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Visiting Churches

The Church with Good Music

Waiting for the Service to Start

I volunteer at a budget program where I teach classes and encourage people to manage their finances, unlearn bad money-handling habits, and dig out of debt. It’s a biblically based program, and it meets at a local church, which is also today’s destination.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

In the brief time I’ve been involved, the budgeting program has grown significantly. I have mixed feelings about this. Part of me is glad we’re meeting the needs of more people in the community, but I’m also dismayed at the demand.

I wish I could work myself out of a job, but according to Jesus that will never happen. He said there will always be poor people who need help (Mark 14:7).

I’m pleased this church provides space for the program. I’m sure this comes from a desire to make a difference in their community, something all churches should do but that too few pursue with any degree of effort or success.

It’s also an example of good stewardship. Nearly all church buildings sit idle most of the week, so anything that increases occupancy expands the reach of the church and honors the donations of the people who made the facility possible. I’m sure this pleases God too.

The pastor of this church teaches a Bible class as part of the budgeting program, so I’ve met him a few times, and we’ve had some brief conversations. However, I’ve not told him I plan to visit this church.

Anticipation

I think our daughter and son-in-law might like it, so I invite them to meet us.

Though I’m open to this being our future church home, I’m doubtful. It’s not as close to our house as I’d like, and I don’t think any neighbors go here. I wonder if it will appeal to Candy. Regardless, I expect to better understand the church and their services.

This will allow me to tell clients at the budgeting classes about it if they have questions. Though most clients already have a church connection, some don’t.

I want to help those folks find a church home, and this one would be an obvious choice since they already come here during the week for budgeting classes.

I know it takes exactly fifteen minutes to drive there, and we depart ten minutes before that, allowing time for possible pre-church interaction. We leave on schedule, and I pray for our time at this church.

My wife is grumbling a bit, however. She didn’t have time to brew a cup of coffee before we left, so she gave up her morning routine to keep us on schedule. Her decision pleases me.

On other occasions she’s persisted in making her hot beverage when we should have been leaving. In those instances, I’ve not been patient, with us invariably arriving at church late and with me frustrated. This won’t happen today.

With our pre-church prayer going before us, the drive is pleasant. It’s a nice spring day, with warm sunshine, increasing temperatures, and a gentle breeze.

Extra Time to Wait

We pull into the lot ten minutes early. There aren’t many cars. My expectations sink. Though more park in the side lot, this isn’t the bustling church I expected.

The rest of our family isn’t here yet, so we move with deliberate slowness. We head inside, standing in the narthex as we scope things out. To our left is the sanctuary.

Though an usher stands at the door, the room is empty except for the sound guys in back and the worship team up front. To our right are classrooms, along with most of the activity.

Candy spies some coffee and heads toward it. As she prepares her concoction, I stand alone. People scurry past. I try to make eye contact, but no one notices. No one stops to chat or even wave a hello.

Once again, I’m alone in a room full of people. I expected better.

With coffee now in my bride’s hand, we have nothing else to do, so we head toward the sanctuary. With every chair empty, the usher encourages us to wait. “Most people don’t come in until after the service starts,” he says with a smile.

This bothers me—a lot. This practice suggests other things are more important to these folks than preparing to worship God. Even though he should be their focus, they place other activities first, and he comes second.

If people would talk to me, I’d gladly wait. Maybe the usher will, since he has nothing else to do at the moment. I extend my hand to shake his and introduce myself. He reciprocates and hands me a bulletin. So much for conversation.

After we sit, the minister spots us and comes over to greet us. I’m so excited for some interaction that I forget to introduce Candy.

“There will only be about fifteen people here when the service starts,” he says with a smile, “but by the end of the second song, there will be about forty.” I nod. “There are about one hundred at our second service.”

Looking around, I suspect the place seats about 150. “It would be crowded if you just had one service.” This time he’s the one to nod.

“We encourage people to serve during one service and attend the other.” I wonder how many do. He again thanks us for visiting and excuses himself.

Music Prelude and Worship

I spot our family in the narthex and go to meet them. Someone is explaining the nursery options, but they decide to keep their son with them. I hold out my hands, and he comes to me.

As I carry him into the sanctuary, the music plays. His body responds to the beat. “Do you like the music?”

“Yeah.”

“There are guitars,” Candy says. “Do you like guitars?”

“Yeah!” He nods and then starts bobbing his little head.

By the time his mother joins us, he’s ready to go back to her. After a few minutes he reaches for his dad. Then back to her. It’s a game for him, but they don’t want to play. They take him to the nursery.

The music is upbeat, possibly the most engaging of all the churches so far.

The worship leader plays guitar, with two more on guitars and one on bass. A drummer and keyboardist round out the ensemble, with a young woman singing backup. Some instrumentalists are also miked for vocals.

Their voices blend nicely, with the sound superbly balanced. Though the newness of the situation distracts me, I’m drawn into worshiping God. Musical excellence is one of Candy’s requirements for our next church. I wonder if this qualifies.

