Visiting Churches

Visiting 52 Churches, Part Three

A Recap of Churches 27 through 44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greeting and Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highs and Lows of Our Journey

Overall, our time at charismatic gatherings continues to disappoint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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