Our church search lasted 16 weeks. Four months. That’s a third of a year. Almost half a pregnancy. It’s a good chunk of time; yet I felt we barely scratched the surface of what we could have explored in this giant city! After four months, though, we were tired of visiting around and were ready to get settled.
In that 16 weeks, we visited 13 churches that represented nine official denominations as well as three that identify as non-denominational and one that is affiliated with some organizations I’m familiar with, but claims no particular denomination.
Most of these churches were not incredibly far outside our comfort zone, probably because we chose to stay within the city limits where we live. We did it this way because we wanted to get to know all the churches in our actual community rather than driving 45 minutes to visit a church we’d never go back to just for the experience. Because of this, there are some denominations and perspectives missing from our experience—for example, there are really no charismatic/Pentecostal churches in our area. However, I’ve had a number of experiences at charismatic churches, so there’s not much mystery there for me.
One random note on thinking about all the churches I’ve ever been to in my life, including these—every church, just like every business or organization, has a target audience, whether they know it or not.
There are churches whose Sunday morning target audience is made up of Christians who are looking to meet with/learn more about God each week, and there are others whose target audience is made up of people who would not call themselves Christians or maybe haven’t been to church in a while.
Of course, every church is trying to serve both groups, but at the end of the day, it’s pretty difficult to evangelize (convince someone they want to be a Christian) and disciple (go deeper with people who are already Christians) at the same time on a Sunday morning.
For churches whose primary audience is composed of Christians, it doesn’t necessarily mean someone who is not a Christian won’t feel welcome there or receive some kind of wisdom through the sermon (although man, I’ve been to some where it would be incredibly uncomfortable), but there might be some language that doesn’t make sense at first or some traditions that are a little weird.
For churches targeting spiritual seekers, the message is generally more practical and lighter (some feel like a TED Talk for Jesus), the music is almost always incredibly well done and there is a huge emphasis on being welcoming and ensuring zero awkward moments happen. It’s helpful to know what you want/need.
Personally, I don’t enjoy church enough to hear a TED Talk every week when I could watch one online. And I could always catch a great concert on a Saturday night, you know? I kinda feel like church should be weird. Welcoming and loving and humble, of course, but weird nonetheless. Jesus was incredibly weird. Examples of what I mean: I cannot take communion alone in my home. I cannot receive a cross of ashes on my forehead or read a corporate confession or the Lord’s Prayer aloud with other believers alone in my home. I figured out through this process the weird stuff is what I show up week after week to experience.
Anyway. Here are the churches we visited!
- Resonate Church | This church is affiliated with several theologically conservative/Reformed groups (Acts 29, 9 Marks, Gospel Coalition). Its mission is “Equipping disciple-making disciples for the mission of God.” Resonate was super friendly, smoothly run and had very intelligent teaching. The coffee was awesome (I found out later a staff member and her husband own a coffee shop) and the kids check-in process was effortless. We also liked that both times we visited they had a representative from a partner organization speak briefly about volunteer opportunities. Resonate seems to be making an effort with racial reconciliation as well—there was a Be the Bridge group advertised in the bulletin, and the congregation was not all white. The kids areas were clean and well-staffed with friendly volunteers. I filled out an info card and received a personal email the next day that offered to recommend other great churches in the area to try. I took the woman up on it and she actually sent a list! 😍 Resonate was super high on Scott’s list. I liked it, but for where I am spiritually, the teaching just was a little too academic for me. The pastor taught line by line by line and even broke down sentences talking about the Greek meaning of… MANY of the words. I love learning about the intricacies of Scripture, but like I shared last week, I have gone down the *I know sooo much about the Bible* path, and I felt like this church might not be the most healthy environment for me at this time. In addition, because I’m familiar with their affiliate organizations, I knew they were a little more conservative than I was comfortable with (particularly on gender roles). However, I am following their 2-year Bible reading plan and listening to the accompanying podcast. I have great respect for what they’re doing and plan to keep learning from them.
