Candy and I live in a homogenous area of mostly white, middle-class families residing in a suburban setting, sitting on the edge of rural. Our community has minimal diversity and our area churches, even less.
Most of my life I’ve lived in settings with people like me. Our current home is like our others. The neighborhood, both comfortable and stable, stands as a safe place sheltered from the world around it.
We chose this general location to be near family and this setting for its amenities and ambiance. We didn’t intentionally set out to segregate ourselves. It just happened. However, we weren’t deliberate about seeking a more diverse environment, either.
Even though we couldn’t have achieved this goal along with our other objectives, it still pains me. What hurts me more is to know that if we visit an area church, it will be a mostly white experience.
A Nearby Urban Church
When a friend mentions an urban church in a nearby city, I’m excited. I can’t experience much diversity where I live without moving, but I can experience it through my church selection.
Based on this church’s location and its desire to serve the inner city, I anticipate meeting people of other races and expect a service style relevant to its neighborhood.
It takes some effort, but I eventually find their website. They’re an evangelical community of Christians committed to “intentional discipleship.”
I have no idea why they put intentional discipleship in quotes, but it calls attention to the phrase, though in a curious way. The phrase appears multiple times on their home page. It must be important.
I also know to expect “verse-by-verse Bible teaching.” Next I learn they’re “a multi-racial and multi-socio-economic relational community,” a “true urban church,” where “the homeless worship side-by-side and support one another in Christ.”
Their website also talks about community outreach, including serving at the community kitchen, inner city street events, and downtown student fellowship—the campus of a Christian college is only a couple of blocks away.
Surely their urban setting allows for these things to happen. I’m excited for what we’ll encounter when we visit.
What About Parking?
I tell Candy it’s a thirty-minute drive and she accepts this, even though online resources put it at twenty-four. We add a ten-minute buffer and plan to leave forty minutes early, but I doubt we will. I wonder about parking.
In truth, I worry about parking. I know there’s limited street parking in the area, and I have no clue about parking lots in the vicinity. The church’s website doesn’t help, giving only a street number.
As we head out, thirty minutes early, we pray for God’s blessing during our time at this church, that we will be an encouragement to those we meet, and God will show us what he wants us to learn.
Silently, I add my request that we’ll find a place to park, one that is both close and safe.
After my prayer, I breathe a bit easier and my shoulders relax—just a little. Whatever happens will happen, and worrying about it won’t change a thing.
We once attended an urban church. Ironically, back then it was Candy who had concerns about safety when walking from our parked car to the church and then back again.
This church meets in an old warehouse, which they just started using. I like the idea of churches meeting in reclaimed spaces, as opposed to going to the expense of constructing a huge church building that they’ll only use a few hours a week.
For them to meet in a downtown area, using existing space is their only option.
I navigate the one-way streets, needing to overshoot our destination and approach it from the other side.
As we get closer, my pulse quickens with apprehension about the parking situation and for the unknown that awaits us inside. With one block to go, I wipe my sweaty hands on my jeans. My heart pounds. I strive to keep my fears to myself.
Ahead, I spot a sign for the church on the sidewalk, with a few people mingling around the entrance. To my left is a city parking lot. I thank God and pull in.
There are empty spots awaiting us and, as a bonus, we don’t need to pay because it’s the weekend. I worried for nothing, but then, most of the things we worry about never happen anyway. Still, I give credit to Papa for answered prayer and a place to park.
Anticipating a Potluck
The surrounding area is nice. It’s well-kept and clean. We feel safe. As we walk from the parking lot to the building, another family approaches from the opposite direction and others walk from across the street. Both groups wear smiles and carry crockpots. I groan.
“Looks like there’s a potluck,” I whisper to Candy. A time around a shared meal is a great way to connect with others and build community, but I regret coming emptyhanded.
Once more on our adventure of visiting churches, we’ll be freeloaders. They’ll surely welcome us generously and invite us to stay, insisting there will be plenty of food. Nonetheless, I’ll feel a tad guilty for receiving what they’ll share, offering nothing in return.
I also know that instead of a two-hour church meeting, we’ll have a three-hour church community experience.
Since we have no other plans for this afternoon, this isn’t a problem, but I do need to mentally adjust my thinking for how long we will be here. I don’t do well with handling the unexpected, but God graciously enables me to accept this twist as an adventure.
Navigating the Facility
Two people welcome us before we enter the building of this urban church and more folks greet us inside. They share two important pieces of information.
The first is the location of the sanctuary and the other is directions to the restrooms, which are on another floor and not close by. Good to know.
