Visiting Churches

The Megachurch

Navigating Big

Our son and daughter-in-law’s Sunday plans change abruptly one Sunday morning. We scramble to find a church to visit. Not just any church—that would be easy—but a church fitting our search criteria.

However, we’ve not yet given it much thought. With little time to plan and most services already in progress, we need one that starts later.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

A nearby megachurch has a second service at 11:30 a.m. We’ll go there. One of our future neighbors attends this church, but the chances of spotting them in a crowd of thousands in the service we attend seems slim.

Though big is not what I claim to want, the one church out of 52 Churches that I felt the most affinity with, the one I sensed was the best match, was also the biggest. I hope this megachurch will evoke a similar connection.

We don’t leave as soon as we should have. It will take a miracle to arrive on time, let alone ten minutes early, which is my goal when visiting churches.

I pray aloud as we head their way.

“God, slow my racing heart. May our focus be on you. May we worship you in spirit and in truth. Show us what you would have us to see. Teach us what you would have us to learn. May we give to others what you would have us to give. Amen.”

“The speed limit is forty-five,” my wife, Candy, says. My heart still races, and our car’s speed reveals it. I wonder how much of my prayer she heard and how much I meant. I sigh.

Taking my foot off the accelerator, I add something to my prayer. “Please don’t let the service start until we get there.” It’s a selfish thing to ask, to assume God will make a couple thousand people wait because we didn’t leave soon enough.

Yet I don’t know what else to pray. I need to slow down, both mentally and physically. Drawing in a deep breath as our car slows, I sigh again.

Now traveling at the posted speed, I accept the fact that we’ll be late. For 52 Churches we were never late once. But for this round, we’ll be late on the first Sunday. It’s not a good start.

We’ve been to their sprawling facility before, but it was for concerts in their youth center. We’re not even sure where their sanctuary is. I follow the stream of cars.

Parking attendants direct us to a general area. I follow the car in front of us and park next to it.

There’s no clear path to the building and no obvious flow of people to follow. Some go right and others go left, while a few meander.

We’re already five minutes late and still must hike to the building. We’re panting by the time we reach the doors.

Inside, activity bustles. Sounds come from all directions, with the loudest emanating from the right, but to the left is music and a doorway hinting that a sanctuary might be behind it.

Though twenty feet away, I make eye contact with a woman at the information center. I point to my left and, with raised eyebrows, mouth the question, “That way?”

Confused, she asks, “For what?”

“Is the sanctuary that way?”

She nods, and I veer left. Candy follows. I push forward.

Sensory Overload

Inside, the service is in full swing. My senses overload. I could aim for a seat in the back, but there’s plenty of room closer to the front. I turn and head for the next aisle.

Moving forward, we walk past twenty or more rows. Still well back from the stage, I slide into a seat near the aisle. Candy slips in beside me.

Astonished, I try to take it all in. I count fourteen on the worship team: guitars, drums, keys, and a slew of vocalists.

Behind them sways a praise choir of twenty or thirty, smiling broadly, worshiping God with their singing and the gentle rhythm of their bodies.

Overhead, three large screens, perhaps twenty or even thirty feet across, present the service in super-sized reality. Images of the worship team fill the giant displays with the song lyrics underneath. Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be singing.

I don’t know the song but pick it up easily enough. However, as I look about, I soon stop singing.

There are two boom cameras, whose constant motion distracts me, along with two handheld cameras roaming the stage in their operators’ skilled hands.

Two more stationary cameras round out the count to six. But from the various shots I see on the screens, there are even more cameras that I can’t locate.

They continue to sing, but with too many distractions, I can’t focus. After several songs, the worship leader asks the prayer teams to come forward. People seeking prayer follow them.

As the prayer teams minister to those in need, the rest of us resume singing.

Eventually, a man I assume is the minister appears on stage. The worship team withdraws into the shadows. He reads Genesis 12:2–3. The words appear on the screens beneath his jumbo-sized image.

I like this passage and often ask God to bless me so I can be a blessing to others. As I take notes, I assume this is the message, but he is simply introducing the offering.

