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Visiting Churches

Church 53: Home for Holy Week

Our journey is over. I’m sad and excited at the same time. Our spiritual sojourn of fifty-two churches has ended. Reunion with our home church, church 53, community looms large.

Today is Good Friday and our Easter celebration will be in two days, but I can’t wait for Sunday. I desire a preview, a reminder of our home church. I want a sneak peak of what lies ahead. We head off for our church’s Good Friday service.

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

Good Friday Service

This time, I leave my journal at home—on purpose. I’ll not take notes tonight. Documenting my observations isn’t the point: experience is, community is, and family is. Especially God. I assume a packed place, arriving early to find a good seat, but there’s plenty of room when we get there. We sit and wait. I want to soak in the place. It’s been too long. I need to remember.

I don’t seek out others, but it’s not long before a friend comes up to chat, and then another, and another. With a half hour before the service starts, the minutes pass quickly, as friends fill the time with smiles, hugs, and conversation.

Some can’t believe it’s been a year, that our journey is over. But a few didn’t know we were gone. This is the downside of a larger church. Absences can too easily go unnoticed. This isn’t a lament, just an observation.

Including the balcony, the place seats 475, but the space seems small. Compared to the last two churches, it is. The worship team congregates on the stage.

Our worship leader just had wrist surgery. He won’t be playing guitar for a while, and tonight he’s restricted in what he can do. There are two others on guitar (one acoustic and one electric), a bass guitar, a keyboard, a drummer, and two backup vocals. I recognize most of the musicians but not all.

They launch into song, with launch being the operative word. It’s loud and energetic, worship at its fervent fullest, packed with joy and abounding in celebration. Though a few of the churches approached this, and Church #51 (The Megachurch), came close, these folks take worship to another level, being polished and Spirit-led at the same time.

People on stage jump and dance, with more movement in the congregation than I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t need to wait to feel God’s presence or seek him. Without question, he is here.

We sing for forty-five minutes and our pastor gives a brief teaching before we return to song. It’s nice to be able to raise my hands and arms without worrying over committing a faux pas that might disregard local conventions.

After ninety minutes, most with us singing, the service ends. I don’t want it to. But our spent musicians have little left to give, especially our worship leader, whose sweat-drenched shirt confirms he gave his all to God.

I stand, looking for people I don’t know so I can talk to them. My journey has made me more aware of seeking out visitors and those on the margins. Though I spot several to approach, others are already reaching out to them. That’s what a church should do.

Now feeling free to move about, I seek out friends. It doesn’t take long. Some conversations are brief, while others go deeper. We share prayers and give hugs. A few promise to email me, and I make plans to meet another for coffee. After half an hour, the crowd begins to thin, but it takes several more minutes for Candy and me to meander to the door.

One friend says, “Have a Good Friday,” and then questions her wording, given the sadness of Jesus’s death.

“It’s good for us!” I say. She nods in agreement.

“Besides, without Good Friday—”

“There’d be no Easter,” we say in unison.

I tarry at the door for a final conversation as the sanctuary goes dark. We’re the last to leave. After two and a half hours, I’m still not ready to go home.

But we’ll be back in two days. Tonight is a foretaste of what is to come.

Sunday Morning Easter Service

It’s Easter and we’re returning home to our church, the people we love and miss. This marks our first Sunday back since last Easter. I expect a joyful homecoming and a grand celebration: personally, corporately, and spiritually.

We arrive early to meet our kids. While our daughter and her husband attend this church, our son and his wife make an hour drive to spend Easter with us, beginning our day together at church.

My plan is to lay low today, but friends spot me as we enter the sanctuary. They’re glad to see me and I, them. They’re not sure if I’m back for good or just visiting. They seem relieved when I confirm our adventure wasn’t a church shopping exercise and our plan all along was to return after a year.

Our reunion takes place in the aisle, and we’re blocking people, so I excuse myself and look for my family. Even arriving early, there aren’t many places left for six, but they did find a spot. Instead of roaming around to talk with others, I sit down and soak in the ambience.

