Four Weeks, Four Church Services: What I Learned

I’ve had an unusual four weeks this fall, sort of an accidental learning tour and congregational sampling that’s been fascinating. In fact, it’s been eons since I’ve been away from my home congregation for any extended period.

I newly love the way the folding chairs in my own church form a semicircle where we can hear and see each other sing, smile, dab tears—and see who’s there!

This happened because I was on the pastor nominating committee, searching for a new pastor. While it has been an intensely stretching experience, and a big time commitment, it is one I’m glad I was asked to undertake—except for not having my husband with me for two of those Sundays.

The bonus was having the opportunity to be in different churches for a string of four weeks—right through stewardship season in many churches. One church I visited twice (not one where we were hunting for a candidate). If you’ve ever been on a pastor nominating committee heading out to observe pastor candidates do “trial” sermons/worship services, you’ll know that you try to go incognito, not stick out as an obvious visitor, and leave immediately after. You don’t really want to answer a lot of questions about why you are there, so I was unable to judge the churches on their “friendly” factor (most people like a church that is friendly, but not overly effusive with visitors).

Aside from that, I saw and learned some things about the feel and flavor of various churches, practices, and worship experiences—and even myself.HelenPoindexter

  • An almost-empty sanctuary in a room that could seat hundreds is a hard place in which to preach—or to really feel a spirit of worship.
  • It’s hard to hear yourself sing in a church with a loud pipe organ. It is equally hard to sing in a small church with a small organ. (You may detect here that the churches I visited are not of the worship band variety. My personal worship music of choice is a cappella or with light accompaniment on piano or other instruments, rarely organ (although good organ, used well, can induce worshipful spine tingles!)
  • I newly love the way the folding chairs in my own church form a semicircle where we can hear and see each other sing, smile, dab tears—and see who’s there!
  • Regulars who twist around in their benches—almost as if upset that “their” seat has been taken, or maybe you’re off key?—can make you feel really uncomfortable.
  • Secondary offerings to “feed the hungry” are popular in the churches I visited, and apparently inflation has hit those little donation buckets as well: four cents a meal was the recommended donation in the first church I went to; then five cents per, and finally one where 10 cents a meal was being sought.
  • Speaking of hunger, CROP Hunger Walks (for food relief in North America and around the world) are also big in this denominational family—as long as they are sponsored by the youth. In two of the churches, the youth were leaving almost immediately after worship for CROP walks, with barely enough time to grab lunch beforehand. (To help them experience true hunger?) I do understand why CROP walks are popular (and I’m a regular supporter): they’re a great youth activity, there is frequently great fall weather and time to enjoy the fresh air, and youth don’t have all the aches and pains of the older set. But I always wish there was a way to get so many youth involved in physical work rather than just walking: cleaning up vacant lots or parks and streets, helping elderly with housing repair and the like—even though walking is wonderful for personal health (and better suited for Sunday afternoon activity than actual work projects).
  • Some things can’t be known in a one-time visit: the quality of the member care for one another; the genuineness of long-held faith; the friendships that are lifelong; the family-like connections (and conflicts).
  • Stewardship skits—I guess to lighten the impact of “okay, now is the time of year to ask for your money and time” pledges—run the gamut, from painfully awkward and amateur to raucously hilarious. Here’s a “Well done!” shout-out to the stewardship team at my home church for acting like “college kids.”
  • Perhaps all faithful churchgoers should take a week or two off from their own church to plunk themselves down in a new pew and new church.
  • True worship transcends unpacked pews and too-loud organs. God meets us again and again—and not just in designated worship spaces. God is everywhere.

Perhaps that’s as good of kickoff as any for the season of Advent, when we experience the bedrock basis of Christian faith. As you enter into this holy season celebrating the birth of Jesus and approaching a brand-new year, do think about whether your church is feeding you spiritually, nudging you on personal issues and social awareness, and nurturing your children and community. Maybe you’ll want to take a hiatus of your own and return with fresh perspective and enthusiasm, or move on in faithful obedience to a new beat and call.


MostLovedHymnsIf you like a cappella music and still use CDs, I’ll be happy to send you a brochure with Mennonite a cappella CDs, great for Christmas giving. Or, tell me what have you learned visiting—or shopping—other churches? Post your comments in the comment section of this website. Or send brochure requests or comments to or Another Way, 1251 Virginia Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22802