal recent traffic, but they don’t converge on a common entrance or even hint at a way inside. Frustrated, we get back in our car and drive around the facility, looking for their church sign or another entrance to try.

When this yields no new clues, we return to the parking lot.

There are other cars there, so we know people are present. Having given up, I remain in the car.

Candy gets out and presses her ear against the glass in the double doors and hears music emanating from deep inside. She rattles the doors, and even pounds, but garners no response. After waiting in exasperation, she repeats her efforts, this time with more fervor and increased ire.

Flight or Fight?

She returns to the car, fuming. Now twenty-five minutes after the start of their service, my impulse is flight, while hers is to fight. At an impasse and not knowing what else to do, we drive home in silence, wondering how something so simple could go so wrong.

Though we encountered locked doors at some churches, we eventually found one that was open. This time we did not.

Later that day, my wife vents to the teaching elder in a private Facebook message. He apologizes but doesn’t explain the locked doors. He provides a vague description of which entrance we should have used, but if we understand correctly, we tried it.

We’ll attempt to visit them again, arriving early so we can be sure to get inside. This congregation claims to have a different approach to doing church, and I must learn more.

But I’m not sure if I can work past my frustration of being locked out in the cold while the faithful gathered in the warmth inside. I may have already decided against this church, and I haven’t even been to their service.

Part 1 Takeaway

Make sure visitors know where your church is located and what entrance to use.

A Second Chance to Make a First Impression

Try Again

Two weeks later we head back to The Nonconventional Church. The implication that this congregation does church in a different way intrigues me. However, I’m still harboring hurt from them effectively excluding us from their gathering on our first attempt to visit.

Praying for the Service

With two weeks to stew about this, I’m still peeved when we get in the car on Sunday morning. I don’t want to pray for a good attitude. I don’t want to pray for the church service we hope to encounter.

Praying about this, however—I realize too late—is what I should have been doing for the past fourteen days.

I ask Candy to pray. She declines. I grunt out a petition to the Almighty using phrases oft repeated when we head for church:

“May we receive what you would have us to receive. May we give to others what you would have us to give. And may we worship you today in spirit and in truth.” Then I add a begrudging afterthought. “Oh, and give me a good attitude. Yeah. Amen.”

Feeling guilty over my halfhearted prayer, I suspect God isn’t pleased either. I have little hope my pitiful plea, one offered more out of obligation than expectation, will gain much traction with the godhead. I sigh.

New Instructions

Once again Candy had some last-minute communication with her friend at this nonconventional church. Though their Facebook page says 9:30, he assures her it starts at 10 a.m.

Today he tells us to go through the door of a travel agency and not the adoption service. That would have been helpful information last time. At least today we know where the building is.

We also leave early to give us extra time. We hope to time our arrival with other attendees and follow them inside. Unfortunately, Candy’s friend will not be there to look for us. He had a bad encounter with a halibut at dinner last night and is home recovering from food poisoning.

We arrive about ten minutes early, not as early as Candy wanted. Again, there are cars in the parking lot, but we see no people. We sit for a while, waiting for others to arrive. They don’t. We scan the building, searching for the name of the travel agency. We don’t see it.

However, I spot a different travel agency. “Do you think he gave us the wrong name?”

Candy’s not sure, but I think he did. We double-check all the other signs. With no other travel agencies, I assume he misspoke.

We get out of the car and head in that direction. Only when we’re almost to the door do we spot a small, ground-level sign for the church. While most helpful to us now, we had to get out of our car to see it. We would’ve never noticed it from the parking lot.

Inside, to our right, is the inner door to the travel agency. It’s shut and the lights inside are off. To the left is a glow, emanating from a stairwell around the corner. We head toward the light.

Though wide, the stairway is otherwise unimpressive: dirty and well worn. At the bottom we see new construction injected into an old facility. Though the hallway is lit in both directions, we hear people to our left. We head toward the murmuring.

Finding Friends

We approach a hall with trepidation. However, before we make it to the doors, a woman I recently met while volunteering looks up in surprise to see us. She walks to us with intention, offering a hearty greeting. I’m pleased to see someone I know in this new area where I know so few.

As we talk, several of Candy’s friends spot her and come up to welcome us. None of them expected her, but all are pleased we’re visiting. As we talk, we learn more about their situation.

First, this church is about thirty years old and not the startup I assumed. My friend was one of the founding members. The fact that they meet in rented space after three decades encourages me, reinforcing their claim they’re committed to break from church conventions.

Without owning a building, they’re free from the financial burden it entails. The owner of the facility is indeed the adoption agency, so our initial information was correct, though misleading.

The basement recently flooded and is undergoing repairs. It will take a couple more weeks to finish.

The reason no people arrived with us is that they all came at 9 a.m. for Sunday school, with classes for all ages. Each class covers the same topic but with age-appropriate content.

I appreciate this twist, as it allows families to encounter the same curriculum but at accessible levels, providing the opportunity for further discussion at home.

At the same time, I wish they’d broken from the habit of Sunday school, as its original intent—to teach illiterate people how to read—no longer applies. Yet the expectation to provide Sunday school lives on.