As we resume our singing, ushers come down the center aisle, balancing stacks of buckets in their arms. They give one to each row as they work their way toward the back. As the buckets move across their rows, they accumulate offerings.

In the adjacent aisles, more ushers pass the buckets across the chasm to the outside sections. On the end aisles, a final set of ushers receives the proceeds, struggling even more with their balancing act.

Once completed, we stand again while we sing.

By now the main floor is mostly full, while the balcony is mostly empty. I wonder if there were more people at the first service. It’s mid-August, so I suspect attendance is low. How full will it be in another month?

I calculate the main level seats about 2,000, and surely the balcony holds at least 1,000 more, but both estimates could be off.

When the music ends, the worship leader tells us to greet four or five people around us. Though smiles abound as we shake hands, there’s little connection as the people move through this ritual with mechanical precision.

I’ve only greeted three people when most others begin to sit. I turn to the two people behind me, not because I’m complying with the instruction to greet five people, but to push back at the brevity of the greeting time and its insignificance.

What Is the Purpose of Church?

The minister returns. “What is the purpose of church?” He bounces through a series of Bible verses.

I try to note them as I jot down some intriguing phrases: “The kingdom is here, within you,” “Jesus wants disciples,” and “All religions are men reaching out to God. Christianity is God reaching out to man.”

An unassuming individual, the pastor doesn’t look the part of a megachurch leader. Though confident, he lacks the polish I expect and the dynamic delivery I anticipate. Either his message lacks significance or I lack focus.

Yet I can’t shake the persistent feeling that our late arrival has seriously skewed my perceptions. We’ll need to make a return visit for a proper experience. I’ve wasted our time today, failing to worship God or serve his people.

I scan the crowd periodically, searching for our neighbors. I don’t spot them.

“We focus on the receiving aspect of faith,” says the minister as he wraps up his message, “but we also have a faith that sacrifices, a faith that gives.”

We watch a video about their TV ministry. The recording shows several people in India who are now following Jesus because of watching this church’s services online each Sunday.

The video ends, and the congregation shows their affirmation with applause. Now they take a second offering, this one to support their TV ministry, which was the apparent underlying intent of the message.

As the ushers return with their buckets to repeat their earlier performance, a series of video announcements play.

The presenters are not mere talking heads, but polished announcers, comfortable in front of a camera, with an affable presence and the practiced cadence of a professional newscaster.

I’m so impressed with the quality of their delivery that I miss their messages—all except one.

When we pulled into the facility, we had joked about a sign that simply read “Kids Sale” and gave dates. “How many kids do you want to buy?” I asked my wife.

“I wonder if you can sell kids too?” she quipped.

Now a video plug for this event repeats the same information but gives no clarification. It’s still funny to me. “Do you want to buy one kid or two?”

“I think we have enough.”

I want to give her a snappy comeback, but the service ends before I can. Everyone stands and files out. None of the people we greeted have any parting words to share, and I can’t make eye contact with them. No one lingers to talk.

Everyone exits the sanctuary, flowing as a mass of people intent on leaving.

The Mass Exodus

The parking lot will be a mess, and we’re in no hurry to be part of it. After using the restroom, Candy wonders aloud if there’s a bulletin. I scoff. “This doesn’t seem like a bulletin kind of church.”

But she heads over to the welcome center, now unstaffed, and proudly returns with a bulletin of sorts. In it we later learn that “Kids Sale” is a consignment sale of kids’ games, clothes, and paraphernalia.

I consider heading over to a pavilion for “first-time visitors,” something I spotted on the way in but skipped because of our tardiness. There’s not much going on there, and I lack the motivation.

Instead, we turn the other way and head outside, with our newly acquired bulletin in hand.

Walking just ahead of us is Vanessa, who sat in front of us at church, the only person whose name we know, learning it during our greeting time. I consider calling to her and wishing her a good afternoon. But she seems intent on leaving.

Besides, we’ll never see her again. I remain silent, even though I shouldn’t. Frustrated, I just want to go home.

We walk at a leisurely pace back to our car, much slower than when we arrived. A warm sun and gentle breeze make it an enjoyable saunter. This should relax me but not quite.

