Visiting Churches

A Church That Meets in a Public School Gym

Excitement Prevails

I removed every church from my list that was part of a denomination. At best they would merely offer variations of what we’ve already experienced—and rejected.

Left are three churches with intriguing implications. Perhaps one will click with Candy. We’ll visit them the next three Sundays. This church meets in a public school gym.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Meets in a Public School Building

The first church meets in a public school building, which automatically increases my affinity with them.

By renting space, they save themselves from the financial obligation of a mortgage and the maintenance stress of owning a building, one largely unused 97 percent of the time. I see them as wise stewards.

Their mission is to “glorify God by making disciples.” Their vision is “to become an Acts 2 church.”

Though the passage begins and ends with worthy intents, the middle part may not work in our materialistic society with its consumerism mindset: holding “everything in common” and selling their possessions “to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:44–45, NIV).

I wonder how closely they follow this example. Supporting this, they have five pillars: prayer, worship, instruction, community, and outreach.

A Bit Lost

Their service begins at ten and we plan our schedule accordingly. I’m glad for a little more pre-church time for my Sunday morning routine than what I have most Sundays.

As we head down the road, my prayer for our time there is fresh, as I’m able to avoid some phrases I fear I repeat too often. The sunny day further boosts my spirits. My expectations are high.

A black pickup truck driving next to us seems lost, making random lane changes, slowing down, and speeding up. They pass us and then we pass them. When I turn toward the school, they turn too.

“Maybe we’re both visiting the same place,” I tell Candy with a grin.

I turn again and they follow. I drive to the specified location, but there’s no sign of a church. There are no cars and no people. But I spot cars in another lot, and I go around the block to get there. So does the pickup.

“I hope they’re not following us, because we’re as lost as they are.”

I pull into the parking lot with the cars. But there are no signs to confirm a church meeting will happen. Though I see people, no one is close enough to ask. A couple gets out of the black pickup.

The guy looks familiar. We say “Hi” and confirm we’re both looking for the same church. However, we can’t verify we’ve found the right one until we go inside and ask.

We head to the gym where the service will be, but the other couple heads in a different direction.

Excitement Abounds

Inside the gym we meet another person, who also welcomes us—the third one to do so. We talk at length. Excitement permeates the place.

A low, portable stage flanks one side of the gym. Stackable chairs, arrayed in three sections, will seat over two hundred.

Most people are younger than us and very few are older. It’s great to see young families in church, with lots of kids and teens.

Aside from seniors, the only other group who might be missing is the college crowd, but there are no colleges nearby.

We sit midway up in the center section. The chairs are functional, neither comfortable nor uncomfortable.

Five vertical floor-mounted banners stand next to the stage, reminding us of their five pillars. Before the service starts, more people welcome us, including our son and daughter-in-law’s neighbors—the ones who told us about this church.

Even though we’re visitors, it’s great when people recognize us.

Polished Worship Music

A worship team of ten gathers on stage to begin the service, leading us in an opening song. It’s upbeat like The Church with Good Music, perhaps more polished but without as much edge.

Two guys play guitar, with a third on bass. A drummer and keyboardist round out the instrumentalists, with five more on vocals, ably led by their pastor.

After this solitary song comes a welcome, opening prayer, and greeting time. A women’s quartet sings to an accompaniment track during the offering. Then we sing several more contemporary songs, all energetic and inviting.

There’s another prayer, and the kids leave the gym for their own activities. Though all the common elements of a church service are present, today they feel fresh, full of meaning, and exuding life.

This is church as it should be—at least for me.

Living and Leaving a Legacy

For his message, the pastor roams the stage, with an iPad strapped to his palm as an extension of himself. He glances at it periodically as he scrolls through his notes. After a while I forget it’s there.

They’re in the middle of a series, “Living and Leaving a Legacy: Lessons from Malachi.”

He runs through a lengthy list of stats about the significantly higher risks children face when they come from fatherless homes. It’s dramatic, sadly sobering.

Even more so is the reality that half of all children live in homes without their biological dads. How much better our world would be if men would stick around to live with the kids they fathered. Though a few have no choice, most do.

With this as an introduction, he pauses and prays again before reading today’s text from Malachi 2:10–16. The priests in Malachi’s day lead the people astray through their poor example.

They divorce their wives and marry foreign women, both prohibited by the Law of Moses. In doing so they commit idolatry and adultery. This is point one: “They profane the covenant of marriage.”

Though there is much more to his message, neither of us catch any more points. Perhaps we’ll need to come back next week to hear point two.

Regardless, he has much more to share. To leave a legacy, we need to produce godly offspring. This starts with parents and includes the Word of God. We also need to get involved in church.

He sums up his message with the encouragement, “It is most rewarding to see our kids grow up to follow God.” This is our chief legacy.

Wrapping Up

He concludes by giving the congregation a set of challenges applicable to each life situation: parents, dads, married couples, and single adults.

As he runs through announcements, the kids return to join their parents. Today the church talks in depth about child sponsorship through Compassion International.

A few members share their experiences sponsoring kids in developing countries.

People can learn more after the service, even select a child to support. After an hour and a half, the service ends with a request for everyone to help pick up chairs.

More people welcome us, and we enjoy meaningful conversations with several. After a while, I walk across the now chairless gym to talk with the visitors who arrived with us.

I learn they normally go to The Rural Church—the fourth one we visited and which I called “country fresh.”

“We visited there last fall,” I tell the man. “That must be why you look familiar.” He nods but seems doubtful.

But as we continue to share our stories, he remembers me. We had an extended conversation when we visited his church six months ago.

“Your church is one of our top choices. We really liked it. We’ll probably revisit it in a few months.” I hope we’ll see him when we do.

Final Words

It’s been an hour since the service ended, and the crowd has thinned, but twenty or thirty people linger to hang out. The pastor remains at the exit of the gym, talking with an attendee.

We walk up and he tells us more about their church, including how they bring on new members. He isn’t being presumptuous, just helpful. I appreciate the information.

I also realize this church is one of my top choices, perhaps even moving into first place. As we discuss our experience, my bride confirms the music was good.

Though she stops short of my level of enthusiasm, she doesn’t dismiss them either. I suspect we’ll return. I hope we do.

We have two more churches to visit. Then we will narrow down our options, and Candy will decide. Part of me wishes I had never promised her she could pick our next church.

Nevertheless, I’m excited about visiting the next two churches, revisiting our top picks, and finally settling down.


Doing church in new ways—like a church that meets in a public school gym and forgoing usual expectations—can bring in a freshness and vitality that today’s seekers want.

[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.