Mental Church Evaluations

I went out to my first church-hunting service alone on October 24th to a church in Chelmsford, MA. The previous week, I had attended a new church with my boyfriend and joined some friends we knew that were attending there. So, October 24th was my first real hunt alone – kind of exciting, kind of nerve wracking at the same time. : )

I’ve discovered that I have sort of a mental checklist or observation sheet in my head as I’ve started attending the churches on my list.

What’s the building like? The location?

I know the whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” thing, but I’ve always been interested in aesthetics. Everywhere I go I look at the surroundings and the makeup of different things to get a feel for what it is. Now, I know that what a building looks like on the outside and where it’s located doesn’t say everything about it, but I think it plays an important role. For example, churches that do not have the most beautiful exterior are most focused on their community, bringing new members in through connections with current members or denominations and what goes on within its walls, which is in no way bad. Meanwhile, other churches that have gorgeous landscapes and well-kept exteriors tend to be more inviting to passersby, bringing in people who may not be connected with the church or denomination based on what their exterior has to offer. Again, this is just a generalization about the outside of churches, but I’m sure we can all be honest that when looking at churches, passing a church that is not as well kept up as most, we would probably only check it out if we were familiar with the denomination or knew people who attended there, while churches that catch our eye and are better looking tend to draw us in initially.

With all of that said, the exterior of a church should not be what stops you from checking it out further. The saying is true that you should not judge a book by its cover, so do not judge a church by its bell tower or lack thereof. There have only been a few churches I have attended that I would consider to be “gorgeous” and “aesthetically inviting” – one of those being Grace Fellowship in Nashua (primarily because of its historic location and gorgeous architecture). Most of the churches I have attended have been good looking, though, and all but one was easily picked out as a church (containing the usual markings of a steeple and cross somewhere on its exterior walls).

My visit to Calvary Chapel was another experience. The church is all brick – no steeple that I could see – and was seemingly attached to an L-shaped business plaza. When my GPS told me I had arrived, I thought it was wrong, but then noticed the sign for the church at the entrance to the parking lot. Calvary Chapel had the entire back of the plaza while the rest extended farther off to the right. It was a good looking building which is a definite positive for being a part of a business plaza, but it was definitely not what I was expecting. I did enjoy its modern feel, however. For most younger folk like me but who are not Christians, have just become one or are unsure about it all, a church building complete with huge spires and bell towers and steeples can be very intimidating and make them uncomfortable – they like to stick with places they know and feel comfortable in, at least at first. So I definitely appreciated this about the exterior makeup of Calvary, especially with what I knew of their large young adult community and ministries.

I will make one more quick note about church exteriors, a note of caution I guess. Do be wary of churches that stick out like a sore thumb in their neighborhood because of just how gorgeous they are and how much time, money and energy is spent on keeping it that way. Any church that spends more time on its exterior than fellowship, building community within the church, reaching out to those in surrounding neighborhoods, ministering to those in need and growing the faith of those who call the church home is not a church you want to call home. The whole point of being a part of a church and the church building’s existence is to be a place for those who call Christ their Savior and Lord to grow together, be accountable to one another and help others to see the Light and love of Christ, not to be the most beautiful building in town or the best looking church in the city or to have the most money spent on how our building looks. The church building is a meeting place for believers to come and grow in faith and is meant to do this first and foremost.

What have I just walked in to?

Walking in to any building is usually a whole different thing from the outside. You can paint whatever picture you want of what the inside is like from what you see of the outside, but you are almost always wrong. Walking into Calvary I was in a decent sized foyer with rooms and hallways and stairs all around, a small refreshment stand and the doors to the sanctuary straight ahead. Everyone was just chatting and fellowshiping (not a word, I know) awaymost of them had just finished the earlier service and were waiting for their kids to get out of Sunday school. The environment was very easy going – no one felt like they needed to hush or quiet down because the service had started, which I enjoyed because sometimes there is an overbearing sense of “be quiet, don’t you know that God doesn’t want you to fellowship and talk with each other outside of the sanctuary? No one wants to hear you continuing to have fun!”. This is not always the case, so please don’t misunderstand me, but I have been in church settings where if you so much as whisper outside of the sanctuary while another service is going on, you are frowned upon and scolded. I appreciated this easy going nature very much.

Where is the focus in worship – on the singers, the musicians or on God?

