Visiting Churches

The Home Stretch

Wrapping Up Our Journey of Visiting 52 Churches in a Year

We’ve just completed a stint of visiting churches in three specific geographic areas. Now our focus shifts to a fourth: the churches to the east of us. We’re on the home stretch of visiting 52 churches in a year.

We’ve already visited eight of them (Churches #9, 11, 13, 15, 20, 24, 25, and 26) with scores more remaining, but we only have seven weeks to squeeze them in. We strategically select which ones we’ll visit, skipping the rest—at least for now.

Our journey is winding down. I have mixed feelings. Visiting a different church each Sunday has been fun, enlightening, and educational.

Already, I’m lamenting that our adventure will soon end. We must skip many churches, with dozens more that, although further away than ten miles, would be illuminating to visit.

But I’m anxious to return home, to revisit the familiar and reconnect with friends. The pull of reunion is powerful.

Our journey has worn on us. Every week we must plan where to go, confirm service times, and verify their location. Each Saturday night we go to bed asking, “What time is church tomorrow?”

Our schedule for the entire day hinges on the answer. We hope we’ll remember the right time and not be late. And even though you’d think I’d find visiting churches easy by now, I’m still anxious every Sunday morning.

Takeaway for Everyone: Remember that visiting a church is hard. Do everything you can to embrace visitors.

Part Four Perspective

To wrap up our adventure, we visited some of the churches (#45–52) on the western side of the area’s largest city.

Our home church, Church #53 (Home for Holy Week), which we returned to for Easter, is also in this city, located in the downtown area, but it falls outside of our ten-mile criteria at eleven miles away—and a twenty-one-minute drive.

With many more churches on our list than the number of Sundays left, it was hard to pick which ones to include. Our decisions involved much discussion between Candy and myself, a bit of give and take, and a couple of last-minute changes.

We picked churches which would provide the most varied experiences for this phase. Church #51 (The Megachurch) is our area’s largest, with #52 (Playing it Safe) and #49 (Large and Anonymous) being close behind.

These comprised our extra-large church encounters, offering insight into the pros and cons of “big.”

On the other end of the size spectrum was one small congregation, Church #48 (Small, Simple, and Satisfying) and one medium-sized congregation, Church #47 (Significant Interactions).

The rest of the churches were large congregations. Church #46 (False Assumptions) had a huge facility—suggesting a once prosperous past—but it now has barely enough attendees to fit the large category.

The other two sizable churches were Church #45 (Another Doubleheader) and Church #50 (Saturday Mass).

We included Saturday mass for multiple reasons: another Roman Catholic encounter, a church with a campus connection, and a Saturday night service.

We doubled up that weekend and one other, when we went to a Seventh Day Adventist Church (Church #31, A Day of Contrasts) on Saturday, and an Episcopal Church (Church #32, Commitment Sunday) the next day.

Although it would have been possible to double up and visit two different churches on Sunday mornings, we opted not to do so as it taxed us to go to two Sunday services at the same church.

By going to church on two Saturdays, as well as every Sunday, we were able to complete our fifty-two-church journey in fifty weeks, allowing us to return to our home church for Easter.

On this, the final phase of our journey, my thoughts center on church size, with my overarching concern for community hovering in the background. I claim I want to attend a small church, one with a close-knit and spiritually-significant community.

Yet, my actions belie that as our home church is a large one, bordering on extra-large. Also, and ironically, of the fifty-two churches we visited, Church #51 (The Megachurch) appeals to me the most.

The reason I don’t warm up to most smaller churches—the ones I claim I want to attend—is that they’re frequently older congregations. They have traditional services, don’t embrace newer methods, and are composed of aging parishioners.

I’ve often criticized older congregations, but I’m not against older people. I’m concerned for people who coast toward the finish line, hoping to hang on to the status quo until they go to heaven.

Their focus is on maintaining what they have, not expanding their church or preparing it for the next generation. Yes, they say they want their congregation to grow, but it’s often little more than a hope.

In vain, they expect that if they keep doing what they’ve always done, they will one day gain members. These congregations seldom do something different to attract new people.

Even though using newer practices might help embrace visitors, that would make the people of the church uncomfortable. And comfort, as they drift toward life’s end, is what they seek.

Though there are certainly exceptions, this is the attitude in most older congregations.

That brings me to Church #48 (Small, Simple, and Satisfying). By far the smallest church on the final leg of our journey, and one of the smallest overall, this church holds great appeal.

They earn high marks for conducting their service without the help of paid clergy or a guest speaker, which they did with excellence. They improved many aspects of a typical church experience.

This includes the placement of the cross, how they communicate announcements, the congregation praying without first sharing their needs, many members being involved in the service, and the easy, informal fellowship time afterward.

I assume these are all intentional tweaks made to maximize worship and strengthen community. They possessed a real sense of family, which all churches should have, but too many don’t.

Though the service was more formal than I prefer, it’s easy to overlook, given all the other pluses. My one concern is their future.

Candy and I were among the youngest present, so without an infusion of younger attendees, the church could be serving its final generation.

Though many of these older members are young in their heart, this church offers little to attract a younger crowd who can sustain and perpetuate it.

This isn’t their dilemma alone, but one shared by all the small churches we visited, as well as some medium-sized ones.

If the solution to numeric decline was obvious, churches would pursue it, but the only small churches I’ve ever seen grow are new ones. The established ones keep getting smaller until they close. This isn’t a lament so much as a reality.

The real problem is expectation. A congregation—or even denomination—shouldn’t expect to continue forever. Instead, it’s organic, following an expected life cycle: gestation, birth, growth, plateauing, slowing down, dying, and death.

In fighting this natural progression, members turn their focus away from worship, community, and outreach to concentrate on survival, as if that’s the goal. But it’s not; God is.

Yes, leaders can take steps to lengthen the life of a local church or denomination, but to assume it can—or even should—live forever, misses reality. The only way to last indefinitely is to become an institution.

With religious institutions, the primary focus switches from God to ensuring survival. Paid staff eventually place their continued employment ahead of all else, losing passion for their primary mission.

God isn’t impressed with our religious institutions or the people who strive to sustain them. What he desires are followers who will make a difference, advancing his kingdom for his glory—not their own agenda.

Our Home Church

Although outside our ten-mile requirement and fifty-two-week window, I shared about our home church. What happens there contrasts—often sharply—with many of our church visits.

Although some aspects at a few of the churches were like our home church, none of them matched it.

Our home church remains the lens through which Candy and I evaluate other congregations. Our children did this, too, with their experiences at our home church forming their expectations when they moved and sought a new church.

I’m sad our adventure is over, and at the same time, I’m glad to reconnect with friends and once again establish a regular rhythm to our Sunday worship routine.

Takeaway for Leaders: Individual churches should be organic, with an eventual life cycle that will one day end.

The only way to ensure they last forever is to turn them into a religious institution. Don’t do that.

[Check out the discussion questions for this post as we anticipate what is to come and review what happened.]

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.