A bit overwhelmed by all the attention, I sit down to wait for the service to start. I review the names of people I’ve met, jotting them in my notebook on the page reserved for today’s experience. I suspect I’ll see these folks again, so I work to remember names.

Aside from being in a meeting space in the basement of an office building, the room is configured as expected for a church service. About seventy chairs, set in three sections, are arced to face a podium centered in the front.

Time to Begin

The worship team assembles to the right of the lectern. An impressive drum kit sits in the other corner. Housed in a Plexiglas enclosure, it seems even grander. Couches fill the space behind us, with the soundboard in the back corner.

The service opens with a family reading three Scripture selections and lighting the first Advent candle. They give way to the worship team of nine, a mixture of teens and adults, sporting an eclectic mix of instruments: violin, saxophone, drums, keyboard, guitar, and bass guitar.

The song leader stands behind the podium, directing us with his strong, soothing voice as his arms sway to keep time. Two female backup vocalists stand between him and the instrumentalists. We sing for about thirty minutes, mostly Christmas songs, with a lively crowd-pleaser in the middle.

Part way through the song set is the offering. People walk forward to present their donations, while the rest of us sing. Throughout the singing, many people raise their arms in an act of physical worship.

Because of the flood, there is no children’s church today, and they expect a few more weeks before repairs are complete. The kids, who are many, remain with us for the message. I estimate fifty people present, including the worship team.

It’s a comfortable-sized gathering, with all age groups, though a slight majority are families with younger kids. There also appear to be a few three-generation family units sitting together. I enjoy seeing kids migrate to their grandparents’ laps as the service progresses.

A Last Minute Replacement

With their teaching elder at home recovering from his food poisoning, another member fills in to give today’s lesson. He’s comfortable in front of the group, and though he’s had little time to prepare, he ably fills in, speaking for an hour.

“Advent,” he says, “is a time of waiting.” We wait with hope, in anticipation, and full of excitement. Later he expounds on our time of waiting: “We don’t have what God wants to give us because we didn’t cry out for it.”

He cites a verse in Psalms, but I must have written it down wrong. Later I find nine verses in Psalms with the phrase “cry out,” and I’m not sure which one he cited. Still, his question of “What are we crying out for?” is a convicting one.

The last segment of the service is a time of prayer, with our leader opening it and members who take turns praying. Some come forward and use the mic, while others pray from where they sit—both adults and children.

They direct their words to God and not to impress others or to promote an agenda, which I’ve seen too often in group prayer. Unfortunately, during the periods of silence between the petitions, my mind drifts.

What time is it? How much longer will this last? What’s for lunch?

More Connections; More Community

Our leader offers a concluding prayer, and the service is over, but no one leaves.

Most of the people we talked to earlier come up again to thank us for visiting and invite us back. A few people mention the need for signs to guide visitors to the correct door.

Apparently, our inability to get inside two weeks ago has circulated. While no one mentions our dilemma directly or apologizes, they do acknowledge they’re working to address this problem.

My friend gives me a copy of The Story, which is the basis for their Sunday school lessons. I feel guilty in accepting the gift, but it would be rude to decline. I do, however, appreciate her gesture and sincerely thank her.

Some kids gather around a table in back, playing an intense game of cards. I smile. According to my wife’s fundamental upbringing, these “devil cards” are explicitly forbidden. It would be sacrilegious to play with them at church. Yet here they are.

Despite all the people who welcome us, it only comes from those our age.

None of the younger adults talk to us. While there may be many legitimate reasons for this—ranging from other people for them to greet, the reality we were already welcomed well, or of pressing issues with their children—I feel slighted.

Too many churches unofficially, yet effectively, segregate by age. Though it’s natural for people to gravitate toward those most like them—especially those their age—we have more to gain by interacting with people of different ages, at different life stages.

This is the hallmark of a truly multigenerational church, as this church hints at being.

Eventually we head out, the first to do so. I don’t know how long the others will linger in community. Though I long to do so, too, I don’t know anyone well enough for an in-depth conversation, and I have exhausted all my socially polite talk.

On our way home, we discuss our experience. Without asking her, I know Candy likes the church and wants to go back. While a return visit is in order, I don’t share her level of enthusiasm. Though they’re high on my list, they’re top on my bride’s.

My fear is she’s already decided where she wants to go, while I’m not so sure. Regardless, I know we’ll one day revisit this church.

Part 2 Takeaway

As far as Christian community is concerned, it’s what happens after the service that has the most impact.

[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 Fundamental Vibe

People Make the Difference

All day Saturday I fight the threat of a cold, applying equal parts prayer and pills to conquer it. What I need is sleep—desperately. By Sunday morning, my wife, Candy, is not surprised when I tell her I’m staying home.

“Fine, I’ll go myself.” She’s not defiant, just decisive. She’s an independent spirit. I appreciate her confidence to go alone and without complaint.

Relieved at her acceptance of my decision to stay home, I nod in agreement as I close my eyes. Sleep overtakes me.

The church she picked is an independent congregation with an evangelical past and fundamental vibe.

She knows two couples who attend there, former coworkers whose company she enjoys and whose faith walk she respects. I’ve met them briefly over the years. They’re good folks.