Every church is different in how they worship. Some congregations prefer hand clapping to the beat while just simply singing along, others encourage dancing with ribbons and playing tambourines, while others are more content to just sing the songs with no additions. Whatever type of worship you prefer and whatever type of worship is acceptable in the churches you attend, be sure of one thing: the focus of the time of worship. We have all been to a church service or worship experience where it is obvious that the worship leader, singers or worship band are considering it more of a performance and a spotlight for them than a time of praise to God. I would also say to be wary of this as well in churches. In some extreme cases, I can honestly say if all members of the worship team were viewing it as more of a performance than a time of praise to God that I would not be able to call that church home. It’s important to me to know that those placed in a form of leadership in my church are doing it out of a servant’s heart and to use their gifts for the glory of God and not to have others praise them for their musical talents, though that may be a welcome effect.

It takes a very dedicated worship team to continue to focus the worship experience on God and not on their talents. It’s not because they’re in it for the glory or because they want to be noticed, but it’s because it feels good to know that you’re good at something, you know? It feels good to take what you’re good at and be able to give it back and create a great worship experience. But ensuring that each individual who is a part of the worship team is keeping their focus on God and not on themselves is difficult. I’ve recently started praying for the worship team members at the churches I attend that God would help them keep their focus on Him, not because I think they won’t or aren’t, but because it always helps to nip temptation in the butt before it has a chance to sneak in. : )

Personally, I’m looking for a congregation where I can find some hand raisers. I feel like members of the congregation need to feel comfortable enough to worship how they would if they were all alone, so hand raising is a start. I appreciate when members are encouraged to pray aloud, given space to dance if they so desire and aren’t afraid to sing loudly (if your worship team is so loud they can’t hear the congregation worshiping back, I think you’re missing an amazing part of the experience – hearing so many voices praising God together is wonderful). I’m a hand raiser. I also tend to not stand still – I move my feet and bend my knees a bit. I tend to sway a little. Sometimes I’ll dance a bit more, but it’s nothing huge – it’s just important to me to know that if God’s presence moves me to worship differently that it will be acceptable, even encouraged.

First thing I noticed when I walked in the sanctuary at Calvary was that there were multiple hands up, a couple swayers and even one person jumping up and down a little bit. : ) Very good first signs. And then hearing and watching the worship team lead in song (and they did just that, they led in worship instead of performing to a crowd) was also a very welcome sign.

Who am I worshiping with and becoming a community with?

This is another huge thing to me. I can be in a place with the best pastor, the best worship team and all that jazz, but if there’s not really anyone I can connect with – usually around my age – it’s a no-go for me. I like variety in congregations 1.) because I can connect easier with those within my own age group since we have experienced the same types of things at the same times, 2.) because I appreciate all that I can learn from my elders and 3.) because I absolutely adore little kids. If you’ve got a fantastic pastor preaching the Word and bringing about new revelations to the congregation but you don’t have anyone under 30 in your church, you might want to reevaluate how you’re connecting with those not already in your community and what you’ve got going on in your church. My father is a pastor in the Advent Christian denomination and he told my sisters and I when we were younger that we didn’t have to worry about being in a church with no one our age because he would not pastor a church that didn’t see the importance of youth as the future. Also, if you’ve got a church where there’s no one over 30, well, you should take a good look into that as well. The Bible tells us to respect and learn from our elders (Titus 2:1-15) – there is so much to be said for not only fellowship and worship with those our own age but also those who are older and have experienced more. I’ve been striving to find a church that has a wide range of age groups in its community as well as various ministries or small groups that consist of some separated by age groups and others encouraging the mixture.

One of the things that attracted me to Calvary Chapel was the prevalence of their young adults ministry, Crossroads. Crossroads meets Saturday nights for dinner at 5:25, a service (worship and then the same message given on Sunday is taught by the pastor), and then a different Saturday night activity each week. From what I understand, there are also Bible studies during the week as well. At the Sunday morning service, there were still a decent number of young adults, which was nice, but I was told I should definitely check out the Saturday night service to see more people my age (which I did and will tell you about as well).

Does the pastor’s preaching style jive with me? Am I intrigued and interested?

As previously mentioned, I’m a PK. My dad’s been a pastor all my life, and I must say I have been so spoiled with that because I’ve heard very few people preach as well as my father. He’s entertaining, relatable, funny, wise and really knows how to bring points to light in a way that you remember them – whether you write them down on a card provided in the church bulletin or not. I’m a fan of pastors who move around – it keeps my brain more attentive when my eyes have to follow them around every now and then.

