52 Churches: A Yearlong Journey Encountering God, His Church, and Our Common Faith (audiobook)

52 Churches: A Yearlong Journey Encountering God, His Church, and Our Common Faith (audiobook)

My wife and I visited a different Christian Church every Sunday for a year. This is our story.

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They say there’s no such thing as a perfect church. Well, one author decided to test that theory out for himself.

Peter DeHaan spent an entire year roaming from one church to another, visiting 52 different Christian congregations. In the process he learned what makes these places of worship unique, what makes newcomers feel like they belong, and what cringe-worthy shenanigans are guaranteed to keep visitors from ever coming back.

In his travels, Peter learned about different denominations and worship styles as well as what happens when imperfect humans gather together in the name of a perfect God. What he discovered was occasionally funny, always interesting, and at times absurd.

So absurd that he wrote a book about his experiences.

52 Churches is part religious exposé, part travel memoir, and 100% authentic. Peter refuses to hold back his punches. You’ll cringe when this Christian author is singled out by a fire-and-brimstone preacher, unnecessarily determined to save his soul out of hell. You’ll find yourself thankful that you weren’t in Peter’s shoes when the pastor told his congregation to greet one another with a holy kiss.

You’ll read about Christian practices that are far different from your own, and in the process gain a deeper understanding of believers from all walks of life and denominational backgrounds: Protestant mainline, evangelical, and charismatic, Roman Catholic, and more.

If you’re a pastor trying to engage newcomers, a seasoned church member looking for some chuckles, or a spiritual lurker curious about what goes on beneath the steeples of America’s churches today, this book was written for you.

Read 52 Churches now for an insightful, unforgettable read about the strange and mysterious believers who meet together behind closed doors each and every Sunday.


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Visiting Churches, book 1

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Church #1: A Friendly Place with a Homey Feel

We arrive ten minutes early and are the eighth car in the lot. It’s an older one-story building of simple wood-frame construction. An unwieldy wheelchair ramp tacked onto the front desperately needs painting. We bypass the ramp, but it remains our focal point as we approach, forming our first impression—and it’s not good.

I can’t believe what we’re about to do. I’m in a near panic. My impulse is to run. Put one foot in front of the other. Remember to breathe. Act calm.

I exhale slowly and open the front door. Ever the gentleman, I gesture for Candy to go first. She scowls as she walks by. It’s the smallest of entries and dark. Three people, hovering just inside, act surprised to see visitors. We take a couple steps forward and are in the sanctuary. With no room to mingle, we sit down, second row from the back.

As we wait for church to begin, the pastor’s wife introduces herself, but a hard-to-understand man has already cornered us, recounting the diseases and deaths of his parents a few decades ago. We can’t escape his plodding monologue. This guy has mental issues. Of course, this is an unqualified diagnosis on my part.

Nevertheless, some people acknowledge our presence with a quick smile or inconspicuous handshake, but no one rescues us from his unfiltered spew of personal information. The pastor also squeezes in a brief introduction.

The sanctuary is a rectangular room with paneled walls. On our right hangs a copy of the Ten Commandments, the opposite wall displays their Church covenant. Mounted front and center is a traditional cross, adorned with a crown of thorns and a purple cloth. On each side stands a flag, one for the United States and the other for Christianity. A Sunday school placard in the back reveals last week’s attendance was twenty.

The building has a distinct odor, but we disagree as to what it is. Rotating ceiling fans keep the air, and the smell, moving. I soon forget about it, but Candy isn’t so fortunate, with the aroma lingering in her nostrils the entire morning.

A pianist plays a small upright. She’s skilled at her craft. Having background music is nice. In addition to the piano, there’s an electric organ. I also spot an electric guitar and amp, which seem out of place, but they’re not used today.

I count seventeen people, including us. Most of them are well into their senior citizen years. All the older men wear suits and ties, with their wives in dresses. A few people, in their thirties, sport casual attire, but none as informal as me—even after I passed on wearing a T-shirt and opted for a polo shirt I found hiding in the back of my closet.