During the week we talked about visiting this church. While I had a different destination in mind—another megachurch—Candy lobbied for this one. By the time Saturday rolled around, I didn’t much care, giving my assent because it was too hard to discuss.

I don’t hear her leave, and the next thing I know she’s back.

Though still needing rest, my two-hour nap offered some improvement.

“What was it like?”

She responds, but I struggle to focus and don’t remember what she said.

Later, I ask again. She liked the church but mostly talks about seeing her friends. I wish I’d felt good enough to go, but I know that would’ve been a mistake. Today I needed rest much more than I needed community.

A third time, I question her further. It reminds her of a church we attended twenty years ago. She means this in a favorable way, but what I hear is this church is at least a decade out of date.

“I’d like you to go with me sometime,” she says, “but I don’t think you’ll like it.”

My expectation sinks. I want to groan, but that would take too much effort. Confused, I nod to show I heard. Then I fall asleep again.

I’m sure she’ll take me there sometime. Unfortunately, she did little to sell me on it.


If you’re enthusiastic about your church or your faith, be sure to communicate it and not leave people wondering.

Experiencing The Church with the Fundamental Vibe

Today Candy makes a return trip to The Church with the Fundamental Vibe, this time with me in tow. The first time she went, I stayed home sick. She didn’t tell me much about the service, but she enjoyed reconnecting with friends.

She also predicted I wouldn’t like it, so I’m not sure why we’re going back. I pray for a good attitude and an open mind.

It’s the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s. The weather is unseasonably warm, with no snow on the ground and no clouds in the sky. The drive is pleasant and quick. Flanking the large facility is ample parking. I expected something smaller.

A Most Helpful Welcome

As we hang up our coats, a woman talks with Candy. I assume they know each other. Wanting to be supportive, I join in. However, they don’t know each other.

Despite that, our new acquaintance concisely shares a lot of helpful information.

“Normally we have a Bible study hour after the church service but not today because of the holidays.” She pauses and then smiles over what she’s about to share next. “And normally we have a Sunday evening service but not today because of the holidays.”

I smile. “Taking a break?”

“We want to focus on family time. Some people are traveling, and others have family visiting.”

They’re between senior pastors and their interim pastor will speak today. “He’s really good.” Then she adds, “We’d like him to become our regular pastor, but he’s not interested.”

Not having anything to add, I nod to show I’m listening and encourage her to share more.

“It’s been about a year so far and we expect it to take another year,” she adds. “But while we wait, we’re in good hands.” She beams.

“I really appreciate knowing all this. Thanks so much for telling us.”

She points us to the sanctuary and then excuses herself. Never has someone shared so much helpful information about their church before the service. I feel informed and not so apprehensive over what awaits me.

Finding a Seat

Candy guides me into the sanctuary, a huge square room of newer construction. It boasts a minimalist vibe but with smatterings of elegant furnishings scattered about.

She heads to the section on the far left. Last time her friends sat in this area, and she expects to find them here again.

Along the way, she surprises another person as she walks by. “Candy? Candy, is that you?”

I stop and nod to the stranger. “Yes, that’s Candy.” I wait for my wife to realize I’m no longer following her and to come back. She does and reconnects with yet another former coworker.

This friend, we learn, lives a couple miles from us. Today she is running sound and excuses herself to make last-minute preparations.

Candy does indeed find two of her friends, sitting right where she expected. They make room for us to sit with them.

Settling in, I glance at the bulletin, a trifold affair, more attractive than most and packed with useful information. However, it’s not until we get home that I spot the part about stopping by the visitor center and staying afterward for the Visitor’s Coffee.

Distracting Staging

I miss reading this in the bulletin because the stage distracts me. At first glance it gives a pleasant vibe, but it’s an overdone arrangement that visually assaults me. Do we really need faux trees on the platform?

Interspersed among the staging, the worship team prepares for the service.

The worship leader plays a baby grand piano, and then there’s a violin, with a conga drum next to it but pushed into the background. Also part of this eclectic group is a guitar, harp, and keyboard, with the lead vocalist front and center.

I suspect they think the service is contemporary—and thirty years ago it was—but today it’s merely safe, skewing toward traditional.

What captures my attention is the girl on the conga. Accomplished, I’m sure she’s holding back to match the rest of the group.

Occasionally the hint of a smile threatens to overtake her already pleasant face. I sense she’s itching to cut loose and play her heart out. Though I’m sure that would please God, the rest of the congregation might not be so appreciative.

I estimate the sanctuary seats 1,200, and it’s mostly full by the time the service starts. I try to sing along, but my efforts fall flat. The words elude their formation on my lips.

I’d rather watch the conga girl and her mesmerizing playing. Her demeanor exudes peace as her inviting rhythm draws me to God.

Is it possible to worship God vicariously through the musical skill of another? I think I can. I hope I am. If not, God will be disappointed today with my worship of him.

Failing to engage in anything other than the drum player, everything else blurs. There’s more singing, a prayer or two, some announcements, and a greeting time, but the details escape me.

I want to connect, both with God and with others, but I’m mired in the routine of church boredom. Though Candy’s prediction of my reaction is proving correct, I really hoped she would’ve been wrong.

A Christmas Message

We segue into the sermon. Part four of a four-part series on “Christmas Names for Jesus,” today the focus is on the “Prince of Peace,” courtesy of Isaiah 9:6.

