Visiting Churches

How It All Began: A Holy Spirit Prompting

An Introduction to 52 Churches

“Where do you go to church?”

Oh, how I dread that question.

It isn’t that I don’t go to church or am too embarrassed to answer. Instead, my frustration comes from the scowls I receive as I fumble through my reply. No matter what I say, I cause confusion.

This question about church attendance comes from clients at the local food pantry, where I volunteer. The pantry is a community effort started by local businesses, service organizations, and churches.

Now staffed mostly by church members, church attendance is a common topic of our patrons.

I serve as the point person for the clients. I explain our process, guide them through the paperwork, and match them with a volunteer to help them shop. As we move through these steps, we often chat.

This is when the awful question about where I go to church comes up.

The problem is that I don’t attend any of the churches that support the pantry. Instead, my wife, Candy, and I drive some fifteen miles to a church in another community.

Though I long to worship God in the community where we live, he has sent me to one further away and less convenient.

Sometimes I explain all this, but the clients’ eyes glaze over, either in boredom or bewilderment. Other times I only share the name of our church, but no one recognizes it.

Since it’s not a typical church name, they wonder if I’m kidding. Occasionally, I change the subject, but they don’t like that either.

Eventually, I realize they ask because they’re looking for a church.

Sure, some people are being polite, others feel obligated to ask—since nearly all our volunteers go to church, and a few want to label me based on my church affiliation. But most of them just want to find a spiritual community to plug into.

The pantry’s mandate is to serve residents of our local school district, which has ten churches within its borders. I don’t know a thing about some of them.

I know a little bit about each of the five churches involved with the pantry, but I don’t know enough to answer folks’ questions or direct them to the best match for their needs and background.

What if I visited all ten? Then I could better help clients who were looking for a church.

Yet, it isn’t that simple. What about churches just outside the school district? Should I consider nearby congregations too?

In addition to the ten within our school district, five more are a few miles to the southwest, twenty-one to the west, and scores more to the east.

A Lifelong Practice

All my life, I’ve gone to church. This has been a regular practice, pursued with dogged determination.

Yet, in considering the churches I’ve attended—first with my parents, next by myself, and then with my family—our church of choice was seldom the nearest one.

Why don’t we go to church where we live? This is a deep desire of my heart: to live, worship, and serve in the same community.

In addition to being practical in terms of time, effort, and cost, worshiping locally would also provide more opportunity to connect with and form a faith community in our geographic community, not somebody else’s.

Another perplexing question is wondering why each of our church-attending neighbors goes to a different one.

I long to worship God with my neighbors. Are the forms of our faith so different that we can’t go to church together? The answer should be “no,” but the evidence proves otherwise.

My hunch is that each possible church opportunity offers a fresh perspective of pursuing God or perhaps a different understanding of what it means to worship him.

If I can learn from each one, my comprehension of the God I love will grow and my understanding of worshiping him will be enhanced.

These reasons propel me forward, to undertake my unconventional faith journey of visiting different churches.

This isn’t the first time I wondered about the practices of other churches.

My grandmother went to a Baptist church. It was so different from the mainline one I attended that as a young child I thought she was a borderline heathen or perhaps part of a cult.

I was even more concerned about the girl next door, my only consistent friend for the first ten years of my life. She went with her family to a Roman Catholic parish and attended a parochial school.

Based on misinformation from people who didn’t understand Catholicism—or perhaps didn’t care to—I was convinced she was on her way to hell. She likely thought the same thing about me. I assumed I was on the side of right, and she, on the side of wrong.

The idea that we could both be right was beyond my comprehension. I even wondered how I might convert her to my church practices, not knowing we both looked to the same God, just in different ways.

When my family moved, my exposure to Catholics increased. In middle school art class, where the teacher had no clue what went on in her room, some classmates started arguing about Purgatory when we were supposed to be making art.

A group of us ditched our projects to debate the issue. We aligned our teams on opposite sides of a rectangular table. We stared at each other until I framed why we sat there glaring at each other. “Is there Purgatory?”

“Yes,” answered the other side of the table.

“No,” came the retort from my side.

No one said anything more. We each had our opinions, but we lacked support.

The debate ended without any discussion and without a winner. We slunk away from the table.

It bothered me that I couldn’t defend my unexamined position and that I learned nothing about Purgatory. How could Christians—who all claim to follow Jesus—hold such polarized opinions over the same faith?

The Same Team

I was a voracious reader, and my grandmother kept me supplied with a steady flow of books, all from a Baptist perspective.

This influenced me significantly during my formative years, causing me to wrestle greatly in attempting to reconcile a traditional Christian mindset with evangelical teaching.

Later, I discovered the Holy Spirit—the third part of the Trinity that mainline and conservative Christians downplay, sometimes even dismiss. I immersed myself in a pursuit of the charismatic.

