I am not a church-hopper. I grew up in and still attend a Southern Baptist church. While I help lead a casual, postmodernish Saturday-night worship service that doesn’t feel very Baptist at all, the fact remains: I’ve been going to the same church for nearly three decades. If my religious experience were an ice cream truck, the only thing in the freezer would be vanilla pops. And, once every quarter, some grape juice.
For someone who writes about religion and culture, that’s embarrassing to admit. I’m in serious need of a little denominational variety. So RELEVANT and I hatched a plan. I would conduct the ultimate church-hopping experiment: attend six different churches within six different denominations over the course of six different Sundays. And I would keep a running diary of the whole thing—with a few rules, of course. First, I would attend big churches so my presence as a visitor wouldn’t stand out. Second, I would attend a traditional Sunday morning service, the one that would give me the most denominationally specific experience. And third, I would keep to myself. I wanted to gauge the natural friendliness of the church–they would have to take the initiative to interact with me. Here’s what happened:United Methodist
My family attends church on Saturday, so Sunday mornings are our Sabbath. We do nothing. We sleep in. And we’re good at it. Except today I’m headed to a suburban United Methodist church service at 8:30 a.m. On the way there, I reflect on what I know about Methodism: It was started by John Wesley, it played a big role in the 18th- and 19th-century Great Awakenings and it counts Hillary Clinton among its members.
Inside the sanctuary, the first thing I notice is the red. Red carpet, red pew cushions, red hymnals. The interior decorator must have been trying to coordinate with the red flame of the UMC logo. The second thing I notice is that I’m the only person under the age of 50. I take a seat near the back while the organist plays a prelude.
The senior pastor steps behind the pulpit and bellows, “Good morning, saints!” Everyone around me replies, “Good morning!” The pastor then quotes John Wesley, thus confirming the first of my three Methodist facts. At this rate, I can expect a spiritual awakening by 8:45.
We stand to sing “To God Be the Glory” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” The familiar lyrics are projected at the front of the sanctuary, which seems a newfangled approach for a traditional service. There’s a drum set and keyboard tucked into a corner of the choir loft, but they’re unused. Our only accompaniment is the organ. Also, where’s the choir?
The pastor then leads us in prayer. He calls attention to the violence in Kenya, the unrest in Pakistan, the hungry and impoverished. That sort of justice-oriented, international prayer focus in a church service is rare in my own tradition. It’s refreshing. He wraps things up with the Lord’s Prayer. The congregation joins in, as do I, even though—as a Baptist—I can’t recall ever having said it in church.
The pastor gives a 25-minute sermon about God’s promises. He manages to include shoutouts to YouTube, green architecture and the guy who said, “Don’t tase me, bro.” I wonder if the old people in front of me have any idea what he’s talking about.
The service ends with a benediction about standing on God’s promises. He ends with “Go in peace.” So I do. Other than the prayer time, the service isn’t too different from what I’m used to. Only with lots more red.
The city’s biggest and oldest Presbyterian church worships in a prominent downtown building with a highly visible bell tower. By reputation, it’s a church for the well-to-do, and the parking lot is full of Cadillacs and Lexii. On the way in, I hold the door open for a woman wearing a brown fur coat. I almost greet her with a hearty “Good morning, saint!” but she doesn’t seem like the type who would appreciate that.
Inside, a huge stained-glass window dominates the sanctuary, backlit by the early morning sun (yep, another 8:30 a.m. service). Dressed in a black robe and stole, the senior pastor welcomes us.
After an organ prelude, we stand for the hymn “Come, Christians, Join to Sing.” Surprisingly, the lyrics are projected here, too. There’s a small choir in the choir loft, plus the organist, plus another robed minister-type on the stage, but no one’s audibly leading the music. We just all sing together. You can hear each other’s voices. It’s simple, and nice.
After the hymn comes the “Affirmation of Faith.” This includes the Apostle’s Creed, which we recite together. We follow this by singing the “Gloria Patri,” an ancient hymn.
After that? The Lord’s Prayer, with one difference from the previous week. The Methodists prayed, “… forgive us our trespasses.” The Presbyterians prayed, “… forgive us our debts.” I wonder if it has anything to do with the expensive cars out front. Probably not.
We take the offering, then a female elder reads the scriptures for the day. She concludes by saying, “May God bless the reading of His word.”
The 20-minute sermon that follows is about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. One statement sticks with me. At the heart of every temptation, the pastor says, is our desire to have our needs met. It occurs to me that’s why people usually choose one church over another. It’s all based on whether or not it meets their needs. Why is it so hard to resist that temptation? Anyway, the sermon is heavy on scripture, fairly simple and, in keeping with the rest of the service, it’s formal. When it ends, I leave thinking I could attend this church regularly. Not for the preaching, but for the quiet, stately liturgy. I like it.
