This past Sunday I was a visitor in another church a thousand miles away. It’s a rare treat to visit other congregations on a Sunday. I always enjoy it. I was all set to wear jeans to church until my brother-in-law walked into the living room wearing a suit and tie. So I quietly changed into dress pants, keeping the open collar. That’s how I usually dress on Sundays anyway. When we arrived, the dress was casual, as I had expected. I hope Steve didn’t feel conspicuous.

The vision of this church was obvious the minute we turned into the parking lot. They want to be the kind of church irreligious people love to attend. From an army of greeters to the plasma screen beside the speaker on the platform, their priorities were clear. I found the gyrating lights and fog machine a little distracting to my worship, but I’ve been out standing among the cornstalks a long time. (Does this proves I’m outstanding in my field?) I appreciated the pen and the bottled water another set of greeters offered as we entered the auditorium. That’s far removed from the “NO FOOD OR DRINK IN SANCTUARY” signs churches used to put up. A welcome change. The cafe is only a few steps from the worship center. We didn’t buy anything to drink there, but a lot of people did.

The senior pastor of this church was a chemist 12 years ago. He switched careers and became a pastor, leading the church from 70 people to about 3,000 members in a little more than a decade. He wasn’t there last Sunday. The speaker was the executive pastor (wearing jeans, of course). The sermon was introduced with a well-produced video. The message was  a New Year’s motivational theme and based on Scripture. The pastor used a lot of illustrations and applications, including an object lesson–a pommel horse. It was everything a church designed for the unchurched should be, including passionate expressions of worship and a clear call to confront sin and turn to God.

Nevertheless, throughout the service I felt conflicted. It wasn’t the crowd. I’ve been a member of two large churches and have even preached in a large church once or twice. It wasn’t the music, although I didn’t know any of the songs and wished I did during the music. Maybe part of it was culture shock. I’ve been in rural America a long time. While I’ve been away, times have changed. There’s nothing immoral or wrong about gyrating lights and a fog machine in the worship center, but it’s way different from the culture of rural church I’m used to each week. I felt like an outsider.

Maybe I was conflicted because I had nothing invested in the people there. I didn’t know anyone before I arrived and didn’t get to know anyone while we were there. I didn’t look for anyone new to greet or encourage beyond the family who came with me. Maybe part of being conflicted is that I had no control in what was going on around me. Usually I’m a big fish in a small pond. On Sunday I was a tadpole in the ocean. A touch of homesickness may have played a part. Occasionally my thoughts drifted to what the people in my home church would be doing at that moment. Maybe part of it was old-fashioned envy. They are succeeding in doing something I’ve desperately wanted to do, but have not achieved.

I was tempted during the service to criticize them for copying the model of another church. “The copy isn’t as good as the original,” I thought. But in hindsight, that seems cynical. I didn’t observe anything that appeared fake, shallow or contrary to Scripture. The service reflected their culture, which is true of any worship experience. We just don’t notice it unless the culture is different from our own. It appears that suburban affluence is still a foreign culture to me. I need the wisdom offered to the Corinthian church by the Apostle Paul. Maybe you need it, too:

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

1 Corinthians 9:19–23 (NIV)