A line of cars still awaits their turn to leave. “I think there’s a back way,” Candy says.

“Let’s try.” I follow a couple of cars headed in the opposite direction. We wind our way through a maze of buildings, trees, and drives. “I don’t know where we’re going, but at least we’re making good time.”

Candy either ignores my quip or doesn’t catch my humor. Eventually we find ourselves at a major road. It wasn’t the one I expected, but it will work out even better.

Reviewing the Experience

Reviewing what happened, I’m discouraged: we arrived late, were distracted by most of the service, struggled to worship God, couldn’t follow the sermon, failed to experience community, and didn’t give anything to anyone.

Vanessa was my one possibility, but I didn’t even try.

I am empty, all the while knowing we’ll need to make a return visit to consider this church. Next time we’ll plan better. “Today was a complete waste.”

My bride says nothing.

The Megachurch Takeaway

How you approach church influences your experience. If you leave empty, you likely failed to arrive prepared.

* * *

Returning to The Megachurch

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Big

We arrived late the first time we visited The Megachurch. Our tardy arrival seriously skewed my experience that day. I knew we’d need to make a return visit. Today we do.

We plan to leave early, but it doesn’t work out. Even so, we leave early enough to arrive fifteen minutes before the service starts. We park in about the same area as last time, and this time we know which direction to head.

Our first visit was on a pleasant fall day, with a gentle sun and warm breeze. Today is the middle of winter. Though it’s not snowing, the temperatures hover in the mid-twenties, and the biting wind attacks us with fervor.

My winter coat fails to protect me. I stride toward the door with purpose.

First-Time Visitors

Glad to be inside, I head straight to the “first-time visitors” pavilion. Several people stand ready to welcome us. I flash my best smile. “Hi!”

“Is this your first time here?”

Oh no, busted! “We visited once before,” I try to explain, “but got here late and . . .” I shake my head at the memory and try to stifle a shudder.

I search for more words to justify our audacity at approaching the “first-time visitors” table even though we aren’t first timers.

The lady smiles and offers reassurance. “Who would like to fill out the visitors’ card?”

“The person whose handwriting we can read,” I say, gesturing to Candy. She always fills out the information card.

The woman hands me a coffee mug and offers a second so “you can both have one.”

I shake my head. “I don’t drink coffee.” I suspect I sound rude, but we don’t need any more church coffee cups. The woman accepts this and doesn’t show she took offense.

I realize that if a person ever needed coffee cups, they could start visiting churches and would quickly amass a cupboard full, albeit mismatched.

Get Connected

Then she hands me a “Get Connected” pamphlet, a 40-page booklet with the subtitle “Grow, Connect, Impact.” Many churches use these words or others like them. Theologically I embrace the idea, but execution is the key.

“This explains all about our church,” she gushes. “We’re a big church, so small groups are important to us. We encourage everyone to be in one. That’s the best way to get connected.”

I nod, confirming the importance of a small group and the community it can offer.

“I really encourage you to visit the small group table.” She points to an area behind me. “They can find a group in your area that’s a good match for you.”

I nod again, wanting to tell her how much I agree and how badly I want to be in an intentional spiritual community, one focused on mutual support and encouragement, one where we can help each other on our faith journeys.

But before I can marshal the words, she continues.

“You can go there now or visit them after the service.”

“Okay.” I’m tempted to. Yet I also know that if the group is all I hope it to be, I’d see no need to attend church on Sunday. Could I be in one of their small groups and not go to their church?

Not that anyone would know, with their two services and thousands of people. Yet it wouldn’t feel right.

She hands me another packet, this one bearing a CD to explain the history of their church. Interested in learning more, I’m happy to accept it.

Seeking a Different Perspective

By this time Candy has completed the information card. She cradles her new coffee cup, and we head to the sanctuary.

This time we enter a different door. We also sit in a different section, mindful of how the continuous movement of the boom cameras throughout the entire service distracted me.

By the time we select our seats, the countdown timer is at 5:00. I’m surprised at how few people there are. Actually, there are hundreds, but with more empty seats than occupied ones, the space looks empty.

