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Visiting Churches

Evangelical or Charismatic Church?

Confusing Messaging

I’m excited about visiting the last church on our list—or at least the final church we intend to visit. Our plans could change, and with God, they often do. I’m not sure if this church is charismatic or evangelical.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

An Independent Charismatic Fellowship

Unlike last week, this church’s website provides a lot of useful information. On their About page, they call themselves “an independent, charismatic fellowship.”

After visiting too many area churches that minimize the role of the Holy Spirit, I look forward to a church that doesn’t. I’m also encouraged that they’re independent, with no denominational baggage to slow them down or siphon off funds.

But their next line contradicts their claim of independence by stating they belong to a network alliance of churches. Either they’re independent, or they aren’t. My enthusiasm dims.

They post plenty of pictures on their website, photos of people smiling and having fun.

The adults featured are mostly younger and with lots of kids, not all with white skin. For an area with little racial diversity, a church with some cultural variation encourages me.

They offer all the programs common in church: Sunday school, nursery, youth groups, a college group, men’s ministry, women’s ministry, and small groups (albeit with a different label).

Sunday school is concurrent with the church service, forcing both the kids and their teachers to miss the experience of community worship. Though they don’t have a Sunday evening service, they do have a Wednesday night prayer meeting.

I don’t want a church that does what every other church does. I yearn for something different, something fresh and rooted in the mindset of the early church.

As I page through their website, I notice one conspicuous absence: the Holy Spirit. After a careful study, I see him only on the What We Believe page and the Senior High page.

Once a month high school students get together for “radical worship and times of contemplation where we wait, listen, pursue Jesus, and minister to each other in the Holy Spirit.” Junior high and up may join them.

Why just once a month? Shouldn’t we embrace the Holy Spirit every day?

Heading for Church

I wonder what the Sunday service will be like. Like last week, I hope for the best while braced for disappointment, though expectation prevails. Soon I’ll find out.

As we head for the church, I pray for our time there. The route is easy, but the entrance isn’t marked well, and I drive past it. A long drive reveals a parking lot that is filling up and a building larger than I expected.

The church is sixteen years old and has been meeting here for the past eleven. I assume they built the building, so it must be just over a decade old. The exterior is metal, and Candy calls it a pole barn. Though harsh, she’s essentially correct.

As we head to the door, we enjoy a nice spring day with warm sunshine and a gentle breeze. Unlike last week, when I felt anxious on my approach, today I feel peace.

Initial Interactions

Greeters, one outside the door and the other just inside, compete to offer us bulletins. Both are pleasant, but neither offers more than their brochure.

Inside is a bustle of people. Some give us wary smiles, but most ignore us. We weave our way through the masses toward the sanctuary. One man, smiling broadly, approaches us with intention. “Hi,” he beams as we shake hands. “People call me Doc.”

I share our names and ask the obvious question. “Why do people call you Doc?”

His eyes sparkle. “I used to be a doctor, but if you call me Doctor, I’ll need to send you a bill.”

“Well, we don’t want that, Doc.”

As we talk, a woman tries unsuccessfully to get his attention. Though I see this, Doc doesn’t.

It’s not until we’re walking away that I learn her mission: she wants to make sure we sign their visitor card. Eventually, she gives one to Candy, along with a pen and some brief instructions.

We sit off the middle aisle, a third of the way up. The padded chairs are comfortable, pleasing enough that I never give them another thought.

There are four sections, capable of seating 280. In addition, there are a few high tables and chairs behind us.

The space is simple, but nicely finished, giving no hint on the inside of what the outside suggests. Centered in the front, positioned as high as permitted by the gently sloped ceiling, hangs a large screen. Below it is a stage, elevated by three steps.

A traditional wooden pulpit sits in the center, the only dated accessory in the place. Lining the back of the stage is a series of curtains, hanging from metal rods supported by metal posts. Behind them is the hint of what might be a baptistery.

The place quickly fills, as people buzz with excitement. Kids abound, a few of them with darker skin, just as their website shows. However, I don’t see any adults with the same skin color. Curious.

Evangelical or Charismatic?

I also check out the bulletin. Here they call themselves evangelical, with no mention of charismatic.

Though rare in my experience, it’s possible to be both evangelical and charismatic, but one trait always predominates. Which one is it for this church?

I scan their list of elders and deacons. All the elders are male, as are all but one deacon. I wonder if this is by design and doubt it’s by coincidence.

I’m discouraged when churches place limits on how women can serve. Last, I see that the “youth band” will lead the service next Sunday.

My experiences with youth leading worship have all been positive, and I wish it were happening today. Their normal worship team, however, might also be good. Soon we’ll find out.

Seven people open the service, leading us in song. The worship leader also plays keyboard. Other musicians play guitar, bass guitar, drums, and piano. Two more sing backup vocals.

The music feels alive. I sense God’s presence. Though the song is unfamiliar to me, its message clicks.

Next is a greeting and prayer. The minister reminds us that it’s Memorial Day weekend, and some members are gone. Since they’re at about 75 percent capacity today, they surely fill the place when everyone is in town.

Pentecost Sunday

The pastor also informs us it’s Pentecost Sunday, fifty days after Jesus’s resurrection. Today we celebrate God sending the Holy Spirit to the early church. It’s fitting we’re here on such an important day, even if I didn’t realize it.

