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Visiting Churches

The Simulcast Church

Two Options in One Building

The budget program I’m involved with on Wednesday mornings also has a Thursday evening option. Though I’m not a regular volunteer on Thursdays, I help from time to time. It’s bigger, with more classes, more clients, and more volunteers.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

The Thursday evening budget program meets at a different church, and we head there today. Not only do I know how to get to this church, but I also know how long it will take, which removes both items of uncertainty from our typical Sunday church visits.

A bit of online investigation reminds me this church is part of a denomination, one prevalent in the area. We’ve already visited three: The Outlier Congregation, The Traditional Denominational Church, and The Church with a Fresh Spin.

Their website also informs me they have one service time but two options, with the second being a simulcast feed. They name the second option but not its location. Curious.

Navigating to the Sanctuary

We arrive fifteen minutes early to a packed parking lot, with some people already using their overflow spaces. Just as I’m about to veer toward one, I spot a couple of empty slots in their main lot and scoot into one.

The facility entrance I use on Thursdays is far away and, though I’ve never been to the sanctuary, I doubt that door is the best one to use.

The main entrance, complete with a covered drop-off area, is not close either and would require more walking than I want to do in the biting wind of today’s weather. Though a bright sun beckons, the conditions are far from comfortable.

The closest door is a side entrance, which is where most people head.

We follow them, suspecting that once inside, we’ll need to wander around to find the sanctuary. As the door closes behind us, we have two options: one flight of stairs going down and the other up.

We go up, ending in a medium-sized room of undiscernible purpose. It’s too large for a classroom and too small for a fellowship hall. We weave our way through it, spilling into a hallway, one lined with mail slots for member communication.

Two People Reach Out

An older gentleman walks up, smiling broadly. “Should I know you? You look a little familiar.”

“No,” I assure him. “We’re visiting today.”

“Welcome!” We shake hands and exchange names.

“I sometimes help on Thursday nights with the budget program.”

He smiles again. “Sometimes my wife and I help out too.” Maybe we have seen each other after all.

“We have two options for the service. One is in the sanctuary,” he says with a tip of his head to indicate a general direction. “It’s live. The other is simulcast, and you can watch on a big screen. But they’re both the same.”

Though he doesn’t explain how to find simulcast option two, it’s somewhere in the building.

We chat some more. By the time we’re finished, I feel at ease, having enjoyed a pleasant connection, even though I’ve already forgotten his name, despite my best efforts not to.

Candy and I head to the sanctuary. We take a meandering path but find it with no wrong turns or needing directions.

People stand about in the narthex, all engaged in conversation. Seeing no one available to talk to, we snake our way through the crowd toward the sanctuary. As we near, one woman aborts her conversation to greet us. She knows we’re visitors and welcomes us warmly.

We have a pleasant conversation, and she introduces her friend to us. By the time we make it to the sanctuary, I feel embraced and accepted, ready to immerse myself into the service.

What a key difference a couple of people can make. An usher seats us and hands us bulletins.

Facility Observations

Based on the construction, I judge this part of the facility to be about fifty or sixty years old, though it’s nicely maintained. The sprawling structure has several additions, explaining our confusion on where to enter and how to reach the sanctuary.

With steep vaulted ceilings, the space is long and not wide, reminiscent of older cathedrals, though not as ostentatious, except for the impressive organ pipes on one side.

An elegant oversized cross draped with a white burial cloth is the focus up front. It’s flanked by two banners proclaiming, “He has risen, just as he said.” On each side of the stage hangs a screen, poised to guide us through the service.

The room seats about five hundred and fills fast. No wonder they need overflow space in another part of their building, though having two services might be a better solution.

The attendees’ age skews older. Candy and I are in the younger half of the crowd. Though I spot some young families, I see no one who looks college-aged and notice only a few teens. I wonder about the ages of the folks in the simulcast room. Do they skew younger?

The Service Begins

When the service begins, we’re at about 80 percent capacity. We sing two contemporary songs to the light pop accompaniment of a piano, guitar, and drums, with two vocalists.

Though the male and female singers stand on the stage, the musicians are sequestered to the left, on our level in the corner. The words appear overhead on the dual screens. The pipe organ sits unused and, to my wife’s delight, we never open their traditional hymnal.

Following the opening song set is a short liturgy and then a “special music” solo. Though the words appear in the bulletin, no one sings along. It’s a performance, and we reward the singer with resounding applause.

Children’s Message and Offering

As the minister calls the kids forward for the children’s message, he invites the youngsters in the overflow room, where they view the simulcast, to join us in the main sanctuary, granting them permission to run in church. Soon they arrive, sprinting in along the side aisle, faces beaming.

About twenty-five sit and anticipate what the pastor will share. He talks about trust and taps a boy for an object lesson. “Do you trust me?”

The boy thinks he might.

“Then turn around and when I count to three, fall backward, and I’ll catch you.”

It takes two tries, but with the second attempt, the boy succeeds, providing a visual aid to support the minister’s lesson.

After the kids return to their parents in the sanctuary and simulcast room, the pastor gives the morning prayer (a traditional congregational prayer). Following it is the offertory prayer, given by a member.

As the ushers receive the collection, we listen to a piano solo and fill out the friendship folders, passing them down our rows. Immediately after the offering is a second one, this one for the benevolence fund. We sing another song and hear another prayer.

Message: The Joy of Believing

The minister stands on the stage to deliver his message, separated from us by both distance and height. A gulf divides us.

Sitting in the middle of the sanctuary, I’m too far back to make out any facial expressions of the preacher, so the folks in the back must have a terrible view.

His message is “The Joy of Believing: Facing Our Doubts,” based on the passage in John 20:19–31. It focuses on the story of Doubting Thomas.

Though Doubting Thomas becomes Believing Thomas, he’s known for his former condition, not his ending state. The pastor talks about moving from hope to belief, from doubt to knowledge.

The sermon is long. I grow tired and squirm. I want to take notes but jot nothing new—except that this account only appears in John.

After the message comes a closing prayer and a reprise of the special music number. This time we join in. To dismiss us, the pastor sings the benediction, something I’ve rarely encountered and am surprised to hear.

The service ends.

Heading Out

The minister stands by the main exit, acknowledging the congregation as they pass by.

With hundreds of people to greet, he’s on autopilot, mechanically shaking hands as we file past. Sweat beads on his forehead. He doesn’t make eye contact with us and is already looking at the next person in line, as though eager to finish his ordeal.

Though I missed it, the bulletin says they have a coffee hour afterward. The minister didn’t mention this from the pulpit, and nobody invites us to stay.

With no one to talk to and no reason to stick around, we retrace the meandering path we took on the way in, eventually returning to our car. The service lasted ninety minutes, with the message pushing an hour.

Though the service was pleasing, it offered nothing special. Neither of us feels a reason to return. I didn’t see anyone from the budget program, but at least I know about the church in case a client has questions.

Candy asks when we’ll stop visiting churches so she can make her selection. I, too, sense the need to stop looking and settle down, to stop dating churches and commit, but there are a couple more I want to visit first, in expectation that my bride will like them.

Takeaway

Look for old practices at church that no longer make sense—such as your minister shaking hands with hundreds of people after every service—and offer a fresh and meaningful alternative.

When you run out of space for your morning service, seek creative and low-cost solutions, like a simulcast.


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?

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.