Visiting Churches

The Nonconventional Church

Locked Out

We head for a church that meets in an office complex, using space provided by an adoption agency. A former coworker of Candy’s is the teaching elder there. Another of her friends recently started attending this nonconventional church.

The thought of knowing someone at church is a powerful pull.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

Lacking a website, they do have a Facebook page. However, aside from oodles of photos and a few dated reviews, there’s only one other thing I can learn about them. However, it’s monumental.

The words quicken my heart. A simple but laden question asks, “What does a church look like when you drop all the programs, masks, facades, and actually learn to love one another in participation of the Way of Christ?”

Sloppy writing aside, this nonconventional church is definitely one I want to check out. They may be the kindred spirits I seek. Dare I hope they’ll live up to the implied promise of their spiritually provocative statement?

Everything Goes Wrong

An early winter snow makes traveling slippery. Wet feathery flakes of white threaten to cover the road, obscuring our visibility. I wonder if we should even be out driving.

Through a mix of partial information and assumptions, we get lost, stumbling on the building by accident once we’ve given up any hope of finding it. We pull into the parking lot six minutes late.

Amid multiple buildings, with a slew of tenants, we spot the adoption agency, but their door is locked. An adjacent entry marked “employee entrance” is locked too.

After wandering around in the cold, wet snow, we finally spot a third entrance in another building that also lists their name. This one, with its double doors, is more promising, but it is likewise shut tight.

Fighting off the fluffy dampness of the falling snow, we walk around the complex, looking for hints of where to go or how to get in. Some sections of the walks are shoveled; most are not.

Random footprints in the snow reveal recent traffic, but they don’t converge on a common entrance or even hint at a way inside. Frustrated, we get back in our car and drive around the facility, looking for their church sign or another entrance to try.

When this yields no new clues, we return to the parking lot.

There are other cars there, so we know people are present. Having given up, I remain in the car.

Candy gets out and presses her ear against the glass in the double doors and hears music emanating from deep inside. She rattles the doors, and even pounds, but garners no response.

After waiting in exasperation, she repeats her efforts, this time with more fervor and increased ire.

Flight or Fight?

She returns to the car, fuming. Now twenty-five minutes after the start of their service, my impulse is flight, while hers is to fight.

At an impasse and not knowing what else to do, we drive home in silence, wondering how something so simple could go so wrong.

Though we encountered locked doors at some churches, we eventually found one that was open. This time we did not.

Later that day, my wife vents to the teaching elder in a private Facebook message. He apologizes but doesn’t explain the locked doors.

He provides a vague description of which entrance we should have used, but if we understand correctly, we tried it.

We’ll attempt to visit them again, arriving early so we can be sure to get inside. This congregation claims to have a different approach to doing church, and I must learn more.

But I’m not sure if I can work past my frustration of being locked out in the cold while the faithful gathered in the warmth inside. I may have already decided against this church, and I haven’t even been to their service.

Part 1 Takeaway

Make sure visitors know where your church is located and what entrance to use.

A Second Chance to Make a First Impression

Try Again

Two weeks later we head back to The Nonconventional Church. The implication that this congregation does church in a different way intrigues me.

However, I’m still harboring hurt from them effectively excluding us from their gathering on our first attempt to visit.

Praying for the Service

With two weeks to stew about this, I’m still peeved when we get in the car on Sunday morning. I don’t want to pray for a good attitude. I don’t want to pray for the church service we hope to encounter.

Praying about this, however—I realize too late—is what I should have been doing for the past fourteen days.

I ask Candy to pray. She declines. I grunt out a petition to the Almighty using phrases oft repeated when we head for church:

“May we receive what you would have us to receive. May we give to others what you would have us to give. And may we worship you today in spirit and in truth.” Then I add a begrudging afterthought. “Oh, and give me a good attitude. Yeah. Amen.”

Feeling guilty over my halfhearted prayer, I suspect God isn’t pleased either. I have little hope my pitiful plea, one offered more out of obligation than expectation, will gain much traction with the godhead. I sigh.

New Instructions

Once again Candy had some last-minute communication with her friend at this nonconventional church. Though their Facebook page says 9:30, he assures her it starts at 10 a.m.

Today he tells us to go through the door of a travel agency and not the adoption service. That would have been helpful information last time. At least today we know where the building is.

We also leave early to give us extra time. We hope to time our arrival with other attendees and follow them inside. Unfortunately, Candy’s friend will not be there to look for us.

He had a bad encounter with a halibut at dinner last night and is home recovering from food poisoning.

We arrive about ten minutes early, not as early as Candy wanted. Again, there are cars in the parking lot, but we see no people. We sit for a while, waiting for others to arrive. They don’t.

We scan the building, searching for the name of the travel agency. We don’t see it.

However, I spot a different travel agency. “Do you think he gave us the wrong name?”

Candy’s not sure, but I think he did. We double-check all the other signs. With no other travel agencies, I assume he misspoke.

We get out of the car and head in that direction. Only when we’re almost to the door do we spot a small, ground-level sign for the church.

While most helpful to us now, we had to get out of our car to see it. We would’ve never noticed it from the parking lot.

Inside, to our right, is the inner door to the travel agency. It’s shut and the lights inside are off. To the left is a glow, emanating from a stairwell around the corner. We head toward the light.

Though wide, the stairway is otherwise unimpressive: dirty and well worn. At the bottom we see new construction injected into an old facility.

Though the hallway is lit in both directions, we hear people to our left. We head toward the murmuring.

Finding Friends

We approach a hall with trepidation. However, before we make it to the doors, a woman I recently met while volunteering looks up in surprise to see us.

