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Visiting Churches

Short of Meeting Expectations: Visiting Church #65

Our home church canceled today’s Sunday service because everyone (except us) is off at church camp, a weeklong community experience on the shore of Lake Michigan.

While many at church dislike camping, they so treasure the extended time with a church family that they go anyway. It’s a highly anticipated annual event, the highlight of the year. 

Candy and I are not there, however. For one, neither of us are campers, not even close. Second, my work schedule and writing demands make taking a week off impossible. Even with much planning, one day off is hard for me to manage with any degree of success.

Lastly, the time when everyone else arranged for campers, Candy was embroiled in an intense season at her job that took every waking minute of her time and much of mine. 

An Open Sunday

The result is that we are not at church camp and have a Sunday free.

I’m glad for the reprieve. I need it. Candy doesn’t voice it, but I’m sure she realizes I need a break from the tedious routine of our regular church service.

I have a list of churches to visit and have longed to experience this one for over a year. I met one of their staff at a speakers conference. As we talked about her church and their belief in the present-day power of the Holy Spirit, that same Holy Spirit nudged me to visit. 

“It won’t be soon,” I told her, “but it will happen.”

“Let me know when,” she said, “so I can look for you.”

I agreed, anticipating that day, not knowing it would take thirteen months. With this opening in our Sunday schedule, I email her, unsure if she’ll remember me. To my delight, she does.

Planning When to Leave

I fill Candy in on the details. “Their service is at ten, and it will take twenty-three minutes to drive there. I’d like to leave at 9:30.” 

She agrees.

As I move through my Sunday morning, I realize a 9:30 departure won’t be soon enough.

First, it’s unlikely we will leave at that time.

Second, we need a cushion in case we have trouble finding the church and to park our car and find our way inside.

Third, my goal when visiting churches is to arrive ten minutes early. This allows time for some pre-church interaction but not too much time in case there is none.

When I suggest 9:20 to Candy, she glares. And she shakes off a compromise of 9:25. “You should have told me sooner. I’m on track for 9:30. I don’t know if I can be ready before then.”

At 9:37 we leave the house. I’m frustrated. As I drive, I pray for our time at this church. I’m still not sure what the Holy Spirit has in mind.

My prayer is short and direct. “Lord, may we learn what you would have us to learn and share what you would have us to share. Amen.”

We encounter road construction on the way, which slows us down some but not too much. Our GPS says we’ll arrive at 9:57 and then updates our ETA to 9:58.

A Residential Setting

The church sits in a residential area. It’s a tired-looking, older facility, a bit on the dreary side, but I don’t have time to consider it much as I round the block looking for the parking lot.

We slide into an open space and walk with intention to the entrance. A few others arrive with us. I guess we will be fashionably late together. A woman with a walker lurches forward. If we give her patient passage, the delay will be interminable. If we rush past her, we might still make it by ten.

What Would Jesus Do?

I shake off that consideration as I scoot around her. Candy follows.

Starting Time

Inside is a bustle of activity, which beckons us to the right, yet I spot a quiet, darkened sanctuary to my left. A greeter of sorts glides up to us to provide an overview of our options.

Candy decides to snag a cup of coffee, leaving me alone to wallow in discomfort. When she rejoins me, we head toward the sanctuary and my friend warmly greets us. 

Relieved to see a familiar face, I introduce her to Candy and then mutter my despair over cutting the time too close. It’s exactly 10:00. She dismisses my distress with a nonchalant wave. “We don’t start on time here,” she says with a smile. As proof she gestures to the throng still behind us.

I follow Candy into the sanctuary. She bypasses many viable places to sit as she moves too far forward for my comfort. Although sitting toward the front results in fewer distractions, it also makes observation of the congregation more difficult.

It’s a challenge to balance engagement with examination when visiting churches, and I’m not sure which one the Holy Spirit wants me to focus on today.

Room-darkening shades cover the few windows in the space, and the lights are low. I’m not sure if I like the subdued, almost mystical, vibe or not. The room is about as wide as it is deep, with two hundred chairs, which might be 40 to 50 percent occupied.

I expected a bigger sanctuary with more people, but it’s mid-August. Church attendance typically ebbs to its low point of the year during late summer.

A Musical Experience

A worship team of five opens the service. It’s a contemporary assembly with the leader on guitar. Joining him are a backup guitarist, bass guitarist, someone on keys, and another on drums.

Their sound borders on grunge. Without much coaxing, I envision them cutting loose. They remain restrained, however, suitable for a church service but disappointing for me.

With words displayed overhead, we sing a contemporary song that is new to me and then another and another, four that I have never heard and most of which I struggle to even mouth the words.

“Sing a new song,” the Bible says repeatedly (Psalm 33:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, and 149:1, as well as Isaiah 42:10.). I try to shove aside my discomfort with the acknowledgement that the Bible never says to give God the old songs we know and like.

The chorus of one song starts to click with me, and I sing along—more or less. One phrase grabs my attention: “we are defiant in your name.” (A later search online reveals we sang “More than Conquerors” by Rend Collective.)

Self-described as spiritually militant, this line connects with me. I give it to God as my new song.

As we sing, one woman dances worshipfully off to the right and several more join her with flags on both sides of the stage. Easels of artwork flank each side as well, yet I see no one working on art during worship.

A couple of people raise their hands as they sing, but they are so few that I don’t want to call attention to myself by joining them, despite a gentle Holy Spirit nudge to do so.

Demographics

Our numbers continue to grow, and by the end of the fourth song I estimate the place is about 60 percent full. Most seem to be older generations without many Gen-Xers or Millennials. 