With one minute left, the lights dim to hint that the service is about to begin. The crowd is still sparse.

When the counter hits zero, the band starts. Some people join in, but not many. The song isn’t familiar to us. I wonder if it’s new to everyone. I’m reminded again about how much there is to distract me.

The large screens overhead, the boom cameras, the camera operators roving the stage with their handhelds, the praise choir swaying with the music, the dozen or more musicians and singers on the worship team—and the steady stream of people flowing into the sanctuary.

I don’t know the second song or the third, but I mouth some of the words, which is easier on the choruses.

Some lyrics hit me as significant, but I can’t focus on them, since I’m trying to move my lips while trying to ignore all the surrounding distractions.

Even though we are sitting halfway toward the front, we’re still too far back to see much detail of the people on stage. It feels more like a concert than a church service. I wonder if a concert vibe is their intent.

The order unfolds the same as before. The prayer team comes forward and people wanting prayer follow. There’s the briefest of greeting times. By now, the main floor is mostly full, but from what I can see, the balcony is mostly empty.

The attendance appears the same as at our first visit. Then the pastor gives a brief teaching on giving, from Matthew 6:20, before they take the offering.

Small Groups

We sing another song and watch a video about small groups. Sometimes they say “small groups” and other times they use “life groups.” (Their literature uses life groups, but their website uses both terms.)

The phrases mean different things to me, with small groups being more transient and life groups being long term.

The announcement ends with “sign up today; groups start next week.”

This suggests they run small groups in terms, with periodic reshuffling. That way if you end up in a group you don’t like, it won’t last long. However, there may not be enough time for a group to really gel and become all it can.

With these concerns, the pull of being in one of their small groups diminishes.

Guest Speaker

Today they have a guest speaker, a missionary from the other side of the world.

His English is perfect and his diction, flawless, yet it seems his words are colored by the culture he ministers to. Though his intent is clear, his occasionally odd phrasing disrupts my concentration.

Reading from the KJV (last time the minister used the NKJV), he teaches from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He promises we’ll “learn something from the Bible we’ve never heard before.” It’s an audacious claim. I’m skeptical.

Though he unveils historical context that’s new to me, he doesn’t teach me anything new about the contents of the Bible itself—or maybe I missed it.

Then midway through the message, he switches to a lengthy illustration about evolving technology, obsolescence, and the need to adapt to changing conditions. Then, just as abruptly, he takes us back to Philippians.

I see no connection between his illustration and the lesson on joy from Philippians. This reminds me of Luke 19:12–26, which seems to be a mash-up of two unrelated parables, with one shoved inside the other.

To conclude, he launches into an altar call of sorts, leading the entire congregation in a prayer of salvation. I always bristle at this technique and don’t take part.

For me, when a follower of Jesus prays the sinner’s prayer again, it’s disingenuous, either lying to God or casting doubt on the prior decision to follow Jesus. Maybe his theology requires we renew our salvation commitment every week.

Those who prayed the prayer “for the first time” are invited to go to a special place after the service to “get started.”

A Second Offering

Then someone announces a second collection, this one for the missionary who spoke. The first time we visited, they took two offerings, which I assumed was not typical. Now I wonder if two offerings are their norm.

I groan, realizing how right the unchurched are with their complaint that churches are always asking for money. We sing during the offering and stand for the final verse once all the buckets have been picked up.

We sit when the song ends. As a video announcement plays, many people shuffle out. I want to join them but also want to respect the service.

The professional cadence and inviting smile of the announcer draws me in. After that, a long series of verbal announcements follow.

Mindful of the time and friends we’re meeting for lunch, I squirm as the speaker drones on, while more people file out. This is a church where many people arrive late and leave early.

At last, he gives us a blessing and ends the service. With intention, we head for the door, not looking for anyone to interact with, while noting that no one seeks to interact with us.

We head for the exit and push into the bitter cold. The biting wind of this winter day cuts through our coats and into our bodies, instantly chilling us.

I so wanted to click with this church, but I so didn’t.

Key Takeaway

For your sake and everyone else’s, strive to arrive at church early and leave late—not the opposite.

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.