Visiting Churches

52 Churches: The Second Quarter

Preparing to Visit Our Next 13 Churches

Going forward in our journey of visiting 52 Churches, we may bypass more churches on our list to vary the scope of our adventure.

So far, we’ve skipped one that wasn’t a Christian gathering and another because they were in limbo, pending a turnaround.

The next thirteen churches on our list promise a wider variation of experience. This excites me. I also see some churches we’ll exclude because they don’t hold much promise for additional variation.

52 Churches: A Yearlong Journey Encountering God, His Church, and Our Common Faith

Our journey is about growth and discovery, not about thoroughly covering every option in a precise order.

Though we have a plan, the plan is flexible.

Takeaway for Everyone: Plan, but be flexible. Fixating on the plan, as well as having no plan, will miss opportunities that arise.

[Check out the discussion questions for this post.]

Part Two Perspective: Churches 14 through 26

We’re now half done with our journey. For the past twenty-six weeks we’ve sought to expand our understanding of how others worship God. I blog about our visit each Monday morning, but friends frequently ask for more.

“What are you learning?”

“That God’s church is more diverse and varied than I ever imagined.”

“Is your journey changing?”

“No. We’re still planning to return to our home church when we’re done.”

“Do you want to revisit any of the churches?”

“Yes.” I start to reel off a list along with my reasons, but they don’t seem interested in the details. Why do they ask if they don’t care about the answers?

Aside from these questions, a sobering realization is that church is not about the teaching or the music. It’s about community.

52 Churches: A Yearlong Journey Encountering God, His Church, and Our Common Faith

We’ve heard messages from gifted speakers and those not-so-talented, the formally trained and the self-taught.

We’ve heard deep thoughts and entertaining fluff. But in all cases, we received a worthwhile word from God. I suspect if we pray expectantly and are open to hear, we will.

Similarly, we’ve sung traditional hymns, modern songs, and contemporary praise choruses. Accomplished vocalists, struggling crooners, and everything in between have led us in worship.

There have been worship bands, pipe organs and pianos, accompaniment tracks, recorded songs, and even a cappella. If we focus on the words, we praise God regardless of musical style.

Nonetheless, message and music, I’m sad to report, aren’t important—not really. The big variable is community. Aside from that often-awkward official greeting time during the service, community is a meaningful time of spiritual interaction with others.

When we make connections with others, we share Jesus. God is more present in these informal exchanges before and after the service than during the planned and prepped moments of the service.

A few churches have no community. People come, people sit, and people leave, without saying a word. This is not church as God intended.

Church #18 (Revisiting Roman Catholicism) had no community. Church #17 (A Doubleheader) and Church #16 (Something’s Missing) had minimal community. They gave us no reason to return.

Fortunately, most churches allow community to some degree and a few excel at it. I want to revisit these churches. Community is church at its best.

4 Standout Churches

Four churches stood out in their embrace of us. Though our visit could have been an anomaly, I suspect all visitors would receive a similar welcome.

Many churches have an official greeter or two and most have a couple of outgoing people who reach out to visitors, but at Church #22 (A Caring Community) it seemed everyone reached out to us.

We met so many people who were genuinely interested in getting to know us. They were sincere, accepting, and engaging.

At Church #25 (Embarking on a Metamorphosis, Part 2), we enjoyed many friendly conversations beforehand, had people invite us to sit with them, and enjoyed significant interaction afterward.

The after-church community at Church #19 (A Near Miss) was also great. We talked with many people, made connections, and learned about their church, ministry philosophy, and vision. It felt as if we were at a family reunion with extended relatives.

At Church #14 (The Pentecostal Perspective) many members of the congregation were friendly. We felt welcomed before and during the service, enjoying spiritually-significant conversations.

Unfortunately, their narrow theology placed us on the outside. They would never fully accept us into their community.

Receiving honorable mention are the two minority congregations: Church #26 (An Unknown Situation) and Church #20 (Different Language, Same God). Both were extremely friendly, but we failed to make deep connections with anyone at either church.

For the first, this was due to language differences and for the second, cultural differences, though I should note, we weren’t in the target demographic at either church.

Avoid a Consumerism Mentality

A second observation also stems from the preaching and singing. Consumerism is rampant in the modern church. The mantra of many churches, especially the larger ones, is “excellence in everything.”

Doing whatever God calls us to do to the best of our abilities is God-honoring. He deserves nothing less. Unfortunately, pursuing excellence can feed into a consumer mentality.

Many people seek a church with the most engaging speaker and professional musicians.

When they find it, they join that church—and stay there until a better preacher or music comes along. They are church consumers, looking for the best value. They forget about community and never ask what they can give to a church.

I’m not being overly critical. How many times have you heard someone leave a church because “I’m just not being fed anymore”? I’ve heard it, and I’ve even said it. Its cousin is “it’s just not meeting my needs.”

Although both complaints sound sincerely spiritual, they reveal a consumer mindset: “What will church do for me?” If this church can’t meet my needs, I’ll find one that does.

The result is church shopping and church hopping. This isn’t God-honoring, and we should be ashamed.

A third item is church size. Size does matter and bigger isn’t better.

There’s a progression: Excellence in preaching and music triggers a consumer reaction, so churches that excel in these areas attract bigger crowds. They grow and may even become a megachurch.

Connection and Community

From the perspective of structure, resources, programs, staff, and efficiency, bigger churches have a huge advantage. This plays well in today’s society, but it isn’t the purpose of church.

Church is to connect people with God and with each other.

This is hard, if not impossible, to do with any degree of intimacy and integrity at a large church. That’s why they form small groups, promoting smallness within the structure of largeness.

I’m using small groups in a generic sense. The actual labels vary: small groups, life groups, Bible studies, pods, service teams, and fellowship groups.

At the churches with, say, more than two hundred people, no one knows if you’re a visitor and few care. If you want to get lost in a crowd, go to a big church. If you want community, seek a smaller one.

These are the three key insights God showed me in the past six months. Our church visits confirm it. I’m not down on church, but I wonder if today’s church has lost its way.

Contemplating this, I blogged, asking “What Is Church?“:

“Church isn’t about message or music. Those are often distractions or settling for less than the best. True church is about community, where we are all priests, with each one giving and receiving, mutually edifying and encouraging one another on our faith journey.”

I’m sure we’ll learn more on the second half of our journey. I can’t wait for what else God has planned for us.

Takeaway for Everyone: True church is about community. The message and music are secondary—and may even distract from what really matters.

[Check out the discussion questions for this post.]

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.