Millennials are supposed to be more open to spiritual things, and my expectation was that I would see them at this church, which is more open to spirituality through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

I don’t see any millennials. I suppose their openness to spirituality doesn’t make them equally open to a spiritual experience in a church building, or they just aren’t aware of this church. 

I fully suspect these spiritually-open Millennials are hanging out elsewhere in nontraditional settings and times. I want to be with them. I also know that not all that is spiritual is good, so I pray they’re drawn toward a biblical, Jesus-focused spirituality and not one that runs counter to it.

A Good Greeting Time

After a half hour, the music winds down and gives way to the greeting time. This church does better than most in making this awkward time feel not so awkward for visitors.

Many give us a sincere welcome, sharing their names and asking ours. They are genuinely interested.

With gentle probing they learn about us without prying: “Are you new to the area?” asks one. “Where do you live?” inquires another. “Is this your first time here?” queries a third. “Are you looking for a new church?” And so on.

A countdown display measures the time allotted for greeting. I don’t know where it started, but I notice it during a lull in conversation when it says 45 . . . 44 . . . 43 . . . Then my friend comes up and welcomes us again.

We’re nicely engaged in conversation when someone taps her shoulder and points to the screen. The counter has hit zero and the screen is now blank. My friend is supposed to give announcements, intended to start when the timer hit zero. She scurries off to her assignment.

She gains the attention of the crowd and corrals our disparate conversations. We sit down, but I only half listen. I want to continue our conversation, but we can’t. After the announcements, a prayer follows, and they ask first-time visitors to raise their hands.

I don’t like calling attention to myself this way and grouse at the thought of it. I don’t want to play along, but I always do, albeit without much enthusiasm. Even so, I’m relieved we don’t need to stand and introduce ourselves, as at Church #20 (“Different Language, Same God”). 

Someone hands me a card, which I accept, hoping this will end the attention I feel foisted upon me. Thankfully it does. The card invites us to stop by the welcome center after the service for a gift. 

Live Expectantly

The minister stands to give us his message, based on Luke 1:5–25. He talks about living expectantly. Imagine waking up each morning and asking God, “Daddy, what are we going to do today?” What a grand way to live life, but few people do.

Instead of living expectantly, we live with expectations, which are bound to disappoint us. I certainly had my expectations about this church, its size, its attendees, and my experience here. I’m sad to admit that today my expectations overshadowed my expectancy.

He wraps up with his prescription for how to live expectantly. The worship team reassembles, playing softly as he gives a call to action. I’m not really listening to what he says, only enough to know that it’s not a typical altar call.

Prayer Time

After the closing song, they move into prayer time, the third part of the service.

Prayer teams come forward in pairs, while most of the congregation files out into the lobby. A few linger for their own time of sharing and praying. Some go forward to meet with the waiting prayer teams. Gentle music plays to produce a safe and holy place.

“Do you want prayer for your knee?” I ask my bride.

“No, you can pray for it at home.”

That wasn’t the response I expected—or wanted. I long to tarry, but I know Candy does not. I hand her the gift card, which she accepts with an eager smile. 

“Meet me in back when you’re done,” she says, smartly granting me space without subjecting me to her eagerness to leave. 

I sit as I try to formulate a reason to go up for prayer. Each thought seems trivial. I consider simply asking a prayer team if God might give them a word to share with me. At the same time, I don’t know if they would be comfortable handling such a request.

I certainly don’t want to put them on the spot or make them uneasy. It’s one thing to pray for people in reaction to their request and quite another to proactively listen to what God would give you to share with them. 

I’ve done both, the first with ease and the second with trepidation, fearing that I might not hear correctly or in my anxiety to respond, I might mistake my nervous thoughts for Holy Spirit insight.

Instead of going forward, I sit, basking in God’s presence. He asks me gentle questions, which I jot down for further contemplation. Even so, I’m sad. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been to a church that had time for prayer at the conclusion of each service.

At one time I would have been on one of the prayer teams, listening, praying, hugging, and sometimes healing. That seems a lifetime ago. I so miss it. A deep longing emerges. I want to be at a church that allows the laity to minister to one another, not relegating us to passive pew sitting.

My friend is half of one of the prayer teams. She and her partner stay busy praying for others. If they experience a lull, I will go up to talk, open for whatever prayers they will offer or words they might share.

I don’t have a chance. They steadily move from one person to the next, without a break. What they’re doing is more important than what I’m contemplating. I head out to find my bride.

Post Church Reflections

Candy stands at the welcome center, engaged in conversation. The gift was a coffee cup, which she passed on accepting because we already have too many. I catch the end of their conversation, and we turn to leave. One person welcomes us and adds, “Hope to see you next week.”

I know he won’t, but I don’t say so. Instead I nod to acknowledge I heard him and say, “Thank you.” I know it’s an awkward response, but it’s the best I’ve come up with so that I don’t give them false hope or be rude by saying we won’t be back.

As we drive home, I’m deep in contemplation, but Candy’s thinking about eating, which is usually my post-church priority.

We talk a bit about the prayer time, me with nostalgic longing and her contrasting it to the church we once attended.

There they played music loudly during the prayer time, so intense that we struggled to hear and be heard. Despite our numerous pleas, they never turned the music down. Leadership claimed loud music was most conducive to post-church interaction and the prayer team needed to deal with it.

“They do their prayer time right,” I say. “This is how it should be done.”

Candy agrees. 

“The sermon wasn’t great, but God gave me a lot to think about,” I add. “It will take me a while to process it.”

“I didn’t like it,” she responds. I know my spouse well enough to know she’s done talking about church. We go to Burger King for lunch.

The church offered much but overall came up short of meeting expectations. Maybe I expected too much.

[See the discussion questions for Church 65, read about Church 64 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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