Today, we head to one of the area’s larger churches. In the past, they had a visible presence, but I’ve not heard much about them recently. Their website boasts that we’ll find “a warm and friendly group of people.”
I bristle. It’s like telling someone you’re humble or you’re honest: if you have to say it, you probably aren’t. Experience tells me they’ll try to be friendly but will fall short.
Their “First Impressions Team,” sporting blue name badges, will be located “throughout the building” and available to answer questions. I suspect I should dress up, but their website says to “come as you are.” What a relief.
I can’t tell it from their website, but I know they’re a charismatic church, part of the Assemblies of God denomination. Even their name obscures that fact. Their website has only one mention of their affiliation, which is in small type at the bottom of one page.
So many of the charismatic churches we’ve visited have left me disappointed. I wonder what today will bring. I see a photo of their lead pastor.
He’s a thirty-something hipster and not at all what I expect for a church with reputed conservative leanings. With this enigma confronting my mind, my anticipation for their service heightens.
The church facility enjoys a visible presence with easy access from the Interstate. We follow the arrows for visitor parking, but we don’t find it. So we park where everyone else does, glad for a spot under a shade tree, which will keep our car cool on this warm July day.
An Urge to Flee
Always anxious before visiting a new church, today my gut churns even more, and then a sharp pain surprises me. My heart thumps. In near panic, I fight the impulse to flee.
Unaware of my anxiety, Candy presses forward, and I fall in step alongside her. It’s going to be okay. I begin to pray. By the time we reach the door, my breathing is back to normal, and my pulse has slowed. I’ll be all right. Thank God!
Two greeters stand at the nearest entrance. The pair smiles broadly and holds open the doors. “Welcome youngsters!” The man is twenty years or so my elder.
I wonder if this is his attempt at flattery or if we represent youth to this congregation. While we have been the youngest people present at too many churches, I don’t expect that to happen today.
“I don’t know you,” says the woman. Affable, her directness carries an edge.
We admit to being first timers and exchange names. I don’t catch theirs, and I doubt they remember ours. We soldier on in. Despite people milling about, all act preoccupied. Once again, we’re invisible.
We walk slowly, giving people time to approach us, but no one does. And we see no one for us to approach, either. Where are those blue-name-tagged “First Impressions” folks mentioned on their website? We have yet to see one.
Based on the facility and decor, I expect an usher handing out bulletins, but there isn’t one. With nothing else to do, we stroll in and sit down.
The large sanctuary seats about eight hundred on the main level. The sloped floor and auditorium seating, although contemporary in intent, gives a stoic vibe. There’s also a balcony, but, unlit, it must be closed. With only a smattering of people sitting down, they’re not even close to needing it.
A countdown timer on dual screens tells us the service will begin in a few minutes. At some churches the counter signals the launch of the service, while at others it serves as a mere guideline, an anticlimactic tease. Today it is both.
Trying to Worship
The worship team of nine begins leading us in song when the display hits zero. Most of the people, however, aren’t ready to worship. Many aren’t even sitting down. Conversations continue as the band plays.
Just as I’m settling into the chorus of an unfamiliar tune, a reunion between two people occurs to my left, with their loud conversation distracting me well into the third song. I want to worship God. I must focus on the words I’m trying to sing. Even so, focus evades me. I can’t worship.
The band boasts three on guitar, with an electric bass, keyboard, and drums. Three vocalists round out the group. The vocals balance nicely with the instruments, though they’ve cranked the overall volume too high.
Most disconcerting, however, is the subwoofer that sends out sound waves to press against my chest with each beat. It causes me discomfort, but Candy can’t feel it.
Eventually we end up with about three hundred people, half of whom wander in well after the service starts. They’re mostly older than us, with few families and no children that I can see.
By the end of the fourth song, the flow reduces to a trickle. Is worshiping God in song not important to them or was this just a prolonged prelude?
After ten minutes, with most everyone finally seated, the lead pastor welcomes us. He’s everything I expected. I can’t wait to hear his message.
His open, casual demeanor is geared toward visitors, yet his occasional use of church jargon would leave the unchurched confused. I wonder how much of my speech is likewise salted, despite my efforts to purge my words of Christianese.
He refers to the bulletin, and I’m irked no one gave me one. I can’t look at the section he mentions or read the additional information. Then he sits down as a series of video announcements play.
When he returns to the stage, he leads us in communion. “Everyone is invited to the table,” he says, “to encounter Jesus in their own way.” He explains the process, so we know what to expect. They serve both elements on one platter.
The “bread” is small oyster crackers. As for the clear liquid, I wonder if it’s white wine or clear grape juice. This is the most inclusive communion service I’ve ever experienced.
As a teetotaler, communion wine unsettles me, and I brace myself for its assault. It turns out to be grape juice, but my preoccupation over it fully distracts me from celebrating communion as I want.
We sing some more, and then the senior pastor introduces the guest speakers. I groan, hopefully to myself, at this news. I really wanted to hear their pastor, not some missionaries. But theirs isn’t a typical missionary message.
Instead, they share their story of how God prepared their future restoration even when they were in the middle of deep turmoil.
They are effective communicators. God’s work in their lives is compelling. I jot down three one-liners: “Storms in life are inevitable,” “God is present in the storms,” and “May we see God’s hand in the center of our storms.”
Though the message doesn’t apply to me now, it one day might. I’m glad to know their story of hope.
Wrapping Up the Service
Afterward, the senior pastor returns to the stage and introduces the offering. The ushers pass the offering plates with quick efficiency, yet they somehow miss a few rows. Miffed because they skipped him, one man chases down an usher so he can present his gift.
Having completed his mission, the man returns to his seat while the pastor asks the prayer teams to come forward after the service to be available for prayer. As for himself and the rest of the staff, they will scoot out for their monthly visitor reception. The service ends, and most people scatter.
Candy thinks she sees someone she knows and goes over to investigate. I tarry, waiting to meet the man at the other end of my row, but he’s already talking to someone else, and it seems it will be a long conversation.
I scan the auditorium but see no one I can approach, and no one comes up to me. Soon I’m standing alone, with a gulf of emptiness around me. Not wanting to look too pathetic, I meander over to Candy. As I do, I look for the prayer teams up front but see no one.
After my wife wraps up her conversation, we head toward the door.
“We could check out the visitor thing,” says my bride, “but why bother? We’ll never be back.”
I’m relieved. “Good point.”
We didn’t hear their lead pastor speak, but we did hear a worthy message, one that will stay with me. I’m glad to know this couple’s story of God’s provision and restoration.
From that standpoint, the hour-and-forty-five-minute service was worth it, but the rest of our time here left me disappointed. I didn’t worship God today or experience Christian community.
I walk out feeling lonely.
At the door stand two people with blue nametags, the first ones I noticed all morning. At least now I know what the tags look like. Pleasant folks, we say our goodbyes and step out into the warm sunshine.
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.