For obvious reasons I didn’t attend my own church for this article, so I picked one that broadcasts a service on local TV every Sunday morning.
It turns out there’s only one worship service, at 10:15, which is a welcomed change from the last two. I enter at 10:14, and it’s … almost empty. Seriously. I can’t see into the huge balcony above me, but on the floor level there can’t be more than 300 people. I bet the sanctuary seats 1,400 or so. And this is the only service? Whoa.
But boy, am I glad I came. At 10:15, people begin to stream into the choir loft. And onto the stage. When they all get in place, I almost grin because, well, here’s what I see: a 70-person choir; a 20-piece orchestra complete with horns, violins and woodwinds; two baby grand pianos; a band with live drums, electric bass and a keyboard; a four-woman worship team; and a male worship leader with an acoustic guitar. It’s like they couldn’t choose a worship style, so they picked “all of the above.”
We start with a basic rendition of the hymn “Glorious Is Thy Name,” followed by an unfamiliar praise chorus in a distinctively honkytonk arrangement, followed by “Revelation Song.” Traditional songs, cowboy songs, modern worship songs. This church is all over the map.
During the welcome time, I’m greeted by a Hispanic gentleman sporting a baggy FUBU shirt, gold earrings and heavily tattooed forearms. I’m also greeted by the frail elderly woman in front of me. Friendly and diverse.
The pastor’s sermon is about spiritual gifts. He looks to be around 60 and very obviously wears a toupee. When it comes to personal flaws—lame jokes, recycled sermons, soul patches—I’ll give preachers a lot of leeway, but a hairpiece crosses the line. When a pastor is so vain he can’t admit to being bald, it’s hard for me to respect him. Also, he says “wisht,” as in “I wisht I’d thought of that.” Intolerable.
We close with an altar call. I stay in my seat, ruminating on the most interesting church service so far. The musical whatever-it-was and the casually enthusiastic crowd were memorable for sure. Kind of like the way a circus is memorable. Or a car wreck.
I’m a big fan of Catholic writers like Merton, Nouwen and Manning. I’m even still friends with a Catholic priest I met in college. But as I head to 9 a.m. mass, I’m nervous. There are a lot of unknowns. I’m wishing I’d brought a friend.
At 8:55 a.m., the parking lot is almost full. I watch maybe two dozen people exit their cars and enter the building, but none of them are carrying a Bible. Huh. I leave mine in the car, too, because when in Rome …
The place is packed. In a sanctuary built to hold maybe 800 worshippers, I’m probably number 750. I squeeze into a pew at the very back. Also? It’s quiet. No prelude music. No chatter or whispering. Eight hundred people and not a sound. Wow.
Looking back, I notice a little stainless steel bowl attached to the wall near each door. Everyone’s dipping their fingertips in it, then crossing themselves: holy water. I totally missed that.
A guy sporting tattered cowboy boots, jeans and a handlebar mustache approaches my end of the pew. Before he enters, he makes a little gesture like he’s about to take a knee, crosses himself and kneels to pray for about 30 seconds. Finally, he sits. I look around. Everyone does this routine—genuflect, cross, kneel, pray—before being seated. Me? I just plop down all Protestant-like. I might as well have been wearing a “Luther is my homeboy” T-shirt.
What follows is an hour of standing, sitting and kneeling. The knee benches are comfortable, and kneeling to pray seems appropriate. When it comes time for the Apostle’s Creed, the priest asks, “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven?” and we answer, “We do.” Less wordy, perhaps, but at this point, the Methodisbyterian in me prefers actually saying it instead of just assenting to it.
Eventually we get to the Eucharist. At the front of each aisle, two servers wait with the wafers and chalice. Row by row, we walk forward to receive the elements. Catholics generally frown on non-Catholics partaking of communion, so when it’s my turn, I just smile at the servers and file past. They don’t smile back. Probably because of my T-shirt.
The mass ends with the ancient Michael W. Smith chorus “How Majestic.” Honestly, that guy’s everywhere.
My favorite service so far. The “Holy Eucharist, Rite II” begins at 10:30 a.m. I open the wooden doors and see a monstrous pipe organ backing up the choir loft. The entire place is lit by sunlight pouring through huge windows. Beautiful.
I take a seat. Behind me, the choir begins singing a hymn, “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee,” which I’ve never heard. Wearing white vestments, they proceed down the aisle into the choir loft. We then stand to sing another hymn, followed by the first reading of the day, and then the choir chants Psalm 27, Gregorian-style. Cool. We alternate between Scripture readings, hymns (no projected words) and prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. It’s a challenge to juggle the worship-order handout, the hymnal and the prayer book. I need a third hand.
