Life Groups versus Sunday School
Early this morning we make our annual switch to Daylight Saving Time, a transition full of folly and one I wish we’d skip. I wake up tired. I don’t want to roll out of bed and so want to skip church, but I know Candy won’t stand for it.
“What church are we going to,” she asks, “and when does it start?”
“Next on the list is the church just north of us . . . 9:30.”
“When should we leave, 9:15?”
The drive will only take two minutes, and I don’t care if we arrive early or not. Even leaving at 9:25 will be fine, but it’s good to pad our schedule because one of us is bound to be late, so I nod my agreement.
“We better get moving.”
Preparing for Church
I wonder aloud if today we should pick a different church, one that starts later. Even 10:00 will help, but Candy shakes off my suggestion.
Considering my morning routine, I should pare back my activities so I don’t have to rush to make church.
But that would mean cutting out my morning prayer time and Bible study. It seems foolish to skip personal intimacy with God just to make it to church on time.
Another idea is omitting my shower, but I need its warm comfort to feel awake and act civilized. Bypassing breakfast is another thought, but I know I should limit fasting to when I’m not around other people because sometimes an empty stomach makes me less patient.
Of all my considerations, church is the least significant. I could skip it. I’ve now come full circle in my deliberations. In the end, I try to squeeze in everything.
Diligent, I push forward: prayer, Bible reading, breakfast, and a shower. I emerge from the bathroom breathless, ready for church and thinking I’m on schedule. I’m not. My wife stands by the back door with her coat on.
We can do this.
Two days ago, I began my weekend construction project by hitting my thumb with a hammer. Hard. Since then, it’s hampered everything I’ve done.
Even the slightest touch to my tender digit shoots pain through my body. Unfortunately, many common motions qualify. These include holding my car keys, reaching into my pocket, turning on my cell phone, buttoning buttons, and tying shoes.
Anxious to get out the door, I pull on my boots with haste, jamming my thumb into the stiff leather. I yelp.
On a scale of one to ten, the pain is at eleven. I curse. Always inappropriate, my words seem even more unholy given that in a few minutes I’ll be at church to worship God.
Tears well up in my eyes as my thumb throbs, perhaps even worse now than when I first injured it. Gingerly, I lace my boots and tie them with care.
Reaching into my pocket for my keys, I jam my thumb again. The tenderness is excruciating. I set my jaw to prevent another errant outburst, but my glare says it anyway.
The drive to church is tense. Knowing that I’m in no mood to pray, my wise bride intercedes for our time at church.
A Just-In-Time Arrival
We pull into the lot from a side entrance and park in the back of an elongated facility sporting multiple additions. The clock in the car tells me it’s 8:28. Mentally adjusting for Daylight Saving Time, we have two minutes before church starts.
Ahead of us, one couple scurries in a back door, but we don’t follow them. Another family heads toward the front of the building. We trail behind, entering through a side door that deposits us into the narthex.
The service has begun. I scan for a coatrack but don’t see one. I head to the sanctuary with Candy following. With people everywhere, we stand in a daze.
There are no seats available in the back for us to slide into. A smiling usher hands Candy a bulletin and offers to help us find a place for two. Seeing plenty of spaces further in, I push forward. Halfway up, I slide into the center section and move in a few spaces.
Sitting, I take a deep breath, which serves as a wordless prayer that Papa hears and graciously answers. I forget our late arrival, my throbbing thumb, and the unholy drama that surrounded it.
I am ready for church.
The building is large, with comfortable padded chairs for over four hundred. It’s half full, mostly seniors, with some young adults but hardly any kids. Many of the older men wear suits, with some ladies in dresses, but the rest of the crowd dresses more casually.
A Greeting Experiment
After the opening remarks, which occurred as we walked in, there’s the official greeting time. I shake hands and exchange hellos with the young man next to me, surprising him when I ask, “How are you?”