After two contemporary songs come announcements and a time to greet those around us. As predicted, our numbers have now swelled to about forty or more.

Greeting Awkwardness

Though we sit in the second row from the back in the front section, no one sits in front of us. Most people pick the middle section. With the only people to greet sitting behind us, I turn to the young couple behind me.

Though they aren’t prepared for it, I try to draw them into conversation. We just start to connect when the music resumes and halts our interaction.

We sing an old hymn, updated to work with their modern instruments, followed by another contemporary song. I enjoy the singing.

Communion Clarity

Communion is next. The bulletin notes, “All believers may take part,” addressing my most pressing question.

Then, perhaps for our benefit, the minister thoroughly explains their process. He succinctly addresses every other question anyone could have about how they practice the Lord’s Supper.

Never have I had Communion at a church I visited when I fully knew what to expect, how I fit in, what to do, and when I should do it. Without uncertainty getting in my way, I’m able to contemplate Jesus’s amazing gift to us as I partake in this ritual he started two thousand years ago.

Two Offerings

The offering follows. The pastor excuses visitors from participating and then implores members to give and to give generously. His entreaty borders on pleading.

First, they take a collection for their general fund, and then they take a second one, but I don’t catch the designated cause.

I’m irked at how often churches in this area take two collections during their services. As I’ve already mentioned, this further reinforces the claims of the unchurched that “churches are always asking for money.”

Getting to Know God

The sermon is part of a series, “Breaking Free,” from the book of Exodus. Today’s topic is “Getting to Know God,” with Exodus 3:13–15 as our text. The pastor is easy to listen to, but his style confounds me.

He doesn’t provide us with three points or give a message that allows for easy note taking. Instead, his talk takes us on a meandering journey with interconnected thoughts that loop and intersect and repeat.

I enjoy listening to him but cannot corral his words into a succinct summary. Even with the fill-in-the-blank sheet in the bulletin, I’m not able to subject his words to an order that satisfies my logical-thinking mind.

“We are each known by different names . . . and by different attributes,” I write. So is God. When Moses asks God, “Who should I say sent me?” God merely says, “I am.”

The minister voices what has always exasperated me. “This explains nothing; it doesn’t help at all.”

Yahweh, he adds, is represented as Lord in the Bible. I never knew that—or I forgot. I’m glad for the insight.

“We are not the center, the focus, or in control,” he says. “God is.” He wants us to know him. Moses knew God and radiated his glory. “Our job,” the minister later adds, “is to reflect God’s glory.”

This one line is my key takeaway, his main point for the message. By the time he ends, I feel satiated but can’t explain why.

He concludes with the subtlest of invitations, a ritual I learned to ignore after five years at an evangelical church. After a closing prayer, the worship team treats us to a resonating reprise of their opening number.

The powerful music draws me to God as the words resound in my mind.

After Church Connection

After the worship leader dismisses us, we talk some more with the couple who sat behind us and another couple who joined them after the greeting time. As we file out, the minister stands by the exit, smiling and shaking hands.

This isn’t a rote exercise. He’s bonding with people, caring for his flock. I want to communicate my sincere appreciation for the way he explained their Communion practice, but my words refuse to form when the time comes.

I could honestly tell him I enjoyed his message but am not sure how to do so without it sounding like an obligatory compliment. Instead, I just smile, and he thanks me for being here today.

I nod. “It was good to be here.” And it was.

In the narthex, one of their worship team members introduces himself. He works with our son-in-law. We talk at length, connecting, meeting his family, and learning about his journey. Our conversation is even better than the church service.

This is why I go to church: to connect with other followers of Jesus, to enjoy meaningful spiritual conversations, and to experience true fellowship—without coffee and cookies to detract from forming real relationships.

The extended conversation lasts until music signals the start of the second service. Our new acquaintance scurries off to join the rest of the worship team.

We walk outside. The sun is shining, but the wind now has a bite. I long to bask in the warm rays while simultaneously desiring to escape the bitter gusts.

Our Debrief: the Music Was Good

We decide to have an early lunch and head to a quick-serve restaurant. As we enjoy our burgers and fries, my mind is still on church. “I think that was the best music of the churches we’ve visited.”

Candy agrees, both surprising and pleasing me, but that’s all she has to say. Our daughter and son-in-law remain noncommittal about the experience, neither gushing with praise nor criticizing the service. Maybe they need time to process it.

The next day our daughter shares more: the music was good, but not as good as our former church. I’m resigned to not being able to find music that matches that church; perhaps our former church doesn’t even align with our memories of our time there.

Besides, picking a church based on music, while understandable, is shortsighted. When the music wanes, will you leave?

“If you decide to go there,” she concludes, “we may go with you once in a while.”

Takeaway

Church practices that seem normal and self-explanatory to regular attendees—such as Communion—may confuse or confront visitors. Be sure to let them know what will happen and how they can take part.

[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.