The sermon is short and unspectacular, but it’s given by the associate rector, who is female—the first female pastor I’ve encountered so far. She offers a brief exposition of the “great light” lectionary text and its fulfillment in Jesus as the culmination of Israel. It’s a pretty intellectual approach. Then we recite the Nicene Creed, followed by the “Confession of Sin.” Together, as a congregation, we recite a wonderful prayer, including this passage:
We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
When we finish, the priest says, “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you of all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and it’s such a good reminder. I love this part.
For the Eucharist, we proceed a row at a time to the front. I hear the administrants’ voices: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven. The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”
I can’t overemphasize the satisfaction I get from this service. It’s contemplative, reverent and serious. There’s no swaying or hand-clapping, but the congregation participates through prayers, confessions and responses. I hear more scripture read than in any Baptist service I’ve attended. Communion is central—just like last week’s mass—but the Episcopal church lets me participate, acknowledging me as a fellow Christian. That’s significant. The liturgy is different, but the words are deeply meaningful. I get the sense that the focus of the service isn’t on the music, or the preaching, or even on making visitors feel comfortable. It’s on Jesus. It’s crazy how that seems so revolutionary.
Assemblies of God
I sit down in the back. The lights are dimmed, other than the pink-and-blue concert lighting on the stage. I’m surrounded by a mix of teenagers, young adults and seniors. From my right, a young woman steps up. She introduces herself as Alisha, and it occurs to me that this is the first time I’ve been approached by someone outside the involuntary greet-your-neighbor routine. Thanks, Alisha. After a five-minute video countdown, the service begins with 20 minutes—yes, 20 minutes—of video announcements emceed by a jokey youth minister who uses the word awesome so frequently I wonder if maybe he’s being ironic. But after a dozen awesomes over the next five minutes, I decide he just has a limited vocabulary. He turns out to be the worship leader. The first song is a chorus built around the phrase “You Are Awesome, God.” For probably the first time in my life, I find myself longing for a good old Episcopalian liturgy.
The praise band is competent enough. I don’t know any of the songs, though, and can only assume Tomlin and Crowder have not yet infiltrated the Assemblies of God. The kids in front of me hop with the beat. Hands are lifted and waved around as we sing. The pastor welcomes us. He looks to be about 50, and speaks in the deep, quivery cadence of a Southern revivalist preacher, like a young Billy Graham. He leads a prayer time, and I can hear members of the crowd audibly praying. He curses sickness, condemns poverty and banishes all “minions of hell” from the service. Good idea.
We sing a few more awesome songs, and then the sermon begins. I try to pay attention, but keep getting distracted by various culprits. One: The sermon has a “get in the game” theme, and there’s a huge spinning video football on the screen behind the pastor. It drives me crazy. Two: Every time the pastor asks a question, the audience shouts the answer—with gusto. Apparently, there are no rhetorical questions in the Assemblies of God. Three: The pastor holds a Bible but never opens it. The cited scriptures appear on screen, always from The Living Bible, an old paraphrase. Odd choice. Four: There’s a lady in the front row who spends the entire sermon with her right hand in the air. Occasionally she waves it. At first I assume it’s an expression of praise, but after 30 minutes I begin to think she may have a question. Because of all this, I have trouble paying much attention, especially after the sermon passes the 40-minute mark. Across the aisle, Alisha’s baby starts fussing, so she steps out the back. I check my watch. It’s past lunchtime. I’m tired of being away from my kids. The spinning football is giving me a headache. It is not awesome. I slip out and go home, smiling at Alisha on the way out. I’ve had my fill of church.
My denominational romp has been rewarding and educational. Granted, no single church represents the entirety of any denomination, I have learned a few things about myself along the way. Before, I probably would have said my top criterion in joining a church would be based on its pastor. How good of a preacher is he? How inspiring is the sermon?
But not now. My favorite service was at the Episcopal church, and I hardly recall the message. What I remember was the sunlit atmosphere, the liturgy, the feeling that I was participating in something ancient and holy and serious. I’m not about to leave my own church community to join them, but it does make me think hard about how we do church. In our quest to be creative, innovative and engage the culture, are we losing something important? Does the Gospel need our flashy lighting and kickin’ praise band and dynamic preaching to make it more meaningful?
At this point, I don’t have the answers. But I’m asking the questions. Maybe that’s a good start.
Originally published in RELEVANT Magazine issue 33. If you enjoyed this article, consider visiting your local newsstand to pick up the latest issue or subscribe online and save up to 71% off newsstand.