We’re all on the same team, I lamented. Why can’t we get along?

This so vexed me that, years later, when it came time to select my dissertation topic I had no hesitation. I chose Christian unity.

My imperative need to learn why we were different and to advocate Christian harmony became even more urgent as I studied Jesus’s prayer in John 17, which he uttered just prior to his capture and execution.

With an agonizing death only hours away, Jesus took time to pray. His final request was that all his future followers would get along. He knew the impact of his sacrifice would be lessened if those who later professed to follow him lived in conflict with each other.

Now, with my dissertation complete, I have a theoretical understanding of the need for unity.

Despite that, I lack the practical knowledge of how the different streams of Protestants express their faith and worship God. And I’m completely ignorant about the rest of Christianity.

A Holy Spirit Prompting

As I wonder what to do with my idea of visiting area churches to better inform myself and help the food pantry clients, God prompts me to pursue a grander vision.

At his leading, I plan an unconventional faith journey, one of adventure and discovery: to learn what he would show me by visiting a different Christian church every Sunday for a year. I eventually call my sojourn “52 Churches.”

Oh, how this vision resonates with me. All my life I’ve yearned for more, spiritually. More from church, more from its community, and more from our common faith.

I’ve searched for answers, answers to impertinent questions I can sometimes barely articulate.

Yet something deep inside compels me to ask them, even though I confound others every time I do. A primal urge forces me to reach for this spiritual “more,” one I know to exist, as surely as I know my own name.

I dare to extend my arms toward God and have the audacity to expect him to reciprocate, perhaps even touching the tip of my outstretched fingers.

We’re content to drink Kool-Aid when God offers us wine. (This is an unlikely metaphor for me to use since I don’t drink alcohol—except for the occasional communion service that serves it.) Yes, there is more.

So much more. I’m desperate to discover it—and visiting fifty-two churches offers the potential to uncover more—or at least get me closer. This is something I must do. For me, this is no longer an option but a requirement.

My faith demands it. My spiritual sanity requires it.

This adventure earns the support of my wife and willing accomplice; my pastor, who encourages me to move forward; and my fellow elders who, after initial apprehension, support me, even anticipating what I will learn and share.

This isn’t a church-shopping romp, looking for a perfect faith community. Instead, I seek to broaden my understanding of God, church, and faith by experiencing different spiritual practices.

To do this, Candy and I will take a one-year sabbatical from our home church, intent on returning, armed with a greater understanding of how to better connect with the God we love, worship, and serve.

Yet I realize God might have other plans. He could tell us to join one of the churches we visit. He might instruct us to extend our quest or end it early.

He could fundamentally change our understanding of church and our role in it. Or perhaps things might work out as we plan, with us simply returning to our home church, one year later, better equipped to worship and serve.

Along the way, I suspect each church will show us a different approach to encountering God. I’m determined to learn what I can each week to increase my comprehension of him and enhance my worship.

I want to expand my understanding of our common faith, and I expect to boost my appreciation for the diversity of the local branches of Jesus’s church.

Whatever the outcome, I know God will teach us much, and I intend to come back well-armed with helpful information for the clients at the food pantry.

As I tell close friends about my plan—actually, it’s God’s plan—many resonate with it. This isn’t just a journey for me but for us all, albeit vicariously for most. This isn’t one man’s narcissistic pursuit.

It is an adventure for all who sense a need for more.

  • To those disenfranchised with church: This is a journey of hope and rediscovery. Don’t give up on church. God has a place in it for you. Yes, church can be messy at times, and the easy reaction is to give up.

    Maybe church left you disappointed, or her members hurt you beyond comprehension, but there are many people, at many churches, ready to offer love and extend acceptance.

    Don’t let a bad incident, or two, cause you to miss a lifetime of spiritual connection with others. I pray this book will call you back to Christian community.
  • To spiritual seekers: You have a place in God’s family. I’ll share fifty-two ways to expand your perspective. Diligently seek God as you explore churches, and you will find him. But don’t shop for a church as a consumer.

    Instead, travel as a pilgrim on a faith journey, seeking fellow sojourners to walk beside you. I pray the end of this story will mark the beginning of yours.
  • To the inquisitive: The church of Jesus is bigger, broader, and vaster than most of us have ever considered. Here, I share fifty-two reasons why, fifty-two variations of one theme.

    I pray you will begin to ask brave questions about church practices, explore fresh ways to worship God, and accept those who hold different understandings.
  • To church leaders: I offer a narrative to help you reach out more effectively, embrace more fully, and love more completely.

    You’re sure to catch glimpses of your church reflected on these pages, with anecdotes that will cause you to smile—and to groan—with each impression offering insight to those willing to accept it.

