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Visiting Churches

Church #67: Satellite Church

I’m not sure why it works out this way, but it’s another holiday weekend, and we’re off to visit another church. This one is three-quarters of a mile from our home. We could walk to it, and consider doing so, but we talk ourselves out of it.

Part of the issue is that I don’t know how long it will take to walk there. I think ten minutes will do it, but what if it’s twenty? Instead, we opt to drive. 

We’re meeting family there, visiting this church together, the first time for all of us. I’ve been curious about this church since it launched two years ago. This is the first time Candy expressed a willingness to go.

A Satalite Location

This isn’t a new church, not really. It’s a satellite location of an established church. Unlike many satellite churches, however, this one offers its music and message live. There’s no remote feed from the main location. 

Their model is straightforward. The parent church, one of the larger ones in the area, has been launching satellite sites for several years. I believe this marks their fifth. Each location has a teaching pastor and its own worship team, with centralized governance and financial control. 

I’ve heard of this arrangement before and know of two churches that attempted it. In both cases, things didn’t work out as planned. Early in the process the launch team at both sites decided they didn’t want to be a satellite location.

Instead they wanted independence and to form their own congregation. What started as a satellite location turned into a church plant. This church has avoided this problem and seems to have fine-tuned the art of opening satellite locations.

When they launched this site, they coupled it with a smart direct-mail campaign to people in the surrounding area. That’s how we learned about them, and that’s why I longed to visit. Today we will.

Meeting at a Middle School

They meet at the local middle school, an arrangement I find most attractive. Instead of investing money in a building that’s only fully used a few hours each week and is only a fraction occupied during business hours, they free up money to invest in outreach and ministry.

Yes, they do have the expense of rent, but that’s much less than what it would cost to own and maintain a building. In addition, if they outgrow this facility, they can simply rent a different one.

However, if you outgrow a building you own, you have limited options. So in addition to the cost factor, I appreciate this arrangement for its flexibility.

As we approach the entrance to the middle school, the church’s trailer sits alongside the driveway, smartly doubling as a sign for the church and signaling the proper entrance. Renting space from a school means they need to set up and tear down each Sunday.

The large trailer doubles as a transportation unit on Sunday and storage space throughout the week for their needed equipment and supplies. 

We pull in and drive past the trailer. There are two lots, with cars parked in both. I wonder which one to head to, accompanied by the question of which building entrance to use. My deliberation is short-lived.

Welcome Banners and Welcoming People

A large vertical welcome banner waves by both entrances off both parking lots. Apparently each entrance works equally well. I pull into the first lot and park our car. We head to the closest entrance, staffed with two smiling greeters. 

We walk up and engage in easy small talk. I feel free to linger because there are no people behind us waiting to get in. It’s nice not to feel rushed, even though we didn’t leave home as early as I wanted. The drive took less than two minutes, and we arrived twelve minutes early.

Entering, we walk down the short hallway. There’s no question about where to go. Another portable sign tells us to turn right for the church service, though the nursery and some children’s programs are to the left.

We veer right and find ourselves in a large open space, with people mingling about. 

As we move forward, two men interrupt their conversation to talk to us, something I seldom witness at the churches we visit. They share their names, and we give ours, making a connection with them as we do. They’re both involved in the worship team, but one has the summer off.

The other will play today. He’s on drums. After a few minutes, he excuses himself to join the rest of the worship team. We talk with the other man a little longer. He’s not outgoing, but he’s friendly and easy enough to talk to.

Meeting in the Gym

We thank him for his attention and move into the worship space, a typical middle school gymnasium.

It’s large enough for two basketball courts running left to right, or one running the other direction, with retractable bleachers to provide a nice-sized viewing area. Thankfully, we will not be sitting in the bleachers. 

In the middle of the gymnasium are folding chairs set in three sections, with one hundred chairs per section. We sit down as we wait for the rest of our family to arrive and for the service to begin, wondering which will happen first. As it turns out, both occur at the same time.

The overhead lights are off. What light we do have comes from indirect lighting. The subdued ambiance in the room makes it hard to read the literature they gave us when we walked in. 

The space begins to fill. All age groups show up, but the demographics skew younger, with many families present. It’s likely that most of the tweens and younger teenagers here today also attend this school during the week, and their younger siblings will go here in a few years.

As we wait for the service to start, the interlude is agreeable. Soft music plays in the background. People talk with friends before the service begins.

The atmosphere strikes a pleasing middle ground between churches whose members sit in stoic silence for their service to start and those where an excess of activity overwhelms.

Time to Worship

A worship team of five gathers up front. In addition to our new friend, the drummer, there are two on guitars, one on keys, and one backup vocalist. They have no one for bass. The keyboardist doubles as the worship leader.

All are male. I wonder if that’s intentional or how things worked out today. Also, four-fifths of their ensemble fit within the millennial generation, with one lone baby boomer. 

They launch into their first song, which, thankfully, is familiar to me. The Bible tells us to sing a new song to God (Psalm 96:1), but encountering only unfamiliar tunes and hard-to-sing lyrics is off-putting when visiting churches.

The worship team’s leading in song is quite effective, though they lack an accomplished edge to separate them from the typical worship team at a midsize church. Since it’s a holiday weekend, we may not have their A-team leading us.

