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Visiting Churches

The Friendly Church

Retired and Welcoming

This church has an innocuous name, giving no clue about who they are. But this is precisely why I didn’t dismiss it or the people who go there.

Besides judging churches by their affiliation—or more precisely applauding their lack of a denominational connection—I realize I’ve also begun judging churches by their websites.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Their Website

This website has only four pages, five if you count the site map. The footer gives a date from four years ago. I’m not sure if that was when they created it or last edited it. It could be the last edit because all the information is static.

The site displays two nature pictures and a map. It’s short on information, weighing in at only four hundred words, three fourths of which are on the About Us page. It shares the basics and nothing more.

Their site reminds me of “An Intriguing Opportunity” from 52 Churches, a “meditation group of self-realization fellowship” that mixed the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, and Kriya Yoga. We skipped that “church,” and I wonder if we should skip this one too.

They earn a reprieve, however, when their “theology” section mentions several items harking from the Protestant Reformation. Though reeking of formality, at least my worry eases by confirming they’re a Christian gathering and not a cult or made-up religion.

Based on what little I can glean from their sparse website, I suspect we’ll find a traditional church mired in the past.

I hold out hope, however, there might be an exciting thread in their religious practices to appeal to my yearning for an intentional, spiritual community that seeks God in fresh ways.

Despite this small sliver of hope, my realistic expectation is to be disappointed. Still, it’s worth checking out on the off chance that they may offer what my wife seeks.

Arriving Early

At five miles away, it should be a quick eight-minute drive. Candy suggests we leave a half hour early, and I agree, fully expecting we won’t. However, we leave at the planned time.

In no rush, I pray as I drive, asking God to teach us what he wants us to learn and that we can give back to the folks there.

My heart rate picks up as we pull in the drive. My thumping chest confirms my anxious insides. The parking lot has thirty to forty cars, so I know there’s church and there will be a decent number of people.

I breathe out in relief but am still anxious. We’re fifteen minutes early and sit in the car for a few minutes before heading in.

A warm sun hits my face, balanced by a gentle breeze. Though the spring forecast is for 80 °F (27 °C) and humid with an afternoon chance of rain, there is only a hint of that now. It’s an ideal morning, perfect for church.

Given the weather, I’m wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes. I expect no one else will dress like me. I don’t care. If they judge me for my attire, this is not the place for me.

A Warm Welcome

As we approach the door, a smiling man in a suit rushes from the inside to open it for us. An affable fellow, he welcomes us with a sincere greeting and a hearty handshake.

Men congregate in the hallway, some eyeing me as we walk by and most nodding their welcome. Some say “Hi” or shake my hand. Several thank us for visiting, and we chat with a few.

Half the men wear suits and the rest, business casual. As I suspected, I’m underdressed. I’m not sure where the ladies are, but the entryway seems to be the men’s domain.

A man motions to a pile of fresh rhubarb sitting on a table in a side hallway.

“Help yourself,” he says with a gracious gesture, “but don’t wait too long because it will go quickly.” His eyes twinkle. I suspect it’s from his garden.

“I prefer that someone else have it,” I say with a smirk. He misses my attempt at dry humor and thinks I’m being generous, deferring to others. The reality is I don’t like rhubarb.

The building is newer, possibly built in the last ten years. It more resembles a single-story office building than a church. I like the feel. The hallway leads us to the sanctuary, a large rectangular room, about forty by sixty feet, with a flat ceiling.

The roving minister greets us by the doorway. “Welcome,” he beams with a wide smile. “I’m Ron. I work here!”

What an unassuming man. I immediately like him. “Sit anywhere you want.” He motions to the peopleless space. “There’s plenty of room now, but we fill up fast at 9:30.”

I consider his words, wondering if he’s serious. Realizing my confusion, he laughs. “Just joking. There will be plenty of room.” Then he flits off.

“Do you see any bulletins?” Candy whispers. I glance around and shake my head. Given the tenor of everything else here, I fully expect to see an usher handing out bulletins. At the least, I think we’ll see some on a table or in a literature rack. I don’t.

Initial Thoughts

Perhaps I misjudged. Maybe this isn’t a bulletin type of church after all.

We mosey on in. Though the back rows are empty, people have already laid claim to them by laying their Bibles, bulletins, and even purses on the seats. We move midway into the room before we find a place to sit.

The row we pick has one odd chair. Though it’s padded like the rest and matches, it also has arms. “Do you want the one with the arms or shall I sit there?” Candy asks. I shrug.

A lady behind us tells us in the nicest way possible that we can’t sit there. It’s a special chair for a member who needs one with arms. I nod. Then I point to the other end of the row. “Can we sit there?” She confirms we can.