I once memorized this passage for a church Christmas play when I was in middle school. Though the minister isn’t reading from the King James Version, that’s the version I learned for the program and those are the words that resound in my head now.

Memories of that performance resurface: My parents’ pleasure over my flawless recitation—after weeks of practice:

  • My pride in turning an ordinary bath towel into a reasonable representation of shepherd head garb, inspired by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
  • Fun hanging out with my church friends.
  • And a random classmate who unexpectedly showed up and mocked my involvement in something so hokey. Fortunately, he forgot about it by the time we returned to school, so I was spared further embarrassment.

Oh yeah, Prince of Peace. I push aside these memories and try to focus on the words of the preacher. He unpacks the word peace as I scribble key phrases in my notebook. Jumping to Luke 2:14, “. . . and on earth peace . . . .” He then follows with a dozen or more New Testament verses about peace.

Easy to listen to, he moves effortlessly from one verse to the next, from one thought to another. After his resurrection, Jesus gives his disciples peace (John 20:19, 21, and 26).

The end of his message doubles as the benediction: “Peace be with you through Jesus.”

Post Service Interaction

The daughter of Candy’s friends, whom we sat with, wasn’t feeling well and left midway through the message. By the end of the service, the entire family is gone so we can’t talk with them.

The others sitting near us are also unavailable, though we do talk with her friend who ran sound, which is good.

Later, as I wait for Candy outside the women’s restroom, a lady comes up who recognizes me. What a surprise. In this area, my bride often runs into people who know her, but this is only the second time it’s happened to me.

The woman is on staff at the church, and she knows me from a writers’ conference where I spoke. We have a warm conversation. It’s nice to be known and welcomed.

On the drive home, I process my thoughts aloud about the preacher and his message. “He’s a gifted speaker: polished, articulate, and accomplished.”

Candy nods in agreement.

“He’s comfortable in front of a group and most knowledgeable about the Bible. He’s easy to listen to . . . and I was completely bored.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think you’d like it.”

She was right.


If your church is still doing what you did thirty years ago, what should change?

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

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

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

Here’s what happens:

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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 Rural Congregation

A Country Fresh Church

Last Sunday we went to church with our daughter and son-in-law. This week we go with our son and his wife. However, we aren’t going to their regular church. Instead, we’ll visit one a couple miles from where they plan to move.

Part of an old denomination, the church recently changed their name, removing any hint of their affiliation, though the “About Us” section of their website still confirms their denominational connection.

Focus on Jesus

Their “Core Values and Beliefs” gives six descriptors and twenty-one articles of faith, taking 3,800 words to explain.

As I scan the list, my mind goes numb. Can’t Jesus be enough?

Though this page is stodgy, the rest of the site has a warm, inviting feel that gives off an appealing vibe. On their home page, they ask, “Tired of boring faith and dull religion? What would it look like to live out a faith where you ‘put it all on the line’?”

When they talk about a faith of adventure and risk, they draw me in. Who are they, a progressive church with a traditional heritage or a traditional church trying to appear more relevant? We’ll soon find out.

On the drive there we’re soon talking about what we might do the rest of the day, as if church is a prerequisite for what will follow. We’re losing focus. “Who wants to pray for church?” Our son begins and I finish. My words aren’t much different from what I typically ask, but the “Amen” possesses enhanced expectation. I share what I learned from their website, interspersed with speculation. We discuss the church for a while. We’re primed for the experience by the time we arrive.

A Country Fresh Church

Right off a main street, they’re easy to find. We pull into their parking lot to a bustle of activity. With two services, we arrive ten minutes early for the second one. We pick a space in a small parking lot in the front as we spot the drive to a larger one in back.

With multiple buildings, this is a church facility and not what I expected for a rural— country fresh church—in a small community.

We amble toward the door, and my normal pre-church visitor anxiety barely registers. Might I finally be used to visiting churches or is there confidence in numbers?

I spot an open door on the side that reveals rows of chairs in what is likely the sanctuary, but we head to the main entrance.

Holding the door open with his back, a young towhead jiggles with antsy enthusiasm. He gives us a fervent greeting. “Welcome, y’all.” Southern accents are rare in these parts, so I assume he’s messing around but later realize his drawl is real.

He hands out bulletins as our son and daughter-in-law walk by, dismayed when he realizes he only has one left for my wife, Candy, and me.

“We’ll share,” Candy says. He directs the paper to me and then withdraws, again offering it to my wife. Apparently, his instructions are to give each person a bulletin, so that’s what he intends to do. But Candy doesn’t take it.

“I don’t need one,” I assure him as I walk past. He’s still clinging to his last bulletin, perplexed that neither of us has taken it, when a man slips him another stack. Relieved that his dilemma is resolved, his eagerness returns, and we each take one.

First Impressions

Inside, no one else greets us. The crush of people causes us to weave our way between them as we move forward. An odor assaults me.

“Is it incense?” our daughter-in-law asks.

Candy thinks it might be, but I think it’s just too much bad air freshener, attempting to cover up something even more offensive.

Our daughter-in-law leads the way but gives me a what-do-we-do glance.