Regardless, their sincerity in what they do is evident. Their hearts seem in the right place.

After the first song, the teaching pastor welcomes us. He’s been on a sabbatical this summer, and this is his first Sunday back. He’s glad to return and gives some announcements. One is something they call “Breaking Bread.”

It’s a chance to get to know others in the church. The idea is simple: three individuals or families agree to get together three times in the next three months around a shared meal, dessert, or coffee. Interested families sign up, and the church assigns the groups.

This helps people get to know others and form connections. It’s a short-term commitment with a long-term benefit.

Greeting and Offering

Then the pastor moves us into the greeting time. I interact with four people, two young boys who play along with the ritual and two adults. The boys offer wide smiles and immature handshakes. I appreciate their effort.

One adult keeps her interaction with me to a minimum, while the other one takes time to share her name and ask mine. 

And yet after these four, no one else makes any effort to offer a greeting. I fidget a bit, longing for this time to end. Fortunately, I don’t need to wait long. As church greetings go, this one is neither memorable nor haunting. I survived it.

Our space is now over half full. We launch into more singing, a five-song set. I don’t know any of the songs, but I’m able to pick up the chorus on most of them and the verses on a few others.

Next is the offering. I wasn’t listening, but I don’t believe there was any mention that visitors need not participate. Not that I would have felt any obligation, but it’s a nice gesture, especially given that a common complaint against churches is, “They’re only after your money.” 

There’s an information card to fill out and drop in the offering baskets as they pass by, but Candy’s still working on it when the offering gets to us. We’ll turn the card in after the service.

The offering wraps up, and they slide smoothly into one more song before the sermon begins. They’ve added more chairs in the back, which are now mostly occupied. I suspect the sanctuary attendance is now pushing three hundred.

Sermon Part 3 of 3

In addition, I guess a hundred or more kids and their leaders are off doing their own activities.

After his break from preaching, the teaching pastor is more than ready to deliver our message. It looks like it’s week three of a three-part series. He doesn’t recap weeks one and two, but I surmise the key points from the series title: “Belong, Believe, Become.”

I’ve heard these three words strung together at other churches, so I have a good idea of what the prior two sermons covered. Today is about becoming. Yet if there’s a title for today’s message, I missed it.

Our scripture text is from Matthew 16:13–18. He says this is one of his favorite chapters in the Bible and is glad to speak on it.

The passage is about Jesus and his disciples traveling to Caesarea Philippi, a corrupt place far different than the less appalling environments he and his disciples typically frequent. 

What might the disciples have thought as they traveled to this place, a destination that good Jewish boys avoid? When they arrive, Jesus asks them, “Who do people say I am?” After various answers, Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

That’s when Jesus says to Peter, which means rock, “On this rock I will build my church.” I’ve heard sermons on this passage. People debate the meaning of this last phrase. Some say Peter is the rock on which God will build his church.

Others assert that Peter’s confession, that Jesus is the Messiah, is the foundational statement which will support the church. A third understanding looks at the setting—which ties in with the image of a rock— and the depraved behavior of the people in this area.

This may be the rock on which Jesus will build his church. Why else would Jesus take them twenty miles to ask them a question he could have asked at any other time? 

The point I derive from this is to take the good news of Jesus to the people who most need it. As I contemplate the implication of this, I jot down a soundbite from the minister.

Know Your Community

He says, “Know your community.” This makes sense. If we’re going to reach our neighbors, we should understand them better.

He talks about two kinds of community. One is the church’s internal community, and the other is the community around us. He gives us a simple three-point process to engage people: Step one is to talk to them. Step two is to ask them a question.

Finally, step three is to invite them for a meal, an outing, or a service opportunity. Most people, both those within and outside the church, are open to an invitation to do something. 

He concludes with an encouragement to build church where we are.

Post Church Interaction

The service ends, and two things happen at once. One is that most people pick up their chair, collapse it, and stow it on a nearby rack. The other is that people come up to us to talk.

Some recognize Candy from her involvement in the community, and others are strangers, extending gracious welcomes. We enjoy these conversations, which are friendly and engaging.

 After doing my part to pick up our family’s chairs, we move back into the lobby. There we turn in our visitor cards, and they offer us a gift. I suspect it will be a coffee mug or travel cup, and I also know Candy will pass.

We already have a cabinet stuffed full of them. She declines the offer with grace, and we enjoy an extended time of conversation at the visitor center, with a most engaging woman. 

She tells us about their church, and we ask her questions. Many thoughts bombard my mind, but the one question I do ask is how next Sunday’s service will compare to this holiday weekend experience.

With a knowing nod, the woman affirms the service will be the same format. The only difference will be the number of people present. 

I wonder how many more people but don’t ask. We could return next week to find out. In two weeks, they’ll have an after-church event for people who want to learn more about their gathering. It may be worth coming back for that too. This church has much to offer.

I long to go to church in my community and attend with my neighbors. This church meets the first criteria, but I don’t spot any neighbors. Perhaps if we come back on a regular Sunday, I might see some of them here. It’s a hopeful thought.

[See the discussion questions for Church 67, read about Church 66 or Church 68, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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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.

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