    May this book serve as your primer to celebrate what you do well and improve what you could do better. I pray this will mark a new beginning for your local branch of Jesus’s church.
  • To advocates of Christian unity: We’re part of the church Jesus began. It’s time everyone embraces this reality.

    I pray this account will encourage you to pursue greater unity in Jesus, to help churches in your area work together for God’s glory, so that everyone will know the Father, just as Jesus prayed (John 17:20–26).

    Another word for Christian unity is ecumenical: Of or relating to the worldwide Christian church.
52 Churches: A Yearlong Journey Encountering God, His Church, and Our Common Faith

My Wife Joins Me on This Adventure

Candy compiles a list of churches within ten miles of our home. She initially identifies fifty-seven, but we keep discovering more. Our file eventually balloons to ninety churches located within a ten-mile drive.

Not on the list is our own church, an outlier congregation that is part of a small mainline denomination, even though many assume we’re nondenominational—because that’s how we act.

God told me to help start this church. He called me to go there. Despite aching to attend church closer to home, he hasn’t released me to do so.

To realize the most from our sojourn, we form a plan. We’ll visit those churches nearest our home first, picking them in order of driving distance.

Toward the end of our journey, we’ll choose other churches from the remaining list, visiting those most different from our norm. Making the list is the easy part.

Next, we set some guidelines. Each week, we’ll check their website, hoping to learn about them before our visit so we can more fully embrace our time there.

Still, knowing that websites are sometimes out-of-date, we’ll email or call to verify service times. (Candy faithfully handled this every week for the entire year.)

If there are multiple meetings, we’ll go to the later one, since second services, which usually have a higher attendance, possess more energy, and lack time constraints.

We’ll dress casually, as we normally do, for church. For me this means a T-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes in the summer and a casual shirt, jeans, and boots in the winter.

This is practical because my wardrobe best allows it. It will also help because casual attire is what a non-churched visitor would likely wear.

Though I don’t want to come off as an unchurched outsider, I’ll learn more if they don’t view me as a conformed insider.

We agree to go along with any visitor rituals, but we’ll do nothing to imply we might come back or consider joining their community. If they want to give us literature or welcome gifts, we’ll graciously accept them.

When asked why we’re visiting, we’ll be honest, saying we’re seeking to expand our understanding of worshiping God by visiting area churches—but we aren’t looking to join one.

Also, we’ll avoid showing up at the last minute, instead aiming to arrive ten minutes early. This will allow for possible pre-church interaction.

Afterward, we’ll look for opportunities to talk with people and will stay for any after-church activities—except Sunday school.

This is because the original purpose of Sunday school was to teach poor children how to read. By the time public schools took over this task, Sunday school had become an institution and continued as an expected requirement.

At most churches Sunday school is now little more than an obligatory expectation, where frustrated faculty seek to fill time that antsy children strive to avoid.

Too many Sunday school programs bore their students and effectively teach kids that faith is boring.

However, aside from Sunday school, as we visit churches, we’ll do our best to be open and approachable, interacting with others any way we can.

Perhaps most important, we’ll participate in their service to the degree we feel comfortable, while being careful not to push their boundaries.

For more exuberant expressions of worship this means we’ll have the freedom, but not the obligation, to follow their lead. For more reserved gatherings, we won’t do anything to alarm them with our behavior.

I’ll blog about our visits, but I won’t keep the dispassionate distance of a reporter. I’ll engage in the service and with their community.

Throughout our adventure, I will continue to participate in a twice-a-month, midweek gathering at our home church. It is a nurturing faith community where we encourage and challenge each other.

This will serve as my spiritual base during our sojourn and help keep me connected. I’ll also listen to our church’s sermon podcasts and attend elder meetings.

As friends pray for our journey, one asks that we make a positive impact on each church we visit. This surprises me. I strive to make a difference wherever I go, but I never considered it for 52 Churches.

I assumed we would receive, but I never considered how we might give. With an expanded perspective, our adventure becomes doubly exciting.

Talk is safe. Action is risky. It’s easy to consider a bold move in the indefinite future. But I need to pick a date, or this will never be anything more than an intriguing idea that never happens.

It’s the season of Lent, and our church is marching toward Easter. What if we start our journey after that? I share the timing with my wife.

I expect resistance—or perhaps, I hope for some—providing an excuse for delay. But she nods her agreement. My pastor and fellow elders also affirm the timing. Some are envious.

Candy and I celebrate Jesus’s resurrection with our home church. Then we slip away to begin our sojourn the following Sunday.

I expect this to be an amazing adventure, and I invite you to journey with us.

My wife and I visited a different Christian Church every Sunday for a year. This is our story. Get your copy of 52 Churches today, available in ebook, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook.

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.