Stunned, he does a double take and gives a socially acceptable response but then quickly turns away as if uncomfortable with my unexpected question. As an experiment, I try this with everyone I greet. None of them are ready for anything beyond “Hello.”
Next, we sing an opening three-song set.
In addition to a suit-clad worship leader are three vocalists and a bass guitar, all on stage. On the sides are the organist, pianist, keyboardist, and drummer.
They start the first song before the bass guitarist is ready, but it doesn’t matter because I can’t hear him when he does start to play.
The piano and organ carry the music, with an out-of-place percussionist tapping a rhythm that doesn’t seem to fit with what everyone else does.
The group’s light pop sound from a bygone era feels out of place with their hymns and older choruses. Without hymnals, we follow along with the words displayed overhead. Only about half the crowd sings, and they do it with little enthusiasm.
For the second song, the worship leader straps on a guitar. A man wearing a suit while playing a guitar looks strange. Though he acts comfortable with this dichotomy, it strikes me as odd.
The third song, “Amazing Grace,” garners full participation from the crowd, the only number to do so.
An offertory prayer precedes the collection, which coincides with a special music number. The soloist sings as ushers pass the plates. But few people add anything to the offering.
When the man finishes his song, applause erupts. Since this is the only clapping all morning, I assume the praise is for him and not for God.
Next week starts their two-week missions festival. Today serves as the warm-up, with a message titled, “What Is a Call?”
Though his delivery is good, the preacher is hard for me to watch. When he’s not looking down, he fixes his gaze over us, as though he’s watching something behind us and ignoring us. I desperately want to turn around to see what he sees, but I resist the urge.
For the bulk of his message, he reels through a list of biblical characters and what God called them to do. He emphasizes, “God calls people in turn,” but I’m not sure what he means.
It’s not until he nears the end of his message that he mentions the text for today, Ephesians 2:8–10.
He wraps up with three practical, self-help style tips to discern our calling.
Though disappointed he didn’t mention hearing our call from the Holy Spirit, I’m not surprised. We’re at a quintessential fundamentalist church and not a charismatic gathering.
Sadly, I’m quite used to churches ignoring one third of the Trinity.
He closes the service with prayer and invites us to stay for “life groups.” I’m surprised at his mention of the more modern life group phenomenon. I’m perplexed at them taking place when most traditional churches hold Sunday school.
As we slowly gather our things to leave, a suit-wearing man of our age introduces himself. He, too, invites us to stay for life groups.
“In fact, I teach one of them.” He beams, expecting we’ll jump at the chance. His smile disappears when I decline.
His assertion that life groups have an instructor confuses me. Life groups, as I know them, don’t have a teacher. Though some groups might have a leader or facilitator, many are egalitarian and there’s seldom a lesson.
I wonder if their label of “life groups” is a ruse, merely attempting to put a new spin on the old practice of Sunday school.
I don’t need to wonder long. An older woman walks by us as she defiantly declares, “I’m going to Sunday school!”
I smile at her honesty.
All the people sitting around us have scattered. None of those I greeted—those I dared to ask, “How are you?”—tarry to say “Goodbye” or invite us back.
One Person to Talk To
One elderly man approaches us as we’re about to leave. We actually talk, sharing information and learning about each other. This one person attempts to connect with us. He warms my heart.
As we say our goodbyes, he invites us back and hopes we’ll return. His sincerity touches me.
In the short drive home, we discuss our experience. I’m critical over some sloppy details in the preacher’s message. Candy is more generous. We both agree, however, that we connected with his main premise about knowing our call.
I’m not interested in returning to this church and don’t want to give them further consideration. However, I’m unsure of Candy’s perspective. This church is like the one we met at and the churches she attended growing up. I’m relieved when she shakes her head.
We pull into the garage. There’s only one thing left to do: reset the clock in the car to Daylight Saving Time. Lunch and a nap await us inside.
Don’t put a new label on something old and think you’ve made a meaningful change. Instead, make changes that matter.
Read the full story in Peter DeHaan’s new book Shopping for Church.
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?