The service will be different this Sunday, with extended music and a shorter teaching.

They’ll also celebrate Holy Communion, with the suggestion that through Communion we’ll finish the message—whatever that means. Sunday school is on hold today.

Next is a lengthy music set, contemporary songs that resonate with me. Along the side and in the opposite front corner, kids wave flags. One is so exuberant that his flag flies off the pole.

Though some kids appear to do it just for the fun of it, others connect their flags’ movements with the music, worshiping God through motion.

One woman also waves a flag, although stealthily. I wonder how many other adults would like to worship God in this way but are too self-conscious. I wonder the same about me.

Many adults raise their arms as we sing, physically worshiping God. For the first time in eighteen churches, this is the accepted norm.

Most of the churches we visited were stoic in their worship and for those who weren’t, raising hands was an anomaly. Today, it feels natural. I join them, happy to do so.

A lengthy list of announcements follows. The pastor says they don’t meet for Wednesday prayer in the summer. I’m dismayed. Does this imply it’s okay to take a break from prayer when other activities are more pressing?

I’m so preoccupied by this that I miss the rest of the announcements.

Taking Communion with Your Family

The minister starts his “short message,” again saying we will finish it when we take the Lord’s Supper. This perplexes me.

Is he speaking figuratively, or will this Communion celebration differ from my other experiences, allowing us the opportunity to complete his message verbally as we partake? I’m excited at the prospect and worried over the unknown.

He reads John 12:27–33 but starts teaching at verse 20. I jot down several thoughts:

Greeks are present, which is most unusual; they approach Philip, not Jesus; Philip goes to Andrew and, together, they bring the Greeks to Jesus; the door opens to Gentiles, but some people will never believe.

Though these are interesting, the teaching ends without me grasping a main point or takeaway.

“By taking Communion with your family,” he says, “we take a stand and complete the message.” I’m still confused.

Though he makes no invitation for nonmembers to partake, Doc was thoughtful enough to tell us we could. Without his approval, I would have sat in isolation while everyone else took part. Thanks, Doc.

With seven stations, each one staffed by an elder or deacon, we have options. People go forward as families. Most linger after they take the Communion elements, sometimes in conversation, other times in prayer.

After observing the process, we get in line. As it works out, we’re among the last to reach the front. The man holds out a plate with broken crackers.

We each take one, and he says something. Candy and I look at each other, wondering what to do. As he reaches for the tray with small cups of juice, we shove the pieces of cracker in our mouths. With a nod, we pick up the juice and drink it.

Without another word, he accepts our empty cups, and we sit down. Did I miss something? Were we supposed to interact with him? Was he supposed to interact with us?

Not only did we miss the community others enjoyed, but the process so distracted me that I missed the meaning of Communion. Forgive me, Lord Jesus.

Offering

After this, the minister recognizes a deacon and elder whose terms are ending; we applaud their service. He begins to offer the benediction when someone stops him. “Oh yeah, I almost forgot the offering—again. You’d think we didn’t need money.”

He launches into a lengthy discourse on giving, their budget shortfall, their plans, and the need to give. He claims he never talks this long about money, but I wonder who he’s trying to convince. Then he talks about it some more.

During this time, people wait patiently at the front of each of the five aisles, holding offering baskets. He forgets they’re standing there and finally notices them, permitting them to collect the offering.

As the basket goes by, I spot only a few bills in the bottom. Candy drops in our visitor card, with the pen clipped to it.

As another addendum, the minister asks some church leaders to come up after the service to pray for him and his upcoming trip to Africa. Then the service ends.

Interactions

We gather our things with intentional deliberation, giving time for the people sitting nearby to talk to us. But no one does. No one looks our way. I hope for someone to approach us, but no one does.

As we file out, one deacon asks if this is our first time there. When we confirm it is, he asks if we have questions. I do, but none come to mind until later.

I tell him “No.”

The conversation ends.

Doc makes his way to us, thanking us for visiting and inviting us back. He introduces us to some nearby people, but our interaction is nothing more than a handshake or head nod.

Then we repeat the process in how we entered, weaving our way between people who barely know we’re there.

We return to our car, ninety minutes after we arrived. Before I can ask, Candy shares her opinion. “The music was safe, and they were off-key sometimes.”

I groan. “I liked the music and thought it was some of the best we’ve encountered.” Though a handful of other churches are better, I ignore that fact for now. “I felt God’s presence, like I haven’t felt it at church for a long time.”

“That could be,” my wife responds, “but the music was still safe and off-key.” She’s probably right.

What we agree on is the pastor’s awkwardness. The congregation seems to accept his quirky communication traits, but I know they would grate on me. And aside from Doc, they weren’t at all friendly.

Making meaningful connections there would be hard. I don’t feel up to the challenge.

Despite some elements I really liked and an imperative desire for this church to click with me, they fell short. As I feared, I’m disappointed. Candy eliminates them from further consideration, so I do too.

We’ll get home around noon. I wonder what’s for lunch.

Takeaway

Make sure your church website sends a clear and consistent message about who you are and what you value.

I later emailed the church asking if adults are welcome at the monthly time when high schoolers radically worship God and listen to the Holy Spirit. I’d like to join them. No one responds. I could try calling them, but by now I’ve given up on the idea.

[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.