I’ve done this enough that I have a ready answer. “If no one talks to us, we go in and find a place to sit.”

Assured, she nods and presses toward the sanctuary. A young man, sporting an unobtrusive microphone, eyes us as we walk by. I consider introducing myself, but his silent demeanor tells me he’s not interested.

I avert my gaze and follow the rest of my family. We veer right and go up six rows.

Based on the building style, I suspect this part is about fifty years old. The cement block walls frame windows with rectangular panels of stained glass. They boast a rainbow of vibrant color on each side. Overhead, an understated cathedral ceiling provides an open feel.

The sanctuary is narrower and longer than most. It reminds me of many of the high churches we’ve visited. Though I don’t know their denomination’s tradition, I don’t expect a high church experience.

Despite the constraints of the building, its contents are updated. First, there are no pews, but comfortable padded chairs. I estimate two hundred.

There are no hymnals or Bibles, so I expect them to display everything we need on the monitors positioned around the room. One is centered in the front with four more flanking it, two per side.

Subdued lighting gives a peaceful feel but doesn’t produce enough light to read the bulletin comfortably.

As my eyes adjust, I’m relieved that my nose is now being spared, having left the odor in the narthex. Behind us a woman talks to her seatmate. She also has a southern accent, more pronounced than the boy at the door.

Making a Connection

I’ve heard only two people talk since we’ve arrived, and both had southern affectations. I wonder if we’ve stumbled into a refuge of southern expatriates. For many, this would conjure pleasant thoughts of charm and hospitality.

For me—right or wrong—I associate southern accents at church with dogmatic evangelicalism. I brace myself to be assaulted by close-minded theology.

I have little time to contemplate this, however, as a man soon comes up to greet us. He’s not sure if he’s met us before and wonders if he should know our names. He’s relieved when we tell him we’re visiting.

He’s one of the pastors here, and is an outgoing, friendly guy, a sharp contrast to the youth pastor who ignored us in the narthex. (In his defense, none of us fit his target demographic.)

With introductions made, we share about ourselves, and he tells us about the church. By the time we wrap up our conversation, we feel embraced and informed.

Once again, I’m reminded how one person can make a difference in how a visitor perceives a church. I so appreciate him reaching out to us.

While our daughter-in-law is amazed at his welcome, I’m dismayed that scores of people milling around left it up to their paid staff to welcome the newcomers.

Worship Time

Still, having one person celebrate us is far better than everyone ignoring us, something Candy and I experienced too often at other churches.

By now, the worship team has gathered. Standing in a circle behind the monitor, they hold hands to pray. Their public example reminds me to do the same and hints that the service is about to start.

I check the clock as they begin to play. We’re right on time, something I appreciate even though I suspect God is not as concerned with punctuality as I am. Our promptness is not important. Our worship is.

There are seven on the worship team: two guitars, bass guitar, keyboardist, and three vocalists. The keyboardist is also miked. There is no drummer or drum set. The pastor we met is the worship leader today.

After the opening song, we have a greeting time. The people do well at greeting, but they don’t excel at it—few churches do. Smiles and handshakes abound, but we don’t connect. There’s not enough time to talk. Perhaps the people know this and therefore don’t try.

A video announcement plays, something we’ve only seen a few times at the largest of churches. A lengthy string of verbal announcements follows, ending with another video promoting the upcoming sermon series.

Before singing resumes, we pray for the mission team heading off to Ecuador. After three more contemporary praise songs, the kids leave for their own activities.

Before they go, I estimated seventy-five people present. Now that they’re gone, I still estimate about seventy-five. Perhaps our initial number was closer to one hundred.

Let It Go

The lead pastor stands for the first time. Wearing jeans and a polo shirt, he holds an iPad for his sermon notes. There’s no pulpit or lectern. This provides a casual feel, suggesting he’ll teach us, not preach.

Though his speech may retain the slightest trace of an accent, there’s no hint of the narrow-minded dogma I feared.

He’s nearing the end of a sermon series, “All In,” about the life of Abraham. Today’s message is “Let It Go,” covering parts of Genesis 20 and 21. After sharing a personal story, he asks, “What’s your number one obsession?”

He talks about sin and how to get rid of it, tying each of his three points back to Abraham’s story, while weaving in other passages of Scripture. For persistent sin, we need to believe things can change.

He reminds us of Genesis 18:14, “Is anything too hard for God?” (TLB and MSG). This is my key takeaway of his message.

Later, he contrasts Abraham’s two sons: Ishmael represents our old self, the old way—man’s way. Isaac represents our new self, the new way—God’s way. I wonder if he’s stretching the text to make his point, but he cites Galatians 4:22–23 to support his assertion.

An unassuming man, he’s not a charismatic orator, yet he’s a most effective teacher. I have a page full of notes and much to contemplate. It’s been too long since either one has happened.

Winding Down and Wrapping Up

He gives the closing prayer, complete with a time of commitment, but no altar call. Then we sing a closing song.

To end the service, the worship leader says, “Spend three minutes getting to know someone you don’t know before talking with friends.” I appreciate his directness about connecting with others.

This should be standard at every church, but it seldom is. And I’ve never heard it explicitly stated. I wonder if the congregation will comply.

