Visiting Churches

Bad Timing, but a Great Day Anyway

A Second Atypical Service

We first visited this small Presbyterian Church several months ago. Now they have a new minister.

Our first visit was on a cold winter day. Today, spring permeates the air. But I don’t need warm sunshine, blue sky, or the life-promise of burgeoning buds to bolster my expectations.

I’m excited to return, eager for the experience.

The day before our first visit they held an ordination ceremony for their new minister, a 20-something recent seminary grad who would fill their empty pastorate.

Unfortunately, prior commitments kept her away that Sunday, delaying her official start a couple of weeks. Palpable excitement permeated the congregation.

Even the building seemed to exude anticipation, reminding me of Jesus’ words during his entry into Jerusalem on what would become Palm Sunday: “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out,” (Luke 19:40). Okay, maybe that’s overreaching—or maybe not.


Nevertheless, I long to return to meet one so anticipated. Today is that day. But it isn’t just their new minister that makes me want to return. The congregation’s friendliness also beckons.

As we learned from 52 Churches, the formality of liturgical churches usually overflows to their outreach, specifically their lack of reaching out to visitors.

Stoic members at some liturgical churches failed to greet us at all, while most other congregations struggled mightily, awkwardly offering only a token welcome. We’d leave their services lonely. Community didn’t exist or was at least restricted to established insiders.

Aside from this church, only Church #32 was able to break from this pattern. While I salute both congregations, this one added exuberance to their embrace. I desire to experience it afresh, all the while hoping our first visit wasn’t an anomaly.

In addition, this church also earned my appreciation for making their liturgy accessible to outsiders.

While we stumbled through the services at every other liturgical church, this one had everything we needed in their bulletin, allowing us to follow along and engage in their service.

Another trait that stood out was their attitude. Despite being mostly older, they have a youthful demeanor.

I’m not against aged congregations or people, but I enjoy being around those who, regardless of their age, are full of wonder and expectation. This group exemplifies that. All these memories bubble up in my mind as we drive to church.

I can hardly wait to get there. As we walk to the door the wind threatens to blow us away. We lean into it to make progress. The normal angst I always feel when visiting a church rumbles in my gut.

Just get to the door, I tell myself. Once you’re inside, you’ll be okay. I take a deep breath as I open the door for my wife. Catching my reflection in the glass, I try to corral my windblown hair as I follow her inside.

Member Lead

Two couples, poised to greet us, flank the narrow entrance. They all look familiar and try to welcome us at once. Though disconcerting, I much prefer it to being ignored. Their embrace warms me, and even more so the man to my left.

“You were here before. I’m so glad you came back!”

“And it’s good to be back!

“You were the one visiting different churches and blogging about it, right?”

“Yes, I am! I’m honored you remembered.” Though I always told people about our journey of visiting churches, I seldom said I was writing a book and don’t ever remember mentioning my blog. The man must have found it on his own.

“We were here just before Sara started. Everyone was so excited. I wanted to come back and meet her!”

“Oh, no! Sara’s gone this week.”

“That’s terrible!” I should have tried to mask my disappointment, but I didn’t. My mind whirls, and I miss what he says next. “Well, it’s good to be here anyway.”

I pause, waiting for them to offer us nametags, knowing it’s their practice. When no one does, we move forward. Only then does someone remember.

“Oh, nametags. We’ve got to get you nametags . . .  Do you want nametags?”

I nod, as I scan the foursome. None of them have theirs.

“Oops,” says the first man. “We forgot ours.”

My wife prints our names on adhesive welcome stickers, while the others retrieve their premade tags from the board to my left. By the time I affix mine, we’re all wearing nametags.

The sanctuary is configured the same as last time, but it’s smaller than I remember. We make our way in, and more people greet us.

A few remember us. Either they have few visitors or great memories. Regardless, their recognition embraces me. It’s as if we’ve returned home.

I count twenty-five people, about half the number as last time. I ponder the implications.

Invariably, some people leave when a new minister arrives, but usually many more return and new people show up. I expected to see more, not less. Yet if anything’s amiss, there’s no hint of it.

One member greets the congregation to begin the service. He details all those who are gone this week, while acknowledging the presence of visitors. He looks in my direction, and I nod. I wonder if the explanation for low attendance is for our benefit.

I clutch my bulletin, knowing it’s my lifeline for participating in the service. This time, I’m mindful to keep the pages in order.

Though the rhythm of liturgical services still evades me, I’m closer to being engaged today than ever before. Perhaps, given practice, I can learn to embrace liturgy.

I really appreciate that the members conduct the service. In addition to today’s liturgist, other members also take part.

Guest Minister

Though we see today’s guest speaker, he merely sits through the first half of the service, while the members lead. This is how it should be. The only thing lacking is for one of the members to give the teaching, as well.

The guest minister is an associate at the area’s largest Presbyterian Church and a familiar face to the members here. He stands to give his message, “The Gift of Recognition.”

We read Luke 24:13-35 about Jesus and two disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. At first, the disciples don’t recognize him.

The minister is a gifted teacher, pulling out insights I’d never considered. It’s been a long time since a minister has dug deeper into the text than I. At best, I leave a service with one new thought but not today.

Today I note several new items he pulled from this narrative:

  • They have all the facts, but they are clueless to what it means.
  • They tell Jesus about Jesus.
  • With life there is hope; with death there is no hope.
  • Even when Jesus taught them, they didn’t understand.
  • Only death is fed by despair.
  • Certainty is the enemy of faith.

He ends by saying, “Let us cultivate the spiritual discipline of recognition.”

Though the context is recognizing Jesus, the people of this church did a fine job seeing my wife and me. Oh, how sweet it is to be recognized. May we do so for others but especially with God.

After the service, they invite us to stay for refreshments. We make our way to the kitchenette, enjoying conversation along the way. The food is incidental.

Nick, who greeted us when we first arrived and was today’s liturgist, invites us to come back again to hear Sara.

“Her style is much different than what you heard today.” I understand this as a compliment.

Then he whispers a date next month when Sara will be away at a denominational meeting. He’s responsible to find a replacement and has been turned down five times. “June is a hard month to fill.”

“You don’t need a guest minister.” I want to encourage him to break that expectation. “You can have a member speak.”

He’s skeptical but then recalls a service they held without a minister, where the members took turns sharing. there wasn’t a sermon.

“You can do that again!”

He’s not so quick to embrace my suggestion, but pauses, as if contemplating it.

The crowd dwindles. We say a collective “Goodbye” and head out, happy for this time of celebrating Jesus with them.


How well does your church service and embrace of visitors go when your minister is gone?

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.