- Ikon Community Church | Man, I loved this one. I honestly wish I could join two churches. Ikon is led by people of color and attended by a SUPER diverse crowd, and it is the most beautiful thing to see. Their pastor, Darryl Ford, is an incredibly gifted communicator, and the worship had me basically on the floor weeping. Ikon is a rare bird in that it is theologically conservative (Ford did a residency at an Evangelical Presbyterian Church before starting his own church), but there is a strong emphasis on racial and social justice. Like… if you hate Colin Kaepernick, this is not the church for you. 🤣🤣🤣 Again, this just wasn’t quite the right fit for us because of where we are spiritually—we were worried about burnout, and I just loved the pastor so much I honestly knew there was a danger of me worshipping him and not Jesus. I say that kind of sarcastically, but y’all know pastor worship is for real! 🥴
- Methodist Church that Shall Remain Unnamed | This was probably the worst church experience we have ever had. I am not putting all Methodist churches in a box after this experience; I know every church is different! But man, this one I would not recommend. First, we were SO LOST in their building, and I was making it super obvious we didn’t know where we were going. We passed SEVERAL people who just kept walking and didn’t acknowledge us at all. I finally asked someone and got a very helpful, “Oh I think the nursery is around the corner and up some stairs and around another corner down the hall bye!”
When we finally found where we were supposed to drop Julia off, I was very uncomfortable with the check-in process and felt like it was not a great system. Then, we found out the service we chose to attend was in an entirely separate building A BLOCK AWAY from our child. Not a fan!
We realized the time we chose to attend was a relatively new service time aimed at creating a “contemporary service,” and the main/traditional service was later in the big building where the nursery was. We walked to the chapel building where the contemporary service was to take place. We arrived 10 minutes after the service was supposed to have started and there were two people milling about in the back, no one on stage and no one else in the pews. Finally, the worship band took the stage and a few people trickled in. No one said anything to us. The band… y’all, I don’t think stellar music is a must in church, but it was worse than bad. It was painful. 😅 I am sorry, Lord, for saying that about those nice people who were trying so hard, but there is no other way to describe it.
The sermon was not from the Bible nor was it a TED Talk. It was a discussion of “the future of denominationalism.” 🤔 As a non-Methodist, I felt like a complete outsider and everything that was said made no sense to me whatsoever. Y’all… we left early. We just got up and left right after the sermon. I don’t know what else to say about this other than it was just a sad experience. Bless it.
- Holy Trinity Parish Episcopal Church | I was so excited to experience an Episcopal church service. I went to Ash Wednesday last year at the one in our neighborhood in Mobile, and it was beautiful. Episcopal churches are as Catholic as you can get without actually being Catholic. This is definitely “weird church.” So much kneeling, standing, reciting, reading, singing, taking the Eucharist (communion), etc. We knew we were not going to end up becoming Episcopalians, but I’m glad we had the experience, and everyone was so kind. One thing I loved is they encouraged us to go get Julia for communion because they want children to grow up knowing what a huge deal it is. I loved that. One thing to note about Episcopalians is their faith seems to place a higher emphasis on the communal aspect of faith rather than the personal. That’s too big a concept to get into in this little recap, but basically, in the sermon there was lots of talk of the sins of the Church as a whole or of other large groups of people collectively (societal injustice), but not a whole lot of discussion about a person’s individual sin. Growing up in exactly the opposite theological environment, this was interesting to hear. There was also a huge emphasis on praying for national, state and local politics and they were not shy about declaring policy positions on issues of social justice.
- First Baptist Avondale Estates | So this would not have been on our list because we have done our fair share of Southern Baptist Churches, but a former pastor of mine who I loved was the pastor there at the time (he since moved to Florida), so we went basically to say hi. Y’all, I will say this about Southern Baptists. They are (generally) the friendliest, most welcoming people on the planet. I know they get a bad rap sometimes, but I really think it wouldn’t have mattered what we looked like or acted like… these folks were SO EXCITED to say hi to us and welcome us. They gave us a nice little gift complete with a cookbook, a pair of scissors and some other useful stuff. Definitely not our home, but it was all kinds of nostalgic! 🥰
- Veritas Church | This little non-denominational church had a very different vibe than the other churches we visited—there was nothing super weird about it, but they were not trying to be cool at all. I don’t really know how to describe it. Everyone had a ton of kids. 🤷♀️ The teaching was really poignant, and the music had this kind of country/folksy thing going on.