I need only ponder this for a moment when the couple in front of us turns around to talk. They invest much more time with us than three minutes, sharing life as we get to know each other. We form a connection. Others come up as well to introduce themselves.

By the time we leave, we’ve made many connections and perhaps started friendships. I don’t know how long the service was and how long we spent talking afterward, but we were there two hours, though it didn’t seem that long.

At lunch, we discuss this church, sharing what we liked and didn’t like. Eventually I ask, “Do you see yourself going back?”

Three people say “Yes!” The fourth one isn’t sure.

“Do you see yourself getting connected there?”

Again, three people say “Yes!” The fourth one doesn’t answer.

The dissenter is my wife, the person who will pick which church she and I will attend. This means we have more churches to visit.


Look for visitors to talk to at your church. Seek your friends later.

Returning to The Rural Church

At this point we’ve considered nineteen churches. We could have easily gone to scores more—stretching our search out for several more months—but it’s time to decide. Some options will remain unexplored.

Part of me senses this is unfair. I’ve summarily dismissed some potentially viable options based entirely on their name. I didn’t even bother to make an in-person visit before rejecting them.

In most cases I didn’t even take the time to look at their website. The ones I’ve excluded all have one thing in common: their stodgy name clearly communicates they’re part of a denomination.

Down on Denominations

Yes, I’m down on denominations. As I say often: “Denominations are the antithesis of the Christian unity Jesus prayed for.” And I’m a huge proponent of Christians and their churches getting along. Denominations do the opposite.

They divide us and wall us off from other Christians for no good reason. It’s unbiblical, opposing the desire of Jesus that we would live as one (John 17:20–23).

While denominations provide some benefit, such as local church oversight, a pooling of resources, and group buying power, the price to do so is too high.

There are additional layers of bureaucracy, which leads to inaction, perpetuating the status quo, and maintaining the denomination as an institution.

Many people work for denominations full time, dedicated to these tasks, when they could better serve at the local level, to grow Jesus’s church by sharing the Word and making disciples.

Too often, the denominational focus is on self-preservation more than changing lives.

Another concern is that the cost to support the denominational structure siphons off money from local congregations and local needs to support a machine that seeks to control what happens at the local level. For what it costs, they add little to the cause of Jesus.

Yes, denominations send missionaries, plant churches, and respond to crises. But local churches can do this too. While denominations may react more quickly to crises, local churches can be more effective.

Yes, we visited denomination churches. Some of the nineteen have denominational connections. But now I wonder why we considered them.

Five Requirements

Personally, I seek community at church. True, meaningful, deep, spiritual community. Music and message are secondary. Beyond that, I want to go to a church in my community, where at least some of my neighbors attend.

Now I add to my list that I want them to be independent, not part of a denomination.

Candy said she wanted a church with excellent music and isn’t afraid to speak biblical truth—even if it puts their tax-exempt status at risk.

In considering my requirements, The Rural Church meets only one. When we were there, we experienced great community and made several connections.

However, they aren’t in our community, no neighbors attend there, and they’re part of a denomination. As a bonus, our son and daughter-in-law plan to switch to this church. This would allow the four of us to be part of the same church community.

Though the locations of some churches would be central for us and all four of our kids, this one is too far away for our daughter and son-in-law.

I look forward to reconnecting with the people we met before and spending time in this friendly environment. I also know that with two services, our chance of seeing the folks we met last fall is less likely.

We plan to meet our son and daughter-in-law there. It’s a nice spring day, warm with plenty of sunshine. It’s hard to believe it’s been nine months since our first visit. Interestingly, the weather is about the same now as it was then.

Full of expectation, perhaps too much, we hop in our car and head off, saying a prayer as we go. The trip, at 6.2 miles, is quick. Once we leave our subdivision, we head straight south, encountering minimal traffic, just two stop signs, and making no turns. It takes eight minutes.

We pull into their lot about ten minutes before the second service should begin. The small lot in front is mostly full, and we take one of the few remaining spots.

We don’t see our son’s car. Though they could have parked in the other lot, we assume they aren’t here yet. I want to get inside to look for them.

In the parking lot I spot a man we met during our first visit. He and his wife spent a lot of time with us after the service. I instantly connected with him and his family. Since then, I’ve seen him one other time, yesterday at our garage sale.

It was our daughter-in-law who first recognized his wife, but soon we all remembered each other and our time together some nine months ago. We re-exchanged names. Interestingly, his brother lives near our house but goes to a different church.

It’s wonderful to see someone we know before we even get inside. We talk for a few minutes and then head for the entrance. We encounter the same mass of people as last time, though this time a few of them say “Hi” or nod a greeting. I don’t see our son and daughter-in-law.

Candy and I sit toward the back of the sanctuary, one of the few spots left for four people. The stage is distant, and the space doesn’t feel as open as I remember. We’re too far back for my liking.

The senior pastor’s wife comes up to welcome us, not sure if she should know us or not. We have a brief exchange. Soon our kids arrive. The service is about to start.

Music and More

The worship team gathers on the stage, forming a circle to pray first. I so like this, with the example they set and the priority they portray. The opening song is a familiar one, which normally is upbeat and uplifting.