There’s nothing special about the building, except perhaps its age. Located in the central downtown district, the sanctuary is over 150 years old. Though not in disrepair, it’s far from contemporary. Even with many enhancements, a dated feel pervades.

Our pastor welcomes everyone, telling visitors what the regulars already know: there’s no plan for the service today, only a general intent. Its length is unknown, so it will end when it ends. He reiterates that we have freedom in worship.

We may sit or stand or kneel. We may dance or move about—or not. As is our practice, the children remain with us during the service, worshiping along with the adults but often in their own way. There will also be adult baptism later in the service. A couple of announcements appear via video.

With the place now packed, he asks the congregation to move toward the center and make room for those still needing seats.

The worship team is largely the same as Friday, but they changed out a couple of members and added a violin. They start the service with a prayer and then kick off the first song.

The energy level is high, up a notch or two from Good Friday. Some of the songs are the same. Candy says most of them are repeats. She’s probably right.

After thirty minutes or more of singing, we hear a brief message. The church is in a yearlong series—I’ve kept up by listening online. Today the lesson is about Abraham and Sarah, her scheme for her husband to produce a child through her servant, and his bone-headed acceptance of her suggestion.

Our pastor ties this in with Easter: We all make mistakes, and we all need Jesus, who offers forgiveness and provides restoration.

Our pastor requests all elders to come forward to conduct the baptisms. The elder assigned for this service goes to the front of the church, and I join him—so much for keeping a low profile. Our fellow elders and staff assemble with us.

Easter Sunday Baptisms

Our pastor shares the basics of baptism. The rite is the New Testament replacement for Old Testament circumcision, which he touched upon in the message. Some say baptism symbolizes the washing away of our sins, a ceremonial cleansing, which publicly identifies us with Jesus.

Other creeds say baptism by immersion portrays the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Can’t we embrace both perspectives?

People desiring baptism may come forward as the worship team leads the congregation in more songs. Even before hearing the full invitation, one person shows up and then another. A line forms.

For many churches, baptism is a somber affair, conducted with reserved formality. Not so for us. We treat it as a celebration with unabashed enthusiasm.

Our church leader prefers baptism by immersion, but the floor of this 150-year-old building lacks the structural integrity to support the weight of a baptismal pool. Instead, we use a traditional baptismal font, with the goal to get as much water on the recipient as possible.

I talk with the second person in line, making sure she’s there for the right reasons. With much joy, she anticipates taking this step as part of her spiritual journey. I pray for her as we wait our turn.

The music is loud, and I’m not sure how many of my words she can hear, but God understands them all, and that’s what counts.

After the other elder douses the first person, a raucous celebration erupts from the crowd, applauding and cheering her public step of faith. We’re next.

We step up to the font, and I cup water in my hands. “I baptize you in the name of the Father . . .” releasing the water over her head and then returning for more. “And the Son . . .” I get more water. “And the Holy Spirit. Amen.” As the throng shows their approval in unequivocal terms, I hand her a towel to dry off.

There’s not much room, so I try to usher her to the side and make room for the next baptism. But she won’t budge. Her adult daughter is next. We gather around as another elder conducts that baptism. Afterward mother and daughter share a joyous hug, while friends hover nearby to share in the jubilation.

I return to the line of candidates, talking to the next person and baptizing her as well. We baptize a dozen or so this morning—and more will happen at the next service. What a glorious Easter and the perfect time to return home.

With the baptisms complete, I remain up front as the worship team continues. I sing along while I scan the crowd. Everyone is standing, and I don’t see an empty spot anywhere, including the balcony. Even the back looks full. I wonder if some people stood the entire service, unable to find a place to sit.

After a couple more songs, the worship leader concludes the service and the crowd slowly disperses. I rejoin my family, wanting to focus on them instead of searching for visitors and friends. We eventually make our way out after ninety minutes. Some have already arrived for the next service, which starts in half an hour.

The End of a Pilgrimage

Today is an amazing reunion, a grand celebration, and a fitting conclusion to our yearlong pilgrimage.

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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.

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