I have been a pastor in three churches for a total of about 29 years but I still wouldn't say that I really understand churches. Why one grows and another doesn't, why one seems to thrive while another struggles, why people choose to attend one over another... It puzzles me. Plus, every church is different. They do things differently. They understand their ministry differently. The members wear the tasks of keeping a church going in different ways. All of that adds up to a surprise whenever we experience another community of faith so one thing that I look forward to when we travel is visiting other churches.
Few have surprised me more than the one we attended a few weeks ago. I found the church via google - did a search for emerging churches in that city - and it seemed a reasonable choice that I would likely find positive.
There were about 350-400 people in the worship service. I would guess that about 60% of the folk present were past retirement age. There were very few 40-50 somethings and a lot of younger adults and small children. The younger children seemed to feel very much at home and didn't feel constrained as they moved around the worship center during the service and made a good bit of noise. It was a typical 70's style architecture and there was a large screen in the front. Dress was conservative.
Now for the surprises... A number of people recognized us as visitors and greeted us warmly both before worship and during the greeting time about 1/2 through the service. Almost every one of them (including one of the pastors) asked what church we belong to. I'm curious as to why we stood out so and more curious at the question that every person asked. I don't know if tey were looking for common ground or it they were testing us.
When we entered the room, I couldn't see any instruments and there was no background music going on. I didn't give it much thought though. I looked through the printed bulletin and didn't recognize the titles of most of the songs to be sung. So I opened the hymnal and was surprised to see the music was written in shape notes. I still hadn't put things together. There were no instruments. The service began with a video advertising the National Day of Prayer... Then a song leader went to the front, played a single note on a pitch pipe and began to sing. The congregation joined in, in parts. For one song, the novelty (to me) was nice. By the 3rd song, I was deadly bored. Communion followed... it was done in the pews and frankly was the least moving communion I've ever experienced. The preacher had a warm and engaging style and did a nice job of exegesis on the scripture, but he didn't ever really get to application (and there were lots of doors opened for that to happen). The sound was poor and it was very difficult to hear the folk upfront other than the preacher (who wore a lapel microphone).
It was one of those churches that I couldn't understand at all. It flew in the face of everything my gut tells me about churches. If I lived in that town, I would certainly never attend there again and couldn't understand why anyone who wasn't a serious shape note singing fan would... but the space was pretty full and it seemed as if the folk there were committed to that community of faith.
So what did I learn? I still don't understand churches. And don't trust everything google tells you.