Though the instrumentation is good, the vocals fall short. What should draw us in pushes us away as the words plod along like a funeral dirge.

My wife criticized the music on our first visit. Though I knew it wasn’t the best, it didn’t detract from my worship then. Today it does. By the time they make it to the chorus, the song leader mostly finds his place, easing into a somewhat accessible tone.

Still, he falls far short of how powerful this song normally sounds.

After the opening number, the youth pastor gets up and implores everyone to fill out the yellow cards in our bulletins. “We need these to report numbers to our bosses,” he says.

I groan at the reminder they’re part of a denomination, one that tracks their church’s attendance.

He shares two announcements, the first about their Annual Church Conference, another reminder of their denomination’s practices and their formal governance.

The early church didn’t vote on overtures or elect leaders. Though this is the democratic way, it lacks biblical support. Over the years, I’ve had my fill of church committees, meetings, and elections.

Set politics aside. Put God first.

The other announcement is about an upcoming children’s dedication. Interested parents must attend a class first. This church practices believer’s baptism for adults and children’s dedication for kids.

Then we sing some more. After a bit, the pastor invites people to come forward to the altar to pray, while the rest of us sing. I don’t see an altar, and I’m not sure what he means, but people come forward, some in expectation while others plod.

They kneel on the steps of the stage to pray. When the song ends, they retreat to their seats.

Dealing with Fear

An opening video introduces their new series, “Dealing with Fear.” Again, I’m impressed that a church this size (last Sunday’s attendance was 342) produces videos for their services. Last time they showed two.

The sermon title is “Fear of Failure.” The senior pastor teaches today. “We fear God,” he says, “or we fear everything else.” A related reoccurring theme is risk. “Not taking risks will ultimately lead to failure.”

The pastor shares, at length, his own journey of failures, of risks taken and risks avoided. Last time he also used personal anecdotes to introduce the message. I still remember what he shared then. I wonder if self-disclosure is his normal practice.

Like last time, I fill my journal with a page of notes, right down to the last line. Today, God has a message for me. I’ve become risk averse for what matters most.

In recent months, the Holy Spirit has nudged me to act at various times. But I didn’t. Though I don’t know the outcome, I must take the risk anyway.

“Failure is part of our success,” he says to conclude his message. To wrap up, the pastor leads the congregation in a prayer of commitment. It’s not a prayer of rededication and certainly not one of salvation. I miss the intended purpose.

Maybe it is for us to confront our fears and take risks.

He says the closing prayer, they take the offering, and we sing a final song, a mash-up of an old hymn and modern choruses.

Despite the song leader, the overall result is pleasing. All the songs were great. I expect they’ll reverberate in my mind for the next several days. The instrumentation added to the experience, but the vocals were the weak link. Hopefully, he just had an off day.

Afterward I look for the people we met before but don’t see any of them, not even the couple we reconnected with when we were both visiting a different church. I try to make eye contact with others as they file out, but I’m unsuccessful.

The After Party

Resigned for no after church interaction, the four of us discuss lunch. Before we leave, I use the restroom.

When I return, the senior pastor is talking with the rest of my family. He greets me by name. I assume someone prompted him, but they didn’t. He also remembers Candy’s name and where our son and daughter-in-law are building their house, noting it’s near completion.

He has an amazing memory, and we enjoy a meaningful conversation. We leave feeling content.

We debrief at lunch.

All agree the worship leader struggled today with his opening song. It was painful and hard to overlook. Next month they’ll have a newcomers’ lunch. We discuss going, though we stop short of committing.

They also have a Wednesday midweek meeting that starts at 6 p.m. with food, followed by classes for all ages. I’d like to go to share a meal and meet people, but the class options don’t interest me.

The thing that most endears me to this church is their after-church interaction at our first visit. Then, the pastor told the congregation to spend their first three minutes after the service getting to know someone new. They did, and we benefited. I assumed this was their norm.

Today he didn’t make any such announcement, and no one bothered. I had lofty expectations for community and was disappointed, despite them being friendlier than most churches.

Our daughter-in-law grew up in this denomination and feels quite at home there. Her enthusiasm remains. As for our son and me, our interest has waned.

Discouraged, I move this church down my list to the third spot. For Candy it was already there. We’ll need to return a few more times to be sure, but right now, I suspect this is not our next church home.

Return Visits

We make our third visit the following week, again with our kids. It’s great for us to be in church together. What we experience this time is an average of our two prior visits: not as good as the first but better than the second.

I sign Candy and I up to go to their newcomers’ picnic. I’d like to check out their Wednesday evening meeting, too, but it’s wrapping up for the summer.

By the time it resumes in the fall, as well as their life groups, we’ll have made our church selection. But we’ll need to do so without experiencing these two options.

A month later we make our fourth visit to this church. On our quick drive, we pray for our time there. I have mixed feelings. Though we enjoy engaging conversations each Sunday, we seldom reconnect with those folks on subsequent visits.

The church is big enough to make forming recurring community a challenge, and having two services hinders that even more.

I bypass the closest drive and head to the bigger parking lot on the other side of their facility. We’ve never gone in these doors before, but they are the main entrance and open right into the sanctuary. This sure beats the roundabout path we’ve taken on prior weeks.

