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.
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.
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.