Last time I began reflecting on our experience visiting nearly a dozen churches in the Grand Rapids area. My intent was to be a gracious guest and not a critical consumer, and just to explore what the family of faith was doing around town and in our neighborhood.
In part 1, I reflected on the welcome and the children’s ministry teams—the pillars of hospitality. Today I’ll be looking at the Sunday morning service itself.
I’m titling this section “music” instead of “worship” because while the music is worship, worship is more than the music. The greeters and childcare workers mentioned last time were worshiping with their acts of service and hospitality toward others. This is just another venue for worship.
The music was actually all over the map for me. Only one church had a choir that day, but all churches had a “band” of sorts. Only two had a blended program of both hymns and contemporary songs, while the rest were fully contemporary. The styles varied from traditional instrumentation and songs I sang as a child to the full-on modern worship experience. Two experiences felt like rock concerts, one because of the immersive visuals, the other because of the volume and energy level.
But of course all of these are externals. I don’t care much about them. For me the most important concerns are whether the lyrics are solid, the quality is high, and the musicians seem humble and reverent. Of course, even these are hard to quantify (and easy to corrupt). For example, even if I agree with the lyrics of a hymn, I sometimes struggle to mean what I sing because they are so packed. Quality to me mostly has to do with how little I was distracted (by things that sound out of place, off-key, out of sync, etc.). And humility is intangible. I try to always give the benefit of the doubt to those who are leading, but sometimes that’s harder than others.
Overall, there were few churches where the music would keep me away, and those were because of either low quality or the rock concert feel. (And again, by rock concert I don’t mean the instruments so much as the high energy and volume.) I’m actually very comfortable with traditional and modern styles. I just want an opportunity to sing the beauty of what Christ has done.
4. Order / Liturgy
This next item is hard to define. It’s everything that happens in the program apart from the music and preaching, providing a context and structure to the service. It’s how the offering is taken, how communion is celebrated, how announcements are shared, whether you are greeted or prayed over or blessed or led in corporate confession.
Most churches fall into the same general structure of music, announcements, music, offering, music, sermon, music. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. A predictable structure can be a great way to lead people from where they are to where they need to be. And music is a powerful tool to carry us from one element to the next.
But I want to focus on the outliers. One incorporated personal testimony into the service. One practiced communion where you pass the plate beyond you and that person serves you. A few delivered announcements via a pre-made video (which I’ve never understood; it’s an impersonal way to address what could be a personal connection). A few took a moment to greet those around you. A few had videos that led into the preaching time. One had corporate Scripture reading. One had a time of corporate confession. A few offered a blessing or benediction at the end. A few prayed for specific people by name from the pulpit. One made a point of including art in the bulletin that was related to the sermon.
Many of these were meaningful choices that enhanced the service. But as I reflect on the differences, I find one of the things that meant the most had to do with the children. A few churches had the children stay with the adults for worship and be dismissed mid-service. It was nice including my daughter in the songs even if she struggled to understand (and be still). The struggle is good. But while some churches dismiss the children quietly, one of them had the children come to the front to be blessed by the elders before they were dismissed. What a huge blessing to see a public declaration that the church is committed to raising these kids in Christ! And I hope the children also get some sense of the importance of what they are going off to do.
Well, now we come to it: the sermon. I have to speak cautiously here because I’m a rookie preacher myself and I have no business judging Someone else’s servant. But if all the churches were more or less friendly, and most of them did a fine job at the elements of the service, I really felt the churches we visited were all over the map when it came to preaching.
And this was especially disappointing given that West Michigan is so heavily populated with churches and educational institutions and Christian history. But I think there is wide disagreement—perhaps even confusion—on the purpose of a sermon and how it should be delivered.
I’ll begin with the worst. There was one church were the pastor gave a meandering message based on one word taken out of context (and poorly defined!). Most of it was storytelling and musing on experience. The Bible played no significant part. It was painful.
More common was the use of topical sermons, where the topic or image or story took the lead role and the Bible served to illustrate it. While I prefer to see the Bible take the lead, one preacher in particular did a fantastic job preaching Scripture with this model. More often, though, this model lends itself to being more about what the pastor thinks than what the Bible says. But two other sermons stood out to me as more like a biblical theology of the topic than a preacher’s perspective with some proof-texts sprinkled in. It’s not a model I’m comfortable preaching, but I found it to be rich in its teaching.
The rest of the pastors (maybe less than half) attempted an expository style to varying degrees of success. One kind of bounced back and forth in his passage. Another got lost in the background story he conjectured was behind the passage, thus ignoring much of what was actually there.
But there were a few that I thought did a fantastic job all around. They followed the structure of the text and kept the main point of the text the main point of the sermon, but did so in a way that opened up the text and related it to the world as we know it. As Prof. Hendricks was fond of saying, “May their tribe increase!” It occurs to me that I should probably find a way to say thank you to these men.
In the end it’s often hard to choose what church to settle on. There are so many different factors, and they aren’t all weighted equally. Plus a church that knocked it out of the park on one visit might let you down the next—or vice versa. All of these churches were family, so they are all worth your time in one sense. But if you’re committed to working for the Kingdom, it does seem like you should try to anticipate and minimize points of conflict.
Many of the churches reached out to us the week after, which was very kind, and some even invited us to take an online survey about our experience. That I didn’t do. I don’t feel it’s a guest’s place to rate their host. I do think Andy Stanley is right in saying that fresh eyes can be valuable to catch things everyone else has gotten used to, but shouldn’t that kind of feedback come in a relationship rather than an anonymous survey of someone who only saw you in action one time? I believe in pursuing better data to help make better decisions, but there just seems to be a tension here with pursuing genuine personal connections in a hospitable environment.
But after all the evaluations are in and the criteria are weighed, the most decisive factor in finding the right church probably has less to do with who they are and more to do with who you are. In fact, I think that might be a subject worthy of its own post.
Until then, I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of our church experiences. My deepest thanks to everyone we visited for welcoming us as part of the family for a day. It was an honor to worship the King with you.