The worship space is a large banquet hall, reclaimed from what was once a warehouse. Along one side of the rectangular space sits a slightly-raised stage, the focal point of the service, with musical instruments and gear for the worship team.
In front of it is a communion table, an altar of sorts. On the opposite wall, a row of tables lines the other side, already filling with the food we’ll enjoy in a couple of hours. In the space between stand fifteen round tables, with seven chairs each. That calculates to 105 seats.
So that we won’t need to contort our necks or pivot our chairs to participate in the service, I look for a table that has open seats facing the front. Few people are sitting, but others have claimed most of the forward-facing chairs, marked with Bibles, purses, and coffee mugs.
At the far end of the room, I spot one open table and scoot toward it, grabbing the two forward-facing spots. As we settle down, another couple joins us, and we spend time getting to know each other.
The Worship Team
They’re friendly, and we make a quick connection. Then the wife of this couple excuses herself to join the worship team as it assembles in the front.
Six people lead us in singing. The lead vocalist also plays keyboard. Our new friend plays violin. Joining them are a bass guitar player and a drummer, along with two backup vocalists.
For the next forty-five minutes we sing, mostly modern choruses and one updated hymn.
We stand as we sing. Some of the seventy or so people present raise their hands in praise as they sing to God, while a few gently move their bodies in a subtle form of physical worship.
With plenty of space, I can freely raise my arms without bumping into people—a common occurrence given the tight seating at most churches.
The crowd is mostly older, fifty plus if I’m being generous, but over sixty is more likely. There are few kids, one set with their grandparents and another set who we later find out are visiting. The crowd is white and not the amalgamation of races I had anticipated.
I don’t spot anyone who looks—or smells—homeless. Having been part of an urban church for eight years, one which attracted a large contingency of homeless, I’m used to being around them. Could the homeless in this area be a more upscale version than what I know?
Ones who enjoy regular access to showers and washing machines, who have clothes that match. Aside from the urban setting, this doesn’t look much like an urban church. We don’t ask, and no one explains the lack of diversity that their website promised.
We have a reading from Psalm 148, followed by a meditation. Next is the offertory prayer and the offering. After this we move into a time of prayer.
They share specific concerns—mostly health and work related—for the people present. Some people gather around those near them who need prayer and pray for them. Next is a ministry update and more prayer.
People in the congregation take an active part in all of this. At this point, we’ve only heard from the teaching pastor two brief times. This is more how a church gathering should function, with people ministering to one another.
Now at an hour into the service, we take a fifteen-minute break. This allows us time to meet more people. We don’t need to mingle to do this. They come up to us.
Most everyone asks where we live and are amazed at how far we traveled to visit them.
When I ask them the same question, I’m surprised to learn that not one of them lives in the downtown area. Everyone we talked to drove from suburbia or the country to reach this urban setting. Curious.
During this interlude, a prayer team is available to pray for people. A line never forms, but they keep busy as people approach them for prayer.
The sermon is “Let the Church be the Church” and the text is Philippians 1:1–2. The interior of the bulletin offers a two-page spread, packed with sermon notes, complete with over fifty blanks for us to fill in.
I skip this, knowing I’ll become so fixated on filling in every blank that I’ll miss the actual message. Candy, however, is up for the challenge and fills in most of them.
For forty-five minutes, the pastor tells us about elders and deacons, about God’s grace and peace. In doing so, he pulls in much related teaching from other passages in the Bible, adding much to the text.
This isn’t the verse-by-verse Bible teaching that the website promised, but a springboard text that serves as a preface for expanded instruction.
His informed teaching is interesting, but I don’t grasp a central point or purpose in what he shares. As he concludes, his message takes an evangelical turn, reminding us to pray for one person to lead to Jesus.
We then quickly move into the potluck, with a bounty of food—much of it left over from a wedding reception the day before. Many people invite us to stay, almost relieved when we say “yes.”
Plenty to Eat
With so many who reach out to us, we’re among the last to get in line to select our food. Even lining up late, there’s still plenty to eat, at least twice the amount needed.
In true potluck style, I take a little bit of most everything and end up with a plate heaped full of more than I should eat. It tastes so good. Good food, good fellowship, and good times. This is more of what church should be.
We interact with more people. All are friendly and engaging. Through it all, we suffer through no awkward moments that too often happen at churches where people don’t welcome well or don’t welcome at all.
This, however, is an engaging group. They’re intentional about their faith and their life.
I’m glad we experienced community with this urban church. God, bless them and their work for your kingdom.
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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.