She walks to us with intention, offering a hearty greeting. I’m pleased to see someone I know in this new area where I know so few.

As we talk, several of Candy’s friends spot her and come up to welcome us. None of them expected her, but all are pleased we’re visiting. As we talk, we learn more about their situation.

First, this church is about thirty years old and not the startup I assumed. My friend was one of the founding members.

The fact that they meet in rented space after three decades encourages me, reinforcing their claim they’re committed to break from church conventions.

Without owning a building, they’re free from the financial burden it entails. The owner of the facility is indeed the adoption agency, so our initial information was correct, though misleading.

The basement recently flooded and is undergoing repairs. It will take a couple more weeks to finish.

The reason no people arrived with us is that they all came at 9 a.m. for Sunday school, with classes for all ages. Each class covers the same topic but with age-appropriate content.

I appreciate this twist, as it allows families to encounter the same curriculum but at accessible levels, providing the opportunity for further discussion at home.

At the same time, I wish they’d broken from the habit of Sunday school, as its original intent—to teach illiterate people how to read—no longer applies. Yet the expectation to provide Sunday school lives on.

A bit overwhelmed by all the attention, I sit down to wait for the service to start. I review the names of people I’ve met, jotting them in my notebook on the page reserved for today’s experience.

I suspect I’ll see these folks again, so I work to remember names.

Aside from being in a meeting space in the basement of an office building, the room is configured as expected for a church service. About seventy chairs, set in three sections, are arced to face a podium centered in the front.

Time to Begin

The worship team assembles to the right of the lectern. An impressive drum kit sits in the other corner. Housed in a Plexiglas enclosure, it seems even grander. Couches fill the space behind us, with the soundboard in the back corner.

The service opens with a family reading three Scripture selections and lighting the first Advent candle.

They give way to the worship team of nine, a mixture of teens and adults, sporting an eclectic mix of instruments: violin, saxophone, drums, keyboard, guitar, and bass guitar.

The song leader stands behind the podium, directing us with his strong, soothing voice as his arms sway to keep time. Two female backup vocalists stand between him and the instrumentalists.

We sing for about thirty minutes, mostly Christmas songs, with a lively crowd-pleaser in the middle.

Part way through the song set is the offering. People walk forward to present their donations, while the rest of us sing. Throughout the singing, many people raise their arms in an act of physical worship.

Because of the flood, there is no children’s church today, and they expect a few more weeks before repairs are complete. The kids, who are many, remain with us for the message. I estimate fifty people present, including the worship team.

It’s a comfortable-sized gathering, with all age groups, though a slight majority are families with younger kids.

There also appear to be a few three-generation family units sitting together. I enjoy seeing kids migrate to their grandparents’ laps as the service progresses.

A Last Minute Replacement

With their teaching elder at home recovering from his food poisoning, another member fills in to give today’s lesson. He’s comfortable in front of the group, and though he’s had little time to prepare, he ably fills in, speaking for an hour.

“Advent,” he says, “is a time of waiting.” We wait with hope, in anticipation, and full of excitement. Later he expounds on our time of waiting: “We don’t have what God wants to give us because we didn’t cry out for it.”

He cites a verse in Psalms, but I must have written it down wrong. Later I find nine verses in Psalms with the phrase “cry out,” and I’m not sure which one he cited. Still, his question of “What are we crying out for?” is a convicting one.

The last segment of the service is a time of prayer, with our leader opening it and members who take turns praying. Some come forward and use the mic, while others pray from where they sit—both adults and children.

They direct their words to God and not to impress others or to promote an agenda, which I’ve seen too often in group prayer. Unfortunately, during the periods of silence between the petitions, my mind drifts.

What time is it? How much longer will this last? What’s for lunch?

More Connections; More Community

Our leader offers a concluding prayer, and the service is over, but no one leaves.

Most of the people we talked to earlier come up again to thank us for visiting and invite us back. A few people mention the need for signs to guide visitors to the correct door.

Apparently, our inability to get inside two weeks ago has circulated. While no one mentions our dilemma directly or apologizes, they do acknowledge they’re working to address this problem.

My friend gives me a copy of The Story, which is the basis for their Sunday school lessons. I feel guilty in accepting the gift, but it would be rude to decline. I do, however, appreciate her gesture and sincerely thank her.

Some kids gather around a table in back, playing an intense game of cards. I smile. According to my wife’s fundamental upbringing, these “devil cards” are explicitly forbidden. It would be sacrilegious to play with them at church. Yet here they are.

Despite all the people who welcome us, it only comes from those our age.

None of the younger adults talk to us.

While there may be many legitimate reasons for this—ranging from other people for them to greet, the reality we were already welcomed well, or of pressing issues with their children—I feel slighted.

Too many churches unofficially, yet effectively, segregate by age.

Though it’s natural for people to gravitate toward those most like them—especially those their age—we have more to gain by interacting with people of different ages, at different life stages.

This is the hallmark of a truly multigenerational church, as this church hints at being.

Eventually we head out, the first to do so. I don’t know how long the others will linger in community. Though I long to do so, too, I don’t know anyone well enough for an in-depth conversation, and I have exhausted all my socially polite talk.

On our way home, we discuss our experience. Without asking her, I know Candy likes the church and wants to go back.

While a return visit is in order, I don’t share her level of enthusiasm. Though they’re high on my list, they’re top on my bride’s.

My fear is she’s already decided where she wants to go, while I’m not so sure. Regardless, I know we’ll one day revisit this church.

Part 2 Takeaway

As far as Christian community is concerned, it’s what happens after the service that has the most impact.

[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?