With a smile she gives Candy her bulletin. “My husband will get me another.” It’s a simple one-page document. The front repeats all fifty words from the home page of their website, but instead of a waterfall picture, there is line art of a butterfly and flower.

The back gives their order of worship, with two announcements at the bottom: there’s a men’s forum Tuesday morning and women’s Bible study Tuesday afternoon.

The times of these events confirm what I see. This is a congregation of retirees. We may be the youngest ones here.

A Traditional Service

The service starts with a prelude, sung by five people with piano accompaniment. I’m not sure if they’re a choir or a worship team. The words appear on an overhead screen.

I assume it’s there for us to follow along, but some people sing too. They have a hymnal and every song listed in the bulletin comes from it. However, they also display the words overhead.

Except for the responsive readings, we don’t need the hymnals. Each reading has four parts: the leader, everyone, men, and women. However, it sounds like both genders read the men’s and women’s parts.

After three songs comes the invocation, which morphs into us reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I’m tentative, knowing there are variations for a few words, and I don’t want to call attention to myself by saying the wrong phrase.

Next is a lengthy congregational prayer and another hymn leading into the sermon.

During all this, a clipboard works its way through the four sections of chairs, distracting me from what’s going on in the service as it winds its way up and down each row.

On the top of the first page is a place for visitors to sign in and record their contact info. We are the first (and likely only) people to do so. Below it and on page two is a list of all the regulars.

They need merely check their name. I count forty-six member families on the list, mostly couples but some singles. With ninety chairs and at about 75 percent full, most of the people in their congregation must be present.

Today they have a guest speaker from a nearby denominational church. Given his affiliation, clues from the minister, and the style of the service, this must be a denomination church, albeit a stealth one.

I’ll need to apologize to Candy for dragging her here after I promised we wouldn’t visit any more denomination churches and her telling me she wouldn’t pick one.

The minister’s text is familiar, from Daniel chapter three, about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow down to the golden monument.

His delivery is smooth, but his body language is off-putting, exuding a smug distance, bordering on arrogance. The tone of his words is sincere, but his actions are too slick.

Eventually I decide not to look at him and just listen. Still, I learn nothing new. By the end of his message, I’ve not taken a single note. I glance at Candy’s notebook. Her page is blank.

The bulletin says that next are “offerings.” I inwardly groan at the plural notation. However, despite what the bulletin states, they only take one. We sing two more songs, and the minister dismisses us.

Time to Connect

The woman behind us invites us to stay for coffee and cookies. We nod yes. It’s a good thing we agree, because she ushers us into the fellowship area so expectantly that I don’t think we could have escaped without being rude.

The woman’s husband stands by the door shaking hands and talking with people as they leave. I enjoy seeing someone other than the minister doing this. It feels more real and less forced.

Though Candy and I have a few moments of awkward silence as we stand in the fellowship hall, the people give us a lot of attention. Many thank us for visiting and encourage our return with the words, “We hope you’ll come back.”

As we talk with the folks, we tell them we’re new in the area and visiting churches. I share with several people that I saw their website and was intrigued.

Each time, they smile and nod. I’m not sure if this means they’re pleased their website is working or that they didn’t know they had one and are being polite. Either conclusion is possible.

As the crowd thins, the minister also comes up and talks some more. His attention is nice but not needed. The congregation excels at reaching out. A second person apologizes that they had a guest speaker today and invites us back to hear their minister, who is “really good.”

Nondenominational Afterall

A third person surprises me. She says they’re nondenominational. I’m shocked, so sure they were part of a denomination. I guess they can be nondenominational with a traditional vibe, just as The Church That Meets in a School was nondenominational with an evangelical vibe.

Even when people attempt to form a new faith gathering, they’re informed by their past practices and preferences. I wonder if a nondenominational church can truly be void of denominational influences.

Curiously, the person we talk to the most and make the deepest connection with is not a member. She lives in another town and comes to this church when she visits her parents. That makes her a regular visitor.

Interestingly, as we’ve visited churches, in many cases the person we connect with most deeply is also a visitor and not a member. This has happened too often to be coincidence.

Nevertheless, we leave feeling accepted and embraced. This is the friendliest of the churches we’ve visited so far and one of the few who shared food afterward.

Friendly, however, isn’t enough. Their services are too traditional to connect with me; their theology, too stoic; and their future, too dim.

If we were retired and wanted to plug into a comfortable church with idyllic ease in a close-knit church community, this would be the ideal place.

Comfortable, however, is not our goal.

Takeaway

Know that for many visitors, your church website will be their first stop. Make sure yours is inviting, easy to understand, and clearly communicates who you are.

[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.