Some people, a few who look familiar, nod a greeting or say “Hello,” but their outreach is nothing more than an acknowledgment. But at least they notice us.

Reconnecting at Last

As we move forward into the sanctuary, one woman approaches us with intention. We met her and her husband on our first visit and we enjoyed getting to know them. They were also the couple we were surprised to see at our visit to another church.

I’m glad to see her but can’t remember her name. Realizing I won’t recall it until too late, I apologize and ask her to remind me.

“Janet,” she says.

“We were here a couple weeks ago and looked for you, but we didn’t see you.” My intention is to communicate interest, but I may have sounded accusatory. She doesn’t, however, take offense.

“We usually go to the first service and hang out until the second one starts.”

“And we’ve always gone to the second one. I’m glad we could see you today.” Her husband stands nearby but talks with another group. She and I struggle over what to say. Even though Candy joins us, our words remain awkward as we grapple with conversation.

“It was really great to see you,” I say with all sincerity, despite our uncomfortable exchange. “I think we’re going to find our seats now . . . I hope you have a great afternoon.”

Moving into Worship

The countdown timer says 4:12, but I doubt they’ll start then. But with a minute remaining the worship team gathers on stage to pray, and when the time hits zero, the music begins. The associate pastor, flanked by eight others—musicians and vocalists—leads us in song.

Though under-amplified, his confident voice and engaging stage persona is ideal to lead us. He ably led the worship music on our first visit, drawing us into the service.

The bulletin says he’s the “Pastor of Worship and Youth,” but the website gives his title as “Pastor of Volunteer Services, Operations and Events.”

On our second and third visit they had another worship leader who struggled. One Sunday, his leading was especially difficult to follow. Though the website lists him as the “Sunday Worship Leader,” the bulletin doesn’t mention him.

The service proceeds as usual, and soon it’s time for the sermon. Though the bulletin lists another person as the “Teaching Pastor,” we’ve only heard the lead pastor speak. He’s a good teacher, and I always end up with a page of notes.

Though I rarely learn much that’s new, the Holy Spirit uses his words to provoke other insights. Some of his teaching today gives me ideas for a book I’m writing.

We wrap up with Communion, our first time at this church. The pastor clearly communicates that nonmembers who have a relationship with Jesus may participate. I appreciate knowing their policy on this.

We file up to receive the bread and the juice, taking them back to our seats to eat them in unison. Though consuming them as a congregation is what I experienced most of my life, it has been several years since I’ve done it this way.

There’s a comfortable rhythm of taking the communion elements together, as though we’re demonstrating harmony and proclaiming agreement.

The service lasts longer than we expect, and we need to scoot out to meet friends for lunch. We’ll be late. But we’ll also return in a few hours for the newcomers’ picnic.

The Newcomer Picnic

With threatening skies and rain looming, our picnic in the park relocates to the Kids Center at the church. There are many more people than I expected. As I scan the crowd, I wonder who are regulars and who are newcomers.

We mingle awkwardly for a few minutes. Then the pastor begins. He welcomes us and prays for the meal: grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, chips, veggies, lemonade, and desserts.

Candy and I sit, and our son and daughter-in-law join us. For a while we are alone, but eventually another couple come up. They’re members, and we met them on our first visit.

As the meal wraps up, the lead pastor again stands, telling us about the church: there’s no pressure to become members, but they do want us to become involved.

Their programs are finished for the summer and will resume in the fall. They’ll also add a third Sunday service in a few months but haven’t worked out the details.

He stresses how they want to make a difference in their community. But we aren’t part of their community. I want to make a difference in my community, not someone else’s. I want to go to church in my neighborhood, with my neighbors.

Though there’s excitement in attending a growing church, the idea of three services is disconcerting. Even with two, it’s easy to miss folks. Three will make it even harder.

An Uncomfortable Request

Though he asserts he doesn’t want to make us uncomfortable, he asks us to stand and introduce ourselves to the group, one representative from each family.

I groan as I mentally prepare to answer his four questions: our names, what we like about the church, how long we’ve been attending, and how we heard about them.

Our table goes first, so my agony is soon over. As the introductions move from table to table, I realize members have strategically interspersed themselves with newcomers at each table.

Though the “what we like about the church” part feels a bit too self-serving, it’s encouraging to learn the story of how each family ended up here.

To wrap up, they pass out cards to collect our contact information, along with what our next steps are and where we’d like to serve. Though the pastor stresses there’s no obligation or expectation, I feel pressure.

I fill out the top part, but they collect the cards before I figure out what to put on the rest. Candy later tells me she followed my example. I wonder if they’ll contact us.

On the drive home, we discuss this church. On the plus side, they don’t push membership, they are friendly, and community exists. The messages are thought-provoking, and the music was engaging at two of our four visits.

They are a growing church, with lots of kids. Their future is bright. Our son and daughter-in-law plan to go there.

On the negative side, their community is not our community, none of our neighbors go there, and they’re larger than I’d like.

Aside from the Sunday morning service, I’m not sure how I could plug in or where I could serve. Also, they’re part of a denomination and are too far away for our daughter and son-in-law to consider.

We have much to contemplate.


Have a plan to turn visitors into regular attendees and work your plan.

[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 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.

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.