- First Baptist Decatur | With a name like First Baptist, you’d think this was another SBC church, but it’s actually part of another smaller, more liberal Baptist association. In every other way it was SO BAPTIST. The plethora of Bible studies and Sunday School classes, the music, the building, the Bible-centric teaching, the friendliness. I felt like I was in the churches I grew up in, except there was a 70-year-old lesbian couple worshipping in front of me. Their website has a section that asks, “But you’re Baptists; does that mean you won’t accept me for who I am?” They say being Baptist means you’ve placed ultimate trust in Jesus Christ and then are baptized in water. They go on to explain that historically, Baptists have stood for religious freedom (for people of all faiths and no faiths), church freedom (local church decides its own structure), soul freedom (each person maintains/dictates their own relationship with God) and Bible freedom (each person has the right to interpret and study scripture using scholarly resources). I went way down into a rabbit hole learning about the history of Baptists after visiting here and it is fascinating. We loved this church, but honestly just aren’t looking for that Baptist church culture.
- Lutheran Church of the Messiah | What a sweet experience we had here. I’ve written about our time in Wisconsin before. Well, the Midwest is FULL of Lutherans, and I’m not kidding; it felt like we stepped back into Wisconsin that morning! We talk a lot about Southern hospitality, but Midwesterners have their own brand of kindness that I absolutely love. I guess all the Midwesterners in Decatur found the Lutheran church, because there were lots of them there! This tiny congregation knew it was time to update and innovate, so they recently hired a young pastor who has a huge heart for people inside and outside the church. The Sunday we visited, he taught on spiritual disciplines and we all got to get up and walk around the room to different stations to experience each one briefly. They also do some wonderful classes outside of Sunday mornings on topics like “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.”
They’ve also changed the name of the church to The Common Table to better reflect its mission to welcome the community. We weren’t ready to jump into all that goes along with a church revitalization as we had just spent the past five years doing that and are a bit tired, but there is something incredibly special about this little church, and I’m rooting for them big time. We’ve actually become friends with the pastor and his wife since visiting, which is so fun!
- Decatur Presbyterian Church | This is a PCUSA congregation (the more liberal Presbyterian denomination of the three I know of) and is the church that houses Julia’s preschool. Their choir was the standout, along with a huge organ! Such beautiful music that you don’t get to hear in churches much anymore. I honestly don’t remember much about it other than the music being so wonderful.
- Lamp City Church | A friend from Mobile recommended this church. It was teeny tiny, but one of the youngest, most vibrant churches we visited. Everyone was our age and we knew we would make wonderful friends if we joined there. They have since merged with another larger church, which I totally respect—way to save resources and work together with other folks to achieve a common purpose. The teaching here was the most Calvinist/Reformed out of all of them we visited, and while we loved the people, it was just not the right fit for us.
- All Souls Fellowship | This Evangelical Presbyterian Church (I’ve joined two EPC churches in the past and love that denomination) was in the middle of a pastor search when we visited. It seemed like a great place, but we knew it wasn’t home. Nothing huge stood out here to share.
- Decatur City Church | This church is part of Andy Stanley/NorthPoint’s network and has all the bells and whistles of a multisite megachurch. The kids area was on point, the band was on a professional level (they sang Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” as we arrived, which was a little disorienting). Decatur City definitely intentionally creates an experience for first-time guests. We still have our coffee mug and it is LEGIT! This church very openly targets unchurched people and there is minimal weirdness or churchy language. I also feel… there is minimal depth.
Their tagline is “Making Faith Practical,” which is cool, but the sermon was about dating and it was basically Andy Stanley’s practical tips and warnings with a few Bible verses sprinkled in. I went on an Instagram rant after visiting here and I have since repented to Jesus because I feel I was unnecessarily negative about it. Again, just my personal feelings… I don’t *love* the act of going to church enough to show up and hear a talk on relationships. If I’m gonna do this thing (which I was questioning at the time), I want to do it ALL THE WAY and just go ahead and be weird.
OK, folks! That was it! Do you have any questions? Feel free to ask! Next week, I’ll share about the church we have settled into, and I assure you, I’ll be crying all over my keyboard as I write. It’s just the perfect spot for us right now, and I’m so pumped to tell you about it!