Sample Saturday was one of the favorite days around the Hudson home when our kids were growing up. After a long week of work and activities we would take a Saturday morning and go to Sam’s Club to stock up on groceries. What it meant to our kids was running to every tasting stand to sample whatever was being served in the little cups. Whether it was crackers or cookies, fruit or energy drinks, chicken, hot dogs, or shrimp, we would hit nearly every stand, and some of them multiple times. Reflecting back, I smile at the simple ways we found to make everyday chores fun, but as I was reminiscing, I realized something else too, that Sample Saturday never satisfied us. We got just enough food to whet our appetites but not nearly enough to fill our stomachs. Often the end of Sample Saturday would mean grabbing fast food, even though we had eaten a ton of samples, we needed to find a place that served a full meal.
I reflect on this because over the past three months Mary and I have been on a sabbatical. While on it, we’ve done something we’ve always wanted to do, visit other churches, see their systems and structure, participate in their worship environments, and hear the Word from different perspectives. It’s been quite the journey. As we’ve sampled nearly a dozen churches, we’ve walked away with a greater appreciation for the way we did church at Life Connections, the church we pastored for 20 years. Here’s a few things we discovered on our Sample Sundays.
First, was the challenge of being a guest and simply navigating the entry. In nearly every lobby we got the feeling you get when you need to buy a new car but dread going to the car lot, or the feeling you get when trying to negotiate the vendor areas at a Flower and Patio Show. Overly smiley people, who wanted us to feel like they were our best friends, that wanted us to know that they were really cool, but too often made us feel like we were dealing with someone who was trying to sell us a fake Rolex. To every hospitality team, know three things. One, we want to come and find our seats unnoticed, discreetly, without feeling like we have to go through a receiving line at a wedding. Second, we really don’t need everyone in the building to know were “the guest” and we definitely don’t need everyone to clap for us, we’re really okay if you simply say, “if you’re a guest we’re honored that you’ve come to visit.” Finally, we don’t need parting gifts, i.e., your coffee mug, we have one from the other 11 churches we visited, and they are all going to the same place, Goodwill.
Second, unless the church was self-consumed and out of touch with the rest of society, nearly every worship service felt like we were living in Bill Murray’s Ground Hogs Day movie. Same show, different building. Every venue had three pre-planned songs, no more or less, that featured a mixture of the latest trendy hits sprinkled with one of the 14 songs you hear on K-Love. Every show featured vocally gifted people who were trendily dressed, and each place had studio quality sound and lighting, but there was not much depth in the worship experience. Worship teams. Please! Get away from your script, learn to lean in and follow the Spirit, call an audible in the middle of worship, have a goal of creating vertical worship and ushering us into the presence of God where we lose track of our cell phones and our life issues. Cause us to lose track of time and take us to a place where we are consumed by His presence. We will gladly trade your incredibly talented singers and musicians for an experience that takes us into a place where we can cry, feel unexplainable joy, and sense the overwhelming awe of God’s glory and presence.
Third, we were overwhelmed by the number of gifted pastors and their ability to share the gospel. There are some really amazing and talented pastors who are sincere and studied. We walked away from so many churches with incredible notes and relevant issues to work on in our lives. The one issue we struggled with was that there were too many series and messages that felt like we were setting through Ted Talks. Pastors. Make it personal. Be energetic, excited, and exuberant. Let us feel your passion. Let us sense your desperation and hunger. Let us experience God. Give us a fresh Word from Heaven instead of the latest trendy series, church growth program, or featured book.
Finally, churches, would it be too much to ask that you make room for God. Way too many places had church down to a formula, a science, or an unbreachable schedule. In most places there was no liberty for God to move or a time for people to experience His overwhelming presence. Please make room for God moments, call an audible, have a suddenly. Rarely, in any church was there a place for a response to the Word preached, for someone to pray with another person, for an opportunity to make a commitment after being impacted by the Word you just heard. We don’t want some kind of crazed demonstrative response, only room for the miraculous, for healing, for someone to engage with a person who had had their heart stirred, for tears to fall freely, for the Holy Spirit to have freedom, for the possibility of someone walking away impacted by the power of God. We grieved as we left so many services, longing for more than a sample, more than Jesus light, more than an hour and fifteen minute gathering before the next service or returning the next week. We left many places brokenhearted and wishing people had the opportunity to experience a service where they could be impacted by the life altering touch of God’s presence.
I am nobody, but if I could humbly offer a word to any pastor, lead or worship team, it would simply be this. Pray more. Be Spirit led. Be an original, not a copy. Focus on giving people more than a Sample Saturday experience on Sunday. Give them more than a little plastic cup of Jesus. To those looking for a church for your family I would say, find one that gives you a full five-course unforgettable feast. Find one that causes you to say, I came, I saw, I heard, I felt, I experienced, and I can’t wait to go back. Find a place that gives you more than a sample and a coffee cup, find one that causes you to leave saying, I encountered Jesus like I never have before.
Author’s Note: If you are a member of Life Connections, know that after visiting many amazing churches, Mary and I want you to appreciate how blessed you are to be a part of LC. What is happening through your new Lead Pastors, Philip and Annie Daigle is unique and special. If you are not a part of Life and you live in central Indiana, you should seriously consider planning a visit.