Other than the on-stage movement of the pastor, the content of his message must be centered around scripture – and not just one verse. Stand up there and give a fantastic sermon with a touching message but only one or two verses of scripture – no verses, even – and you will have lost the purpose of being a pastor. Lead your flock in the ways of the Lord. And your flock should be given the tools to test your teaching and verify it with scripture – multiple verses of scripture! One of your most trusted friends can tell you that tomorrow’s test will be all multiple choice and so can another friend, but unless you show them in the cyllabus where it describes how tests will be conducted or unless they hear it directly from the professor’s mouth, they can’t take that as fact – and they shouldn’t. The Bible tells us to test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21, 1 Corinthians 14:29, 1 John 4:1), and to hold on to what is good. Pastors should give their congregation Biblical facts that support their message to build their case based on God’s word. Then, those in the congregation who wish to test the teaching can do so by crossreferencing the scriptures and seeking out God’s will.

I will say I was nervous at first when I discovered that the pastor at Calvary Chapel was speaking on one verse. It’s always been something I have had an aversion to – taking one verse and speaking on it for an hour or so… But, Pastor Ed didn’t go the route I’ve seen previous pastors go. He did preach on one verse in Romans, but he had countless crossreferencing scriptures and he went into detail about the greek and hebrew meanings of the words in the verse – all of which are absolutely wonderful and help to keep the verse in the context it was originally written in (I absolutely love meanings of words, mostly thanks to my father and his forms of biblical study). I was definitely able to take something away from the sermon when all was said and done – not what I expected.

Have I been spoken to before leaving? Were the people inviting?

Here’s another biggie. As a new person (a “newbie” or “n00b” as some would say) to the church, making connections is already hard enough. And if it doesn’t feel like people are happy to see you there or want to get to know you, it’s even more difficult – especially for those of us who are typically shy or don’t know how to make connections. I can be super outgoing and introduce myself to people on my own some days and other days I’m all shy and just sort of wait for people to come up to me, so I guess I kind of make things complicated, haha. It is terribly disappointing when not even one person bothers to introduce themselves to you, especially when there is a “time of greeting” involved in a service. I’ve been to a church where this happened. It was such a weird, cliquey feeling… So I will say that I place a weight in if people introduce themselves to me genuinely and how many people do so.

At Calvary Chapel, I swear it felt like a quarter of the congregation (at that service anyway) made their way over to where I was to say hello. At the end of the service, Pastor Ed also came over and talked with me for a while. It definitely made me feel welcome and like these people really care and know each other to the point that they can tell when someone is new. I had the chance to tell Pastor Ed about my church hunting journey and how I was blogging about it and he gave me his email address so I could send him the URL because he wanted to read it. Well, imagine my surprise when I get back home after doing some photoshoots on Sunday afternoon and Pastor Ed has tracked me down. He must have found my photography website which led him to my blog and then he sent me an email about it all (Bravo, Pastor Ed. : ) ). I was definitely impressed with their welcoming community.

And, well, there you have it! That was my Sunday experience (a week ago) at my second church on the hunt, but the first one I attended alone. The Saturday evening service (Crossroads) I was able to attend this past Saturday night. That was also wonderful. I thought that it would just be young adults, but there were definitely some older people there who I guess just enjoyed the different music and different atmosphere some more (or maybe it was because they could sleep in every day of the weekend : P ). Pastor Ed came right over to me once I started to settle in and introduced me to the couple that heads up Crossroads and I met another bunch of people including some of the members of the Saturday night worship team. I feel absolutely terrible because I don’t remember any of their names and I’m usually ridiculously fantastic with names… I didn’t stay to see if there was an activity after because I was exhausted and wanted to crash with a good show at home while finishing editing the family photos I took that day.

I had planned to check out one more church on Sunday morning, but a certain headache made me decide to spend some time in bed. I might try again next week, we’ll see how it goes. Like I mentioned before, I’m not sure if I’m going to just attend one church at a time on my list until I find one and then stop without seeing the other churches or if I am going to visit each church on my list once and then figure things out from there… We shall see what God has in store for me!

Thank you so much for reading about my journey through all this and for the comments you all have left, not to mention those of you who have been praying for me as I continue along the path that God has set before me and that I would continue to seek His guidance. It really means a lot to me and everyone could always use some prayer. : ) Have a fantastic beginning to your week!

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