There are no school-age children, teens, or young families, but there are two toddlers with their grandmothers. Numerous times, the grandmas remove the crying tots from the sanctuary. At one child’s third outburst, the grandma leaves and never returns.
One member opens the service, leading us in a song.
Neither Candy nor I know it. I find it hard to even mouth the words, let alone sing. The song leader then asks if there are any birthdays. The pianist stands for us to honor her, leaving no one to play Happy Birthday. After a bit of scrambling, the pastor does something out of sight to generate music as we sing.

There’s also a second verse, something about a second birthday. Candy later tells me the words: “Happy Birthday to you, just one will not do. Born again means salvation. How many have you?” The song leader says his second birthday is coming soon. It will be thirty-eight—or is it thirty-nine?—years.

Apparently for our benefit, the pastor shares that there are normally forty to forty-five in attendance, with this Sunday’s number being unusual. Some absences are due to illness and he reels off a list of names, but, for the rest, he’s unsure why they’re gone. The pastor was sick last week, and the song leader quips that today’s illnesses are his fault.

The pastor conducts some church business, roughly following Robert’s Rules of Order. He wants to go to a conference, which will cause him to miss a Sunday. The song leader moves that they approve his request and use “pulpit supply” to find a replacement. Someone seconds the motion. After no discussion, he holds a voice vote. Motion approved.

The minister looks at us. With a pleased smirk he says, “If there are any first-time visitors here, please raise your hands.”

Isn’t it obvious? I groan—hopefully to myself—as I force a pained smile. Reluctantly, I raise my hand. Can things get any more awkward? Their focus on us lasts too long.
Although foreign to me, the service matches Candy’s childhood church memories. Though there’s nothing remarkable about it, she’s comfortable with their format: a few old-time hymns with piano accompaniment, sharing prayer requests, an offering, a message, and a low-key altar call.

The people make the difference. They’re comfortable with each other, accepting one another. There’s no pretense, just nice folks. It’s like family, albeit quirkier. Despite the creepy guy who first cornered us and the ridiculous request for visitors to raise their hands, I feel contentment, a peace perhaps best attributed to God’s presence.

The two-hour service is mostly preaching. The message rambles a bit, peppered with frequent mentions of Jesus, faith, and heaven. Our future in heaven is also the topic for many of the hymns. I wonder if these themes are common in their services.

The pastor says there are seven thousand promises in the Bible. We need to accept them by faith, know them, claim them, and believe them. With much alarm, he also alerts us to the “rapid worldwide growth” of Chrislam. (Wikipedia later informs me that Chrislam is a comingling of Christianity and Islam, but I don’t get a sense of the “rapid worldwide growth” the pastor claimed.)

Afterward, everyone lingers to chat. Our stomachs tell us it’s past time to eat, but we tarry. Many thank us for visiting and invite us to come again, but they aren’t pushy. I’m not going to mislead them, so I simply smile and nod to let them know I heard.

The pianist invites us back that night for their monthly hymn sing and meal. There will be plenty to eat, so there’s no need for us to bring anything. For a moment I consider it, even though church music bores me, and I hate to sing.

We leave feeling appreciated and accepted. This is a friendly church with a homey feel. If it were necessary, I suppose I could join this congregation, but I’m so glad I don’t have to. I worked hard to have a cheerful outlook today and still struggled. If our visits at the next fifty-one churches are all like this, we’ll surely never make it to the end of our journey.

Fortunately, I anticipate something much different next week.

Takeaway for Leaders: While providing a safe place for people with mental illness and boundary issues, churches need to keep these folks from accosting or scaring away visitors. Also, churches should examine every aspect of their service through the eyes of a visitor and then make appropriate adjustments.

Meet Author Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, PhD, often makes religious people squirm, but spiritual seekers cheer. He’s not trying to be provocative, but he seeks truth, even if it makes some people uncomfortable. He yearns for Christians to push past the status quo and reconsider how they practice their faith in every area of their lives.

Peter earned his doctorate, awarded with high distinction, from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. He lives with his wife in beautiful Southwest Michigan and wrangles crossword puzzles in his spare time.

Learn more about Peter